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The ego, superego, and id are the tripartite divisions of the psyche in psychoanalytic theory compartmentalizing the sphere of mental activity into three energetic components:

  1. the ego being the organized conscious mediator between the internal person and the external reality.
  2. the superego being the internalization of the conscious extenuated by rules, conflict, morals, guilt, etc.
  3. the id being the source of psychological energy derived from instinctual needs and drives.

Although psychoanalysis has a variety of views on when ego psychology began, most who identify with the ego psychological school place its beginnings with Sigmund Freud's 1923 book The ego and the id, in which Freud introduced what would later come to be called the structural theory of psychoanalysis. The structural theory divides the mind into three agencies or "structures": the id, the ego, and the superego.

Freud's structural theory


In Freud's view the ego mediates between the id, the superego, and the external world to balance our primitive drives, our moral ideals and taboos, and the limitations of reality (ego means I in Latin—the original German word Freud applied was "Ich".) Although in his early writings Freud equated the ego with our sense of self, he later began to portray it more as a set of psychic functions such as reality-testing, defense, synthesis of information, intellectual functioning, memory, and the like.


The superego stands in opposition to the desires of the id. norms and mores a child absorbs from parents and the surrounding environment at a young age. As the conscience, it includes our sense of right and wrong, maintaining taboos specific to a child's internalization of parental culture.


The id (Latin, it in English, "Es" in the original German) represented primary process thinking — our most primitive, need-gratification impulses. It is organized around the primitive instinctual drives of sexuality and aggression. In the id, these drives require instant gratification or release. Freud borrowed the term Id from the "Book of the It" by Georg Groddeck, a pathfinder of early psychosomatic medicine.

The ego psychologists

After Freud, a number of prominent psychoanalytic theorists began to elaborate on Freud's functionalist version of the ego. Extensive effort was put into detailing the ego's various functions and how they are impaired in psychopathology. Several central ego functions are reality-testing, impulse-control, judgment, affect tolerance, defense, and synthetic functioning. An important conceptual revision to Freud's structural theory was made when Heinz Hartmann argued that the healthy ego includes a sphere of autonomous ego functions that are independent of mental conflict. Memory, motor coordination, and reality-testing, for example, ought to be able to function without the intrusion of emotional conflict. According to Hartmann, psychoanalytic treatment aims to expand the conflict-free sphere of ego functioning. By doing so, Hartmann believed, psychoanalysis facilitates adaptation , that is, more effective mutual regulation of ego and environment.

David Rapaport systematized Freud's structural model and Hartmann's revisions of it. Rapaport argued that the central principle of Freudian theory is that mental processes are motivated and shaped by the need to discharge tension. Clarifying Freud's work, Rapaport portrayed the mind as divided into drives and structures. Drives contain fluid energy that pushes for rapid discharge through the immediate gratification of wishes. Because it is rare that wishes can actually be immediately gratified, the mind develops the capacity to delay gratification or achieve it through detours. Consequently, drive energy becomes tied up in the relatively stable mental structures comprising the ego. Rapaport defined structures as mental organizations with a slow rate of change, slow in comparison with the more fluid drives.

Arlow and Brenner argued that Freud's earlier theory of the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious systems of the mind ought to be abandoned, and the structural model used as the sole psychoanalytic theory of the mind.

Recent ego psychological authors have taken the approach in a number of directions. Some, such as Charles Brenner, have contended that the structural model should be abandoned and psychoanalysts should focus exclusively on understanding and treating mental conflict. Others, such as Frederic Busch, have argued for an increasingly nuanced and sophisticated concept of the ego.

Ego psychology is often confused with self psychology, which emphasizes the strength and cohesion of a person's sense of self. Although some ego psychologists write about the self, they usually distinguish the self from the ego. They define the ego as an agency comprised of mental functions, whereas the self is an internal representation of how one sees oneself. In ego psychology, emphasis is placed on understanding the functioning of the ego and its conflictual relations to the id, superego, and reality, rather than on the subjective sense of self.

Defense analysis

The clinical technique most commonly associated with ego psychology is defense analysis. Through clarifying, confronting, and interpreting the typical defense mechanisms a patient uses, ego psychologists hope to help the patient gain control over these mechanisms.

Criticisms of ego psychology

Many authors have criticized Hartmann's conception of a conflict-free sphere of ego functioning as both incoherent and inconsistent with Freud's vision of psychoanalysis as a science of mental conflict. In Freud's view, the ego itself takes shape as a result of the conflict between the id and the external world. The ego, therefore, is inherently a conflictual formation in the mind. To state, as Hartmann did, that the ego contains a conflict-free sphere may not be consistent with key propositions of Freud's structural theory.

Some have also accused Hartmann of proposing a conformist psychology in which the ego is considered most healthy when it adjusts to the status quo. Hartmann claimed, however, that his aim was to understand the mutual regulation of the ego and environment rather than to promote adjustment of the ego to the environment.

See also

External links

af:Ego, Superego en Id de:Über-Ich es:Ego, Superego e Id fr:Seconde topique nl:Ego ru:Эго

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