What Is Ego Psychology? A Theory For Self-Understanding

Updated May 22, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Think back to your last discussion of “ego”. Perhaps you described someone as having a big ego, or even reflected on your own ego in the context of a relationship, work, or group assignment at school.

It’s not uncommon to use this term to describe someone’s personality or presence in a certain context. But what does ego really mean, and how can ego psychology theory help us understand ourselves and others? 

In this article, we’ll unpack the meaning of ego psychology, consider why this theory matters, and discuss 5 ways to develop a healthy ego and enhance your self-understanding. 

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What Is The Ego?

True to its name, ego psychology theory revolves around the ego. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the ego has two related definitions. 

In one sense, your ego is your conscious sense of self, encompassing all of your attitudes, values, and concerns. 

Using psychoanalytic theory, psychologists offer a complementary but more specific definition of the ego. Within this framework, the ego is the component of your personality that deals with the external world and its practical demands, enabling you to perceive, reason, and test reality.

According to psychoanalytic theory, the ego also interacts with the id and superego. The superego is the moral component of your personality, stemming from parent demands and social standards. In essence, the superego dictates your sense of right and wrong. 

The id is a more basic, instinctual component of the personality and contains your biological drives, such as libido.

What Is Ego Psychology Theory?

Drawing from these definitions, the APA defines ego psychology as a psychoanalytic approach that focuses on the role of your ego in mental health and decision-making. The theory emphasizes the functions of the ego in controlling your impulses, planning, and dealing with various factors and obstacles in your external environment.

These definitions prompt a separate but important question: what is the psychanalytic approach, also known as psychoanalysis? 

Psychoanalysis: A Brief History

Psychoanalysis, also called the Freudian approach or Freudianism, is a distinctive approach to psychological disorders and treatment, originally developed by Sigmund Freud at the beginning of the 20th century. One of the defining characteristics of psychoanalysis is the assumption that most of our mental activity is unconscious. Therefore, psychologists must interpret the subconscious meaning behind individuals’ overt, external behaviors.

While psychoanalysis has left an important legacy to psychiatry and psychology, some of its core beliefs are controversial. The key limitations of this approach include: 

  • Some scientists cite a lack of empirical support for its claims and effectiveness
  • Certain ideas in psychoanalysis are outdated
  • The approach may not be appropriate for some mental health conditions

Like any therapeutic approach, psychoanalysis presents several limitations as well as benefits, depending on the patient’s condition, history, and personal needs. Psychologists continue to study the role of ego psychology in mental health, using psychoanalysis as a foundation for future research. 

How Does Ego Affect Your Mental Health? 

As our understanding of personality develops, researchers have identified several ways that ego can influence your mental health and relationships. 

Benefits Of A Healthy Ego 

While you might describe a self-absorbed person as egotistical, having a big ego isn’t always a bad thing. When you view your life as important and meaningful, you’re more likely to take calculated risks, pursue your ambitions, and even interact more authentically with others. 

These features of a healthy ego are associated with several benefits for your mental health, including: 

  • Belief in your personal power and decision-making abilities
  • Healthier relationships
  • Stronger emotional control and willpower
  • Ego-resiliency, or the ability to flexibly adapt to difficult and stressful conditions

While these benefits are distinct, they all stem from a person’s fundamental belief in their own worth and self-importance.

Characteristics Of An Unhealthy Ego

When it comes to ego, too much of a good thing can negatively affect your relationships and mental health. While an unhealthy ego can take various shapes, a person with a big ego may exhibit the following characteristics:  

  • Arrogance 
  • False confidence
  • A tendency to hide mistakes and weaknesses
  • Refusal to ask for help 
  • Inability to accept failure
  • Denial of pain or fear, even when these feelings present an opportunity to connect more vulnerably with others

A big ego is not always bad; but when it blooms out of control, a person’s sense of importance and confidence can become inflated, potentially threatening their performance at work and in relationships.

Relatedly, an undersized ego can also be unhealthy. To sustain relationships and adapt to new challenges, you need confidence, mental strength, and flexibility: in other words, a right-sized ego.

