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Outside the Sigmund Freud Museum (Vienna).
An individual interacts with the external world as well as responds to internal forces. Many psychoanalysts use a theoretical construct called the ego to explain how that is done through various ego functions. Proponents of ego psychology focus on the ego’s normal and pathological development, its management of libidinal and aggressive impulses, and its adaptation to reality.
Early conceptions of the ego
Sigmund Freud initially considered the ego to be a sense organ for perception of both external and internal stimuli. He thought of the ego as synonymous with consciousness and contrasted it with the repressed unconscious. By 1911, he referenced ego instincts for the first time in Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning and contrasted them with sexual instincts: ego instincts responded to the reality principle while sexual instincts obeyed the pleasure principle. He also introduced attention and memory as ego functions.
Freud's ego psychology
Freud began to notice that not all unconscious phenomena could be attributed to the id; it appeared as if the ego had unconscious aspects as well. This posed a significant problem for his topographic theory, which he resolved in his monograph The Ego and the Id (1923).
In what came to be called the structural theory, the ego was now a formal component of a three-way system that also included the id and superego. The ego was still organized around conscious perceptual capacities, yet it now had unconscious features responsible for repression and other defensive operations. Freud’s ego at this stage was relatively passive and weak; he described it as the helpless rider on the id’s horse, more or less obliged to go where the id wished to go.
In Freud’s 1926 monograph, Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety, he revised his theory of anxiety as well as delineated a more robust ego. Freud argued that instinctual drives (id), moral and value judgments (superego), and requirements of external reality all make demands upon an individual. The ego mediates among conflicting pressures and creates the best compromise. Instead of being passive and reactive to the id, the ego was now a formidable counterweight to it, responsible for regulating id impulses, as well as integrating an individual’s functioning into a coherent whole. The modifications made by Freud in Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety formed the basis of a psychoanalytic psychology interested in the nature and functions of the ego. This marked the transition of psychoanalysis from being primarily an id psychology, focused on the vicissitudes of the libidinal and aggressive drives as the determinants of both normal and psychopathological functioning, to a period in which the ego was accorded equal importance and was regarded as the prime shaper and modulator of behavior.
Systematization of ego psychology
Following Sigmund Freud, the psychoanalysts most responsible for the development of ego psychology, and its systematization as a formal school of psychoanalytic thought, were Anna Freud, Heinz Hartmann, and David Rapaport. Other important contributors included Ernst Kris, Rudolph Loewenstein, René Spitz, Margaret Mahler, Edith Jacobson, and Erik Erikson.
Anna Freud focused her attention on the ego’s unconscious, defensive operations and introduced many important theoretical and clinical considerations. In The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense(1936), Anna Freud argued the ego was predisposed to supervise, regulate, and oppose the id through a variety of defenses. She described the defenses available to the ego, linked them to the stages of psychosexual development during which they originated, and identified various psychopathological compromise formations in which they were prominent. Clinically, Anna Freud emphasized that the psychoanalyst's attention should always be on the defensive functions of the ego, which could be observed in the manifest presentation of the patient’s associations. The analyst needed to be attuned to the moment-by-moment process of what the patient talked about in order to identify, label, and explore defenses as they appeared. For Anna Freud, direct interpretation of repressed content was less important than understanding the ego’s methods by which it kept things out of consciousness. Her work provided a bridge between Freud's structural theory and ego psychology.
Heinz Hartmann (1939/1958) believed the ego included innate capacities that facilitated an individual’s ability to adapt to his or her environment. These included perception, attention, memory, concentration, motor coordination, and language. Under normal conditions, what Hartmann called an average expectable environment, these capacities developed into ego functions and had autonomy from the libidinal and aggressive drives; that is, they were not products of frustration and conflict, as Freud (1911) believed. Hartmann recognized, however, that conflicts were part of the human condition and certain ego functions may become conflicted by aggressive and libidinal impulses, as witnessed by conversion disorders (e.g., glove paralysis), speech impediments, eating disorders, and attention-deficit disorder.
Through Hartmann's focus on ego functions, and how an individual adapts to his or her environment, he worked to create both a general psychology and a clinical instrument with which an analyst could evaluate an individual’s functioning and formulate appropriate therapeutic interventions. Based on Hartmann's propositions, the task of the ego psychologist was to neutralize conflicted impulses and expand the conflict-free spheres of ego functions. By doing so, Hartmann believed psychoanalysis facilitated an individual’s adaptation to his or her environment. 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. Furthermore, an individual with a less-conflicted ego would be better able to actively respond and shape, rather than passively react to, his or her environment.
