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What Is the Ego in Psychology?

In Sigmund Freud’s theory of personality, he described three parts of personality: the id, ego, and superego. The ego is the part of personality that strikes a balance between the primitive urges of the id, the idealistic standards of the superego, and the demands of reality.

Freud believed that the ego functions according to the reality principle. The reality principle seeks to satisfy the id’s needs in ways that are both realistic and socially acceptable.

It is the ego that is responsible for making decisions, solving problems, and thinking rationally.

Why Did Freud Call it “the Ego”?

In reality, Freud didn’t call it the ego. In German, he called it “das Ich,” meaning “the I.” It was his translator, James Strachey, who substituted “ego” as a Latinization of the German word meaning “the I.”

Origins of the Ego in Personality

While the id is present at birth, the ego doesn’t develop until a bit later in a child’s life, usually during the toddler years. The ego begins to develop during the second stage of psychosexual development, which Freud referred to as the anal stage. Freud’s theory of psychosexual development was a drive theory suggesting that childhood progresses through a series of stages in which the pleasure-seeking energies of the id become focused on different erogenous zones. 

During the anal stage, a child’s primary focus is on learning how to control their bladder and bowel movements. This stage centers on kids working through the process of gaining greater autonomy by learning how to control their bodily functions.

The ego is closely connected to this need to manage the conflicts that start to emerge during this early stage of development. Where the child was previously driven by the id, which focuses purely on fulfilling instinctual needs and seeking pleasure, the emergence of the ego helps children begin to balance these demands with the constraints of the outside world. Learning how to control bodily functions helps kids meet society’s expectations for what is acceptable.

Successfully resolving the conflicts of this stage helps ensure that kids develop a healthy ego that can balance their most basic needs along with the demands of reality.

The Role of the Ego in Personality

The ego is the rational, realistic part of personality. It plays a vital role by mediating between the often conflicting demands of the id, the superego, and reality.

The id wants pleasure and it wants it now. The superego, on the other hand, wants to conform strictly to idealistic, sometimes unrealistic, morals. Reality can add other challenges.

The question the ego has to answer is how can it satisfy these demands in ways that ensure that a person gets what they need in ways that are socially acceptable and beneficial.

So how does the ego go about managing this feat? It uses a few different tactics that can help:

Reality Testing

The ego has to assess what is happening in the external world in order to determine what actions a person can take. It has to distinguish between a person’s fantasies and the realities that exist. By determining what is achievable, the ego ensures that the actions a person takes will lead to the best possible outcomes.


The ego must also utilize rational thinking to solve problems and come up with solutions. By problem-solving effectively, the ego helps ensure that these solutions are effective and realistic. The goal is to satisfy the urges of the id while still engaging in behaviors that are socially and morally acceptable.


Sometimes, reality means that the ego cannot completely indulge the needs of the id and superego. That’s where compromise comes into play. This allows the id’s desires to be met in ways that don’t violate societal norms. 

The Ego vs. the Id

So which is stronger, the ego or the id? The answer is that it really depends on the person, their needs, and the situation. 

The development of a healthy ego allows people to engage in actions that are socially acceptable. However, it also means that people don’t allow the superego to repress all of their needs and desires. Balance is the key.

There are times when things become unbalanced and other aspects of personality might take center stage. If a person is dealing with something like stress or if they have been deprived of their basic needs, it may be easier for the id to overwhelm the ego.

The Ego and Defense Mechanisms

Sometimes, the urges of the id create feelings of distress. To deal with such anxiety, the ego utilizes defense mechanisms. These defense mechanisms work unconsciously to help protect people from feelings of anxiety. Examples of the ego’s defense mechanisms include:

  • Denial: In this defense, the ego refuses to acknowledge some type of reality that is too distressing or overwhelming. By denying it, the ego is able to create a buffer against feelings of anxiety.
  • Repression: This involves the ego keeping disturbing urges, thoughts, feelings, or memories out of conscious awareness.
  • Rationalization: This involves the ego coming up with seemingly rational ways to explain things that would otherwise be unacceptable. This helps justify an action without getting upset by it.

These are just a few examples of the ego’s defense mechanisms. Other commonly used defenses include displacement, projection, and intellectualization.

It is important to remember that defense mechanisms are perfectly normal. They can play an important role in protecting a person from things that are too painful in the moment. These defense mechanisms become a problem when they are overused or when they cause people to behave in ways that are maladaptive or harmful. 

When people overuse defenses, psychoanalytic therapy can help bring unconscious urges into conscious awareness. That way, people can work to deal with them in more effective ways that don’t involve over-relying on unhelpful ego defenses.

Criticism of the Ego

While Freud’s concept of the ego played an important role in the development of psychology, it has also been the subject of considerable criticism. Because the ego is not directly observable, it is difficult to research it in a way that is scientific and empirical. 

Freud’s theory also tends to heavily emphasize the role of the unconscious, while neglecting aspects of conscious experience that play a major role in shaping human behavior. 

Despite these limitations, the concept of the ego has played a significant role in the development of other psychological theories, including Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development. Such theories have had an important influence on the use of psychoanalytic and psychodynamic therapies.

Key Points to Remember About the Ego

  • The ego is a core component of Freud’s theory of personality.
  • The ego is the rational part of personality that mediates between the id, superego, and reality.
  • The ego helps people behave in ways that are socially acceptable while still meeting their needs.
  • To deal with anxiety, the ego may use defense mechanisms to protect against conflicts and disturbing thoughts, feelings, urges, or memories.


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