Splitting of the Ego

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The term "splitting of the ego" refers to a division of the ego into two coexisting parts, one of which satisfies instinctual demands while the other heeds the objection, in the shape of a symptom, which reality raises to that satisfaction. This process, which Freud described as a "ruse," constitutes a temporary response to the conflict, but the price paid is an inner rent in the ego that can only get worse with time.

For Freud the most striking instance of the splitting of the ego was to be observed in the perversion of fetishism, but it was also at work in the psychoses, and to a lesser degree in neurosis. It represents a position with respect to reality more complex than denial (or disavowal [Verleugnung ]), for it implies the coexistence of two contradictory attitudes. The notion of the splitting of the ego was probably already present in embryo in Freud's mind well before his paper on "Splitting of the Ego in the Process of Defence" (1940e [1938]). Thus the idea of a "plurality of psychical persons," identifications, and in a more general sense the institution of the ideal mental agencies (superego, ego ideal) are so many forms of splitting of the egoalthough it should be noted that in the last case the outcome is the formation of a new agency rather than the maintenance of a split within the ego itself.

It was above all in the context of the psychoses that Freud developed this idea, and especially with regard to paranoia and delusions of reference. Viktor Tausk also worked in this context in his discussion of the genesis of the "influencing machine" in schizophrenia (1919/1949). Similarly, Sándor Ferenczi (1933) pointed out that traumas experienced by the child might give rise to a dissociation of a kind that would enable the adult, later, to present an appearance of perfect adaptation concealing an ego in ruins. In Freud's view, psychosis implied a break with reality caused by an irreconcilable idea: thanks to the mechanism of delusional projection, what had been abolished within the mind reappeared in the outside world in the shape of a hallucination.

The full dynamic complexity of the splitting of the ego emerged, however, only in the context of fetishism. Unlike a hallucination, a fetish was created not by a denial of reality but rather by a subtle avoidance of it, thanks to the symbolic transfer of the absent penis onto some other part of the body. This was the dividing-line between perversion and psychosis. But the splitting of the ego also signaled the ego's failure to build constructively on reality-testing by interpolating, between the instinctual demand and its gratification, the consequences of the envisaged course of action, whether the repression of the demand or the postponement of its satisfaction.

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Ego; Splitting.


Ferenczi, Sándor. (1949). Confusion of tongues between adults and the child: The language of tenderness and of passion. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 30, 225-230. (Original work published 1932)

Freud, Sigmund. (1927e). Fetishism. SE, 21: 147-157.

. (1940a [1938]). An outline of psycho-analysis. SE, 23: 139-207.

. (1940e [1938]). Splitting of the ego in the process of defence. SE, 23: 271-278.

. (1950a [1887-1902]). The origins of psycho-analysis. Extracts from the Fliess papers. SE, 1: 173-280.

Tausk, Viktor. (1948). On the origin of the "influencing machine" in schizophrenia. In Robert Fliess (Ed.), The psycho-analytic reader. New York: International Universities Press. (Original work published 1919)

Further Reading

Blum, Harold P. (1983). Splitting of the ego and its relation to parent loss. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 31 (S), 301-324.

Lichtenberg, Joseph D., and Slap, Joseph W. (1973). Concept of splitting: Defense mechanisms; representations. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 21, 772-787.

Pruyser, P.W. (1975). What splits in "splitting"?: Scrutiny of concept. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 39, 1-46.