Ego Development

Ego Development. Psychology Fanatic article header image
Ego Development. Psychology Fanatic.
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We emerge from the womb with biological tendencies. We also arrive to a particular environment. Within the dynamic interaction between our biological being and the forces of our surrounding environment, we develop certain action tendencies. Generally, we refer to our unique style of interacting with the world as our personality. We call the process of developing the personality as ego development.

In psychology, we refer to ego development as a process of growth and maturation. Beginning in infancy and continuing to the grave, we dynamically respond to stimuli in our environments. Ego development is a life long process of adaptation to the experiences of living. Through ego development, we adopt increasingly complex patterns of behaviors to manage the pressures of interaction and life. Our developing ego encompasses the understanding and awareness of our identity, abilities, and role in the world.

Key Developments of the Ego

In any process of development there are stages. Typically, each stage of development is dependent on the foundation of earlier successful completion of tasks in previous stages of development. If we move to the next stage before completing (learning) primary tasks in the previous stages our development may stagnate or morph into maladaptive patterns for dealing with the stresses of life.

Ego development is a structured advancement from early stages of impulsivity and egotism to a mature “appreciation of the complexity of others, from behaving for reward to investing genuine interest in the others, and for reacting based on moral rather than primal impulses” (Duffy et al., 2016).

P. Michiel Westenberg and Jack Block wrote that “the theory of ego development is one of the most comprehensive constructs in the field of developmental psychology, incorporating moral, cognitive, and interpersonal style with conscious preoccupations…” (1993). A healthy ego development aids the individual to integrate all the rapid changes taking place in all areas of his life.

The key functions of a mature ego is regulating impulses that may harm futures and destroy close relationships. The mature ego helps individuals process and integrate the complexities of life, leading to and experience of richness and appreciation of self and others.

Key Definition:

Ego development is a conceptual model to understand the progressive change of the personality in response to life experiences. The development encompasses forming of identity, expanding of consciousness, and individual ways for understanding and adapting to reality.

How Does Our Ego Develop?

We are responsive organisms. We respond to our environments and our environments respond to us. In a reciprocal manner, living is a complex, dynamic construction of an infinite number of moving parts. The infant is scantly aware of even a minute part of the massive living system that they have joined. They quickly adapt to a few notable elements (mother, caregivers, external objects in immediate environment, etc…).

The child also learn that some of their behaviors impact the behaviors of other surrounding elements. They cry and their mother feeds them. They grasp a toy with their hand and it moves. and significantly, by crawling they change their immediate environment. Within the limiting and protective home environments, a child begins a journey of development, learning how to adapt and thrive in their continually expanding world. Social learning plays a significant role in this development.

Operant and classical conditioning most likely have a role. As a child employs a new behavior following an observed example or even out of happenstance, and that behavior has a pleasant or unpleasant consequence, the child integrates the knowledge into their growing databanks of how to act to achieve goals.

Goals and Ego Development

Alfred Adler and his theory of individual psychology hypothesize that every action is goal directed. In terms of ego development, we might see the goal motivates action. The development of action patterns to achieve increasing complex goals could be described as ego development. Much of the ego development process is a natural process of conflict and resolution that occurs unconsciously. Adler explains that the “urge toward the positing of a goal, toward the heightening of ego consciousness ” obtrudes “itself upon the individual for the attainment of his goal through the employment of various “aggressions” and “deviations” (2011).

Basically, we create identifiable patterns of aggressions, movements, and adjustments in our striving to obtain goals. Patterns of action, in neurological terms, is created through strengthening of synoptic connections. Activation of patterns of neurons is behind behavioral reactions. Certain (familiar) stimuli in the environment trigger distinct patterns of firing in a network of neurons, leading to habitual reactions. Perhaps, one might theorize that ego development, then, is the forming of these neuronal activation patterns in response to particular stimuli in the environment.

Conflict and Ego Development

When something new occurs, old patterns of reaction may be inadequate. The person must adapt through learning new patterns of reaction. This process of learning is considered ego development. Eric Erikson suggest each developmental stage encounters a conflict. Through resolving the conflict, the person moves to the next stage of development. He wrote in regards to the first stage of development that the “first basic strength and root of ego development emerges from the resolution of the first developmental antithesis; namely, that of basic trust vs. basic mistrust” (1994).

Individual Course of Development

We respond differently to our challenges. There are many healthy reactionary behaviors to most problems. Healthy development is not following some strict framework of how we should and should not act under every circumstance. Life is too complex for this. Erikson wrote, “the growing child must derive a vitalizing sense of reality from the awareness that his individual way of mastering experience (his ego synthesis) is a successful variant of a group identity and is in accord with its space-time and life plan” (1994). Basically, he is suggesting there is a balance between individuality and group identity. We develop in a means that allows for a strong sense of self but in a manner that allows us to belong to and work with others.

