Characteristics of Ego Strength

Ego Strength

Characteristics of Ego Strength

The concept of ego strength derives from psychoanalytic theory and refers to the healthy, adaptive functioning of the ego (i.e., the capacity for effective personal functioning).

Sigmund Freud conceptualized the ego as an intrapsychic substructure that serves the essential organizing and synthesizing functions that are necessary for an individual to adapt to the external world.

When the ego performs these functions adequately, individuals experience themselves as coherent, functional human beings with an enduring sense of personal identity. They are said to possess ego strength.

Intrapsychic and Interpersonal Dimensions

Ego strength has both intrapsychic and interpersonal dimensions. It implies a composite of internal psychological capacities—both cognitive and affective—that individuals bring to their interactions with others and with the social environment.

Ego strength reflects a person’s capacities for adaptability, cohesive identity, personal resourcefulness, self-efficacy, and self-esteem. Ego strength also connotes mental health as encapsulated in Freud’s well-known phrase “to love and to work.

” Indicators of ego strength include interpersonal competence, a sense of purpose, life satisfaction, and the capacity for meaningful activity.

the solid foundation of a well-built house, ego strength supports the individual across developmental stages in the pursuit of life goals, dreams, and ambitions, especially under stressful conditions or during turbulent times. Ego strength provides an individual with a cohesive sense of self, ensures coping abilities, increases as individuals grow in maturity, and is recognizable during initial clinical assessment and throughout psychotherapy.

Utility and Relevance

The importance of ego strength as an area for clinical assessment derives from the notion that the significant problems in living for which people seek therapeutic assistance often express themselves as ego deficits (i.e., a lack of ego strength).

Deficits in ego strength can manifest as poor judgment, difficulties with reality testing, and problems with interpersonal relationships or intimacy. A lack of ego strength can also show in extreme defensiveness, lack of self-control, and the inability to regulate emotions or self-soothe when distressed.

Ego deficits are also apparent in the individual with poor self-esteem, no cohesive identity, unrealistic or inconsistent life goals, and issues with mastery and competence.

Psychotherapists pay special attention to ego strength when assessing a client’s current capacities and potential to benefit from therapy. Their ability to support a client’s current and developing ego strength depends on their ability to identify and assess ego functions in the clinical situation.

In psychoanalytic theory, a client can grow in ego strength over time by identifying with and incorporating the therapist’s own ego strength. Across mental health practice disciplines, clinicians assess ego strength to locate a client on a developmental continuum.

That allows them to identify a suitable place to begin therapeutic work, provides data to develop therapeutic goals, and constitutes a baseline against which to measure psychotherapeutic progress.

Structural Theory

Freud’s conceptualization of the ego took shape around the turn of the 19th century. Freud was deeply pessimistic about human nature and impressed with the archaic drives and primitive passions that seemed to shape human behavior.

He came to understand civilized, adult behavior as the end result of the ego’s struggle to mediate between the powerful, infantile, even bestial forces of the id and the punitive requirements of the superego for social conformity.

The ego of Freud’s structural theory lacked strength relative to the id. His metaphor for the ego was a person on horseback who can barely hold in check the superior strength of the horse.

Freud did not recognize the fullness of an ego that, in addition to its job of holding id impulses in check, performs other vital functions, including perception, cognition, judgment, reality testing, and affect regulation.

Ego Psychology

Colleagues who carried Freud’s structural theory forward in the first decades of the 20th century did so in the context of a devastating First World War, the deadly flu pandemic of 1918, and the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

That historical era was followed by the Great Depression, the rise of Nazism, the earliest days of the Holocaust, and the burgeoning militarism that culminated in World War II.

In contrast, ego psychology was elaborated during the more optimistic post-World War II era by European expatriates who emigrated to the United States to escape Nazi persecution.

They shared Freudian beliefs about the power of the id and its biological drives but, buoyed by the political freedom and optimism of American society, they were far more interested in the ego and its functions.

