Ego Ideal

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The concept of the ego ideal appeared for the first time in Sigmund Freud's "On Narcissism: An Introduction" (1914c). The ego ideal takes the place of the narcissism lost during childhood and promises the possible realization of narcissism in the future. Freud's concept of the ego ideal provided support for other, earlier concepts, such as moral conscience, censorship, and self-esteem, and made possible an original understanding of the formation of a mass movement and its relationship to a leader (1921c).

The ego ideal and superego, together with the ideal ego, form a group of agencies that should be clearly distinguished, even though Freud sometimes used the first two interchangeably. Freud introduced the superego in The Ego and the Id (1923b). It enabled him to distinguish the normative aspect of the psyche (the superego) from the motivational aspect directed toward a goal (the ego ideal). Originally, however, the two aspects were present in the ego ideal, which was also not differentiated from the ideal ego. This lack of differentiation reappeared in New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1933a [1932]), where the ego ideal became a function of the superego.

The ego ideal is formed when the child, through the crucial influence of parents, educators, and others in the environment, is forced to abandon its infantile narcissism. This is made possible by the formation of this substitute, the ego ideal, which leaves open the possibility that in the future the child will be able to rejoin ego and ideal. This development of the child's ego ideal, here conflated with the superego, occurs through the child's identification with the parents or, more precisely, with the parents' superego. In The Ego and the Id (1923b), Freud indicates that the superego develops from identification with the paternal model. For identification to take place, the erotic component has to be sublimated. As a result, it no longer has the strength to bind the destructive component of the psyche. All of this creates a libidinal split. Consequently, the superego becomes harsh, even self-destructive. Out of this arises a feeling of unconscious guilt, and in melancholia the child finds the same ego ideal, dissociated from the ego, raging against it.

The ego ideal demands that the subject make changes to achieve the ideal, but the existence of the ego ideal does not mean that the subject has succeeded in achieving this goal. "A man who has exchanged his narcissism for homage to a high ego ideal has not necessarily on that account succeeded in sublimating his libidinal instincts" (1914c, p. 94). Thus, the idealist may refuse to see reality, including that of his own libidinal experience, even though he has not sublimated anything, in the sense of modifying the goal and object of the drive.

To the extent that the ego ideal is conflated with the superego, it includes the moral conscience, which continuously compares the actual ego with the ego ideal. Similarly, dream censorship and repression can be associated with the ego ideal. In fact, the ego ideal comprises all the restrictions to which the ego must submit to conform with the image detached from its own narcissism and projected before it. The ego ideal is not only a critic; when something in the ego coincides with the ego ideal, it can also produce a sensation of triumph, in which self-esteem is enhanced.

When the ego ideal is replaced by an idealized object, the ego ideal can be short-circuited in inciting the ego. "It is even obvious in many forms of love-choice," Freud wrote, "that the object serves as a substitute for some unattained ego ideal of our own" (1921c, p. 112). This notion led Piera Aulagnier (1979) to develop the concept of alienation, where the relationship is libidinal in nature since it involves another subject, an object (gambling or drugs, for example), or even an activity (sports, work).

With the concept of the ego ideal, Freud considerably enriched the understanding of group psychology. Starting from an analysis of the relation between hypnotizer and hypnotist, he defined the group as "a number of individuals who have put one and the same object in the place of their ego ideal and have consequently identified themselves with one another in their ego" (1921c, p. 116). All in the group are then collectively capable of being subjected to whatever represents this now collective ego ideal. The consequences are well known. "The criticism exercised by that agency [the ego ideal] is silent; everything that the object does and asks for is right and blameless. Conscience has no application to anything that is done for the sake of the object; in the blindness of love remorselessness is carried to the pitch of crime. The whole situation can be completely summarized in a formula: The object has been put in the place of the ego ideal" (1921c, p. 113).

Daniel Lagache (1961), in discussing the structure of the personality, identified the notion of "heroic identification," the narcissistic ideal of omnipotence, which allowed him to explain certain aspects of criminal behavior. Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel (1985) identified various possible outcomes for the ego ideal, perverse as well as creative.

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Alienation; Character neurosis; Collective psychology; Heroic self; Ego ideal/ideal ego; Narcissistic transference; Self-image; Shame.


Aulagnier, Piera. (1979). Les destins du plaisir: Aliénation, amour, passion. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Chasseguet-Smirgel, Janine. (1985). The ego ideal: A psychoanalytic essay on the malady of the ideal (Paul Barrows, Trans.). London: Free Association Books. (Original work published 1975)

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

. (1921c). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. SE, 18: 65-143.

. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.

. (1933a [1932]). New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 22: 1-182.

Lagache, Daniel. (1961). La psychanalyse et la structure de la personnalité. Psychanalyse, 6, 5-54.

Further Reading

Blos, Peter. (1974). The genealogy of the ego ideal. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 29, 43-88.

Deutsch, Helene. (1964). Some clinical considerations of the ego ideal. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 12, 512-516.

Milrod, David. (1990). The ego ideal. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 45, 43-60.

Rosenfeld, Herbert. (1962). The superego and the ego-ideal. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 43, 258-263.

Sandler, Joseph. et al. (1963). The ego ideal and the ideal self. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 18, 139-158.

Schafer, Roy. (1967). Ideals, the ego ideal, and the ideal self. Psychological Issues, 18, 129-174.