Ego development is influenced by various factors, including genetics, cultural upbringing, social interactions, and life experiences. It is a dynamic process that can be shaped by significant life events, challenges, and personal reflections. As individuals navigate through different life stages and face various obstacles, their ego can continue to evolve and adapt.

The striving to master, to integrate, to make sense of experience is not one ego function among many, but the essence of the ego.
Jane Loevinger (Valliant, 1998)

Children and Ego Development

During early childhood, ego development primarily focuses on the formation of a basic sense of self. As children interact with their environment and develop social skills, they start to distinguish themselves from others and understand their own individuality. This stage is crucial in establishing a foundation for later ego development.

Karen Horney wrote that “the small child…is egocentric, but only because it has not yet developed a feeling of relatedness to others. It simply does not know that others have their needs, and limitations too—such as the mother’s needing sleep or not having the money to buy a toy” (2013). Healthy ego development leads to the child integrating a theory of mind that includes the individuality of others.

Toxic home environments including over or under protective caregivers alters the child development (Branden,1995). George Valliant wrote, “benign genes and happy childhoods are not our only allies in the struggle for adaptation, and the human ego grows in adversity as well as in prosperity” (1998). Children are resilient. They grow and adapt to all the vicissitudes that life has to offer. They escape the most damaging environments through escapes in imagination and through adopting of ego defense mechanisms that soften harsh environments into bearable conditions.

Early Trauma and Personality Defects

Lawrence Heller theorizes that children adapt to abusive environments through adopting a survival style. Generally, a child survives less than ideal circumstances in a variety of ways. Hopefully, they still navigate some of the necessary conflicts in the various stages of ego development and emerge into adulthood relatively ready to face the growing complex world waiting for them.

Typically, childhood trauma creates interferes with healthy ego development. The child adopts avenues of escape that become integral parts of their personality. R. Markillie compares childhood emotional trauma to physical developmental trauma. He wrote “disturbances in early development produce severe deformities. In a similar manner, it may be that disturbances in early ego development leave personality defects, which are lasting on consequences.” He continues, “if personal trauma is non-lethal, then our viability, the fact that development must go on, can lead and does lead to the formation of personality defects” (Markillie, 1963).

Erikson adds, “in some cases this ego impairment seems to have its origin in violent events, in others in the gradual grind of a million annoyances” (1994).

Adolescence and Adult Ego Development

As individuals progress through adolescence and into adulthood, ego development becomes more complex. The ego expands to include a sense of self in relation to others and the broader society. This involves developing a personal belief system, values, and a moral compass. It also includes understanding one’s unique strengths and weaknesses and harnessing them in various aspects of life, such as education, career, relationships, and personal growth.

The adolescence and adult must respond to experience in a tangible way. Erikson wrote, “for unlike the infantile sense of omnipotence which is fed by make-believe and adult deception, the self-esteem attached to the ego identity is based on the rudiments of skills and social techniques which assure a gradual coincidence of functional pleasure and actual performance, of ego ideal and social role. The self-esteem attached to the ego identity contains the recognition of a tangible future” (1994).

Preparing for the Competitive Adult World

The child’s survival is assured by caring adults. Their behavior largely are inconsequential to their day to day survival. They can employ a variety of mechanisms to soothe their minds, alleviating pain, without impacting their survival. However, as the child ages, behaviors have a greater impact on life. Vocations, relationships, management of finances, and a host of other grown-up behaviors directly reflect on the quality of our lives.

In the adult world, we must survive in a competitive environment. Our relationships also require more skill. A child, in most circumstances, will not be abandoned. A significant other, on the other hand, may leave if we fail to sufficiently contribute to their sense of wellness.

In an interesting book on co-dependent relationships, the author theorizes that marrying too early leads to divorce. by Stanton Peele and Archie Brodsky wrote “people who marry early tend not to show full ‘ego-development.'” He explains that “more and more of these marriages are ending in divorce, because the burden of meeting two people’s entire range of emotional needs is too great for many marriages to bear” (2015).

Jane Loevinger wrote “the more deeply one becomes involved in this area [mature ego development], the more it appears that impulse control, character development, interpersonal relations, and conscious preoccupations are indeed aspects of a single thing, so intimately intertwined that one can hardly define, much less measure them separately” (Valliant, 1998).

Basically, healthy and age appropriate ego development during childhood and adolescence is essential for effective adult living. The growing child prepares for adulthood by developing self confidence and interpersonal skills that can meet the growing demands of life.

