Funky Freudian fluke offers refinement for your future

Or, why understanding Freud's "ego" is worth your time

Having a bright outlook means gaining mastery over the ego.  Mastering something requires understanding it, which is why I've already written two articles on the meaning of the word.  Understanding the negative aspects of ego can help us improve relationships with others.  I also discussed neutral aspects of the word, with a focus on understanding forces that operate mostly outside of our conscious experience.  If we are aware of these forces we can take more control over our lives.

Today's post is devoted entirely to meanings of the word that come from Sigmund Freud.  More specifically, from the way Freud's ideas were translated into English.  This had the effect of adding a new layer of meaning to the English word ego.  In order to understand Freud's "ego," we'll need to understand a little bit about his theories. 

Freud's flavor of pseudoscience

Frederick Crews is "a one-time Freudian follower" and professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley.I'm having a bit too much fun with these alliterations, but I didn't make this one up. I promise! He published an article in 1996 in Psychological Science called "The Verdict on Freud." Crews, F. (1996). The Verdict on Freud. Psychological Science, 7(2), 63–68. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.1996.tb00331.x Then, in 2017 he published Freud: The Making of an Illusion (Metropolitan Books).  He now considers Freud a fraud.  Here are the reasons he gave in his 1996 article, summarized by me:

  1. Freud uses circular reasoning and vaguely defined terms
  2. His theory creates "facts" from cultural prejudices rather than being based on actual facts
  3. The theory is vague and untestable
  4. Freud treated hypotheses as certainties
  5. He made no clinical efforts to verify his theories

I've tried my best to examine his theories and to ask the question: What was the empirical evidence behind them? But when you ask these questions, then you eventually just lose hope.  - Crews

If Freud was a charlatan, why do so many of his ideas persist today? "He was just very persuasive," according to Fordham University Psychology Professor Harold Takooshian.  And Crews adds, "Statistically, it's conceivable that a man can be as dishonest and slippery as Freud and still come up with something true."  And here we find what may be the secret to Freud's success: He was prolific.  If a person generates enough ideas there are bound to be some good ones.  And that's why I'm discussing this topic.

What was different about Freud's "ego"?

Freud hypothesized that our motivations can be divided into three categories: 

  1. The id (in German, das Es) represents primal desires.Near as I can tell this corresponds to scenario 1 in my thought experiment essay Choose Your Own Adventure.
  2. The ego, das Ich (literally, the "I")
  3. The superego (das Uber-Ich, meaning "that which stands above or over me.") 

According to George Frank, who has written many scholarly articles on psychoanalytic psychology, the superego concept suggests "a parent who is judging the child and the one who demands perfectionistic behavior."Superego seems to correspond to scenario 2 in my thought experiment. Quotation(s) from Frank are from Frank, G. (1999). Freud’s concept of the superego: Review and assessment. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 16(3), 448–463. doi:10.1037/0736-9735.16.3.448 Freud's ego, then, refers to the conscious self which has to balance the influences of the opposing id and superego, along with external reality.

Freud wrote a lot of nonsense about sexual attraction to the mother and viewing the father as a rival, which ideas have few supporters today, but I think his ideas that I described above are worth considering.  As you may have noticed, this is a different concept of ego than the one I've discussed earlier.  In fact, I'd venture to say that in some ways Freud's "superego" fills the role of the "ego" I've discussed previously, that is, it tends to hover and try to make comparisons with others, such as the tennis player who is so worried about his coach criticizing him that he fails to make improvements.Frank writes that the superego originally referred to the conscience but "Freud made the concept of the superego complicated and, in its breadth and multidimensionality, somewhat confusing. Freud viewed the superego as that agency of the mind that observes the person, evaluates and judges the person, punishes the person, and develops ideals, praise, and a sense of pride, as well as shame, guilt, and low self-esteem for not living up to one's ideals." This new, sometimes contradictory meaning, really makes the word confusing.  

But now that we've clarified what Freud meant by ego, let's consider several phrases that build on this idea.  I'm including each of these because I think all of them have the potential to help us better understand and face life's many challenges.

Ego strength is a good thing

Until now some of us may have thought that "ego strength" describes a person with a very high estimate of himself.  But it doesn't, because this phrase is based on the Freudian flavor of egoKendra Cherry describes it very well:

Ego strength is the ability of the ego to deal effectively with the demands of the id, the superego, and reality. Those with little ego strength may feel torn between these competing demands.... Ego strength helps us maintain emotional stability and cope with internal and external stress.

