Ego is Opposite of Narcissism: Ego Functions

Uploaded 2/10/2021, approx. 16 minute read

My name is Sam Vaknin, I am the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited, and despite the informal attire, I am a professor of psychology. Even professors of psychology can be casual.

So today we are going to discuss ego functions and how narcissism had evolved as a concept from Freud, to Jung, to Kohut, and to Ronai, in reverse order, to Ronai and to Kohut.

Now, you see, there's a big, there's a great disagreement about what constitutes narcissism. And this disagreement cuts wide and deep. And even within the psychoanalytic community, not to say cult, the disagreements are very profound.

Let alone when you exit psychoanalysis, when you exit psychodynamic theories, when you venture into object relations, the British school, other schools, and then further, there's a serious problem to agree what is pathological narcissism.

And today I want to give you a view of the concept and its evolution from a historical perspective.

But before we go there, I'm going to answer one question as has become our habit. One of you had written to me to ask, what are ego functions? I keep mentioning ego functions, ego functions. I keep saying that the narcissist has no ego. So he has to outsource his ego functions. He has to import them from the outside from other people.

And so what are ego functions?

I have discussed the ego in previous videos, and I encourage you to watch them.

There is a big mess, big confusion about using the term.

And so for example, all the self-styled experts and one of the coaches and what have you with or without academic degrees, keep saying that the narcissist has an inflated ego when actually the narcissist doesn't have an ego at all.

The narcissist is indeed selfless in the sense that he doesn't have a self. He doesn't have an ego.

Ego and self are not the same thing, by the way. The self is more of a Jungian thing. Ego is more of a Freudian thing, but the narcissist definitely doesn't have that entity, that construct that performs critical internal functions.

This is why the narcissist is parasitic. It relies on other people to perform functions that usually are carried out internally by healthy people.

And what are these functions?

Number one, reality testing. The ego's role is to alert the owner of the ego to reality. It's to tell the owner of the ego, listen, what you're going to do is wrong. It's going to have repercussions. It's going to have implications and consequences which are adverse.

And you don't really want to do this.

So the ego monitors, the ego in a way is hypervigilant. It monitors the environment. It surveys reality and it brings back information and data to the individual, trying to somehow modulate, moderate and control impulses and urges and drives, trying to modify behaviors in ways which would render them sublimated socially acceptable.

So the ego distinguishes what occurs in one's own mind from what is happening simultaneously in the external world out there.

In other words, the ego is the personality construct that is in charge of informing the individual what objects are external and which objects are internal.

The confusion between internal and external objects, for example, psychotic disorders, in narcissism, in borderline, this confusion is an outcome of an ego that is malformed or not fully formed.

Ego formation had been disrupted by trauma and abuse in early childhood.

The ego negotiates with the outside world. It requires perceiving stimuli, evaluating them, classifying and categorizing them and predicting the outcomes of actions.

So reality testing is a crucial component of surviving in the world and functioning in the world and on the world.

In other words, reality testing is the foundation of agency, personal agency and self-efficacy.

Of course, reality testing can be distorted, can be distorted, can be, for example, reality testing deteriorates in stressful conditions under stress. And reality testing can give way to delusions, to hallucinations, and anyhow, reality testing is very selective. We process only five percent of the information, the data that we get from the environment.

And reality testing also is clustered. It is divided into clusters.

So there are many deficiencies, there are many glitches and bugs in reality testing.

But all in all, it works well.

When the ego is healthy, when the ego is integrated, the reality testing works well.

If we observe deficiencies, chronic deficiencies, chronic malfunctions in reality testing, we can safely say that there's a problem with the ego, either organic medical problem or psychological problem.

Reality testing.

The second function is impulse control. It is the ego which is in charge of managing aggressive or libidinal erotic wishes.

So it is the ego that postpones gratifications, that delays action, prevents immediate discharge or immediate release of the impulse via behaviors or even via symptoms.

So when we see someone who has problems with impulse control, we can safely assume there's a problem with the ego.