Mitchell and Black (1995) wrote: "Hartmann powerfully affected the course of psychoanalysis, opening up a crucial investigation of the key processes and vicissitudes of normal development. Hartmann’s contributions broadened the scope of psychoanalytic concerns, from psychopathology to general human development, from an isolated, self-contained treatment method to a sweeping intellectual discipline among other disciplines" (p. 35).
David Rapaport played a prominent role in the development of ego psychology and his work likely represented its apex. In Rapaport's influential monograph The Structure of Psychoanalytic Theory (1960), he organized ego psychology into an integrated, systematic, and hierarchical theory capable of generating empirically testable hypotheses. According to Rapaport, psychoanalytic theory—as expressed through the principles of ego psychology—was a biologically based general psychology that could explain the entire range of human behavior. For Rapaport, this endeavor was fully consistent with Freud's attempts to do the same (e.g., Freud's studies of dreams, jokes, and the "psychopathology of everyday life".)
While Hartmann was the principal architect of ego psychology, he collaborated closely with Ernst Kris and Rudolph Loewenstein.
Subsequent psychoanalysts interested in ego psychology emphasized the importance of early-childhood experiences and socio-cultural influences on ego development. René Spitz (1965), Margaret Mahler (1968), Edith Jacobson (1964), and Erik Erikson studied infant and child behavior and their observations were integrated into ego psychology. Their observational and empirical research described and explained early attachment issues, successful and faulty ego development, and psychological development through interpersonal interactions.
Spitz identified the importance of mother-infant nonverbal emotional reciprocity; Mahler refined the traditional psychosexual developmental phases by adding the separation-individuation process; and Jacobson emphasized how libidinal and aggressive impulses unfolded within the context of early relationships and environmental factors. Finally, Erik Erikson provided a bold reformulation of Freud’s biologic, epigenetic psychosexual theory through his explorations of socio-cultural influences on ego development. For Erikson, an individual was pushed by his or her own biological urges and pulled by socio-cultural forces.
Decline of ego psychology
In the United States, ego psychology was the predominant psychoanalytic approach from the 1940s through the 1960s. Initially, this was due to the influx of European psychoanalysts, including prominent ego psychologists like Hartmann, Kris, and Loewenstein, during and after World War II. These European analysts settled throughout the United States and trained the next generation of American psychoanalysts.
By the 1970s, several challenges to the philosophical, theoretical, and clinical tenets of ego psychology emerged. The most prominent of which were: a "rebellion" led by Rapaport’s protégés (George Klein, Robert Holt, Roy Schafer, and Merton Gill); object relations theory; and self psychology.
Contemporary ego psychology
Modern conflict theory
Charles Brenner (1982) attempted to revive ego psychology with a concise and incisive articulation of the fundamental focus of psychoanalysis: intrapsychic conflict and the resulting compromise formations. Over time, Brenner (2002) tried to develop a more clinically based theory, what came to be called “modern conflict theory.” He distanced himself from the formal components of the structural theory and its metapsychological assumptions, and focused entirely on compromise formations.
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (March 2013)|
Reality Testing: The ego’s capacity to distinguish what is occurring in one’s own mind from what is occurring in the external world. It is perhaps the single most important ego function because it is necessary for negotiating with the outside world. One must be able to perceive and understand stimuli accurately. Reality testing is often subject to temporary, mild distortion or deterioration under stressful conditions. Such impairment can result in temporary delusions and hallucination and is generally selective, clustering along specific, psychodynamic lines. Chronic deficiencies suggest either psychotic or organic interference.
Impulse Control: The ability to manage aggressive and/or libidinal wishes without immediate discharge through behavior or symptoms. Problems with impulse control are common; for example: road rage; sexual promiscuity; excessive drug and alcohol use; and binge eating.
Affect Regulation: The ability to modulate feelings without being overwhelmed.
Judgment: The capacity to act responsibly. This process includes identifying possible courses of action, anticipating and evaluating likely consequences, and making decisions as to what is appropriate in certain circumstances.
