The ego, or I, is the only region of the mind in contact with reality. It grows out of the id during infancy and becomes a person's sole source of communication with the external world. It is governed by the reality principle, which it tries to substitute for the pleasure principle of the id. As the sole region of the mind in contact with the external world, the ego becomes the decision-making or executive branch of personality. However, because it is partly conscious, partly preconscious, and partly unconscious, the ego can make decisions on each of these three levels. For instance, a woman's ego may consciously motivate her to choose excessively neat, well-tailored clothes because she feels comfortable when well dressed. At the same time, she may be only dimly (i.e., preconsciously) aware of previous experiences of being rewarded for choosing nice clothes, hi addition, she may be unconsciously motivated to be excessively neat and orderly due to early childhood experiences of toilet training. Thus, her decision to wear neat clothes can take place in all three levels of mental life.
When performing its cognitive and intellectual functions, the ego must take into consideration the incompatible but equally unrealistic demands of the id and the superego. In addition to these two tyrants, the ego must serve a third master—the external world. Thus, the ego constantly tries to reconcile the blind, irrational claims of the id and the superego with the realistic demands of the external world. Finding itself surrounded on three sides by divergent and hostile forces, the ego reacts in a predictable maimer—it becomes anxious. It then uses repression and other defense mechanisms to defend itself against this anxiety (Freud, 1926/1959a).
According to Freud (1933/1964), the ego becomes differentiated from the id when infants learn to distinguish themselves from the outer world. While the id remains unchanged, the ego continues to develop strategies for handling the id's unrealistic and unrelenting demands for pleasure. At times the ego can control the powerful, pleasure-seeking id, but at other times it loses control. In comparing the ego to the id, Freud used the analogy of a person on horseback. The rider checks and inhibits the greater strength of the horse but is ultimately at the mercy of the animal. Similarly, the ego must check and inhibit id impulses, but it is more or less constantly at the mercy of the stronger but more poorly organized id. The ego has no strength of its own but borrows energy from the id. In spite of this dependence on the id, the ego sometimes comes close to gaining complete control, for instance, during the prime of life of a psychologically mature person.
As children begin to experience parental rewards and punishments, they learn what to do in order to gain pleasure and avoid pain. At this young age, pleasure and pain are ego functions because children have not yet developed a conscience and ego-ideal: that is, a superego. As children reach the age of 5 or 6 years, they identify with their parents and begin to learn what they should and should not do. This is the origin of the superego.
30 Part II Psychodynamic Theories
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