People who have trouble with anger management, road rage, sexual promiscuity, excessive substance abuse, binge eating, etc. These kind of people have a problematic ego.

Number three, regulation of affect, regulation of emotions and feelings without being overwhelmed, which is a prime indicator that, for example, people with borderline personality disorder, people with schizoid personality disorder, and to a large extent people with narcissistic personality disorder, don't have an ego.


Because the borderline is manifestly and overtly emotionally dysregulated. She's overwhelmed by her emotions and also she mislabels her emotion.

The narcissist and the schizoid had chosen a different solution. They had repressed their emotions so deeply that they no longer have access to positive emotionality, only to negative emotions.

And in the case of a schizoid, sometimes not even to negative emotions. So when emotions are absent, we know that they are not regulated and we can safely assume there's a problem with the ego.

The next function is judgment, the capacity to act judiciously, responsibly, in an adult manner, identifying possible causes of action, anticipating and evaluating likely consequences, making decisions as to what is appropriate in given circumstances.

Object relations that I keep mentioning all the time, that's an ego function.

Ego function.

Ego is what makes object relations possible and mutually satisfying.

Someone without an ego is incapable of having external object relations because they keep confusing external and internal objects.

The individual can perceive himself as a whole complete, separate, boundaried, bounded object entity. Only when he perceives other people as similarly bounded and boundaried and separate. Separateness is critical. If we don't perceive other people as separate from us, we merge, we fuse, we lose our own separateness.

And this is the role of the ego, object relations via separateness. They see irony. You can get close and intimate with someone only if you recognize their autonomy, their separateness, that they are not like, that they are not you.

Okay, next thing. Thinking. Cognition.

Yes, believe it or not, the ego is responsible for logical, coherent and abstract thinking.

In stressful situations, we can see that thought processes become disorganized and chaotic. Speech becomes disorganized. Word salad, for example, is schizophrenics. That's an outcome of the ego being overwhelmed by too much data, too much information, too many stressors.

The presence of chronic or severe problems in conceptual thinking is associated with a lack of ego or a totally fragmented ego, for example, in dissociative identity disorder, in schizophrenia, in the manic episodes, in bipolar disorder.

Next is defenses. I keep mentioning defense mechanisms.

Well, all the defensive functions, all of them reside in the ego. The role of defensive functions is to protect the individual. And they protect the individual by wording off, fending off firewalling, input, data and information, which would be very powerful, very potent and identity threatening.

So defenses first develop in infancy. And then we have very primitive defenses like splitting, denial, projection. As we grow up, as we become adults, we develop much more sophisticated defenses, rationalization, for example, intellectualization. And we develop internal boundaries between the ego, the super ego, and the ego, to use Freud's lingo, to use his tripartite model.

So the ego is responsible for defense makers.

Now, those of you who are possessed with more than 100 IQ, tiny minority, admittedly, would immediately ask me, wait a minute, if defense mechanisms are intended to fend off information, to create an echo chamber, if they are, if they collude with a confirmation bias, in the sense that they filter out information, which is egodystonic and pleasant, challenging, etc., then how can this be reconciled with reality testing?

Defense mechanisms falsify reality. They falsify reality by excluding certain data and certain bits of information. So if they falsify reality, how can the ego do both things at once, maintain reality testing, and falsify reality?

It's a very good question. And the answer to which is unknown.

I must tell you that this is one of the major conundrums in the concept of ego, and in the derivatives, for example, ego therapy and self-theory, Kogut's self-theory, which we will discuss in the next video.

So there are problems, internal inherent problems, in the very constructive concept of the ego, and this is a major one, possibly the biggest one.

The next thing is synthesis. I've just mentioned that the ego operates defense mechanisms. Some of them are very primitive, projection, denial, splitting, and they're supposed to die. They're supposed to disappear as we grow up, mature, and become adults.

