The Ego


The ego is notoriously hard to define.  It is both a psychological structure and a set of processes; a structured set of processes; a structure that does things.  

Here it is defined as a bundle of functions, in keeping with the Healing Principle:  

who you think you are to yourself;

who you think you are to the world;


The concept of the ego conveys the mind’s capacity to integrate inner and outer reality, to blend past and present, and to synthesize ideas with feelings.  ...  Nor is the ego just for adaptation and mental synthesis.  Its wisdom also encompasses defense and adult development and creativity.  

George E Vaillant – “The Wisdom of the Ego”


There are four influences on the ego, and these need to be balanced successfully for the well being of the overall Self and to fulfil the needs of morality.

The four influences are:


The ego is necessary, helpful and useful.  It is there to make sense of experience for you; to regulate you; to look after you; and to guide you successfully through life.  

Like any conscientious employee, however, it can sometimes become over-zealous in carrying out its duties, to the point where this can interfere with the happy functioning of the overall person.  The ego can let us down in a number of ways; for example:


According to Freud, the overall aim of the ego is to follow the Reality Principle: to balance the pure pleasure-seeking of the unconscious id against the moral conscience of the super-ego in order to achieve the best results in long-term reality.  This could be called an essence of morality.  A mature ego can follow the Reality Principle and defer gratification until a more suitable time and place are obtained, that gives the best long-term outcome.  


Under the influence of the ego’s instincts of self-preservation, the pleasure principle is replaced by the reality principle.  This latter principle does not abandon the intention of ultimately obtaining pleasure, but it nevertheless demands and carries into effect the postponement of satisfaction, the abandonment of a number of possibilities of gaining satisfaction, and the temporary toleration of unpleasure, as a step on the long indirect road to pleasure.  

Sigmund Freud – “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”


The unawakened Self tends to confuse the operations of the ego with reality. Knowledge and thoughts are necessarily a constructed, distorted, second-hand version of reality.  The unchallenged ego maintains a sense of separateness from the world.  So without you realising, the ego can become your jailer and a prison.  

The ego may defend your well being in a harmful (maladaptive) way by using a subconscious “immature” ego defense.  The ego needs to be educated by experience and trained and brought under control so that it does its job in a way that is healthy for the Self and others in the short and long term, using conscious, adaptive, “mature” ego defenses.  Mindfulness meditation, with its mental training and observation, can be an effective way to turn from immature to mature ego defenses.  

The ego tends to form attachments to people and to sources of status, power or safety in your life, in order to bolster up your sense of self – your sense of who you are to yourself and to the world, and to fill up the sense of lack and incompleteness that the separate ego necessarily feels.  

Untamed, the ego keeps up a constant internal monologue in response to internal experience (feelings of desire/aversion, drives, and thoughts) and external experience (reality) – thinking about the past, present and future.  This chatter tends to be negative in tone, because information about harmful influences is more relevant for survival than pleasant information.  This automatic thinking is known as the brain’s “default state”.  




We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us – and if we do not agree, seems to put its hands in its breeches pocket.  Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one's soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject.  –  How beautiful are the retired flowers! how they would lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out ‘admire me I am a violet! dote on me I am a primrose!’

John Keats




The id, ego and super-ego from

Freud's id is the unconscious part of the psyche that is filled with primitive instincts and seeks to ensure survival, as well as pleasure instead of pain. So the id would be responsible for things such as our hunger and sex drives. Freud came up with a phrase to explain the principle that guides the id: he called it the pleasure principle, and it refers to the seeking of pleasure and the satisfaction of biological needs.

Freud did not believe that the id made any judgments about right and wrong. Decisions about morality were the domain of the superego. The superego is roughly synonymous with our conscience (not conscious). Freud believed that the superego would often work to counteract the id. For example, if your id is telling you that you're hungry in the middle of a meeting at work, your superego might tell you that it wouldn't be okay to get up and leave the meeting before it was finished merely to satisfy your hunger, even if your unconscious id is telling you to do precisely that.

So, what decides whether the id or the superego wins a conflict such as this? That's the role of the ego. The ego is the mediator between the id and the superego, and also the home of conscious awareness.

Similar to what he did with the id and the pleasure principle, Freud came up with a term to describe the governing force of the ego, called the reality principle. According to the reality principle, the ego seeks to fulfil the desires of the id, except that, rather than giving in to immediate gratification, the ego, operating under the reality principle, seeks to delay gratification in ways that will maximize long-term pleasure. If you were to give in to your id and walk out of a meeting to eat lunch, for example, that might cause long-term grief, because it might result in you getting fired from your job.

So, you've learned that Freud divided the human psyche into three parts. The id is unconscious and operates according to the pleasure principle, or to satisfy primitive impulses immediately to bring pleasure and secure our survival. The superego counteracts the id by housing our conscience, our sense of right and wrong. Finally, the ego mediates these conflicting forces. The ego corresponds to the realm of conscious awareness, and operates according to what Freud called a reality principle, by which the ego seeks to fulfil the drives of the id only if and when doing so is realistic according to social norms, and will promote long-term pleasure.