Logically, a person with high ego strength has a strong grip on reality.  In other words, they accept the world as it is.  They also have skills to help them balance their drives and desires with outside influences in a healthy way.

Ego strength is characterized by:

  • Openness to change and the flexibility to deal with it
  • Optimism, curiosity, and a readiness to explore
  • Confidence in one's own ability to handle challenges
  • Willingness to allow others to take responsibility for their own problems
  • Resourcefulness: understanding how things work; being able to come up with solutions to problems
  • Emotional well-adjustment: being able to regulate one's emotions in difficult situations; being able to handle internal conflict and modify one's desires
  • Resilience: tolerance for frustration, stress, and discomfort; ability to maintain one's own identity when facing pain, distress, or conflict
  • Persistence: viewing obstacles as something to master and overcome rather than giving up
  • Patience: willingness to postpone gratification when necessary

It's of interest that several of these mesh with characteristics of well-rounded people.  For review, here are the six fundamentals of a well-rounded personality and the ways they match up with the list above (similarities underlined):

  1. Values and principles
  2. Balance (includes flexibility; also note that a well-rounded person is confident but not arrogant)
  3. Curiosity
  4. Emotional well-adjustment/"Emotional intelligence"
  5. Care for others (thinking about others is necessary to be well-grounded in reality)
  6. Willingness to take risks (Confidence)

On the other hand, ego weakness is characterized by:

  • Fear of change: clinging tenaciously to one's comfort zone
  • Unrealistic attitudes: thinking the bad situation can't be changed; holding on to unrealistic expectations
  • Believing happiness in life means the absence of emotional pain, fear, and anger
  • Self-centeredness: having a "Why me?" mentality
  • Fragility - lacking resilience

In his book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, Martin Seligman describes the tendency to take an unpleasant or unfortunate event and make it about oneself (personal), about everything in one's life (pervasive) and about forever (permanent).  This is a formula for pessimism and is the opposite of ego strength, which views negative things that happen as temporary, objective, and situational.

This tendency for pessimism and self-centeredness to go together can mean that a person with a "big ego" in the traditional sense of the word actually has very little "ego strength."

How do you rate on the above scales?  Note that most of these are based on beliefs about reality, and beliefs can be changed.  With training, you can increase the number of qualities that will increase your ego strength and your ability to handle life with optimism and confidence. Thus, ego strength = bright outlook.

Ego depletion doesn't mean ego weakness

This takes us to our next phrase, ego depletion.  Just to make sure we stay confused, this phrase seems to imply a decrease in ego strength.  However, this is not the case; unlike ego strength, ego depletion has to do with willpower, not skills and beliefs.

Again, we're using the Freudian version of ego, so picture a person trying to balance reality with their inner desires and their perceptions of social expectations.  The reality, for example, is you've been invited to a party and there's a big piece of cake sitting in front of you.  Your inner desire is to eat it, but you know what will happen if you do.  You'll feel good in the moment, but you know you'll regret it tomorrow when you step on the scale.  Also, you are afraid of disappointing your host by not eating it, but you also know that those extra pounds are going to cost you something in the approval of others in the long run.  It's a difficult situation.  How will you handle it?

The answer, not surprisingly, is it depends.  Of course, it depends on which of those things you value most, but it also depends on the strength of your willpower.  And according to the theory of ego depletion, your willpower isn't constant.  If you've been exerting a lot of effort lately, ego depletion says you'll have less ability to resist.  That could mean giving in and eating the chocolate cake in this situation (motivated by the "id"), or it could mean giving in to peer pressure in another (I think Freud would say this was your superego influencing you).

Ego depletion is a very well-researched but still developing field of study, and instead of a detailed explanation, I'll share a few interesting insights:

  • Ways to counteract ego depletion: practicing self-regulation, getting enough rest and sleep, challenging expectations, task motivation, implementation intentions, visualizing an energizing significant other, and autonomy (doing something because you want to instead of external rewards).Moller, A. C., Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2006). Choice and Ego-Depletion: The Moderating Role of Autonomy. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(8), 1024–1036. doi:10.1177/0146167206288008
  • When doing mental work for an external reward, the more work is done, the more the need for rewards to keep people on task.Inzlicht, M., Schmeichel, B. J., & Macrae, C. N. (2014). Why self-control seems (but may not be) limited. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18(3), 127–133. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2013.12.009
  • Non-ego-depleted people tend to act the way they would expect, but when ego depleted they act according to unconscious motives. "Thus, ego depletion brings a reduction of conscious control over behavior."  In other words, after I'm depleted from exerting myself my ego (the non-Freudian kind) elbows me out of the driver's seat without my even realizing it at the time.  In my case, that often means I discover I've been talking too much for an embarrassingly long time.  My ego really loves to talk.Roy F. Baumeister, Andrew E. Monroe, in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 2014;
  • "Self-affirmation reduces ego depletion: Beliefs that a task is not difficult or that resources are available might reduce the perceived cost of effort. Likewise, individuals who believe that their self-control resources are unlimited may derive value from verifying that aspect of their identity to themselves and others." This is one place where believing you can handle it might mean you really can.E.T. Berkman, ... J.L. Livingston, in Self-Regulation and Ego Control, 2016;