And then we have repression, we have regression, displacement, reaction formation, intellectualizations, many other defense mechanisms. Adults sometimes use primitive defenses, but this is usually when they are seriously stressed in a crisis, and so on and so forth.

But generally, they're more mature. They're more mature because they have accomplished something called synthesis.

The synthetic function of the ego is the capacity to organize and unify other functions within the personality. It enables the individual to think, to feel, to act in a coherent and cohesive manner.

In other words, it is the core of identity.

When we say, for example, oh, I know this guy. I know he's not going to do this. It's against his character. It's not in character.

This is the synthetic function. The ego synthesizes everything so that it presents to the world a coherent, cohesive, not immutable, but close to immutable, close to unchangeable, definitely predictable version of who we are.

And this is our identity.

And people come to rely on our identity. They come to expect certain things from us. They come to expect that we will not act in certain ways.

And it enables the individual to similarly rely on himself, an individual which is synthesized, whose ego is synthesized, or whose ego performs the synthetic function, is an individual who is at peace with himself. He knows himself. He knows his limitations. He knows the strong points. He knows what he can accomplish and what he cannot. He knows the difference between fantasy and reality. He knows to which behaviors he could expect of himself.

And often you hear people saying, I can't believe I did this. This is so out of character. These are people with ego problems. They are most likely cluster B or some other personality disorder.

Only people with personality disorders, with severe fissures in the personality, with a disabled ego, would say something like this. The identity is lifelong. It prevails. It exists largely unchanged throughout the lifespan. Many things can change. Behaviors can change. Beliefs can change. Many things can change, but not the core identity.

Core identity persists throughout the lifespan.

And if someone acts in a way which is egodystonic, negates his core identity, and himself is shocked by this behavior, then something's wrong with this kind of person.

The synthetic function of the ego includes a capacity to integrate potentially contradictory experiences, ideas, and feelings. And this is the beginning, the glimmerings of an answer to the previous question.

This ability to synthesize allows the ego to reconcile somehow the reality testing, proper reality testing, with the reality falsifying qualities of defense mechanisms.

The ego synthesizes these two and subsumes them in what we call a narrative.

So the ego is in charge of creating narratives. It's the storyteller. It's the scriptwriter. It's the director of the movie that is alive.

And so the ego, for example, accommodates ambivalence. You could love someone and hate the same person. You could love someone and be angry at someone at the same time.

And it is the ego that synthesizes ambivalent feelings, ambivalent affects, ambivalent emotions, and somehow creates a narrative that accommodates both.

Obviously, the more intelligent you are, the more imaginative and creative you are, the easier it would be for your ego to function.

That's a major problem in personality disorders, because people with personality disorders who are intelligent and imaginative and creative, they create narratives. They don't have an ego. They don't have a functioning ego, but they have the synthetic function. They create narratives that compensate for the lack of ego.

And these narratives, because they're imbued with intelligence and creativity and imagination, these narratives are very difficult to contradict or to break.

In therapy, these people act together when it comes to the narrative. They are so convinced of their narrative.

And of course, another name for this narrative is personality disorder.

So these narratives, people without an ego or with a dysfunctional ego or malformed ego or nonintegrated ego, they come out with compensatory narratives known as personality disorders.

So these are the functions of the ego. And I will not go into each and every one of them. Each and every one of them deserves its own video, because each and every ego function is very critical and so on.

But that's an overview.

According to Freud, Freud's theory is what we call a structural theory. There's a model, there's a graph, you know, diagram, and there are three parts. Later, he added more. There are several principles. It's a bit like the diagram of a physical machine, like a car, you know. And so it's a structural theory.

And there are libidinal errors or life oriented impulses. They are aggressive, fanatic or death oriented impulses. There's libido, there's dastrudo or mortido. I mean, everything is neatly in its place. There's an id, the id is primitive, the id is childlike, the id has urges, the id cannot control, it's impulsive, it's reckless, it's crazy, and so on and so forth. A bit like your husband.

