Continuing Thoughts on the Observing Ego


Since I posted my last blog, I have had several conversations with people about it. They indicated that I did not make myself clear. They ask, “What is the observing Ego, and how is it different from the Ego?”

In my thinking, the Ego is a heuristic concept that was created by Sigmund Freud. It is something that he explains as a portion of his personality development theories. My understanding of Freud’s concept is that the Ego is the executive functioning portion of the personality; it makes the decisions and responds to the demands of survival and life. The job of the Ego is to evaluate the reality that surrounds it in terms of risks, benefits, costs and consequences. According to the theory, there are two other, equally important parts of the personality. Those parts are the Id and the Super Ego.

The Id is fully developed at birth. It never changes and it never grows or matures. It is always a voice in your head that says “I want it and I want it now”. The function of the Id is to satisfy needs and gratify desires. Anytime you want something, you are thirsty and crave liquid refreshment, the Id will try to force you to find something to drink. It does not care what it is that you drink, from water to battery acid. It just finds liquid and shouts, “Drink this now!” The Id is amoral; having no moral values it seeks only instant gratification. It never rests and it never sleeps. It is always monitoring you and your surroundings for sources of gratification, and like a child, when it spots one, it intrudes and shouts, “I want that now!” According to the theory though, the Id does not have any motive power. It can only demand. It does not move the system to act or  chose.

In many ways the Id is like a child, standing at your side, tugging on your dress and saying over and over again, “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy,” without regard to what you are doing or whether or not it is appropriate, or even if you are getting angry. It just says, “I want that now.” When the Id does not get what it wants, it throws a fit. You have seen the Id in action in a grocery store when the child wants something (candy, toy, shiny object) at the check out lane. When it, the Id, is told no, it screams and yells and cries.

The Id is fully formed at birth and only knows two vocabulary words “yes” and “now,” but has no power to make you move. Some other source of active energy must exist in order to help you manipulate your environment so that you can get the relief that the Id demands. That motive force is provided by the Ego. The theory maintains that the Ego exists at birth, it is functional but not developed. The job of the Ego is to learn to move the body, then act to gratify the demands of the Id. In the first few years, the Ego is a slave to the Id. It uses energy to manipulate you or others to gratify the shouting of the Id.

But, the Ego can learn and grow. The Ego continues to learn and grow as long as it is conscious even to the moment of death. Its role as the executive function of the personality is to learn how to manipulate the environment to acquire the things that the Id needs to gratify its demands. Many of these demands are primitive, unconscious and survival based. For instance you need nourishment and liquid to survive. In the beginning you scream (action of the Ego) for attention when there is a need, such as the need to feed. But the Ego learns to be more complex. It learns to be seductive, proactive, deliberate and to reality test danger and consequence and reward. Those of us with a highly developed and skilled Ego learn how to get more out of life and make our lives more comfortable than many of our peers. It is this area that becomes the Observing Ego. This is the area that can calculate risks, costs, and benefits that can evaluate paths forward and chose among them. The successful Ego will learn to find ways to meet the needs of the Id without surrendering control to the Id.

The third level of personality is the Super Ego. The Super Ego is the moral, conscience of the personality. It is sometimes (in other theories) called the Parental Introject. It consists of the right and wrong messages based on values, such as religious or spiritual, that we are taught by our parents, our churches, and schools. Once it is internalized it does not grow or change either. Just like the Id, it has a limited vocabulary. Its vocabulary is NO, should, or must. It is often the source of the guilt we feel when we do not do what it wants us to do in order to be “moral, righteous and good” according to its internalized map of right action.

The challenge of the Ego is to navigate between the competing and equally loud demands of the Id and the Super Ego. It is kind of like the scene in the movie Animal House where the young boy is trying to make a choice about a course of action, and two miniatures of him are on his shoulder arguing with him. One is an angel who counsels upright good and moral behavior, and one is a devil who counsels pleasure, seeking gratification without regard to costs or consequences. The boy in the middle of the conversation represents the Observing Ego. It has to find a way forward. It must satisfy each of the competing parts at some acceptable level. This is one of the goals of the defense mechanisms, which are all tools for the Ego, even though these tools are unconscious, automatic and hierarchical for the most part.

The more complex and better developed the Observing Ego is, the more capable it is to navigate the troubled waters of the demands of the Id and Super Ego and still function in a real, concrete world where choices have consequences. The Ego is the only one of these three parts that has any power to actually move. Actions are taken at the Ego level, even when they are instigated by, or in response to the demands of either the Id or the Super Ego.

In my previous blog, I was talking of ways that the Ego becomes the Observing Ego. Reality testing is a crucial skill of the Ego. Learning to avoid a victim script and learning to accept responsibility and power for action are critical steps along the way. Some of the questions I have received about the blog were about the part where I talked about people using religion as a victim script, or as a script for obtaining something they wanted or valued without taking any responsibility for choosing or acting. What I said is that sometimes people use the phrases, “It was (or was not) meant to be,” or “If God wills it,” or some variant of that. I want to try to clarify my thinking here for the reader. I do not mean to say that there is no God involved in this process of choice making or that there may not be a path that such a God would prefer for us to take. What I meant is that I strongly believe that the individual “I” has a responsibility for choosing a way forward. Our maker gives us the power to make choices and to use our skills and assets to learn and grow in directions of our choosing.

I think it is the job of the Observing Ego to learn to assess and make choices among the various temptations and desires that we experience. Its primary job is for us to survive and prosper. We make choices every day in service of that. We learn to discipline the Id and limit its scope of action, or we suffer the consequences of not learning how to do that. We learn to “hear” the moral values of our super Ego and respond to them in ways that do not put us at risk of being rejected by our families and our culture. We learn to find our path forward. Just as I believe there are many people in our world that we can find and fall in love with and make good lives with (not just one mate destined and chosen by God for each of us in a Universe of billions of people.) I believe that we can choose alternate paths of life. There are lessons to be learned, things to accomplish, and roles to play. It is our job, the job of the Observing Ego, to help us make those choices, and walk those paths, to continue to learn as we move on to the next lesson and the next stage.

I envision God to be like the loving parent who watches over us and supports and nurtures us, even when we make poor or less effective choices. I have children and I do not control their choices. I teach them, taught them and let them go. They have to construct their lives and follow their paths. I will love them and support them whatever they chose and wherever they go. I cannot keep them from breaking the law, from smoking, drinking and fornicating. I cannot make them become doctors, lawyers or criminals. They must walk their road.  My job is to protect them when they are young, to teach them what I know about how I have lived my life, model for them a way to do things, but ultimately, to surround them with my love and support, but accept their independence and their power to chose.

I do not know about forgiveness and salvation. I know about Love and Grace. I have experienced both in my life and hope to be able to model that reality for my children’s Observing Ego and for those that I love in this world. In the meantime, I will be using my Observing Ego to manipulate my own world so that I can live with integrity, dignity and as much comfort as I can obtain.

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One Response to Continuing Thoughts on the Observing Ego

  1. Jeannie says:

    Excellent follow-up article. The Observing Ego is there to serve us well, but the ID is so powerful (mine, anyway). I suppose that is where the discipline and honesty has to be developed. It is quite a process and task. My therapist says it is can be very difficult to cultivate. But, being able to develop the awareness and really feel it trying to work and actually serve us is a good start….perseverance. My therapist just left for two weeks away and my inner child is having an absolute fit….as usual. But, I have so much more control now that I understand why that happens and can use the Observing Ego to ground me when this happens. Psychotherapy is fascinating; the unconscious motivations, etc. I have learned so much from my experience and was told if I stick with it, it can transform my life…’s true. Nice website. Thanks

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