Object Relations: The capacity for mutually satisfying relationship. The individual can perceive himself and others as whole objects with three dimensional qualities.
Thought Processes: The ability to have logical, coherent, and abstract thoughts. In stressful situations, thought processes can become disorganized. The presence of chronic or severe problems in conceptual thinking is frequently associated with schizophrenia and manic episodes.
Defensive Functioning: A defense is an unconscious attempt to protect the individual from some powerful identity-threatening feeling. Initial defenses develop in infancy and involve the boundary between the self and the outer world; they are considered primitive defenses and include projection, denial, and splitting. As the child grows up, more sophisticated defenses that deal with internal boundaries such as those between ego and super ego or the id develop; these defenses include repression, regression, displacement, and reaction formation. All adults have, and use, primitive defenses, but most people also have more mature ways of coping with reality and anxiety.
Synthesis: The synthetic function is the ego’s capacity to organize and unify other functions within the personality. It enables the individual to think, feel, and act in a coherent manner. It includes the capacity to integrate potentially contradictory experiences, ideas, and feelings; for example, a child loves his or her mother yet also has angry feelings toward her at times. The ability to synthesize these feelings is a pivotal developmental achievement.
Conflict, defense and resistance analysis
According to Freud’s structural theory, an individual’s libidinal and aggressive impulses are continuously in conflict with his or her own conscience as well as with the limits imposed by reality. In certain circumstances, these conflicts may lead to neurotic symptoms. Thus, the goal of psychoanalytic treatment is to establish a balance between bodily needs, psychological wants, one’s own conscience, and social constraints. Ego psychologists argue that the conflict is best addressed by the psychological agency that has the closest relationship to consciousness, unconsciousness, and reality: the ego.
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.
- The classical scholar E. R. Dodds used ego psychology as the framework for his influential study The Greeks and the Irrational (1951).
- The Sterbas relied on Hartmann's conflict-free sphere to help explain the contradictions they found in Beethoven's character in Beethoven and His Nephew (1954).
Criticisms of ego psychology
Many[who?] 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. Freud believed that the ego itself takes shape as a result of the conflict between the id and the external world. The ego, therefore, is inherently a conflicting 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. Yet, contemporary empirical research demonstrates Hartmann’s approach is more consistent with the data.
Ego psychology, and 'Anna-Freudianism', were together seen by Kleinians as maintaining a conformist, adaptative version of psychoanalysis inconsistent with Freud's own views. 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. Furthermore, an individual with a less-conflicted ego would be better able to actively respond and shape, rather than passively react to, his or her environment.
Jacques Lacan was if anything still more opposed to ego psychology, using his concept of the Imaginary to stress the role of identifications in building up the ego in the first place. Lacan saw in the "non-conflictual sphere...a down-at-heel mirage that had already been rejected as untenable by the most academic psychology of introspection'. He took issue with the ego-psychology movement insofar as his form of psychoanalysis focuses on the unconscious - the id - rather than the ego. Ego psychologists responded by doubting whether Lacan’s approach is ever applied to clinical work with real patients who have real illnesses, specific ego functions mediating those illnesses, and specific histories.
- John Hunter Padel, 'Freudianism: Later Developments', in Richard Gregory ed., The Oxford Companion to the Mind (Oxford 1987) p. 270-1
- Janet Malcolm, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (1988) p. 29-36
- W W. Meissner, Freud and Psychoanalysis (nd) p. 159
- Wallerstein, R.S. (2002). "The growth and transformation of American ego psychology". Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 50 (1): 136–169.
- Malcolm, p. 36
- O. L. Zangwill, 'Freud, Anna' in Gregory ed., p. 268
- Wallerstein (2002). Missing or empty
- Wallerstein (2002). Missing or empty
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- Malcolm, p. 4
- Erikson, p. 13 and p. 58-9
- Padel, p. 270-1
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- M. Solomon, Beethoven Essays (1988) p. 149
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- Elisabeth Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan (2005) p. 193
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- Jacques Lacan, Écrits (1997) p. 231
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- Freud, A. (1966). The ego and the mechanisms of defense. Revised edition. New York: International Universities Press, Inc. (First edition published in 1936.)
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- Hartmann, H. (1939/1958). Ego psychology and the problem of adaptation. Trans., David Rapaport. New York: International Universities Press, Inc. (First edition published in 1939.)
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