What Is Ego Psychology And How Can It Help?

Updated February 20, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC

The way you think, feel, and behave don't just happen out of nowhere. Your choices come from within you, even if they're influenced by others or the environment. Ego psychology deals with the ego, that part of you that makes those decisions. Learning more about your ego may increase your ability to make choices that benefit you more often.

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Ego Psychology Definition

Ego psychology is a school of psychological thought. It's concerned with human development, especially with the development of personality. The roots of ego psychology go back to Freud's analytic theory.

Ego Psychology Theorists

Ego psychology consists of a large body of work by various psychological theorists. Each psychologist had their own take on ego psychology. To get an idea of the different concepts that are included in ego psychology, it helps to look at what each theorist focused on in their work.

Sigmund Freud's Structural And Topographic Theories

Sigmund Freud was the father of psychoanalytic theory. He developed two theories that are still a part of ego psychology.

You may recognize the terms conscious and unconscious from Freud's topographic theory. Fewer people are familiar with the third component of this theory. At first, Freud thought that the ego was a sense organ that was able to perceive stimuli from within and from the environment. According to Freud, the ego's instincts were to respond to reality. He saw memory and attention as ego functions.

Freud's structural theory has perhaps a larger place in ego psychology. This is the theory most laypeople know by the three parts of the human psyche called the id, ego, and superego. The id is the instinctual drive, the superego is the judging and criticizing part of the psyche, and the ego is the executive self that mediates between the id and ego and responds to the environment.

Anna Freud And Defense Mechanisms

Anna Freud's work in ego psychology was concerned with identifying the tendencies of the ego to keep the id in check. This psychologist focused on describing the ego's defenses, relating them to stages of psychosocial development, and understanding how unhealthy defenses contributed to mental conditions.

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Heinz Hartmann And Ego Functions

To Heinz Hartmann, the ego's primary role and ability was to adapt to the environment by using perception, attention, concentration, memory, language, and motor coordination. While Sigmund Freud had believed that the ego was formed through conflict between the id and superego, Hartmann had a different view.

Hartmann believed that the ego was innate, and that internal conflict led to aggression and issues with sexual drive. Beyond this, Hartmann developed the concept of ego functions. He sought to find out how the ego functioned as the individual adapted to their environment. Hartmann suggested that a person with a less-conflicted ego would be more capable of acting decisively to change their environment.

David Rapaport's Systemization Of Ego Psychology

David Rapaport put the vast body of work into an organized system he called ego psychology. Rapaport himself was most interested in ego development as a biological process.

Charles Brenner And Modern Conflict Theory

Long after the popularity of ego psychology had waned, Charles Brenner attempted to bring it back into prominence. His modern conflict theory was based on Freud's theory of intrapsychic conflict between the id, the ego, and the superego.

Common Defense Mechanisms

Anna Freud's work on defense mechanisms was just the beginning of work surrounding the ego defenses people commonly use. Since that time, psychologists have used the concept of defense mechanisms and taught their clients how to recognize their own use of those mechanisms.

Studies on defense mechanisms have shown that there are both adaptive and nonadaptive defense mechanisms. The nonadaptive mechanisms are used to avoid making changes. Defense mechanisms happen unconsciously. If you're able to identify them, you can choose to deal more directly with your problems. Some of the best-known defense mechanisms are explained below.


When you use denial as a defense mechanism, you simply refuse to accept a reality. For example, a new widow might deal with her loss by denying through her words, thoughts, or actions that her husband is dead. Mild denial might mean "forgetting" that he isn't coming home at the end of the day. More severe denial might mean setting a place for him at the table every night.

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Regression means mentally going back to an earlier stage of development. In severe cases of regression, people can become so removed from their current stage of development that they can't function normally. Milder regression often involves small comfort-seeking behaviors.


You may dissociate from your thoughts, feelings, and even your sense of identity. During and right after a traumatic event, you may have a feeling of unreality, as if you're watching the event on TV rather than living it. Mild dissociation can help you get through extremely difficult situations. However, when the dissociation is extreme, you might have a dissociative disorder like amnesia or fugue.