Adaptive and Maladaptive Ego Development

In an article, T. Franklin Murphy describes maladaptive behaviors as an” adopted behavior…maladaptive to securing a particular goal.” He adds, “‘Maladaptive behavior’ describes modified actions that poorly adjust to circumstances, often exchanging desired long term goals for short term relief” (Murphy, 2022). Generally, the maladaptive behavior serves some unconscious goal other than improving the circumstances of our lives. Typically, in psychology, we refer to this as a neurosis.

Our reactions to the vicissitudes of life may or may not be helpful to long term wellness even if they provide an immediate benefit of relief. Valliant explains that we the use ego mechanisms as “a dynamic restorative process…they are normal responses to abnormal circumstances.” He adds that “in more formal terms, ego mechanisms of defense describe unconscious, and sometimes pathological, mental processes that the ego uses to resolve conflict among the four lodestars of our inner life: instincts, the real world, important people, and the internalized prohibitions provided by our conscience and our culture” (1998).

Five Reasons for Employing Ego Mechanisms

Defense mechanisms are tools we adopt during ego development. They become the significant patterned pathways we follow in response to stimuli. Valliant suggests five primary reasons we employ ego defense mechanisms:

  1. to keep affects within bearable limits during sudden life crises (e.g., following a death);
  2. to restore emotional balance by postponing or channeling sudden increases in biological drives (e.g., at puberty);
  3. to obtain a time-out to master changes in self-image (e.g., following major surgery or unexpected promotion);
  4. to handle unresolvable conflicts with people, living or dead, whom one cannot bear to leave (e.g., the lawyer’s wife, the hematologist’s mother);
  5. to survive major conflicts with conscience (e.g., killing in wartime, putting a parent in a nursing home).

Healthy ego development abandons defense mechanisms that no longer serve a long term purpose. Basically, a mechanism appropriate and helpful to the child in an abusive home may not be helpful to that child in adulthood in a loving relationship.

Jane Loevinger’s Stages of Ego Development

Jane Loevinger was a prominent American psychologist known for her groundbreaking work in the field of ego development. Born in 1918, she dedicated her life to understanding the complexities of human personalities and their developmental processes. Loevinger’s most notable contribution to psychology is her seven stages of ego development.

According to her theory, individuals progress through a series of stages as their ego matures and becomes more complex. Basically, each stage is characterized by a different motivations for regulating emotions, perceiving experience and interacting with the world.

Loevinger seven stages of ego development chart
Loevinger Seven Stages of Ego Development Chart (Loevinger, 1966)

Pre-Social Stage

At the first stage, called the “pre-social” stage, individuals are primarily focused on their own basic needs and desires. They have little awareness of social norms or the impact of their actions on others. One might say that the ego doesn’t exist until the end of this stage. This period is the stage of the ego coming into existence.

Loevinger wrote, that during the first stage the child acknowledges and invests in “a stable world of objects.” This early development builds a foundation of self and others that “is a prerequisite for all later stages of development…as well as for later adjustment” (Loevinger, 1966). Perhaps, in simple terms, we may say the child begins to differentiates between ‘I’, ‘you’, and ‘it’.

Impulse Ridden (Self-Protective)

During the second stage of development, the child “confirms his separate existence from his mother by exercise of his own will.” The child exhibits little self-control over impulses during this stage. Behavior is only understood as bad if it is punished. The child primarily sees others as sources of supply to fulfill personal desires. Their ego is still centered on self-interest but is also influenced by external validation and approval.

Opportunistic Stage

The third stage of ego development is the opportunistic one. The child comprehends the basic structure of rules but uses them only for immediate advantage. “If I do this, I get that.” The rule is not a moral imperative to follow; but a structure for attaining some advantage. Along this line of understanding, it is also acceptable to deceive, to get the reward without following the rule.

During the opportunistic phase, the child or adolescent exerts some autonomy, shifting away from total dependence. Loevinger wrote that during this phase there is a “conscious preoccupation…with control and advantage, domination, deception, getting better of, and so on” (Loevinger, 1966).

Conformist Stage

The next stage, termed the “conformist” stage, is marked by a strong desire to fit in and be accepted by others. Individuals at this stage tend to adopt societal values and beliefs without questioning them critically. Rules, however, are only partially internalized.

Failing to follow rules is accompanied by shame whether someone else is aware of our failure or not. At the conformist level of development, “genuine interpersonal reciprocity is possible…” Typically, at these early beginnings of mutual giving interpersonal relationships, the person only extends trust to a limited in-group. For others outside the narrowly defined range, the person largely incorporates stereotyped terms.

Loevinger explains that conscious preoccupation in this level of development is with “material things, with reputation and status, with appearance, and with adjustment” (Loevinger. 1966). Through introspection and self awareness, a person transitions to the next stage of development.

Conscientious Stage

Next comes the “conscientious” stage, where individuals become more self-directed and purpose-driven. They prioritize personal growth and embrace a more flexible and balanced perspective on life.

