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Ego as the Rational Part of Personality

According to Sigmund Freud, the ego is part of our personality that mediates the demands of the id, the superego, and reality. Freud described the id as the most basic part of personality that urges people to fulfill their most primal needs.

The superego, on the other hand, is the moralistic part of personality that forms later in childhood due to upbringing and social influences. It is the ego's job to strike a balance between these two, often competing, forces and to ensure that fulfilling the needs of the id and superego conforms to the demands of reality.

The ego is the component of personality that strikes a realistic balance between the demands of the id's primal urges and the superego's moral conscience. Freud also believed that the ego relies on defense

mechanisms (such as denial and repression) to protect us against anxiety and distress. 

In everyday usage, the ego represents a sense of self-importance (think: "He has such a big ego!) Having a healthy ego means we can maintain a healthy sense of self, but an imbalance can lead to problems, including excessive self-centeredness.

A Closer Look at the Ego

So just what function does the ego serve in personality? The ego prevents us from acting on our basic urges (created by the id) but also works to achieve a balance with our moral and idealistic standards (created by the superego)

The ego operates based on the reality principle, which works to satisfy the id's desires in a manner that is realistic and socially appropriate. The term ego strength is used to refer to the ego's ability to mediate between these conflicting demands.

For example, if a person cuts you off in traffic, the ego prevents you from chasing down the car and physically attacking the offending driver. The ego allows us to see that this response would be socially unacceptable, but it also allows us to know that there are other more appropriate means of venting our frustration.

What Is the Unconscious?

Freud's Observations on the Ego

In his 1933 book New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Freud compared the relationship between the id and the ego to that of a horse and rider. The horse represents the id, a powerful force that offers the energy to propel forward motion. The rider represents the ego, the guiding force that directs the power of the id toward a goal.

Freud noted, however, that this relationship did not always go as planned. In less ideal situations, a rider may find himself simply along for the ride as he allows his horse to go in the direction the animal wants to go.

Just as a rider may not always be able to control a horse, the id's primal urges may sometimes be too powerful for the ego to keep in check.

The Ego's Defense Mechanisms

In her own 1936 book The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, Anna Freud that all of the ego's defences against the id were carried out behind the scenes. These measures against the id are known as the defence mechanisms, which are carried out silently and invisibly by the ego.

While we cannot observe the defences in action, Anna Freud suggested that they could be observed in retrospect. Repression is one example. When something is repressed from awareness, the ego is not aware that the information is missing.

It is only later when it becomes obvious that some piece of information or memory is gone, that the actions of the ego become apparent.

Other Meanings of Ego

The word 'ego' comes from the Latin word for 'I.' Freud himself referred to it as 'das Ich,' meaning 'the I' in German. The term 'ego' was added by Freud's translator.

In everyday usage, the term 'ego' is often used to describe a person's sense of self-importance. When someone says that a person has a big ego, they imply that that person is conceited or has an exaggerated sense of self-importance. 

What This Means For You

Ego has a couple of different meanings in psychology. Freud's classic psychoanalytic theory refers to the realistic part of personality that strikes a balance between our primal urges and moral conscience. In other cases, people use it to refer to a person's sense of identity and self-importance. Having a healthy ego is important, but having an inflated sense of self can lead to problems. An inflated ego might be a symptom of a mental health condition such as narcissistic personality disorder or bipolar disorder.


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