Ego Psychology

Erik Erikson

Date: The late 1930's forward Type of psychology: Personality Field of study: Personality theory

Ego psychology, pioneered by Erikson, Heinz Hartmann, Erich Fromm, Harry Stack Sullivan, and Karen Horney, provided a significant new reformation to the personality theory of Freudian psychoanalysis. Erikson's theory of the growth of the ego throughout the life cycle provided an especially important contribution to this movement.

Key concepts

• psychoanalysis

• psychosocial

• unconscious

Ego psychology emerged in the late 1930's as a reform movement within psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis, as developed by Sigmund Freud in the previous three decades, was an innovative approach to understanding psychological life. Freud developed the methodology and vocabulary to focus on the meaningfulness of lived experience. For Freud, the true meaning of an experience was largely unconscious. Dreams, slips of the tongue or pen, and symptoms provided examples of such unconscious layers of meaning. In psychoanalytic terminology, beneath the level of the conscious ego, there is an unconscious substructure (the id). Freud used the metaphor of an iceberg to relate these two levels, indicating that the conscious level is analogous to the small, visible tip of an iceberg that shows above the water, whereas the unconscious level is like its large, underwater, invisible mass. The ego, this small surface level of the personality, "manages" one's relations with the world beyond the psyche. The id, in contrast, is "intrapsychic" in the sense that it is not in a relation with the "outer" world beyond the psyche. Rather, the id draws its energy from the biological energy of the instinctual body (such as instincts for sex and aggression). In this traditional psychoanalytic theory, then, the conscious level of the person is rooted in, and motivated by, an unconscious level, as psychological life is ultimately rooted in biological forces.

Freudian psychoanalysis advanced psychology by legitimating the study of the meaningfulness of human actions, but it did so at the price of conceiving of conscious, worldly experience as being only a surface, subtended by unconscious, biological forces, mechanisms cut off from worldly involvement. By the late 1930's, some psychoanalysts had concluded this was too steep a price to pay. The first to formulate these objections systematically was Heinz Hartmann, whose writings between 1939 and 1950 advanced the argument for the autonomy of the ego as a structure of the personality independent of the domination of the unconscious id. It was Hartmann who gave to this protest movement the name "ego psychology."

In the next generation of analysts, this movement found its most articulate voices: Erich Fromm, Harry Stack Sullivan, Karen Horney, and Erik Erikson. Writing from the 1940's through the 1980's, all contributed independently to a perspective that grants to the ego a status much more significant than its role in Freudian psychoanalysis. For them, it is people's relations with the world (and not their subterranean biological energy) that is the most important aspect of their psychological life. For this reason, these psychologists have also sometimes been known as the "social" or "interpersonal" analysts. While all four have unquestionably earned their enduring international reputations, Erikson became the most well known, on account of his formulation of a powerful and comprehensive developmental theory to account for the growth of the ego throughout life.

Freud had asserted that the ego was a weak aspect of the personality, whereas Hartmann posited a strong ego. However, there are wide individual differences in ego strength. Erikson demonstrated how ego strength emerges across stages of a person's development and showed that its particular growth depends on the quality, at each stage, of a person's relations with the world and with other people.

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