The idea of ego-strength has a long history in the field of psychology that can be traced back to the development of Sigmund Freud’s three-tiered view of personality in terms of id, ego, and super-ego.
Thanks to numerous contributions since, this and other Freudian concepts were significantly revamped by many of his followers, such as Alfred Adler, Carl Jung and Erich Fromm, known as NeoFreudians, all of whom shifted away from Freud’s deterministic and pessimistic view of human nature and, in its place, added a key aspect of human nature: An empowering view of human personality and behavior as primarily social in focus and self-determined by intrinsic motivation.
In particular, NeoFreudians rejected Freud’s emphasis on sexual urges as primary motivators of ego drives and behavior. A follower of NeoFreudians, Abraham Maslow, who later made significant contributions of his own to psychological (and organizational) theory of human motivation with his now famous Hierarchy of Needs, put it this way in his book, Toward a Psychology of Being: “It is as if Freud supplied us the sick half of psychology and we must now fill it out with the healthy half.”
The latest findings in neuroscience, attachment, and positive psychology, among other fields of scientific research, now confirm with hard evidence what was once theory, that indeed human nature and the brain are socially-motivated. The brain…:
- …has circuitry for caring and empathic love-connections.
- …of an infant cannot survive apart from relational contexts; physical sustenance alone does not suffice.
- …seeks to form, learn and thrive throughout life in relational contexts, optimally, healthy ones.
As Dr. Daniel Siegel notes, the brain is a relationship organ. Emotions are what fire and wire neural interaction patterns that allow learning to take place in the brain, with the amygdala as the emotional hub. The primary drives of human beings throughout life are relational, and thus inseparably emotional in nature.
So what does this have to do with ‘the ego’ or ‘ego-strength’?
Many of the major psychological theorists spoke of the intrinsic human strivings for personal power and autonomy, as a universal ego drive that is not only normal, but a healthy goal – and intrinsically connected to relationship goals. This and other core strivings, or emotion-drives, are universal motivators of human behavior.
What makes a healthy ego essential to your personal and relational happiness? In a nutshell a healthy ego is foremost an ability to regulate painful emotions rooted in anger and fear.
First, let’s explore the distinctions between ego and ego-strength, and the characteristics of undeveloped and well-developed ego-strength.
The distinctions between ego and ego-strength?
Though the term ‘ego’ is commonly used to describe one who boasts, is arrogant, treats others with scorn, lacks empathy, and the like, the concept of ego is neutral in itself.
- The word ‘ego’ is a Greek word for ‘I,’ meaning the core sense of self, a distinct and unique expression of personhood, albeit one that paradoxically exists in connection or in relation to life and others.
Thus, the term ego may take on different meanings depending on where it falls on a continuum between a healthy ego, on the one end of the spectrum, and an unhealthy one on the other.
As an infant, a child is born without a sense of self, and thus without an ego per se. This served our development and survival at the time. Conceivably, it allowed us to experience a felt sense of oneness with our mother or other primary attachment figures. This was critical to our survival at the time and permitted us to gradually transition from a felt state of total oneness with mother to developing a personal sense of self as separate and unique.
- In contrast, “ego-strength’ refers to a cultivated resiliency or strength of our core sense of self, the extent to which we learn to face and grow from challenging events or persons in our lives in ways that strengthen our relationships with our self and others and enrich our lives with meaning.
Our ego-strength is an integral part of our psycho-social-emotional and cultural development and forms our sense of self, or self-concept, in relation to self and others around you.
In the first years of life, our interactions with primary caregivers shaped our ego and ego-strength in ways that can have a lifelong impact. A young child’s sense of self, particularly in response to stress, is subconsciously wired, or imprinted as ‘learned’ neural patterns, in relational exchanges with primary caregivers. The good news is that this does not have to be a limiting factor. Our brain is built to learn and integrate changes, and new healing ways of responding and relating to stress and stressors throughout our life.
It’s up to us, however, whether we apply our self with sufficient vigor to integrate change.
The characteristics of low or undeveloped ego-strenth?
A person with little or weak ego-strength lacks resiliency, sticks mostly to what “feels” comfortable to them, and avoids what does not. They tend to hold unrealistic expectations, which are held rigidly in place by emotionally charged core beliefs that activate the body’s stress response, as they are rooted in fear and anxiety.
Thinking patterns are out of balance.
What does this mean? It can mean the person holds limiting beliefs and toxic thinking patterns that, on the one extreme, cause them to “think” they lack resources, are too weak or fragile to handle certain triggering situations, such as conflict — or on the other extreme, rely on their anger and rage to get or “teach” others to recognize, appreciate or love them in the way they aspire.
In either case they hold unrealistic expectations that others or life should take their pain away, and seek others, activities or substances that can give them the constant source of comfort and assurance that they believe they need and ‘must’ have to feel okay about themselves and their life.
