The ego is not your ally

The quandary of the Ego’s split behavior prompts the question -- “what does the Ego want?” What is the Ego’s own self-interest which it conspires to achieve in the psychic deals which it brokers and enforces?

The ego is not your ally
Jonah and the Gourd Vine by Jack Baumgartner (1999)

This morning's piece touches on an internecine conflict in psychoanalysis – what is the role of the ego in the therapy?

I would caution you against getting too tripped up on any of the terms – ego, id, superego, etc... – and instead to focus on why we seem to valorize the ego in our discourse about ourselves. These questions are not simply for psychotherapists, but rather have a broader ethical import.

What if there are reasons to approach our inner experience differently, perhaps by cultivating a non-egoic perspective and approach to action?

In this piece, Nietzsche helps us to ask this question of Anna Freud's work.

What is the goal of therapy?

The problem we envision therapy solving determines our understanding of the beginning, middle, and end of the therapeutic process.

Although the therapist does not proceed by assigning punishment or blame, the therapist does make judgments -- evaluating the patient as healthy/unhealthy in accordance with some rubric of order/disorder and function/dysfunction. This means that at all times the therapist’s own operative conceptions of ‘order’ and ‘function’ guide their approach to the patient’s treatment.

Our inquiry into the aim of therapy must therefore interrogate how a therapist and their theoretical framework envision the end state of “health” in the patient.

In her work The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, Anna Freud proposes that we conceive of therapy’s goal as a properly negotiated psychic system in which the Ego is strong enough to establish “the most harmonious relations possible between the id, the superego, and the forces of the outside world.”

In this proposal, Freud portrays the Ego as the negotiator and enforcer which brokers an acceptable deal amongst the various stakeholders of the mind. She forges a vision of psychotherapy as the place where the mind’s aggrieved parties can engage in arbitration to achieve a more satisfactory arrangement.

However, I believe that her work also reveals an unstable division between the Ego and the Id (unconscious) which, upon closer scrutiny, undermines the Ego’s pretensions to serving as the benevolent dictator of the mind.

Our question is this – why should the Ego hold the reins, as Anna Freud suggests?

One wonders if something else is afoot.

The ego and the id

In his brief work The Ego and the Id where he attempts to comprehensively chart the relationship between these two psychic mechanisms, Sigmund Freud complicates the relationship between them by writing that “the ego is not sharply separated from the id; its lower portions merge into it.” In fact, Freud even theorizes that the Ego emerges as a surface phenomenon at the border where the unconscious and the world interact.

Anna Freud concludes from her father’s formulations about the Ego’s roots in the unconscious that the analyst must also learn about their patient’s Id by studying its refraction through the Ego. Since the operations of the Ego are included in the Id and derive their power from it, the analyst must use the Ego as an interface with the unconscious – while always keeping in mind that the egoic membrane brings its own set of distortions.

However, this admission of the essential interdependence of the Ego with the Id reveals a split within the Ego itself between the conscious and the unconscious.

Because Anna Freud maintains that the aim of analysis is “to bring into consciousness that which is unconscious,” the fundamental difficulty which the Ego presents in the therapeutic context is the antagonistic stance which it takes towards the analyst.

By virtue of working towards the conscious representation of unconscious drives, the analyst allies themselves with the Id, thus appearing to the Ego as a threat to the status quo which it has worked to maintain.

Ostensibly, the Ego and the analyst are allies in the observation and analysis of the Id’s activity, apparently sharing the aim of the patient’s health. However, while the Ego may even consciously affirm this alliance with the therapist at times, their relationship always remains more ambiguous.

The multivalence of the Ego’s role in analysis derives from its own internal split between conscious and unconscious, causing it to consciously align itself with the analyst while unconsciously conspiring against the analyst’s attempts to coax unconscious drives into consciousness.

The difficulty of the analyst’s relationship to the Ego thus parallels the difficulty of the Ego’s relationship to itself.

The quandary of the Ego’s split behavior thus prompts the question -- “what does the Ego want?” What is the Ego’s own self-interest which it conspires to achieve in the psychic deals which it brokers and enforces?

One drive complaining about another

To describe the aims of analysis, Anna Freud juxtaposes the image of a “defeated” Ego and a “victorious” Ego. Describing the victorious Ego, she says that the two purposes the Ego must successfully achieve are (1) enabling the restriction of anxiety and unpleasure, and (2) transforming the instincts such that they can experience some minimal gratification. If the Ego achieves these objectives, it “thereby establish[es] the most harmonious relations possible between the id, the superego, and the forces of the outside world.”

This language of victory and defeat draws on a motif present in Sigmund Freud’s own writings, such as where he says, “psycho-analysis is an instrument to enable the ego to achieve a progressive conquest of the Id.” This paradigm of the victorious/defeated ego operates within Anna Freud's framework as the picture of healthy/unhealthy which guides the therapeutic process.

However, Freud’s identification of the victorious Ego as the healthy Ego merely re-stages the Ego’s fantasy concerning itself. The Ego’s grandiose self-concept holds itself as the enlightened negotiator who could bring peace to the entire psychic system, if only it weren’t for that unruly Id and its drives. In this fantasy, the best thing possible for the psychic system would be for the Ego to fully dominate the Id.

But why should the analyst privilege the Ego’s perspective over that of the other psychic components? Perhaps this fantasy is false, and dangerously so.

I caution the analyst – The ego is not your ally.

Why? Because it is the Id!