You use displacement as a mechanism when you change the target of your impulse. You may have an impulse to behave violently toward a parent, but it isn't emotionally or physically safe to be violent toward them. Instead, you turn your violence on other authority figures like teachers or the police.

Reaction Formation

Reaction formation means doing the opposite of your unacceptable impulses. When you feel that your impulses are unacceptable, you do the opposite, trying to convince yourself and/or others that you don't have such impulses. Reaction is a way of trying to prove yourself worthy when you have impulses that you think are wrong.


When you use projection, you see your own traits in other people while not seeing those same traits in yourself. By focusing on the other person having the trait, you distract yourself from seeing it in yourself. Through projection, you try to protect your ego by putting the heat on someone else.


Nearly everyone has rationalized their behavior at one time or another. Rationalization means making excuses. You may do something you feel is unacceptable, but you don't want to be seen as a person who would do that without reason. You try to use logic to explain your choice. Unfortunately, the logic is flawed.


When you have an unwanted impulse, you may sublimate it into a behavior that's more acceptable to you and others. For example, you may feel intense romantic interest for someone even though you're already married. You could cheat on your spouse, but you don't want to ruin the relationship. So you might sublimate that sexual energy into composing a magnificent symphony.


Not all defense mechanisms are maladaptive. Some can actually benefit you and others in society significantly. You may become very altruistic after you suffer a loss or experience a great pain. Instead of falling into depression, you put your energy into helping others.


Humor is a defense mechanism you may use to help you deal with painful or uncomfortable situations. If something happens that you can't change, laughing about it can help you get through it. If you do this consciously, it would be considered a coping strategy rather than a defense mechanism.

What Are The Ego Functions?

In ego psychology, the ego is considered to be an important part of the self. Its functions are crucial to good mental health. Knowing how your ego functions can help you have more realistic expectations of yourself.

Reality Testing

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Psychoanalysts define reality testing as the ability to tell the difference between perceptions and ideas. There's nothing in your perceptions that tells you whether what you're experiencing is real or not. You may be having a hallucination or actually seeing what you think you see. Your ego performs the function of testing reality to find out which it is.

Impulse Control

The ego makes it possible to control your impulses. This is important, because everyone has impulses that are unhealthy or even dangerous. Your ego notices the urge, considers the consequences, and chooses whether to follow the urge or not.

Affect Regulation

Affect denotes feeling or emotion, but it also can be thought of as the way your environment affects you. Your ego can regulate how you allow that to happen or not. When you know this, you understand that life doesn't just happen to you. You can shape your own emotional responses.

Thought Processes

Your ego is in charge of your conscious thought processes, as well as some unconscious ones. Ego is often called the executive self, meaning that it parses situations and chooses a response. You do this through conscious and unconscious thought directed by your ego.

Defensive Functioning

Your ego manages all the defense mechanisms listed above as well as others. This ego function can help you maintain stability over time. It can also help you improve your condition when you're depressed.

Object Relations

A healthy ego makes it possible for you to have mutually satisfying relationships with others. This happens through object relations, according to psychoanalytic theory. Object relations refers to the ability to see yourself and others as whole and three dimensional with many different qualities.

How Does Ego Psychology Help?

Ego psychology can help you cope and have a better life. It helps you be more self-aware. It helps you understand what will work to improve your thinking, your feelings, and your behaviors. By recognizing when you're using defense mechanisms, you gain a greater ability to recognize problems and deal with them in healthy ways.

The best thing about ego psychology may be its focus on the active self. The more you understand about how you make decisions about what to think, feel, or do, the more you experience your personal power in everyday decision-making.

If your ego isn't managing your life very well, you may need to spend some time learning better ways of thinking. A therapist can help you identify problems within your ego and find the sources of those problems if possible. They can teach you new ways to think and respond to life's challenges and opportunities.

You can talk to a licensed therapist at BetterHelp.com for convenient online therapy on your schedule. With the right help, you can harness the power of your ego to accomplish your goals and live the life you want.

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