In particular they focused on how ego functions contributed to the unfolding of human capacities in response to the interaction between environmental factors and innate potentials. The psychoanalyst Heinz Hartmann was the first to suggest that some ego functions are independent of, and autonomous from, the drives (id). Since this seminal contribution, many others have elaborated ego psychology, most notably Erik Erikson, who proposed an enduring stage theory of ego development over the life span.

Ego Function Assessment

The most comprehensive and systematic effort to describe and study ego functions, whose healthy adaptations essentially constitute ego strength, has been undertaken by Leopold Bellak and colleagues.

Beginning in 1958, Bellak began to study the nature of the psychoanalytic process in a controlled, experimental way. His National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) research study resulted in a list of 12 ego functions considered necessary and sufficient to describe the personality of the individual.

The list is a useful outline for assessing a person’s strengths or evaluating therapeutic gains.

Other Approaches to Ego Strength Assessment

An alternative approach to assessing ego strength involves ego-oriented assessment as a process of data collection over several interviews on a client’s current and past functioning and on his or her inner capacities and external circumstances. Questions that guide the overall assessment of ego strength include:

  1. To what extent is the client’s problem a function of
  • stressors imposed by his or her current life roles or developmental tasks?
  • situational stress or a traumatic event?
  • impairments in his or her ego capacities?
  • developmental difficulties or dynamics?
  • the lack of environmental resources or supports?
  • a lack of fit between his or her inner capacities and external circumstances?
  1. What inner capacities and environmental resources does the client have that can be mobilized to improve his or her functioning?

Ego strength assessment is not essential to all forms of help giving, but it can help determine where to direct interventions. For example, in some cases it is important to maintain, enhance, or modify inner capacities.

At other times intervention is designed to mobilize, improve, or change environmental conditions. Sometimes intervention is necessary to improve the fit between inner capacities and external circumstances.

When a client is overwhelmed by current stressors but evidences some ego strength and has at least some environmental supports, the practitioner will use a supportive approach aimed at stress reduction and more effective problem solving.

In contrast, clients who have limited ego strength and developmental deficits that interfere with their ability to cope with current life roles need interventions targeted at building ego strength.


  1. Bellak, L. (1989). The broad role of ego function assessment. In S. Wetzler & M. Katz (Eds.), Contemporary approaches to psychological assessment (pp. 270-295). New York: Brunner/Mazel.
  2. Bellak, L., Hurvich, M., & Gediman, H. (1973). Ego functions in schizophrenics, neurotics, and normals. New York: Wiley.
  3. Bjorklund, P. (2000).

    Assessing ego strength: Spinning straw into gold. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 36(1), 14-23.

  4. Erikson, E. (1959). Identity and the life cycle. Psychological Issues, 1(1), 50-100.
  5. Freud, A. (1936). The ego and the mechanisms of defense. New York: International Universities Press.
  6. Freud, S. (1961). The ego and the id. In J.

    Strachey (Ed. & Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 19, pp. 3-66). New York: Norton. (Original work published 1923)

  7. Goldstein, E. (1984). Ego psychology and social work practice. New York: Free Press.
  8. Hartmann, H. (1939). Ego psychology and the problem of adaptation.

    New York: International Universities Press.

  9. Schamess, G. (2004). Ego psychology. In J. Berzoff, L. M. Flanagan, & P. Hertz (Eds.), Inside out and outside in: Psychodynamic clinical theory and practice in contemporary multicultural contexts (pp. 67-101). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
  10. Vaillant, G. E. (1993). The wisdom of the ego.

    Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

See also:

  • Personality Traits
  • Counseling Psychology


Id, Ego, and Superego

Characteristics of Ego Strength

By Saul McLeod, updated 2021

Perhaps Freud's single most enduring and important idea was that the human psyche (personality) has more than one aspect.

Freud's personality theory (1923) saw the psyche structured into three parts (i.e., tripartite), the id, ego and superego, all developing at different stages in our lives. These are systems, not parts of the brain, or in any way physical.

According to Freud's psychoanalytic theory, the id is the primitive and instinctual part of the mind that contains sexual and aggressive drives and hidden memories, the super-ego operates as a moral conscience, and the ego is the realistic part that mediates between the desires of the id and the super-ego.

