views updated


The notion of ego syntony plays an important part in psychoanalytic ego psychology. The implication of the term is that the ego represses only those tendencies with which it is at odds, that is, with which it is incompatible. Freud used the term only once, in the encyclopedia article "Psycho-Analysis," which first appeared in Max Marcuse's Handwörterbuch der Sexualwissenschaft (Manual of sexual sciences). "Since these impulses are not ego-syntonic," he wrote, "the ego has repressed them" (1923a, p. 246).

Obviously, compatibility between the ego and the id must vary according to the individual and also as a function of cultural and social affiliation. Sexual relations, for example, were long condemned by the Catholic Church unless their purpose was procreation. This position has gradually changed, but it is worth recalling that as recently as a hundred years ago Protestant circles subscribed to the same idea. In Asian societies attitudes towards sexuality are very different, although there too change is under way.

If much of sexuality is rejected by the ego of Westerners, this is not to say that other instinctual tendencies are likewise "ego-dystonic," and therefore repressed. In many aspects of aggression one can also see wide individual differences, depending not only on social position but also on historical period. In fact, if one considers the course of history from a psychological point of view, it is reasonable to say that up until the end of the Second World War most men experienced a resort to violence, even to killing, as perfectly ego-syntonic. In countries where the death penalty is still in use, as in the United States, inflicting this sanction on criminals is generally ego-syntonic, whereas in other countries this attitude has changed radically within the ego, and capital punishment is condemned by most people.

In the psychotherapy of present-day individuals, the therapist thus needs to bear in mind the historical trend for the ego to repress destructive impulses when it encounters them. Indeed, it is possible that sexual impulses will become fully ego-syntonic, even as the ego rejects destructive wishes. In short, what is egosyntonic and what is ego-dystonic must be determined in a historical, cultural, and social context.

Ernst Federn

See also: Ego; Ego (ego psychology).


Freud, Sigmund. (1923a). Psycho-analysis. SE, 18: 234-254.