The following seven propositions characterize ego psychology’s view of human functioning as described by E. G. Goldstein (1995. Ego Psychology and Social Work Practice, 2nd Ed. New York: Free Press).
1. Ego psychology views people as born with an innate capacity to function adaptively. Individuals engage in a lifelong biopsychosocial development process in which the ego is an active dynamic force for coping with, adapting to, and shaping the external environment.
2. The ego is considered to be a mental structure of the personality that is responsible for negotiating between the internal needs of the individual and the outside world. While the ego has the capacity for functioning autonomously, it is only one part of the personality and must be understood in relation to internal as well as outer factors.
3. The ego contains the basic functions essential to the individual’s successful adaptation to the environment. Ego functions are innate and develop through maturation and the interaction among biopsychosocial factors.
4. Ego development occurs sequentially as a result of constitutional factors, the meeting of basic needs, identification with others, interpersonal relationships, learning, mastery of development tasks, effective problem solving, and successful coping with life’s challenges.
5. The ego not only mediates between the individual and the environment but also mediates internal conflict among various aspects of the personality. It can elicit defenses that protect the individual from anxiety and conflict and that serve adaptive or maladaptive purposes.
6. The social environment shapes the personality and provides the conditions that foster or obstruct successful coping. Cultural factors, racial, ethnic, and religious diversity, gender, age, sexual orientation, and the presence or absence of physical challenges affect ego development.
7. Problems in social functioning must be viewed in relation both to possible ego deficits and to the fit between needs and capacities and environmental conditions and resources.
1. Ego Functions.
Ego functions are the means by which the individual adapts to the world. The most comprehensive effort to study ego functions can be found in the world of Bellak and his colleagues (1973), who identified twelve major ego functions. These include reality testing (e.g. psychosis), judgment (causal thinking), sense of reality (derealization and depersonalization), regulation of drives/affect/impulses (delay gratification), primary and secondary thought processes (wish or thought-action vs. goal-directed) and regression in the service of the ego.
2. Defense Functioning.
The individual develops unconscious, internal mechanisms called defenses for protection from the painful experience of anxiety or from fear-inducing situations. Adaptive defenses safeguard the individual from anxiety while simultaneously fostering effective coping. Maladaptive defenses also protect the individual from anxiety, but often at the expense of optimal functioning.
3. Mastery-Competence & Adaptation.
The individual’s capacity to interact successfully with the environment is his or her actual competence; his or her subjective feelings about that capacity is termed the “sense of competence”.
4. Object (or Interpersonal) Relations.
This refers both to the quality and patterning of one’s interpersonal relationships and to the level of development of one’s internalized sense of self and others. It will be discussed in more detail below.
Defense mechanisms (ego defenses):
1. Repression involves keeping unwanted thoughts and feelings out of awareness, or unconscious. Repression may involve loss of memory for specific incidents, especially traumatic ones or those associated with painful emotions.
2. Reaction formation involves keeping certain impulses out of awareness by replacing the unwanted impulse with its opposite.
3. Projection attributes to others unacceptable thoughts and feelings of his or her own that are not conscious.
4. Isolation is referred to as “isolation of affect”, for there is a repression of feelings associated with particular items, or of ideas connected with certain affects.
5. Undoing involves symbolically nullifying or voiding an unacceptable or guilt-provoking act, thought, or feeling.
6. Regression involves the return to an earlier developmental phase, level of functioning, or type of behavior in order to avoid the anxieties of the present.
7. Introjection involves taking another person into the self, psychologically speaking, in order to avoid the direct expression of powerful emotions such as love or hate.
8. Reversal is a general mechanism for the process of turning a feeling or attitude into its opposite.
9. Sublimation involves converting an impulse from a socially objectionable aim to a socially acceptable one while still retaining the original goal of the impulse. It is considered the most “mature” defense.
10. Intellectualization is warding off of unacceptable affects and impulses by thinking about them rather than experiencing them directly.
11. Rationalization involves the use of convincing reasons to justify certain ideas, feelings, or actions so as to avoid recognizing their true underlying motive, which is unacceptable.
12. Displacement is shifting feelings or conflicts about one person or situation onto another.
13. Denial involves the negation or non-acceptance of important aspects of reality or of one’s own experience, even though they may actually be perceived.
14. Somatization is when intolerable impulses or conflicts are converted into physical symptoms.
15. Idealization is the overvaluing of, for example, person, place, family, or activity beyond what is realistic to protect the individual from anxiety associated with aggressive or competitive feelings toward a loved or feared one.
16. Compensation tries to make up for what he or she perceives as deficits or deficiencies.
17. Asceticism involves the moral renunciation of certain pleasures in order to avoid the anxiety and conflict associated with impulse gratification.
18. Altruism involves obtaining satisfaction through self-sacrificing service to others or through participation in causes as a way of dealing with unacceptable feelings and conflicts.
19. Splitting is characteristic of borderline conditions and involves the keeping apart of two contradictory ego states such as love and hate.
Taken from Turner, F. (Ed). (1996). Social Work Treatment, 4th ed. NY, NY: Free Press.