Ego Ideal/Ideal Ego

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The two notions of ideal ego and ego ideal might seem to be used interchangeably by Freud. However, their first appearance in "On Narcissism" (1914c) showed them to be different insofar as the ideal ego is taken to be the recipient of the self-love that the ego enjoyed in infancy. The distinction is between reality and an idealization of that reality, enforced by the fact that from infancy on, that reality seems forever lost. The ego ideal, on the other hand, is a dynamic notion: The person, as Freud wrote, seeks to regain the narcissistic perfection of its infancy under the new form of the ego ideal, which is deferred as a goal to be attained in the future. Thus the ideal ego could be seen as the nostalgic survival of a lost narcissism, while the ego ideal appears to be the dynamic formation that sustains ambitions towards progress.

The ideal ego is a modification of infantile narcissism and the omnipotence that accompanies it. What differentiates it from the ego ideal is that in the case of the latter, the ego only obtains the self-esteem that it yearns for by obeying the injunctions arising from what Freud later called the superego. On the other hand, the ideal ego is not completely equivalent with the ego since omnipotence is lost with infantile narcissism. Such omnipotence is only partially regained in daydreams and fantasies that make the person a hero and victor. The difference here is that the ego ideal, which is closely related to the superego, is not formed on the basis of an illusory omnipotence, but modeled after that of the parents, and more precisely after the superego and its ideals. The ideal ego thus appears to be a way of short-circuiting the work that the ego ideal requires by assuming that its goals, or any others that might be still higher, have already been attained.

Hermann Nunberg defined the ideal ego as the combination of the ego and the id. This agency is the outcome of omnipotent narcissism and is manifested as pathology. Daniel Lagache (1961) developed the implications of this notion of the ideal ego, notably in terms of delinquency. The ideal ego appears in contrast to the superego and is linked to the primary identification with another being who is invested with omnipotence, as is the case with the infant's identification with the phallic mother. Lagache emphasizes that in adolescence "the ideal ego is reinvested or its investment is strengthened, often by new identifications with eminent people. The adolescent identifies him- or herself anew with the ideal ego and strives by this means to separate from the superego and the ego ideal" (Lagache, pp. 227-28).

Lacan took up Lagache's analysis of the concept in these terms: "In a subject's relation to the other as an authority, the ego-ideal, obeying the law to please, leads the subject to displease himself as the price of obeying the commandment; the ideal ego, at the risk of displeasing, triumphs only by displeasing in spite of the commandment" (1966, p. 671). For Lacan, the ideal ego is a narcissistic formation linked to the mirror stage.

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Graph of Desire; Identification; Imaginary; Imaginary identification/symbolic identification; L and R schemas; Law of the father; Optical schema; Self-image; Unary trait.


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

Lacan, Jacques. (1966).Écrits. Paris: Seuil.

. (2004).Écrits: A selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton.

Lagache, Daniel. (1961). La psychanalyse et la structure de la personnalité.In Oeuvres IV, 1956-1962. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1982.

Nunberg, Hermann. Principles of psychoanalysis. New York: International Universities Press, 1955.