Ego Death II: Sense Maker

This is the second episode of a series on ego death. Read episode one

One of the many things keeping a commons has taught me is the interdependency of ideas. See, when I try to lift an idea from a book, lots of other ideas seem necessary and want to come along too. That’s because knowledge is a heavily networked entity. Every idea, every fact, every insight, every observation, is connected to and rests upon a number of other ideas, facts, insights and observations. So it’s very hard to isolate one without, at the least, making reference to multiple others.

So as I’m sat here, trying to understand the concept of the Freudian ego and communicate its essence, I can’t help but think that learning is like building scale models of the network. The more you want to understand something, the bigger the scale of your model must be. Perhaps that’s the process of learning? Going from a 1:1,000,000 model of a concept to a 1:100 version?

Anyway. The Freudian concept of “ego” is just one of the three parts of Freud’s structural model of the psyche. The other two are the “id” and the “super-ego”.

The “id” is the source of our basic needs and instincts. Our desire for shelter, safety, stability; it all arises from the “id”. That’s the most basic definition. But there’s two more things of note. The first is that, according to Freud, the “id” behaves in accordance with the pleasure principle and tries to immediately gratify any impulse that arises. The second is that the “id” knows no morality and holds no values; it is devoid of the concepts of good and evil, vice and virtue. All it seeks is fulfilment of its drives and desires.

The “super-ego” opposes the “id”. The “id” is concerned only with itself. The “super-ego” is concerned with socio-cultural acceptance and adherence. It is concerned with the ideals of virtue and right behaviour. In this sense, it acts as your conscience or inner critic, scolding you for unworthy behaviour and praising you for coming closer to the realisation of the ideals and principles you’ve derived from whatever culture or society you were raised in.

The “ego” sits between the outposts of “id” and “super-ego” and acts as a mediator. Essentially, the task of the “ego” is mollifying both the “id” and the “super-ego”. It both defers gratification in an attempt to satisfy the ideals of the “super-ego” and makes choices that satisfy desires and drives in order to keep the “id” relatively content. That’s one-half of its function.

The other half of the “ego” is its duty as sense maker. It is responsible for “psychic functions such as judgment, tolerance, reality testing, control, planning, defense, synthesis of information, intellectual functioning, and memory.” 

This passage, which I’ve poached directly from Wikipedia, superbly illustrates the central role the “ego” plays:

“The ego separates out what is real. It helps us to organize our thoughts and make sense of them and the world around us. “The ego is that part of the id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world. …The ego represents what may be called reason and common sense, in contrast to the id, which contains the passions…in its relation to the id it is like a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse; with this difference, that the rider tries to do so with his own strength, while the ego uses borrowed forces.” Still worse, “it serves three severe masters…the external world, the super-ego and the id.” Its task is to find a balance between primitive drives and reality while satisfying the id and super-ego. Its main concern is with the individual’s safety and allows some of the id’s desires to be expressed, but only when consequences of these actions are marginal. “Thus the ego, driven by the id, confined by the super-ego, repulsed by reality, struggles…[in] bringing about harmony among the forces and influences working in and upon it,” and readily “breaks out in anxiety—realistic anxiety regarding the external world, moral anxiety regarding the super-ego, and neurotic anxiety regarding the strength of the passions in the id.” It has to do its best to suit all three, thus is constantly feeling hemmed by the danger of causing discontent on two other sides. It is said, however, that the ego seems to be more loyal to the id, preferring to gloss over the finer details of reality to minimize conflicts while pretending to have a regard for reality. But the super-ego is constantly watching every one of the ego’s moves and punishes it with feelings of guilt, anxiety, and inferiority.”

So, if the “ego” makes sense of the world around us, it also must make sense of our place within it. And when our actions, decisions or thoughts conflict with the vision we have of our place within society and culture, the result is tension. Typically, that tension is manifested in the form of anxiety, guilt, inferiority, and meaningless, as hinted at above. But what is the response to the presence of this tension, to a mismatch between how we see the world and ourselves within it, and what reality is telling us about the same? The response is defence mechanisms. 

Defence mechanisms are attempts to, consciously or unconsciously, distort the perception of reality so it aligns closer with the self-image of the ego. Anna Freud actually came up with a list of the ten defence mechanisms Freud discussed:

  1. Repression – the forceful exclusion of unwanted thoughts or memories from the conscious mind. 
  2. Regression – reverting to an earlier stage of development (i.e. an adult takes on child-like characteristics) in order to better navigate or handle the present. 
  3. Reaction formation – unacceptable impulses or emotions are negated by the creation of exaggerated opposites. Anxiety or doubt is met by great confidence, love is over-written by revulsion, fear of a person is replaced by an adoration of them, and so on. 
  4. Isolation – the quarantining of specific thoughts, impulses, emotions or memories. Where repression denies all existence of an unwanted thought, isolation acknowledges its existence but cuts its connection to other thoughts. Its presence is seen as an exception, an oddity, as an isolated occurrence distinct from reality. 
  5. Undoing – unacceptable impulses, emotions or actions are negated by the undertaking of exaggerated actions which signal their opposites. For example, being overly kind to a person you hate, making displays of sorrow and grief to counteract feelings of immense joy, and so on.
  6. Projection – denying the existence of unwanted emotions or feelings in yourself and attributing them to others. For example, reading a book about political strategy and vilifying it for being amoral and unethical, or citing greed and ambition as the chief motive of another’s actions.
  7. Introjection – assimilation of parts of your surrounding environment into yourself. For example, the use of particular words, mannerisms, gestures, or styles that are heavily present in the social circumstances or groups you want to be a part of. 
  8. Turning against one’s own person – self-harming to release  a buildup of tension or anxiety, or self-harming as an admonishment for feeling or thinking certain ways. 
  9. Reversal into the opposite – concerned mostly with dreams, it is a process that turns latent thoughts into acceptable thoughts. The small is represented as large, the heavy is represented as light, the revolting is represented as attractive.
  10. Sublimation or displacement – the redirection of basic impulses—like aggression or sexual desire—down more socially acceptable and valuable paths. I.e. aggression can be channelled into building a successful career, sexual desire can be used as a fuel for creative acts, and so on.

All of the above are called defence mechanisms. They’re concerned with the parrying of assaults against our self-concept or self-schema, which, if you remember, is the second of the three interpretations of the ego we’re going to explore.