Ego Identity

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It is too easy to see a patient only as a group of symptoms. Rather, according to Erik Erikson, the main issue is to determine whether it is a question of a person having a neurosis, or of the neurosis "having" the person. He insisted on the need to see fears and anxieties as two very different things: The former apprehensions focus on realistic responses to dangers, whereas the latter, provoked by dysfunction in the internal controls, magnify obstacles without providing the means to surmount them.

Adaptive responses that are appropriate to reality are all too likely to be discounted if one understands the ego as being essentially a collection of defenses against the internal drives. The key, according to Erikson, is to seek in the ego the organizational capacities that create the strength necessary for reconciling discontinuities and ambiguities.

Like Sigmund Freud, Erikson envisioned an unconscious ego. But like other post-Freudians, he emphasized that the ego has a unifying function and ensures coherent behavior and conduct. The ego does not only have a negative function, that of avoiding anxiety; it plays as well the positive role of ensuring efficient functioning. The ego's defenses are not necessarily pathogenic: Some are adaptive, while others are the source of maladaptations. It is true that anxiety and feelings of guilt can disrupt adaptation. Moreover, the external environment has its own inherent deficiencies. But in attempting to measure the strength of the ego, Erikson did not limit himself to the earlier psychoanalytic norm and seek, in a personality, only that which is denied or cut off. Rather, he was interested in measuring the limit that the individual's ego is capable of unifying.

The ego protects the person's indivisibility, and everything that underlies the strength of the ego adds to its identity. If Freud understood identity as being in part acquired, this was due to the very particular types of patients he had treated.

For Erikson, identity is what maintains in the individual inner solidarity with the ideals and aspirations of social groups. The ego has a general balancing function: It puts things in perspective and prepares them in view of possible action. The strength of the ego, as Erikson conceived it, explains the difference between the feeling of being whole and the feeling of being fragmented. In the best of cases, it enables the individual to understand that the feeling of being at one with oneself comes through growth and development.

In addition to a feeling of continuity, according to Erikson, every individual needs a sense of novelty, obtained only through the leeway inherent in an assured identity. By "leeway," he meant maintaining in our experience a centrality, an evident self that, alone, enables us to make fully aware choices.

Early in his work Erikson called this identity "ego identity" after the model of Freud's "ego ideal." As a subsystem of the ego, identity's task is to choose and integrate self-representations derived from childhood psychosocial crises. Too often, in the history of psychoanalysis, there has been a tendency to forget that on the clinical level, the ego was posited as an enduring agent of selection and integration that plays a central role in the sound functioning of the personality. This inner "synthesizer," which silently organizes a coherent experience and guides action, is precisely what is so often lacking in present-day patients. By contrast, the patients of the earliest psychoanalyses were for the most part suffering from inhibitions that prevented them from being what they were, or what they believed themselves to be.

Paul Roazen

See also: Erikson, Erik Homberger; Identity.


Erikson, Erik H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: W. W. Norton.

. (1959). Identity and the life cycle. New York: International Universities Press.

. (1968). Identity: Youth and crisis. New York: W. W. Norton.

Roazen, Paul. (1976). Erik H. Erikson: The power and limits of a vision. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.