Ego psychology is a school of psychoanalysis, which developed out of the ego-id-superego model of Sigmund Freud (1856 to 1939).
Freud believed that we are born with our id, which enables us to meet our basic needs. The ego is seen as the second part of the personality and develops in the first three years when a child interacts with the world. The third concept used by Freud is the superego, which develops by the age of five. It is the moral part of the personality and dictates what we believe is right or wrong.
According to ego psychology, functioning adaptively represents an innate capacity that people are born with. The ego is a force that helps the individual cope with, adapt to and shape the external environment. A number of theorists continued Freud's work and elaborated on his functionalist version of the ego. They studied ways to strengthen the ego in order to more effectively manage the pressures coming from the id, the super-ego and the society as a whole.
Heinz Hartmann (1894 to 1970) contributed significantly to the theories of ego psychology. He believed the ego had many conflict-free functions whose basic task was adaptation to the external world. Hartmann's ideas were well known in the United States and Europe and his influence spread with the publication of Ego Psychology and the Problem of Adaptation (1958.)
Ego psychology observes the ego as a mental structure of the personality in charge of the conflicts between one's internal needs and the surrounding world. At the same time, it also mediates internal conflicts. Ego development is considered a result of many activities including the meeting of basic needs, interpersonal relationships, learning, effective problem solving and coping with challenges.
Ego defenses are one of the key fields of study in ego psychology. These defenses represent mechanisms that keep intolerable or unacceptable impulses or threats from conscious awareness so as to protect a person's mental health. This process always leads to some form of distortion of reality. It is effective if the mechanisms allow a person to function well without undue anxiety.
The different forms of ego defenses include:
Repression – a form of defense that keeps certain thoughts and feelings unconscious. It can lead to memory loss for traumatic incidents or events associated with painful emotions. Another mechanism - isolation - is close to repression as it involves the repression of feelings that are associated with specific items or ideas related to certain affects.
Reaction formation - usually involves the replacement of unwanted impulses with their opposites. It is close to reversal, which represents a general mechanism that helps an individual turn a feeling or attitude into its opposite. Displacement is when one shifts feelings or conflicts related to a certain person or situation onto another.
Undoing – represents the symbolical nullifying of an unacceptable feeling, thought or act that leads to the feeling of guilt. Regression is observed when a person returns to an earlier phase of development, level of functioning or mode of behavior seeking to avoid the anxieties of the present.
Sublimation – is seen as one of the most mature defenses. It involves converting an impulse from a socially objectionable aim into a socially acceptable one, while keeping the impulse's original goal.
Intellectualization – allows a person to protect him or herself from unacceptable impulses by thinking about them instead of directly experiencing them.
Rationalization - involves the use of convincing reasons to explain and justify particular feelings and actions. Thus a person avoids recognizing his or her true underlying motive, which is unacceptable.
Denial – this represents the negotiation or even the non-acceptance of major aspects of reality of an individual's own experience. The cases in which unacceptable impulses or conflicts become physical symptoms are called somatization.
Asceticism – this involves the moral renunciation of chosen pleasures in a drive to skip the anxiety or conflict coming from impulse gratification. When one finds satisfaction through self-sacrifices or takes part in various causes to deal with unacceptable feelings he or she is defined as altruistic. Splitting is a way of keeping separated two contradictory ego states, such as love and hate.
According to ego psychology studies, all people use defenses in order to cope with certain aspects of their reality. Trying to modify one's defenses can lead to anxiety in the individual. Experts believe all defense mechanisms should be approached carefully and with respect. Stress, illness or fatigue can result in a collapse of the ego's defenses.