Ego depletion explains everything from parole officers denying all parole requests before lunchDanziger S, Levav J, Avnaim-Pesso L. Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Apr 26;108(17):6889-92. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1018033108. Epub 2011 Apr 11. PMID: 21482790; PMCID: PMC3084045. Featured in Wired magazine article To Get Parole, Have Your Case Heard Right After Lunch to people being more likely to cheat on a diet when they are under stress.  Do you see anything above that might help you improve your willpower?

Life in these ego states

Eric Berne was influenced by Freud, but his methods were more scientific.  His theory of ego states was based on observable data.  Instead of Freud's superego, ego, and id, Berne's theory of transactional analysis classifies states of mind as Parent, Adult, and Child.

A person in the Parent state strives to control a situation by establishing rules, setting boundaries, and being in charge.  A person in the Child state quickly becomes emotional, either follows direction or rebels against authority, and fails to filter his words.  A person in the Adult state avoids dictating to others, uses good judgment instead of getting emotional, carefully assesses the situation, shows respect for others, and is willing to compromise.  Berne associates the Child state with emotions, creation, recreation, spontaneity, and intimacy.  

Maybe you've heard of the book I'm OK – You're OK by Thomas Harris.  If you're older than 40 I'd be surprised if you haven't heard of it.  It popularized Berne's theory and, according to the author, over 15 million copies have sold.  Berne's theories make more sense than Freud's, but ego states don't seem to offer as much insight as the next two theories might.

Ego identity and ego development

Berne's theory gives us a useful tool for spotting patterns in the behavior of ourselves and others.  Everyone behaves like a dominant parent, a mature adult, or an immature child at times.  On the other hand, as I pointed out in What is Emotional Intelligence?, emotional maturity tends to come with age.  It's no wonder that some of those following in Freud's footsteps sought to map this out.  Two of them who did it in their own ways were Erik Erikson and Jane Loevinger.  Erikson's theory is called ego identity and Loevinger, inspired by Erikson, developed a theory on the meaning and measurement of ego development.Loevinger, J. (1966). The meaning and measurement of ego development. American Psychologist, 21(3), 195–206. Rather than enumerate all the stages in each respective theory, I'll discuss their similarities and differences.

Both describe features of predicted stages of personality development.  While Erikson's theory is closely connected with biological ages and the emergence of expected personality traits or personality conflicts, Loevinger's theory predicts a progression that isn't tied to a timeline.  In her view maturity comes at different rates, and some people will never reach some of the higher stages of development her theory describes.  I have a hunch that Loevinger assumes that ego strength progressively gets stronger over time, while Erikson was looking for either positive or negative developments at each life stage.  Erikson seems to focus more on external influences and their effect on the individual.I looked for evidence that connects ego development theory and parenting and, so far, found only one dissertation which concludes, "Overall the evidence presented in this exploratory study did not support the claim that a relationship exists between parenting style and ego development." Harrell, Cheri R., "An examination of the relationship between ego development and parenting styles" (2004). Dissertations, Theses, and Masters Projects. Paper 1550154084.   For example, an infant will either learn to trust or mistrust, a trait that will follow them into later life.  This harmonizes with John Bowlby's theories of attachment.  I have personally witnessed these effects and I agree with Erikson and Bowlby that childhood influences are very deep and long-lasting.

Ego and identity development in childhood

Both Erikson and Loevinger identify the importance of developing self-control at an early age.  Children who feel competent in their abilities at this stage have "self-control without a loss of self-esteem," according to Erikson's theory of ego identity.McLeod, Saul (2017). "Erik Erikson". Simply Psychology. Ego development theory attaches importance to strong structure in the child's life at this point, but not to excess, or the child "may become opportunistic, deceptive, and preoccupied with control."

