What is ego psychology? A theory for self-understanding

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated May 1, 2024by 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 project.

It’s not uncommon to use this term to describe someone’s personality or presence in a certain context. However, the term ego has a unique historical meaning in the field of psychology.  

In this article, we’ll unpack the historical meaning of ego, the use of ego psychology today, and five ways to develop a healthy ego and enhance your self-understanding.

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What is the ego?

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the ego has two definitions:

  1. “the self, particularly the conscious sense of self (Latin, ‘I’)” 
  2. "in psychoanalytic theory, the component of the personality that deals with the external world and its practical demands.”

According to the definition from psychoanalytic theory, the ego is the component of your personality that deals with the external world, enabling you to perceive, reason, conduct reality testing, and balance the demands of the id and the superego.

The superego is considered the moral component of your personality, stemming from parent demands and social standards. In essence, the superego is thought to dictate your sense of right and wrong.

The id is considered a more basic, instinctual component of the personality and contains your biological drives, including for hunger and sex.

Psychoanalysis: A brief history

Psychoanalysis, also called the Freudian approach or Freudianism, is a distinctive approach to psychological disorders developed by Sigmund Freud. One of the defining characteristics of psychoanalysis is the assumption that much of our mental activity is unconscious. According to this theory, psychoanalysts 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 following are considered some of the key limitations of this approach:

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

What is ego psychology?

The APA defines ego psychology as a psychoanalytic approach that focuses on the role of your ego in controlling your impulses and assisting with planning and interacting with your external environment. Ego psychology tends to go beyond psychoanalytic drive theory and recognizes the role of sociocultural factors of development.

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 an ego doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing, provided it’s not leading a person to consider only their own interests. When you view your life as important and meaningful, you may be more likely to take calculated risks, pursue your ambitions, and even interact more authentically with others. 

The following features of a healthy ego may lead to 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 are all related to a person’s fundamental belief in their own worth.

Characteristics of an unhealthy ego

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

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

When an ego grows out of control, a person’s sense of importance and confidence can become inflated, potentially threatening their relationships and performance at work.

Relatedly, an undersized ego can also be unhealthy. To sustain relationships and adapt to new challenges, a person generally needs confidence, mental strength, and flexibility, which may be found in a person with a right-sized ego.

Getty/AnnaStills

How to develop a healthy ego

While a healthy ego is thought to be a part of self-understanding, it can take some time to develop and understand your sense of self.

Below are five strategies that might help you build and manage a healthy ego, which may benefit your mental health and your relationships:

1. Acknowledge the benefits of ego

At its core, a healthy ego may safeguard you from hurt, rejection, and other basic human fears. While you might have negative assumptions about big egos, recognizing your worth may help you work through uncomfortable feelings and tough experiences and ultimately enjoy the benefits of a healthy self-concept. 

2. Ask for feedback

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 may provide feedback, but in your personal relationships and even casual encounters, you might not have details to assess your impact on other people. Left unchecked, a big ego can make someone appear arrogant and over-confident, and these traits tend to scare 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 may help you keep your ego in check and enjoy more fulfilling relationships.

3. Focus on self-esteem

Ego is thought to be related to self-esteem, which refers to how positively you view your personal qualities and characteristics. It can be shaped by your capabilities, accomplishments, and perceived success in living up to your values.

If you’re looking for 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 may 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.

These strategies may 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 tends to be associated with healthy levels of confidence and competence, which you may be able to develop in a hobby of your choosing. A hobby can offer a sense of purpose and an avenue to connect to yourself and your community. There are hundreds of possible hobbies you can choose from, but some common examples include:

  • Creating art, whether alone, with friends, or even in a club
  • Participating in team sports
  • Reading
  • Baking
  • Meditating or practicing yoga or another form of mindfulness

Whatever hobby you choose, the power of hobbies and other leisurely activities can extend 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 greater life satisfaction.

Getty/MoMoProductions
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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 may be able to offer valuable, personalized insight. If you feel hesitant to visit a therapy practice, you might try online therapy, which allows you to connect with a therapist from home or anywhere you have an internet connection. With a platform like BetterHelp, you can be matched with a therapist who has training in ego psychology or any specific mental health topics of interest to you. You can communicate with them in a way that’s most comfortable to you—through phone, live chat, videoconferencing, or a combination of these methods.

Numerous peer-reviewed studies show that online therapy can be just as effective as traditional in-person therapy. Recently, a 2021 study assessed the value of a web-based relationship program on participants’ relationships and mental health. The researchers found that participants’ relationship satisfaction improved compared to the control group's. There were also minor improvements in measures of anxiety and depression for the control group. 

While this study reviewed just one online program, the results highlight the value of online interventions for partners, individuals, and others seeking to improve their self-esteem and relationships.

Takeaway

Managing your ego may take some time and effort, but this self-understanding may help you unlock your core strengths and discover areas for improvement and new ambitions. If you’re looking for a way to explore ego psychology and ways to build a healthy self-concept, you may find it helpful to speak to a licensed therapist, whether in person or online. With BetterHelp, you can usually be matched with a licensed therapist within 48-72 hours and then connect with them at a time that fits into your schedule. Take the first step toward exploring ways to build a healthy ego and reach out to BetterHelp today.
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