What’s The Best Way To Define Ego?

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated May 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Over the years, many varying definitions of the ego have been put forth. In general, most people think of the ego as the way we view ourselves and our relationships with others. It may also mediate between our instinctual desires and the constraints of the external world. The ego may play a role in certain mental health disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and borderline personality disorder. Online therapy can be a great way to address any ego-related issues you may be experiencing with the help of a licensed mental health professional. 

The importance of understanding the definition of ego

Understanding the definition of ego can be helpful for several reasons. First, the concept of ego is thought to play a major role in how we perceive ourselves and our relationships with others. The ego can shape our self-identity and self-worth, which may influence our behavior and interactions with others.

Second, understanding the ego can provide valuable insights into our minds' workings, motivations, desires, and fears. Understanding ego may help us better understand our thought processes and behavior patterns.

Last, understanding ego may help us improve our communication and conflict resolution skills. By having a clearer understanding of one’s ego and the egos of others, individuals may better understand each other's perspectives, needs, and motivations, leading to stronger and more meaningful connections.

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Theories of ego development

The ego usually refers to an individual's sense of self or perception of their identity. It can encompass a person's thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and values, and can be seen as a mediator between the individual and the external world. Psychologists have defined and redefined the ego over the years, and many theories have been put forth as to how the ego develops.

Sigmund Freud's theory of the ego

Sigmund Freud is frequently viewed as a pioneer in the field of psychology, and his theory of the ego is generally one of the most widely recognized. According to Freud, the ego can be defined as the conscious part of the psyche that mediates between the demands of the id, which represents unconscious impulses, and the demands of the external world. In other words, the ego may act as a mediator between our instinctual desires and the constraints of reality.

In Freud's theory, the ego is believed to develop during childhood, through a process known as ego development. During this process, the ego may learn to incorporate the demands of the external world and develop the ability to exert control over the impulses of the id.

Erik Erikson's theory of psychosocial development

Erik Erikson was a developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst who is generally best known for his theory of psychosocial development. Erikson stated that the ego may develop through eight stages, each of which may be associated with a particular crisis or challenge.

Erikson believed that the ego must achieve a sense of mastery or resolution in each stage to move on to the next stage and continue to grow. According to Erikson, ego development could be an ongoing process throughout our lifetime, with each stage building upon the previous one.

Erikson generally saw the ego as the central force of an individual's personality, playing an ideal role in mediating between the individual's and society's demands. The ego, according to Erikson, can help individuals to balance their own needs with the needs of others, and to make decisions that align with their values and beliefs.

Carl Jung's theory of the psyche

Carl Jung believed in a collective unconscious, in which all human beings may have universal experiences and archetypes. He believed that the ego might be just one component of the psyche, along with the unconscious, personal unconscious, and the self.

According to Jung, the ego could be the conscious mind, which is generally a part of the psyche that individuals control and are aware of. He believed that the ego could be essential in mediating between the conscious and unconscious aspects of the psyche and keeping them in balance. Jung also believed that the ego's main function could be to balance the needs of the individual with the needs of society. He thought that the development of the ego could be a crucial part of the individuation process, in which individuals may discover and integrate their unique personality traits, values, and beliefs. Through this process, individuals can develop a sense of wholeness and balance between their conscious and unconscious selves.

Humanistic psychology and self-actualization

Humanistic psychology is generally a modern perspective that frequently emphasizes individual experience, self-awareness, and self-actualization in understanding the human ego. According to this perspective, the ego can be seen as a tool for self-expression, self-discovery, and fulfilling one's potential.

The focus of humanistic psychology may be an individual's subjective experience and the journey toward self-actualization, which is typically defined as the process of realizing your full potential as a human being. Humanistic psychologists normally believe that the ego is a crucial aspect of the self, as it can mediate between the individual's inner desires and the outside world's demands. The ego can be seen as a tool for self-expression and self-discovery, and it may play a vital role in helping individuals fulfill their potential and achieve a sense of self-actualization.


Positive psychology and the role of ego in well being

Positive psychology usually focuses on studying human strengths and positive emotions, rather than solely focusing on mental disorders and negative experiences. According to this perspective, the ego can promote well-being and is often seen as an essential component in self-actualization.

The role of ego in personality disorders

Ego problems may seriously affect an individual's mental health and overall functioning. An unhealthy ego might contribute to various personality disorders, such as:

  • Narcissistic personality disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Paranoid personality disorder

Narcissistic personality disorder

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a condition in which an individual may have an inflated sense of self-importance, a deep need for admiration and attention, and a lack of empathy for others. According to psychoanalytic theory, an overdeveloped ego sometimes leads to NPD. In cases of NPD, the ego has generally become excessively inflated, potentially causing the individual to become preoccupied with their well-being and to have a sense of entitlement to special treatment and recognition.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition typically characterized by repetitive, intrusive thoughts and behaviors aimed at reducing anxiety. The repetitive thoughts and behaviors associated with OCD could be an attempt to restore control and stability in the face of uncertainty and anxiety. According to some theories, the ego might contribute to OCD by creating an internal struggle between the need for control and the fear of losing control. Also, the ego may become attached to the compulsive behaviors, perhaps viewing them as necessary for maintaining order and stability.

Borderline personality disorder

Some individuals with BPD may have an unstable sense of self and struggle with feelings of abandonment and low self-esteem. A weakened or underdeveloped ego may lead to difficulty controlling emotions and thoughts and forming safe relationships with others. People with BPD may have difficulty separating their thoughts and feelings from those of others, and their relationships and environment can influence their sense of identity.

Paranoid personality disorder

The ego in individuals with Paranoid Personality Disorder may be weak and poorly differentiated from the unconscious, potentially causing a lack of stability in their sense of self. This may result in a preoccupation with control and a heightened sensitivity to perceived threats, sometimes leading to paranoid tendencies.

It can be important to note that these disorders must be diagnosed by mental health professionals, and they normally require a thorough evaluation and treatment plan. The role of ego in these disorders can highlight the importance of maintaining a healthy and balanced sense of self.

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Benefits of online therapy

Online therapy may provide a safe and supportive space for individuals to explore their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to the ego. Therapists specializing in treating those with ego issues often utilize cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). With an online therapy platform, it can be easy to find a licensed therapist who practices CBT or DBT and who specializes in issues pertaining to the ego.

Effectiveness of online therapy

Many people wonder whether online therapy may be as effective as traditional face-to-face therapy. This study examined the comparative efficacy of both therapy formats and found that both were similarly effective. If you’re interested in working with a mental health professional to address ego-related mental health challenges, please know that both in-office and online therapy can be valid options for you.


The ego can be an integral part of the self that often has to do with self-image and may mediate between instinctual desires and the external world. While the ego may help individuals control their emotions and thoughts, a weakened or underdeveloped ego may contribute to mental health issues like OCD, BPD, and PPD. Therapy may provide a safe and supportive space for individuals to address ego-related problems and gain insight into their underlying causes.
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