Ego, Alteration of the

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The term "alteration of the ego" refers to changes that the ego undergoes as a function of age or as a result of neurotic or psychotic injuries with which it must deal.

This idea was evoked several times in Freud's work. Though it was referred to in "On Narcissism: An Introduction" (1914c), the mention was brief, for Freud had not as yet taken up the ego as an object of investigation. This was during the period when he went so far as to compare the ego to "a clown in the circus" (1914d, p. 53). Once the important part played by the ego in the unconscious was recognized, the function of defense took on great significance as the origin of alterations of the ego (1937c).

Later, with the advent of ego psychology, whether that of Heinz Hartmann or that of Paul Federn, the concept of "alteration of the ego" came fully into its own. In the first place, these changes were seen to constitute a continual mental process, extending from the primordial form of sucking at the breast to the most complex forms of scientific thinking. This process may be observed most clearly at turning points in life, as for example during the transition from childhood to adolescence or from adolescence to adulthood. Similarly, even though the change is far slower and more subtle, there is certainly a difference between the ego of the adult and that of the individual in old age.

On another level, the ego can be modified as a consequence of neurotic or psychotic disturbances. In the case of neurosis, the mechanisms of defense become so significant that the ego is obliged to transform itself, even though such transformation is never so far-reaching as it is when a psychotic process comes into play. The critical difference between these two kinds of alteration is that in neurosis there is no apparent splitting of the ego, whereas in the case of psychosis such splitting is evident. A split ego, obviously, is an altered ego. In a highly cathected narcissistic ego, transformations are harder to observe, save perhaps a certain behavioral rigidity. It is when the ego collapses under strong pressures that alterations occur. Alterations of the ego, it should be noted, are an aspect of the normal psychology, as well as of the pathology, of the ego.

Ernst Federn

See also: Ego; Ego psychology.


Anzieu, Didier. (1986). Some alterations of the ego which make analyses interminable. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 68, 9-19.

Freud, Sigmund. (1914c). On narcissism: An introduction. SE, 14: 67-102.

. (1914d). On the history of the psycho-analytic movement. SE, 14: 1-66.

. (1937c). Analysis terminable and interminable. SE, 23: 209-253.