Ego States

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An ego state is a coherent organization of cathected mental contents and related affects that are experienced as within the ego boundary at a given point in time. Federn's (1926/1952) concept of ego states is related to Schilder's (1930/1951) discussion of varieties of conscious experience and to David Rapaport's (1951/1954) view of states of consciousness. Federn's use of the construct ego state underscores mental content.

Ego states are correlated with particular ego boundaries, and the current contents included within a given boundary will determine a particular ego state. Conversely, given ego states include particular qualities of ego experience. Ego states range from developmentally primitive to advanced. Any ego state may be repressed, and thus de-egotized. When a conflicting idea is repressed, the ego state in which it is found will also be repressed. For a repressed memory to become emotionally meaningful, there must be recall of the whole ego state in which it is embedded. A repeatedly cathected ego state may become dominant, and when this ego state is repressed, a fixation point is created. Fixations are associated with highly rigid ego boundaries. Activation of a particular ego state will result when there is a regression to that fixation point.

Manifest dream elements may primarily signify, in addition to unconscious fantasies, repressed ego states. The very concept of pathological fixations implies the notion of a number of repressed ego states. The unconscious segment of the ego consists of all repressed ego states. An active ego state reflects how one is presently experiencing oneself.

Ego states succeed one another, but a person may also experience different ego states at the same time. Even so, in most cases, one is aware of only one ego state at a given time. In ego states characterized by fatigue, sleep, illness, and psychosis, the ego feeling is often seriously restricted. In general, the greater the mental disturbance, the more the person's functioning is limited by current ego states. Such a person is unable to do in one ego state what he can do in another. Regression to earlier ego states is one of the main pathological features of psychosis.

Marvin S. Hurvich

See also: Ego; Ego (ego psychology).


Bergmann, Martin S. (1963). The place of Paul Federn's ego psychology in psychoanalytic metapsychology. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 11, 97-116.

Federn, Paul. (1952). Ego-psychology and the psychoses (Edoardo Weiss, Ed.). New York: Basic Books. (Original work published 1926)

Rapaport, David. (1954). The autonomy of ego. In Robert P. Knight and C. R. Friedman (Eds.), Psychoanalytic psychiatry and psychology. New York: International Universities Press. (Original work published 1951)

Schilder, Paul. (1951). Studies concerning the psychology and symptomatology of general paresis. In David Rapaport (Ed.), Organization and pathology of thought. New York: Columbia University Press. (Original work published 1930)

Weiss, Edoardo. (1960). The structure and dynamics of the human mind. New York: Grune and Stratton.