What is the ego? We know the term ‘ego’ in extended use refers to a person’s sense of self (often inflated or exaggerated, as in the term ‘egotism’ or ‘egotistical’). But in Freudian psychoanalysis, developed by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the term ‘ego’ has a more specific meaning.
Freud defined the ego as ‘that part of the id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world’. We outline what the ‘id’ is here, but to understand what the ego is, it’s necessary to know a little about Freud’s definition of the id. Freud believed that all babies are born with their minds composed purely of the id: that primal, instinctive part of us which wants us to achieve pleasure at any cost. Instant gratification is the name of the game for the id. When a baby cries, it’s usually because it’s hungry and wants feeding, or because it’s uncomfortable because its nappy needs changing. These basic needs and wants are what drive the newborn.
But as we grow up and start to develop, we come to realise that we can’t always get what we want, and that instant gratification might not be good for us. I may want to eat that whole fresh cream profiterole trifle (that serves 4) all by myself in one sitting, but should I? My id thinks so. But part of me also knows that I’m likely to feel sick afterwards, and that regularly indulging in such desires will lead to my putting on weight and developing health problems. The part of my brain that raises these concerns is the ego, which develops as we start to mature. The ego is the foil for the id, designed to keep the id’s wilder impulses in check.
The ego is thus the ‘voice of reason’, there to control the id and to find a compromise between the demands of the outside world and the needs of the id. If you fancy someone at work, you shouldn’t just jump on them, even if that’s what the id wants you to do, because the ego knows that such a move might end up with you losing your job and perhaps even being arrested. But the ego still wants you to attain pleasure, but in a more sensible and reasonable manner than the id does. In short, whereas the id is governed by what Freud called the ‘pleasure principle’ (i.e. pleasure is the goal of all we do), the ego seeks to replace this with the ‘reality principle’, whereby we gain our pleasure in a more socially acceptable and less harmful way. So the ego might tell the id, ‘Let’s not just go up to that colleague at work and try to seduce them there and then. How about we organise a social event after work one night, and see if we can get to know them then? How about if we chat to them in the corridor when we see them, and test the waters, seeing if they fancy going for a drink?’ Or if workplace relationships are best avoided altogether, the ego might say, ‘How about we go to that bar in town on Friday night, or try out local speed dating, to see if we can find someone more suitable?’
So the ego still wants to attain pleasure, but it knows the id’s method of going about things is ultimately too selfish (and, indeed, ultimately self-destructive).
In answer to the question, ‘what is the ego?’ we might bear in mind Freud’s own analogy: that of a horse and its rider. The ego is the man riding the horse, which represents the id. He has to keep the horse in check to ensure it doesn’t suddenly decide to gallop into danger, causing harm to both of them. The ego is thus the responsible horseman who knows that he is charged with keeping the wild, animal id, the horse, in control.