Such expectations are based on core beliefs that are limiting in that they unnecessarily activate the body’s stress response and reactivity. Recall from other posts that learning is impeded when the brain is in ‘protective’ mode. The stress response activates the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system, which shuts off the brain’s learning mode (parasympathetic division). This means the reflective thinking parts of the brain are not operating, thus, it’s less likely if not impossible to consider healthy options and new possibilities.
Thus, reactive responses not only block us from developing a healthier ego or ego-strength, they also make us prone to repeating problematic behavior patterns.
In either case an underdeveloped ego-strength tends to live and act in defensive ways that are self-perpetuating. This further weakens their capacity to cope with day to day challenges. Characteristically they:
- Waste a lot of energy fighting and, or hating reality, and wishing it would go away.
- Reject or deny the necessity of facing what they most fear and are most challenged by.
- Confuse strength with the particular defense strategies they most rely on, i.e., angry outbursts, avoidance, denial, wishful thinking, and the like.
- Refuse to accept or deal with what is happening in their lives at present or what happened in the past, and think escaping (the pain of growing, developing, maturing etc) is a viable solution.
- Have unrealistic expectations for what ‘should’ or ‘must’ happen in order for them to feel strong or valued.
- Believe relationships and happiness in life means the absence of emotional pain, fear and anger.
Outward appearances can be deceiving. Paradoxically, the ‘bigger the ego’ one has, the weaker their ego-strength. In turn, the weaker the ego-strength, the more rigid the refusal to feel and to process the painful feelings, beliefs and thoughts that are essential to break free of stuck places, which can put life on hold.
Personal power and the characteristics of high ego-strength?
In contrast, a person with well-developed ego-strength is resilient, optimistic, and has a strong sense of self as capable in handling challenges. They more often:
- Take a learning approach to life that increasingly grows their strength and confidence in handling triggering situations.
- Have an ability to tolerate discomfort, enough to regulate their emotions as opposed to feeling overwhelmed by them.
- Approach life overall with a curiosity and readiness to explore and to master what strengthens them, thus, increasing their chances of finding new ways of coping with challenges.
- Treat self and others as having inner resources to deal with challenges.
- Do not personalize what others say or do, and regard self and other as human beings, thus, fallible.
- Give others ownership for exacerbating or solving their own problems, as necessary.
- Exude an overall confidence in self and others to use their resources to handle and resolve life issues.
The stronger the ego-strength, the more comfortable one feels in taking ownership of their problems, and giving ownership to others for theirs.
A healthy ego-strength is connected to a healthy self-concept, one that is resilient, thus can look at a situation and see beyond it, understand the difference between wants and needs, and practices acceptance to discern between what can and cannot be changed, to respond accordingly.
Why a healthy ego is essential to health and happiness?
A healthy ego gives us the needed ego-strength to navigate challenging moments, and emotions of vulnerability rooted in fear and anxiety, with ease and resilience. It is an essential skill in the formation of healthy emotional intimacy in couple relationships.
Unlike weak ego-strength, we are less likely to personalize what others say or do, and more likely to accept our self and others as human beings who have a right to make mistakes, and to grow their own problem solving abilities in the process – by making and learning from mistakes. It’s very basic to how healthy human beings learn.
Your level of ego-strength refers to your ability to be adaptive, flexible and resilient in how you respond to challenging circumstances in your personal life and relationships. Thus, ego-strength is a measure of your:
- Personal power to make optimal choices at any given moment in time.
- Capacity to regulate difficult emotions in order to remain in optimal emotional states.
- Ability to accept what is, in past or present, and tolerate discomfort, stress, frustration without getting triggered.
In many ways, your ego-strength reflects the extent to which your core beliefs and expectation are serving you, at any given time, to make optimal choices in moments when you face challenges. Unrealistic expectations for your self, others and life are energy draining to your ego, or sense of self.
Core beliefs are limiting when:
- They turn fears into bigger-than-life illusions, thus, seemingly too scary or overwhelming to deal with effectively.
- They unnecessarily activate your body’s stress response, making automatic defensive tactics, such as blame, avoidance or denial, etc., seem like the only options for lowering your anxiety.
- They block you from making new healthy choices or changes, and thus impair your personal and relational growth and development.
- They keep you stuck repeating problem behaviors, habits, addictive relating patterns and so on.
All of the above lower your ego-strength.
With a grounded sense of your own personal power, you are more likely to stay determined, hopeful, believing and empathically engaged to your compassion for your self and key other. In contrast to an unhealthy one, a well-developed ego-strength allows you to relate to self and others in ways that promote mutual cooperation and positive regard.
In a nutshell, a healthy ego is essential to your personal and relational happiness.