What Is the Ego, and Why Is It so Involved in My Life?
The term, ego, is as confusing as any in psychology. Not only is the word itself used to refer to several distinct psychological constructs and processes, but the psychological landscape is littered with concepts that include “ego” in one way or another—egotism, ego-defense, egocentrism, superego, ego-involved, and so on. But what does ego actually mean? What are we talking about when we refer to the ego? And what is the difference among all of the terms in which the term, ego, is embedded?
Put simply, the English word, ego, is the Latin word for “I.” Literally translated, ego means “I.” (If you were writing “I love you” in Latin, you’d write ego amo te.)
Use of “ego” crept into psychology mostly through the work of Sigmund Freud. In Freud’s theory, the ego is the part of the personality that arbitrates between the animalistic desires of the “id” and the moral and social standards of the “superego.” But, interestingly, the word, “ego” does not appear anywhere in Freud’s extensive writings. He never used it. Rather, ego was a translation of what Freud, writing in German, called "das Ich"—literally “the I." In essence, Freud was referring to that conscious, decision-making part of you that you regard as “I,” as when you say “I dislike my mother” or "I decided to change jobs" or “I dreamt that my house was on fire last night.” That is your I, your ego.
So, most terms that include “ego” involve processes or reactions in which I, me, or mine figure prominently. Consider egoism, the motive to act in one’s self-interest. Someone who is behaving egoistically is simply pursuing his or her own goals, as we all do. A motive is egoistic when it’s focused on what “I” want.
Or, consider egocentrism. Egocentrism has also been used in a number of ways over the years, but it comes down to perceiving the world and interpreting events from your personal vantage point. We are all inherently egocentric in that we can never break free from either our physical vantage point (I can perceive the world only from my physical location in space) or our personal, psychological perspective that is influenced by our experiences, goals, beliefs, identities, preferences, and biases. People differ in the degree to which they can step outside their own perspective to see things from others’ viewpoints, but we’re all locked into our own egocentric viewpoint because there's no way for us to process information except from our personal frame of reference.
Egotism is another common ego-word in psychology. Egotism involves evaluating oneself more favorably than is objectively warranted. Just as we are all egoistic and egocentric, we also tend to be egotistical as well. Thousands of studies show that people are biased to view themselves too positively.
Perhaps the broadest ego-based term, egoic, is also the least common, although it is coming into vogue. Egoic simply means “pertaining to ego” or “pertaining to I.” Egoic thoughts, motives, emotions, and behaviors are reactions in which I, me, and mine take center stage. An egoic reaction is one in which I am centrally involved. Much of the time, people’s thoughts, motives, emotions, and behaviors are infused with themselves, with their I. They are thinking consciously about what they want, what they are doing, who they are, what other people think about them, and how things are going for them. In these situations, people are being egoic; they are highly self-absorbed, and their reactions are all about them.
At other times, people’s thoughts, motives, emotions, and behaviors don’t involve much ego, not much I. When you’re engrossed in a good book, working on an engaging task, having a comfortable conversation, or are in a flow experience, your “I” has receded into the background. You are responding automatically without much conscious self-related thought, and you are not currently concerned about who you are, what you want, or the implications of events for your personal interests and well-being. In these kinds of situations, your responses are not dominated by I or about thoughts of me or mine. We might say that you are being low in egoicism or “hypo-egoic.”
Note that egoic has nothing to do with being egotistical. Egotistical people may certainly be egoic, but highly self-critical people may be egoic as well. People who view themselves very negatively, as highly depressed people often do, are often highly focused on themselves and, thus, quite egoic.
These terms—egoism, egocentrism, egotism, and egoicism (and their adjectival forms: egoistic, egocentric, egotistical, and egoic)—are easy to confuse. But they refer to different, though sometimes related, ways in which our ego (our focus on "I") can influence our thoughts, motives, emotions, and behaviors.
For Further Reading
This article is reprinted from Mark Leary’s blog, “Toward a Less Egoic World,” at psychologytoday.com. You can read Mark’s other posts at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/toward-less-egoic-world
About the Author
Mark Leary is Garonzik Family Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University and Editor of Character and Context.