And there is the ego. The ego controls the id, modulates it, modifies, modifies it, prevents it from acting crazy. There's a super ego which monitors both of them and supervises them, kind of judges them. Sometimes we call it inner critic, if it's highly sadistic.

And so, in Freud's structural theory, all these impulses are continuously in conflict. And they're in conflict with each other, and they're in conflict with other processes. But they're all bound by the limits of reality, unless you are psychotic. Only psychotic people inflate out to embrace and fuse with reality. So psychotic people have no boundaries. And they confuse internal with external. And so they have something called hyper-reflexivity. It's like they are like a big bank, like they're expanding suddenly, and they incorporate the entire universe. This happens also in schizoid personality disorder. The schizoid person expands to include other people. And he's so terrified of this process, because he's not psychotic, that he withdraws immediately.

So at first he expands, he gets terrified, and then he withdraws totally. And then he's not in touch with anyone. He becomes a lone wolf. That's a schizoid element.

And so reality imposes strict boundaries, strict limitations on what the ego can accomplish, and on ego functions, and on all the drives and urges and energy which are embedded in the ego and in the totality of the model.

And these conflicts between these parts, if they are not properly managed, mainly by the ego, they lead to what Freud at the time called neurosis, neurosis or neurotic symptoms.

And today we don't call them neurosis anymore, but you know, they lead to personality disorders, and so on.

And the idea is to reestablish the checks and balances, to reestablish the harmony between these.

Each one has his role, and of course each role limits the other functions, the other constructs roles.

But conflict can be managed, can be avoided, in order to generate psychological agency, in order to bring things to consciousness without disintegrating, in order to manage the energy that is pent up in the unconscious.

And of course, most importantly, in order to allow the ego to function. And in ego psychology, this is called defense analysis.

And I will discuss in my next video, I will discuss the history of the ego and how ego suddenly become narcissistic, when it's actually the exact opposite.

Ego is realistic, not narcissism. Ego would never be grandiose, for example.

So psychologists hope, try to help the patient gain control over structures, internal objects and processes, by actually strengthening the ego or building up, building it up from zero, from scratch.

Just remember, ego is the opposite of narcissism.

So when we say ego death, we're actually saying someone should become a narcissist.

That's how much these gurus and mystics and coaches and experts towards whom I have the most profound contempt, know what they're talking about, and how they all mislead you.

Thank you for listening. Next lecture, the historical antecedents and development and evolution was the very concept of narcissism.

You can learn a lot about narcissism and their relationships with other people by listening to the next lecture, because this was the starting point.

People like Freud and Jung, they were shocked. They were shocked by narcissistic manifestations and narcissistic misbehavior and narcissistic traits within relationships, for example, between daughters and fathers, between sons and fathers, between husbands and wives.

They started the beginning.

Ironically, the beginning was relational. They were studying relationships only much later with the development of personality theory and individual theory, only much later we atomized psychology.

So today we discuss the individual as though it is totally out of context, as though relationships don't matter, as though we could isolate an individual in a laboratory without anyone around and still learn everything about you, which is, of course, utter nonsense.

Psychology needs to go back to its roots, relationships, context, society, other people, emotions, like love.

Thank you for listening.

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Professor Sam Vaknin discusses the concept of ego functions and their role in narcissism. He explains that the ego is a Freudian construct responsible for interfacing with reality and preventing impulsive, id-driven actions. The ego's main functions include reality testing, impulse control, regulation of affect, judgment, object relations, thinking, and defenses. Vaknin argues that narcissists lack a fully formed ego, leading them to outsource ego functions and rely on others. He also suggests that the ego's role is to decathect, or withdraw emotional investment from objects, to maintain an objective view of reality. Reality testing, a key ego function, is the ability to distinguish internal thoughts and fantasies from external reality. Vaknin critiques Freud's evolving theories on reality testing and emphasizes the importance of cognition in regulating behavior and maintaining self-awareness. He concludes that narcissists not only lack a coherent ego or self but also suffer from a cognitive deficit, leaving them with a distorted perception of reality and themselves.

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