Ego Psychology

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Publication of The Ego and the Id (1923b), where Freud initially described the tripartite model of id, ego, and superego as the key macrostructures of the mind, ushered ego psychology into psychoanalytic theory. Precursors can be found in Freud's earlier publications: the "Project" of 1895; The Interpretation of Dreams ; the metapsychological papers of 1915 on instincts, repression, and the unconscious; and the works on narcissism, mourning, and group psychology.

Freud's book on anxiety (1926d) elaborated the structural theory of ego psychology and played a key role in its evolution. Its new model for symptom formation saw symptoms as arising from compromises among conflicts of the id, ego, and superego. This new formulation of the workings of the mental sphere was introduced as a revision Freud's topographic model, an earlier theory centered on the relationship of mental contents to consciousness. For Freud, the antagonism between what is dynamically unconscious and what is conscious, and the significance of this difference for psychopathology, is fundamental to psychoanalysis. But he came to realize that both the repressed and repressing forces, as well as the sense of guilt, are unconsciousa clinically significant factor that he wanted to highlight. Freud saw that to enhance theoretical clarity and more accurately conceptualize the data from clinical psychoanalytic work, he needed a new framework for the mind.

In the inner workings of the theory, the id, which includes much of what had been the dynamic unconscious in the topographic model, operates as a primary process and is the major repository of psychic energy, the instincts, and a significant portion of what has been repressed, except for the unconscious aspects of the ego and the superego. The id seeks satisfaction of basic needs and wishes. The superego, in contrast, issues moral directives, self-reproach, and self-punishment and establishes values and ideals. Freud saw the ego as a coherent set of mental functions and a distillation of abandoned object cathexes. It represents reality, curbs impulses, and seeks the best compromise among the claims of the id, the superego, and the external environment. Freud's concept of the ego has many different aspects and functions.

Delineating these aspects and functions constituted a major task for psychoanalytic theorists for the following half century and beyond. Anna Freud's (1936/1966) depiction and organization of the major mechanisms of defense emphasized the defensive aspects of the ego. She stated the principle that id, ego, and superego derivatives merited equal attention from the psychoanalyst. Hartmann's (1939/1964) notion that primary and secondary ego are autonomous delineated the ego as a substructure of the mind defined by its functions: broadly, its defensive, autonomous, and synthetic functions and their interrelations.

Therapy in the topographic model centers on making the unconscious conscious, and uncovering universal-drive-related fantasies related to the various psychosexual stages of development. Therapy in ego psychology seeks to increase the scope of the ego at the expense of that of the id and, as a clinical correlate, to understand how the subject uniquely deals with danger and inner conflicts, encompassing id impulses, superego responses, and defensive, adaptive, and integrative ego solutions. Another technical implication of ego psychology is that the therapist should pay close attention to the organization and detail of conscious content while listening for its unconscious substrate. The emphasis on defense also brought into focus the issue of character resistance, systematically developed by Wilhelm Reich. Exploring character resistance later became an aspect of ego-psychology technique. Increasing knowledge of ego development and its relation to early object relations played a key role in the evolution of psychoanalytic ego psychology.

Current psychoanalytic approaches derived from ego psychology are Jacob A. Arlow's delineation of the unconscious fantasy, Charles Brenner's focus on conflict and compromise formation, and Paul Gray's development of close monitoring of the defensive process. Otto Kernberg has provided an integration of ego psychology and object-relations theory.

Marvin S. Hurvich


Arlow, Jacob, and Brenner, Charles. (1964). Psychoanalytic concepts and the structural theory. New York: International Universities Press.

Freud, Anna. (1966). The ego and the mechanisms of defence (Rev. ed.). New York: International Universities Press. (Original work published 1936)

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

. (1926). Inhibitions, symptoms, and anxiety. SE, 20: 75-172.

Hartmann, Heinz. (1964). Essays on ego psychology. New York: International Universities Press. (Original work published 1939)

Further Reading

Holt, Robert R. (1975). The past and future of ego psychology. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 44:550-576.

Kris, Ernst. (1951). Ego psychology and interpretation in psychoanalytic therapy. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 20, 15-30.

Wallerstein, Robert. (2002). The growth and transformation of American ego psychology. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 50, 135-170.