Pleasure Ego/Reality Ego

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In his work on instincts, Freud introduced a distinction between those whose sole aim is the search for pleasure and the avoidance of unpleasure and those that tend to adapt to the realities of life, which cannot be done without renouncing pleasure to some degree. This discrepancy results in conflicts within the ego that are sometimes resolved by splitting.

The pleasure ego may adapt to the reality ego by postponing a yield of pleasure. This is the normal and the most usual course of things. It depends, however, on the ego's having reached a certain level of development.

During early childhood, the reality ego is still weak, while the pleasure ego has only two functions, namely to satisfy the oral zone and to cause the body-ego to be experienced as pleasurable. After breastfeeding comes sleep, after sleep breastfeeding once againand the reaction to any disagreeable feeling is to cry. As soon as the anal stage is reached, conflicts arise between the reality ego and the pleasure ego. The pleasure ego demands only the evacuation of the bowels, which is accompanied by great pleasure. The reality ego for its part requires that this occur only at a particular time and place. Once this has been achieved, it further demands that pleasurable sensations in the anal zone be reduced to a minimum. This last requirement is probably not satisfied in all individuals, giving rise to the kinds of behavior that we call perversions.

So long as the sexual instinct stays in its infantile mode, it is relatively easy for the reality ego to fulfill its function of adaptation to reality. Which having been said, it is quite possible for the two egos to clash even during early childhood, for the reality ego maneuvers by contriving all kinds of displacements, so causing a set of symptoms to arise as a way of gratifying the pleasure ego. Many childhood illnesses attest to this, since they are often the consequence of a surrender by the reality ego. Such situations may even lead to serious psychosomatic illness. Generally, however, a strong reality ego and a developing superego or ideal ego will help the subject overcome the difficulties of this period and embark on a relatively conflict-free latency.

With the onset of puberty, the pleasure ego lays siege to the reality ego with extraordinary vigor. During this time, which may extend over several years, it easily happens that the pleasure ego gains the ascendancy. As a rule, the consequence of the conflict between the reality ego and the pleasure ego is bizarre behavior, veering back and forth between the exalted to the depressive and punctuated by violent bouts of ill temper. Everything depends in this period on the strength of the superego; if the superego is absent or very weak, its role is perforce assumed by social organizationsby gangs or other kinds of groups. The kind of group chosen by the ego in puberty will depend on social opportunity. The social conditions under which the adolescent grows up are therefore of the greatest importance in determining behavior. A good social environment means that desires can more often be met in a social way, and it leaves far more room for the expression of the abilities (athletic, intellectual, artistic, and the like) that might strengthen young people who are striving as best they can to get through puberty. In any event, the primary goal during this period is to supply the reality ego with the resources to defeat the pleasure ego.

Should such favorable conditions be lacking, the pleasure ego is liable to realize its aspirations by errant means, as witness drug abuse, for example. In most cases, however, the reality ego carries the day and succeeds in imposing its dominancein principle, as soon as adolescence comes to an end. The pleasure ego is left a certain amount of space, depending on the exigencies of social adaptation. The amount of satisfaction that the reality ego can grant the pleasure ego is largely a function of social and cultural circumstances. The capacity to sublimate has a significant role here. Thanks to sublimation, the reality ego, aided by the superego, manages to persuade the pleasure ego to expect a measure of gratification on a higher mental plane. In other words, the pleasure ego can experience a great deal of pleasure once the individual has reached a high social level and is able to tolerate long delays before reaching this goal. This represents an ideal form of cohabitation between the reality ego and the pleasure ego, one which, under auspicious social conditions, may begin to develop as early as childhood.

Ernst Federn

See also: Binding/unbinding of the instincts; Children's play; Choice of neurosis; Conflict; Dependence; Desexualization; Disavowal; Dualism; Ego; Historical reality; Humor; Hypercathexis; Internal/external reality; Maternal; "Negation"; Pleasure/unpleasure principle; Primary process/secondary process; Principle of constancy; Psychic reality; Purified-pleasure-ego; Reality principle; Totem and Taboo ; Work (as a psychoanalytical notion).


Freud, Sigmund. (1911b). Formulations on the two principles of mental functioning. SE, 12: 213-226.

. (1915c). Instincts and their vicissitudes. SE 14: 109-140.

. (1925h). Negation. SE 19: 233-239.

Further Reading

Loewald, Hans (1951). Ego and reality. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 32, 10-18.