Ego Ideal is a concept introduced by Sigmund Freud in his book On Narcissism: An Introduction (1914). Freud’s psychoanalytical approach focused on personality development, investigating the interaction of the conscious and unconscious elements in patient’s minds. According to Freud, within our minds are opposing and conflicting forces. Freud identified these forces as the ego, the id, and ego ideal.
Loosely interpreted, the id is our instinctual impulses (typically experienced as sexual desires and impulses of aggression); the ego is the conscious sense of self that moderates the impulses of the id. The ego ideal is an unconscious image of what one desires to be. Freud saw the ego ideal as an integration of conscious and unconscious images of self, patterned after certain people whom the individual regarded as ideal. Often internalized images of the parent. As Freud explains, “this is the higher being, the Ego Ideal or Superego, the representation of our relationship to our parents” (1923). Our early relationships live on in our minds. Consequently, harsh parental judgements lead to harsh self judgements as we mature.
Anna Freud, when referring to the ego ideal concept, wrote that “it sets up an ideal standard, according to which sexuality is prohibited and aggression pronounced to be antisocial”. The conflict between the reality of our instinctual impulses and our ideal images of the ego ideal is “the originator of all neuroses.” She adds that “it (the ego ideal) is the mischief-maker which prevents the ego’s coming to a friendly understanding with the instincts” (1936).
The discomforting, unsolvable conflict between our instincts and ideal images lead to employing of defense mechanisms to resolve the cognitive dissonance between these opposing factors. Instead of a friendly understanding of our instinctual impulses, we deny their existence (bury, project, and suppress). In a never ending attempt to prove we are free of nasty imperfections, we harshly judge or deny.
In 1923, Freud introduced the concept of the super ego in his book The Ego and the Id. After the introduction of the super ego, Freud seldom referred to the ego ideal in his writings.
Narcissism and The Ego Ideal
Children in their innocence see themselves as center of the universe. They are unburdened by the imposed roles that we live with later in life. Young children don’t worry about the critical judgments of others. They fear later when they encounter rejection.
For example, my innocent grandson, playing with other children at the McDonald’s playground, boldly proclaimed, “I don’t want to go up there, I’m too scared.” He honestly shared his instinctual fear. No embarrassment. No shame. We know that in time these honest proclamations or expressions will meet with harsh judgment— “Scaredy Cat.” Early in life we learn, others judge and sometimes reject.
Adaptation to Avoid Rejection
We begin to change to fit social roles. In many cases, this is appropriate. Our instinctual impulses are not always as innocent. Some are even criminal. We tame sexual desires that are deemed socially unacceptable. We reframe from aggressions that harm.
Freud explains, “this ideal ego is now the target of the self-love which was enjoyed in childhood by the actual ego. The subject’s narcissism makes its appearance displaced on to this new ideal ego, which, like the infantile ego, finds itself possessed of every perfection that is of value” (1914). The young child finds no shame in self expressions of the ego. The id and the ego seamlessly fit together. But with age, rules of interaction begin to intrude, requiring suppressing of impulses.
“He (the individual) is not willing to forgo the narcissistic perfection of his childhood; and when, as he grows up, he is disturbed by the admonitions of others and by the awakening of his own critical judgement, so that he can no longer retain that perfection, he seeks to recover it in the new form of an ego ideal. What he projects before him as his ideal is the substitute for the lost narcissism of his childhood in which he was his own ideal” (1914).
The Ego Ideal and Self Observing Agency
Freud intertwines the concept of the self-observing agency with the ego ideal in his early writings. Notably, Freud surmised that there possibly existed “a special psychical agency which performs the task of seeing that narcissistic satisfaction from the ego ideal is ensured and which…constantly watches the actual ego and measures it by that ideal.” Freud continues, “If such an agency does exist, we cannot possibly come upon it as a discovery—we can only recognize it; for we may reflect that what we call our ‘conscience’ has the required characteristics” (1914).
Later Freud wrote, “we know the self-observing agency as the ego-censor, the conscience…” Freud explains this connection in the Ego and the Id. He wrote, “the normal, conscious sense of guilt (conscience) …is based on the tension between the Ego and the Ego Ideal and it is the expression of a condemnation of the Ego by its critical authority” (1923).
Freud paints the picture of the painful conflict arising between the three elements of personality (ego, id, and ego ideal). He explains, “helpless on both sides, the Ego defends itself in vain against the impositions of the murderous Id and the reproaches of punitive conscience alike” (1923). Here we find a primary conflict from which neurosis arises. We explore varying methods to solve this internal conflict.
The Super Ego
Freud never, as far as I know, described differences between the ego ideal and the superego. He refers to them as one in the same in his work The Ego and the Id. After his introduction of the superego, the use of ego ideal quickly faded away.
“A differentiation within the Ego called the Ego-Ideal or Superego” (1923).
”This is the higher being, the Ego Ideal or Superego, the representation of our relationship to our parents” (1923).
“The Id is quite amoral, the Ego is eager to be moral, the Superego can become hyper-moral and then as cruel as only the Id can be. It is curious that man, the more he constrains his outward aggression, the more harsh—aggressive—he becomes in his Ego Ideal” (1923).
Throughout The Ego and the Id Freud appears to use the terms interchangeably. Thus we can assume they hold similar meanings, if not referring to the exact same concept).
Freud, Anna (1936). The Ego and Mechanisms of Defense.
Freud, Sigmund (1914) On Narcissism: An Introduction
Freud, Sigmund (1923) The Ego and the Id.