Although each part of the personality comprises unique features, they interact to form a whole, and each part makes a relative contribution to an individual's behavior.

What is the id?

The id is the primitive and instinctive component of personality. It consists of all the inherited (i.e., biological) components of personality present at birth, including the sex (life) instinct – Eros (which contains the libido), and the aggressive (death) instinct — Thanatos.

The id is the impulsive (and unconscious) part of our psyche which responds directly and immediately to basic urges, needs, and desires. The personality of the newborn child is all id and only later does it develop an ego and super-ego.

The id remains infantile in its function throughout a person's life and does not change with time or experience, as it is not in touch with the external world. The id is not affected by reality, logic or the everyday world, as it operates within the unconscious part of the mind.

The id operates on the pleasure principle (Freud, 1920) which is the idea that every wishful impulse should be satisfied immediately, regardless of the consequences.When the id achieves its demands, we experience pleasure when it is denied we experience ‘unpleasure’ or tension.

The id engages in primary process thinking, which is primitive, illogical, irrational, and fantasy oriented. This form of process thinking has no comprehension of objective reality, and is selfish and wishful in nature.

What is the Ego?

The ego is 'that part of the id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world.'

(Freud, 1923, p. 25)

The ego develops to mediate between the unrealistic id and the external real world. It is the decision-making component of personality. Ideally, the ego works by reason, whereas the id is chaotic and unreasonable.

The ego operates according to the reality principle, working out realistic ways of satisfying the id’s demands, often compromising or postponing satisfaction to avoid negative consequences of society. The ego considers social realities and norms, etiquette and rules in deciding how to behave.

the id, the ego seeks pleasure (i.e., tension reduction) and avoids pain, but un the id, the ego is concerned with devising a realistic strategy to obtain pleasure. The ego has no concept of right or wrong; something is good simply if it achieves its end of satisfying without causing harm to itself or the id.

Often the ego is weak relative to the headstrong id, and the best the ego can do is stay on, pointing the id in the right direction and claiming some credit at the end as if the action were its own.

Freud made the analogy of the id being a horse while the ego is the rider. The ego is ' a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superiour strength of the horse.'

(Freud, 1923, p. 15)

If the ego fails in its attempt to use the reality principle, and anxiety is experienced, unconscious defense mechanisms are employed, to help ward off unpleasant feelings (i.e., anxiety) or make good things feel better for the individual.

The ego engages in secondary process thinking, which is rational, realistic, and orientated towards problem-solving. If a plan of action does not work, then it is thought through again until a solution is found. This is known as reality testing and enables the person to control their impulses and demonstrate self-control, via mastery of the ego.

An important feature of clinical and social work is to enhance ego functioning and help the client test reality through assisting the client to think through their options.

What is the superego?

The superego incorporates the values and morals of society which are learned from one's parents and others.

It develops around the age of 3 – 5 years during the phallic stage of psychosexual development.

The superego is seen as the purveyor or rewards (feelings of pride and satisfaction) and punishments (feelings of shame and guilt) depending on which part (the ego-deal or conscious) is activated.

The superego's function is to control the id's impulses, especially those which society forbids, such as sex and aggression. It also has the function of persuading the ego to turn to moralistic goals rather than simply realistic ones and to strive for perfection.

The superego consists of two systems: The conscience and the ideal self.

The conscience is our 'inner voice' that tells us when we have done something wrong.The conscience can punish the ego through causing feelings of guilt. For example, if the ego gives in to the id's demands, the superego may make the person feel bad through guilt.

The ideal self (or ego-ideal) is an imaginary picture of how you ought to be, and represents career aspirations, how to treat other people, and how to behave as a member of society.

Behavior which falls short of the ideal self may be punished by the superego through guilt. The super-ego can also reward us through the ideal self when we behave ‘properly’ by making us feel proud.

If a person’s ideal self is too high a standard, then whatever the person does will represent failure. The ideal self and conscience are largely determined in childhood from parental values and how you were brought up.  Download this article as a PDF

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2019, September 25). Id, ego and superego. Simply Psychology.