A man with short dark braids, glasses, and a green collared shirt listens to his colleague, who has short dark hair, a beige sweater, and holds a paper while talking.

How To Develop A Healthy Ego

While a healthy ego is a crucial part of self-understanding, it can take a lifetime to develop and understand your sense of self. 

Fortunately, there are several strategies that can help you build and manage your ego, for the benefit of both yourself and others. 

1. Acknowledge The Benefits Of Ego.

As a baseline, it’s important to recognize the helpful role that ego can play in your life. At its core, your ego safeguards you from hurt, rejection, and other basic human fears. While you might have negative presumptions about big egos, a dose of self-importance is necessary to work through uncomfortable feelings and tough experiences, and ultimately enjoy the benefits of a healthy self-concept. 

2. Ask For Feedback

At work, school, and in relationships, how often do you ask how you’re performing and showing up for others? 

In school or your profession, regular performance reports or report cards can help you answer this question. But in your personal relationships and even casual encounters, you might not have the details to assess your impact on other people. Left unchecked, a big ego can make someone appear arrogant and over-confident – and inevitably, these traits tend to ward off potential friends and acquaintances. 

If you’re unsure how you come off to other people, it may help to ask a friend or loved one for feedback on your strengths and potential areas for improvement. Whether you’re asking as a friend, partner, teammate, or coworker, an honest outside perspective can help you keep your ego in check.

3. Focus On Self-Esteem

Ego is closely related to self-esteem, which refers to how positively you view your personal qualities and characteristics. This self-concept is shaped by your capabilities, values, and accomplishments, and your perceived success in living up to them.

If you’re looking for an accessible ways to build self-esteem, some common strategies include: 

  • Identify sources of low self-esteem, potentially with the support of a therapist.
  • Create a list of your strengths and weaknesses, which can challenge negative self-perceptions and provide a clearer view of yourself.
  • Practice positive self-talk or mantras, which you can say out loud, record in a journal, or even write on sticky notes to keep around your space.
  • Write down a list of your past accomplishments, as well as future goals.

Any of these strategies can help you recognize your best qualities, appreciate your achievements, and form a clearer picture of where you’re heading next. 

4. Invest In Your Hobbies

A well-managed ego is associated with healthy levels of confidence and competence, which you can readily develop in the hobby of your choosing. A hobby can offer a sense of purpose, joy, and an avenue to connect to yourself and your community. There are hundreds of hobbies, but some common (and ego-boosting) examples include: 

  • A recreational sports league
  • Making art alone, with friends, or even in a club
  • Reading
  • Baking
  • Meditation, yoga, or another form of mindfulness practice

Whatever hobby you choose, the power of hobbies and other leisurely activities extends far beyond the ego. Research suggests that people who engage in more leisure activities experience both psychological and physical benefits including lower blood pressure, greater social support, and life satisfaction.

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5. Meet With A Therapist

The work of building your ego may feel like an independent journey, but a licensed therapist can offer invaluable encouragement along the way.

A growing number of people use online therapy to build their self-esteem and other aspects of mental health while balancing busy lifestyles. Compared to in-person therapy, some patients prefer the ease and affordability of digital platforms like BetterHelp. After completing a brief online questionnaire, you can match with a board-certified therapist within 48 hours and begin scheduling sessions at a time and place that works best for you.

Multiple studies show that online therapy can be just as effective as face-to-face therapy. Recently, a 2021 study assessed the value of a web-based relationship program on participants’ mental health. The researchers found that participants’ relationship satisfaction improved, as well as their individual functioning and symptoms of depression and anxiety. While this study reviewed just one online program, the results highlight the value of online therapy for partners, individuals, and others seeking to improve their self-esteem and social health. 


Managing your ego takes time and effort, but this self-understanding can help you unlock your core strengths – as well as areas for improvement and new ambitions. 

As you do this work, a therapist can offer encouragement and professional insights. The theory of ego psychology is a tool to enhance your journey, and can help you develop a healthy sense of confidence and connection to other people.

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