Both connect the next stage with the child's interaction with others as a group.  Erikson highlights leadership ability, which can be encouraged or stunted.  Loevinger's ego development theory focuses on the social identity of the child.  The child begins to identify with the group and to see outsiders with suspicion.I provide a (hopefully) clear description of social identity theory at Who Influences Your Outlook? Can You Even Know? I admit there's a lot going on here.  Ego development theory, unlike ego identity theory, encompasses social identity theory. Say that three times fast. 

Erikson continues the progression with two more stages in the child's development to adulthood, wherein the child continues to strive for competency (or begins to feel inferior). Then she begins exploring her own identity, which can be a rewarding process if her parents don't push their views on her too much. Otherwise, she will experience "role confusion."

What to expect from your Freudian ego as an adult

Loevinger skips right past middle childhood and adolescence to a stage that she believes few will reach before the age of 25.  This is the "Self-Aware" stage, also known as E5 because it's the fifth ego stage in the theory.  She considers most adult behavior to fall under this category.  Again we see the similarities with ego strength as Loevinger focuses on the development of self-criticism and the ability to see multiple possibilities in life events. The person starts to differentiate between what they want and what others want from them, although they haven't been able to completely separate the two yet.

At this stage in life Erikson pivots to the desire for love and intimacy.  This is his stage 6 which lasts from the ages of 18 to 40, during which time a person either finds friends and intimate partner(s) or ends up feeling isolated and alone.  Erikson's theory is really starting to feel bleak to me, but unfortunately it also connects all too well with reality as I know it.  It seems to me that Erikson must have been in closer contact with the grittier elements of life, while Loevinger's theory has more of an idealized feel, as if she lived a life of privilege distanced from such harsh realities.  I haven't researched her background yet, so this is just my beginner's mind guess.

The next stage in both theories involves internalizing the rules of society.  Erikson concentrates on whether the individual will feel useful or useless in society, while Loevinger keeps moving up the ego strength ladder, focusing on understanding exceptions and contingencies, feeling guilt for hurting others rather than merely for breaking the rules, and seeing life in terms of choices that have been made.  The individual begins taking responsibility for his actions.  He begins to differentiate between the inner motives and outer actions of others. 

Reaching the end, or reaching for the stars

We've now reached the top of Erikson's original 8 stages of development (although there was a ninth stage added later), but Loevinger has three more to go.  To Erikson/ego identity theory, the senior citizen either relishes their life with its victories and defeats, or falls into despair.  (This theory is not for the faint of heart!)  They have gained wisdom, which the theory defines as "informed and detached concern for life itself in the face of death itself."Erikson, Erik H.; Erikson, Joan M. (1997). The Life Cycle Completed (extended ed.). New York: W. W. Norton & Company (published 1998). ISBN 978-0-393-34743-2.

Loevinger's Individualistic (E7), Autonomous (E8), and Integrated (E9) stages complete the progression to ego superstar.  I had some trouble differentiating these three levels but it seems that with each level the following factors increase:

  • Appreciation of nuance
  • Sense of personal responsibility
  • Tolerance and acceptance for self and others

When I read that people at the Autonomous stage are "synthesizers", able to conceptually integrate ideas,Witherell, S., & Erickson, V.,(2001). "Teacher Education as Adult Development", Theory into Practice, 17(3), p.231 my ego (the non-Freudian kind) got a little boost.  I hope I've succeeded in doing that here.  

The few, the proud, the ego strong

Loevinger said few people make it to the Integrated stage.  For those elite few, "The ego shows inner wisdom, deep empathy for others, and a high degree of self-acceptance. This is the stage of a fully formed and mature ego that cherishes individuality in self and others."The Stages of Ego Development According to Jane Loevinger I like the sound of that.

Navigating the ego maze is not easy and you are to be commended for making it this far.  I feel like I've learned a lot from this analysis.  I've often made use of tools such as personality profiles in an effort to understand myself and others.  There's a certain amount of benefit in considering whether someone is introverted or extroverted, conscientious, candid, or technical, just to name a few.  However, I think we've added a whole other set of dimensions using the above theories.  I'm looking forward to using what I've learned to help me understand others and improve myself, that is unless I reach Loevinger's highest ego level.  In that case, if her theory is correct, I will no longer care about categorizing people and I'll be completely satisfied to accept all the nuances without trying to categorize anyone.  We'll see if that ever happens.

After all this, I feel like going out and picking up some ego weights so I can work on developing greater ego strength.  Do you want to join me at the ego gym?