APA Style References

Freud, S. (1920). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 1-64.

Freud, S. (1923). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.

 Download this article as a PDF

Dropping Your Ego

Characteristics of Ego Strength

In the online world of empowerment and self-help there seems to be an endless debate about whether your ego is good or bad. Should we be striving to strengthen it or eradicate it?

It’s really not that simple as there are many schools of thought regarding the ego

In psychoanalytic circles, the definition of ego is Freud’s most important and enduring theory that the human psyche or personality has three aspects; the id (I want it NOW!), the superego (No way! What would Grandma/our pastor/the neighbors think?), and the ego (Maybe later, at a more appropriate time, under more appropriate circumstances.) According to Freud’s theory the ego experiences and reacts to the outside world and mediates between the primitive drives of the id and the demands of the social and physical environment.

As a psychotherapist, the theoretical approach to understanding human behavior that I most employ is more psychodynamic than psychoanalytic. For the purposes of this blog and podcast, when referring to ego, I am using the psychology understanding of ego as your sense of self, self-image, self-esteem and your feelings.

Being mentally healthy requires having a solid, rather than fractured, sense of self (ego) and striking the balance between extremes.

Basically, the ego is not all bad, there are simply different types of ego characteristics that either help your mental health or hold you back.

The below list of ego strength and weakness characteristics are a post from Dr. Athena Staik created for PsychCentral.

Low Ego Strength Characteristics:

  • Wasting energy fighting reality and hoping it will go away.
  • Rejecting the fact that they will have to face what they fear most or are most challenged by.
  • Confusing actual strength with defense strategies that they rely on, angry outburst, avoidance, denial, wishful thinking, etc.
  • Refusing to accept things that are actually happening in their lives and think escaping the pain ( the pain of growing, developing, maturing, etc.

    ) is a viable solution.

  • Believing that relationships and happiness in life means the complete absence of pain, fear and anger.

High Ego Strength Characteristics:

  • Taking a “learning approach” to life, meaning that hardships increasingly grow their strength and confidence in handling triggering situations.

  • Having the ability to tolerate discomfort,
  • Approaching life with curiosity and a readiness to explore and master what strengthens them – therefore, increasing their chances of finding new ways of coping with challenges.
  • Treating themselves and others as having inner resources to deal with challenges.
  • Not personalizing what other people say or do so that they are regarding themselves and others as human and thus, fallible.
  • Exuding an overall confidence in self and other to use their resources to handle and resolve life issues.

As you can probably surmise from the list, low ego strength behavior, beliefs and reactions perpetuate dissatisfaction while high ego strength behaviors correlate with more resilience and happiness in life. A fragile ego can be quickly damaged and easily injured. But there are ways to move from low to high ego strength if you’re motivated.

The first step to transformation is being aware of how you’re functioning now. @terri_cole (Click to Tweet!)

One of the most obvious and relationally problematic symptoms of low ego strength is being easily offended or feeling slighted often. These reactions are sometimes referred to as narcissistic injuries (bruised ego) which can become blocks to intimacy and effective problem solving.

Strengthening that aspect of a weak ego can be as simple as pausing to consider another person’s point of view before taking offense. If you can become more interested in your reaction to feeling slighted or disrespected than your right to be offended, you will start to move towards higher functioning.

 Your desire to learn and your immense capacity to be compassionate are two key ingredients to a creating a healthier, more balanced ego.

Today on Hello, Freedom I’m talking all about (you guessed it) the ego. I find the topic endlessly interesting because I see, in my own life, and in the lives of my clients how being easily offended (or having low ego strength) robs us of joy and growth opportunities.

Join me now for today’s Terri Talks episode of Hello Freedom for additional tips on how to strengthen your ego (and as a result, be less offendable). As you gain a deeper understanding of your ego reactions you might just create the space for the best version of yourself to emerge. Click HERE to listen now!

Love love love ,


Terri Cole is a licensed psychotherapist, transformation coach, and an expert at turning fear into freedom. Sign up for Terri’s weekly Newsletter, check out her blog and follow her on .

Image courtesy of Giuseppe Milo.

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