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Understanding Ego State Therapy

Posted on February 2, 2013 at 1:43 PM Comments comments (290)
Ever wonder why you act differently when you are in different situations?  For example, let's suppose that you are at a party with close friends and there is allot of laughter; chances are you will feel free to laugh and tease each other much like you might have done as a child.  If you are in such a friendly nurturing atmosphere you might say, "I'm free to be myself today."  You might find yourself dancing around, making faces, telling jokes and in general having a good time. At the party you might think to yourself, "I feel really happy and excited to be with my friends."
 
Now contrast these emotions and behavior with what you would probably display at a funeral of a family member or close friend.  What is "proper behavior" at a funeral is very different than what would be appropriate normal behavior at a party wouldn't it?  At a funeral you would wear formal clothing, allow your sad feelings to be expressed in your emotional expression and behavior.  At the funeral you might be thinking, "I am so sorry that this happened; I hate that death has taken my friend that I already miss so much."
 
In a third setting, let's say that you are at work, you might find your emotions and behavior entirely different than at the two previously mentioned situations.  If you are at work then you are expected to do what?  Well get to work for one thing.  In other words, start using your mind to solve problems and provide a service to your employer.  If you are in a "white collar job" then you will likely be asked to sit in an office and solve problems for your employer.  If you are in a "blue collar job" then you may be asked to do more physical work.  In either case your work setting will expect a focused rational and disciplined effort on your part that engages a very different part of your personality than you would be expressing at a party or funeral. At work you may be thinking, "I've really got to stay focused on this task in order to make this deadline on time.  I'm feeling very anxious and tired but I've got to push myself to get this job done."   Notice how different your emotions and behaviors are in these three settings. 
 
What we have just discussed is that you are capable of acting in three completely different ways as you adapt to the various expectations of three different situations.  Had you been the patient of Freud he would have explained to you that you were engaging different sub-personalities or ego states.  The first ego state, at a party setting, would be expressing your very positive emotional needs for happiness and companionship. He referred to this ego state as the "Id". That is the part of your personality that is most concerned with expressing feelings openly and seeking pleasurable activities.
 
The second ego state, the one displayed when at a funeral, he would have labeled the "Super-Ego".  This is a part of your personality that you in effect downloaded in childhood from watching adults behavior in serious situations.  It is the sub-personality that contains all of your personal values and beliefs about what is ethical behavior.  It is the part of you most concerned with following the rules.
 
The ego state that you utilize in your work setting Freud called the "ego" or you might think of as your most rational self.  It is the part of you most concerned with making good choices and consequences in your thoughts as well as your behavior.  This is the part of your personality that you develop only after childhood.  You generally do have the developmental capacity to think logically until middle to late adolescence.  This means that until you reach the teen-age years, or perhaps even much later, you are not physically or psychologically developed well enough to make good decisions.
In therapy it is the "ego" sub-personality that the psychologist works with to gain better control of your emotions and behavior.
 
Most of you readers are familiar with the work of Dr. Sigmund Freud who was the founder of Psychoanalysis.  Although he died long ago, in 1939 at age 83, his influence was felt for many decades after he published his landmark book, "The Interpretation of Dreams" in 1899. He was a brilliant man born in what is now Czechoslavacia and later established his clinic in Vienna, Austria.  Freud's theories about how the mind worked changed the world of mental health treatment treatment. Prior to Freud the predominant psychological theories focused on the study of what was observed to be the ability of the human mind to learn and develop new habit.
 
What Freud described in his writings, and practiced in his therapy, was a novel approach to understanding the human mind.  His view was that all of your thinking was essentially an internal conversation between these three ego states or sub-personalities.  He viewed mental health problems as simply a lack of balance between these three parts: the Id, the Ego, and the Super-Ego.  He viewed the Ego in healthy personalities as being the most important of the three sub-personalities.  A lack of Ego strength in his view led to problems that were manifested in the patient's emotions and behavior.  If the Id was the most powerful of the three then the patient would be very impulsive and "act out" in order to satisfy their need for pleasure.  The Id does not have the rational capacity to understand or care about the consequences of your behavior.  Therefore it can be dangerous to let the Id be the dominant voice in your thoughts.  You may here yourself thinking, "I don't care about what happens later; I just want to do this right now!"  This can obviously lead to significant behavior problems.  When you have an overactive Id have problems with impulse control and often complain being of the negative consequences of their behavior.  When asked why you did something because your Id was in control you might find yourself thinking, or even saying out loud, "I just couldn't help myself."
 
Conversely if your Super-Ego is in control at the moment you will be focused on doing the right thing.  If you tend to be a perfectionist you know this experience well.  You will find it hard to accept anything less than perfection in your performance.  This may be manifested by workaholic behavior or simply the lack of balance between work and play.  If you were a client who are referred to me for anxiety issues you would probably have an overactive Super-Ego that doesn't allow you to ever enjoy relaxing.  You would be tired, depressed and anxious about your behavior if it fell short of your very best effort.  If you are a perfectionist you might hear yourself thinking, "I'm never doing enough. I will just stay at this task until it is perfect."  The problem is if you are a perfectionist you think this way about almost every task in your life.  Everything becomes a challenge that you feel driven to demonstrate and prove your worth by the high quality of your performance.  You would become, what psychologists often call, a "human doing" instead of a "human being."  Learning to just "Be in the Moment" and focus on what is happening in the present is very difficult for perfectionists.  Mindfulness meditation is a very good practice for perfectionists and you can find articles about this on the Internet.
 
The difference between high functioning individuals and those who suffer from anxiety or depression is that the high functioning persons have a balance so that each of the ego states is given appropriate expression.  For this reason journaling or keeping a diary is a good coping skill.  It allows you to read what you are thinking and feeling.  This allows you to see what each of your ego states is contributing to your flow of thought.  I hope this gives you some useful information about understanding yourself.  For more information I recommend the book, Ego States by Drs. Jack & Helen Watkins published by W.W. Norton Books and copyrighted in 1997.  This is a growing field within clinical psychologists who practice E.M.D.R. and the two fields of study are often used simultaneously in psychotherapy.