In aphorism 109 in his Daybreak, Friedrich Nietzsche provides a clarifying intervention. In this aphorism, Nietzsche identifies our conscious thoughts simply as the most dominant drive operating within us.

He makes these remarks within the context of describing the six methods for controlling a drive, but he concludes by making the point that even the impulse and power to control a drive must itself be a drive.

He says, “What is clearly the case is that in this entire procedure our intellect is only the blind instrument of another drive which is a rival of the drive whose vehemence is tormenting us.” Continuing a few lines further, he writes, “While ‘we’ believe we are complaining about the vehemence of a drive, at bottom it is one drive which is complaining about another.”

Nietzsche’s answer to the question of the Ego’s self-interest seems to be -- its own ongoing supremacy as the dominant drive in the psychic system.

In his aphorism 109, Nietzsche casts a vision of the unconscious as a relentless battle of drives all seeking gratification by attempting to make the passage into consciousness in order to actualize themselves in the external world. In this ruthless contest, only those drives which manage to gain dominance over the other drives emerge as the Ego at the surface of the psychic system. Because the reigning drive’s hegemony remains more or less under constant threat from the other drives, it must engage in strategies to suppress its rivals and assist its allies.

In Nietzsche’s framework, the Ego is only the Id turned back on itself.

The Ego is the mechanism of the Id’s self-objectification in consciousness, and this objectification of the Id has as its goal control.

In the Ego, the dominant drive within the Id objectifies the Id by curving back on itself. The Ego makes the Id an object for itself with the goal of controlling rival drives primarily, and helping ally drives secondarily.

By way of conclusion

In a Nietzschean theory of the Ego as “the drive which controls the other drives,” what does the Ego fear?

It fears its loss of mastery and consequent extinction.

Anna Freud approvingly cites her father saying, “What it is that the ego fears from the external and from the libidinal danger cannot be specified; we know that the fear is of being overwhelmed or annihilated, but it cannot be grasped analytically.” [emphasis added] This seems to indicate that even in the absence of any transgression of the terms of a deal amongst the components of the psychic system, the Ego still acts in a self-preserving manner.

This makes perfect sense within the theory proposed here, for the dominant drive’s primary interest will always include securing its own ongoing hegemony in consciousness, though this self-interest must remain disguised.

Anna Freud thus stands at the threshold of this paper’s core insight about the Ego’s own self-interest, and yet never takes the next step of bringing herself to question the Ego's self-narration.


She remains entangled in the fantasy of the Ego, for this fantasy of the Ego is not actually the Ego’s own fantasy, but rather the human fantasy about the Ego. The Ego as a psychic entity has no capacity to tell or believe fantasies for itself, so the power of the Ego’s fantasy must derive from our belief in this fantasy.

We are the tellers of the myth that the Ego’s successive conquest of the Id will restore balance to the psychic system.

What causes our fixation on this fantasy?

We experience the Ego’s domain of consciousness as where we experience our thoughts and our choices. We experience the Ego as that which wills, and by claiming that willing as our own, we forge an identification with the Ego.

In the triad of Ego, Id, and Superego, we most identify with the Ego because it feels familiar to us, like a protagonist we want to root for in a movie. In fact, the Ego functions in our mind as the visualization of ourselves as the protagonist of our life. Consequently, we experience any threat to the Ego as an imminent threat to our own identity.

The fantasy of the victorious Ego therefore preys on the patient’s identification with the Ego by allowing them to experience the Ego’s domination of the Id as an increasing feeling of their overcoming (Nietzsche’s will to power).

Ultimately, the difference between the Ego and the Id consists not in the superiority of their goals, but rather in the patient’s identification with one over the other. The Ego feels familiar, and thus the patient identifies with the Ego’s successes and failures as though they were their own, whereas the patient experiences their unconscious drives as scary and unpredictable.

The patient’s dominant drive co-opts the patient’s identification with the Ego to create the illusion of having a single common interest, but this cannot erase the gap which nonetheless remains between the subject who does the identifying and the Ego which is identified with.

This clinging to the Ego as our personal avatar in the psychic system makes it difficult to ask the question, “are the Ego’s interests actually my own?”

Nietzsche’s characterization of consciousness as the experience of the Id’s most dominant drive forces us to question this identification in uncomfortable ways. He says regarding the war of drives, “a struggle is in prospect in which our intellect is going to have to take sides.”

Nietzsche’s comment raises the question of valuation and decision in the therapeutic process, and thus complicates Anna Freud’s straightforward goal of strengthening the Ego to be victorious over the Id.

What if the dominant drive undergirding my Ego is killing me?

A question Nietzsche might ask -- “should my Ego be strengthened if it primarily expresses the drive of ressentiment?”

Thus, therapy cannot simply be a matter of unequivocally backing the Ego in the patient’s psychic system. There remains also the question of whether the drive or drive-alliance which manifests itself as the Ego really is in the patient’s best interest.

The Ego’s interests do not necessarily align with the psychic system as a whole, and those interests may even conflict with a healthier version of the patient overall.

The analyst must therefore at all times mind the gap between the Ego’s self-narration and its true behavior, and certainly must not consider the Ego an ally.

Thank you for making it this far through the piece. I'm honored by your willingness to read, mark, and engage.

I take the thesis I've elaborated here concerning the non-neutral and self-interested nature of the Ego to raise serious questions for any future Ego psychologies which envision the end game of therapy as the empowerment of the Ego in the psychic system.

This will continue to be binding thread in my work, so please continue to tune in.

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