A key motivating factor at this level of development is the internalization of morals. Internalized rules take precedence over group sanctioned behaviors. We see some similarities to Loevinger’s conscientious level to self-determination theories intrinsic motivation. The accompanying emotion to internalized morals is guilt.

Conscious preoccupation with this level of development is with “obligations, ideals, traits, and achievement measured by inner standards rather than recognition alone” (Loevinger, 1966). In this level, the person sees goodness as more than a series of actions but also judged along with the accompanying motivations.

Autonomous Stage

The sixth stage, known as the “individualistic” stage, is marked by a strong sense of autonomy and personal values. Individuals at this stage value their independence and pursue their goals with firm determination. Impulse control is no longer an issue.

In this stage, the characteristic moral issue is coping with inner conflict. A person’s conscious recognition of opposing demands in personal complexity rises to awareness. A person in the autonomous stage begins to process the reality of conflicting needs (autonomy and acceptance, work and family, etc.). Also evident in this stage is greater toleration of differences, understanding that personal history impacts a person’s choices. In autonomy, conscious preoccupations are “role differentiation, individuality, and self-fulfillment” (Loevinger, 1966).

Integrated Stage

Finally, the final stage of development is called the “integrated” stage. At this stage, individuals have reached a mature level of ego development. They have a deep understanding of themselves and others, embracing complexity and ambiguity. They are capable of holding multiple perspectives and finding common ground among diverse viewpoints.

The well integrated person reaches a level beyond coping with conflict to a state of “reconciliation of conflicting demands, and, where necessary, renunciations of the unattainable. They also move beyond toleration of differences to cherishing the complexity of individuality. In this final stage of development, we see shades of Abraham Maslow’s self-actualization, Carl Rodger’s stage VII of personal achievement, and Heidi Wayment and Jack Baur’s quiet ego. Here, in the integrated stage, a person may quietly reflect and enjoy the richness of life, routinely surrendering to the awe of our existence.

A Few Words By Psychology Fanatic

According to Loevinger, “the primary objective of ego development theory is to chart the developmental course of qualitatively different reasons for regulating impulses: fear for retaliation at the Impulse level, fear of being caught at the Self-Protective level, adherence to external rules at the conformist level, adherence to self-evaluated standards at the Conscientious level, and so forth” (Weestenberg and Block, 1993).

Loevinger’s stages of ego development provide a valuable framework for understanding the psychological growth and maturity of individuals. It helps us comprehend how people evolve over time and navigate the complex social dynamics of our world. By recognizing and appreciating the different stages, we can better support personal development and foster growth.

Furthermore, ego development is closely tied to psychological well-being. A healthy ego allows individuals to have a strong sense of self-esteem, self-confidence, and resilience. It enables them to navigate challenges, form meaningful relationships, and pursue goals and aspirations.

In conclusion, ego development is a fundamental aspect of human growth and is intricately linked to our sense of self and overall well-being. Understanding and nurturing our ego development can lead to a richer, more fulfilling life.

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Adler, Alfred (1920/2011). The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology. ‎Martino Fine Books.

Braden, Nathaniel (1995). The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem: The Definitive Work on Self-Esteem by the Leading Pioneer in the Field. ‎ Bantam; Reprint edition.

Duffy, M., Ruegger, L., Tiegreen, S., & Kurtz, J. (2016). Ego Development and the Internalization of Conflict in Young Adults. Journal of Adult Development, 24(1), 40-47. DOI: 10.1007/s10804-016-9245-6

Erikson, Eric H. (1994) Identity and the Life Cycle. W. W. Norton & Company; Revised ed. edition.

Horney, Karen (1950/2013). Neurosis and Human Growth: The struggle toward self-realization. Routledge; 1st edition.

Loevinger, Jane (1966). The meaning and measurement of ego development. American Psychologist, 21(3), 195-206. DOI: 10.1037/h0023376

Markillie, R. (1963). Observations on early ego development. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 36(2), 131-140. DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8341.1963.tb01275.x

Murphy, T. Franklin (2022). Maladaptive Behaviors. Psychology Fanatic. Published 3-10-20232. Accessed 8-23-2023.

Peele, Stanton; Brodsky, Archie (2015). Love and Addiction. Broadrow Publications

Redmore, Carolyn; Loevinger,Jane (2005). Ego development in adolescence: Longitudinal studies. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 8(1), 1-20. DOI: 10.1007/BF02139136

Vaillant, George E. (1998) Adaptations to Life. Harvard University Press; Reprint edition.

Westenberg, P. Michiel; Block, Jack (1993). Ego Development and Individual Differences in Personality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(4), 792-800. DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.65.4.792

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