EGO: The Cauldron of Personality

Michael Fenichel, Ph.D.

Consider that personality consists of many aspects of many different experiences, both interpersonal and intra psychic. What we call one's "personality" is like a stew pot, containing many morsels, many ingredients, some larger than others, some more tasty, and some kept totally out of awareness.

And in this Freudian cauldron reside each of the ingredients which the "object relations" people refer to as "object representations" of significant people. Now, each of these object representations1 lasts for so long in this "stew pot", and exerts a distinctive influence, either motivational or toxic.

Freud talked about "cathexis" to objects. These objects get cathected to in terms of how much they contribute to the personality. Rather than focusing on physics, or psychical apparatus, I am making the distinction that these ingredients, which contribute to "ego", or "personality", are derived through a process of internalizing "objects" and learning through interpersonal relationships, rather than simply being a manifestation of physical, biological laws which suggest that all of human experience and dynamics are based in specific chemical substrates.

So, these objects that are floating around - or perhaps molecularly fixed - each contribute to the personality in their own unique way. Each have a certain longevity, and, shall we say, a certain ability to cathect (or "bind libido"). Some of these ingredients don't have great longevity. For example, they may have a sort of "leaky ego", where a person's representation easily leaks out, unless it is constantly "beefed up" (or in the case of borderline personality, structurally held together).2 In other words, there is very poor object constancy here; the objects in the stew seem to lose their potency after a while.3

And this is my metaphor for the "personality": that which resides collectively in some sort of ego in which one's behaviors and feelings are regulated by perceptions of interpersonal relationship demands with significant people4 , who are represented in this personality as introjected objects.

1 In today's terms: "icons". A fuller exploration of "term equivalence", such as "cathexis" versus "file associations", "suppression" versus "fire walls", "fuzzy logic" versus "free association", "identity" vs. "cookies", "RAM/Hard Drive/MHz" vs. "STM, Long-term Memory, IQ", etc., seems very ripe for discussion!

2In today's terms: "refreshed", or "reloaded".

3 In the 21st Century, individuals with these "leaky egos" have increasingly been inhabiting and adapting to the world of online interpersonal relationships, seeking help, fulfilling needs and sometimes acting out pathology. Interestingly, research and practice among online mental health professionals such as the participants in ISMHO's Case Study Group (co-facilitated by Dr. John Suler and myself) have led to recent explorations of how people with serious ego difficulties may be assimilating the Internet to accommodate anything from impulses to expressions of anger and aggression to sexual gratification to having a feeling of power over individuals or groups of people. For someone whose personality demands a great deal of structure, there are many ways to accommodate this online, ranging from self-entertaining on the world-wide web, to becoming involved in angry e-mail exchanges ("flaming") to adopting multiple identities or becoming active in multiple lists and/or message board discussions. People feeling empty or chaotic inside their inner worlds now have a whole new universe to explore, external to themselves. As the new century begins, clearly psychologists and other mental health professionals are just now in the beginning stages of learning how to best assess and treat various types of "ego" problems using the various modalities and communication channels which are now available to online practitioners.

4 One of the more interesting and challenging activities for both casual websurfers and online psychotherapists is forming an accurate representation of the person with whom we are communicating at the other end of the Internet connection. In the absence of physical appearance, vocal tone, body language, etc., it is both difficult to categorize someone into a familar "box" and especially easy to use projection or fantasy to establish or perceive an online persona which may be totally different than what one would experience offline. So how do we assimilate those we relate to only through text, into our ideas of who we are "speaking" with? During a discussion of stereotypes, British counsellor Gill Jones (personal communication, 12-9-01) made the following observation about some of the factors which may influence how we view those who we only know from online interaction:

I think we also use our store of stereotypical information to put people into convenient boxes on the Internet. These are based on choice and use of language, typos/freudian slips, choice of stylistic variables like font, colour of font, upper/lower case, use of !!!!, <sigh>, <lol>, :-), :-( , and other textual ploys.

Copyright © 1989, 1997-2006 Michael Fenichel

[Color Line]


Commentary from R.U.    1-11-97

> I read and re-read your page on ego and found it most interesting. As a
> totally uneducated fool on this topic I have the freedom to think about
> these things in any bizarre way I chose <G> so here it goes...

The human mind organizes itself by labeling everything it becomes aware of. A baby starts off life with a limited set of animal instincts and using them as a foundation builds from there. The brain uses a sort of fuzzy logic. All internal communication consists of concepts like "better or worse", "more or less". The brain likes to file everything it knows in neat little boxes . Without the "boxes", retrieval of the information would be next to impossible. When you see someone you haven't come across in years, your brain first looks into the "collection of faces box", then into the sub groups "is this a personal friend? a business associate? a media star?".

[Editor's note: This is an excellent example of what Piaget described as one's "schema".]

You will notice that ultimately the connection will be made because of some association between the contents of one or more boxes. That is the bottom line you can't remember, feel, or even think without comparing an item in one or more "boxes" with what is in another.

[Comments: And that is the basis for all of the research in psychology on word association, free association, and associative reasoning generally. There is also an interesting conceptual model from the time and place of Freud, known as the Zeigarnik Effect. Zeigarnik postulated that one's attention, or one's consciousness, is like a compass seeking its bearing. As we walk closer to the thing we're trying to remember, such as the boiling teapot or one's checkbook or one's spouse, the little arrow in our master attention control center, pulls increasingly more strongly toward the important, but still out-of-consciousness object, as more and more associations are triggered. The closer one gets, the stronger the pull, until it is remembered, observed, or expunged from short-term memory. But this gets into the realm of memory and cognition, whereas you are about to make a good point about EGO, and how the boxes are not only shaped by tangible events and objects, but also by life experience and our unique ways of subjectively interpreting our world.]

The boxes are not there from the start of life. Each person creates them as the need arises. Everything MUST have a box to go in. What we don't understand goes into the "God or Magic" box (but that is another story). Personality (ignoring all chemical influences for now) is the sum total of not only what a person has filed away in each box but also how the boxes are organized. The first set of boxes that contain all the sub groups are the most important. If any thing goes wrong here there will be problems with all the rest.

Actually, I think you're *exactly* correct, and in a way I was addressing the "neat little boxes" part, since that's often what causes problems (e.g., compulsive disorder), although the "fuzzy logic" within and between boxes can get totally out of alignment with "formal thought disorder" such as schizophrenia, or with brain damage.

Also, your description of how our concepts, recognition, etc, evolve is very sophisticated, and some of it you have no doubt observed, at least informally, as a parent watching children develop.

Your general outline is very close to the master works of Piaget, who described the early development of thinking, largely based on observing his own children. His basic conceptual framework involves the processes of "accommodation" and "assimilation". The former involves the initial creation of the "box", or concept, or "object representation", whereby an infant first *creates* a general "schema" for a particular class of experience. As new experiences occur, they are either "assimilated" into existing schema, or a new one is formed, this being the process of "accommodating" the new schema by giving it a label and a place within the world view. This carries on throughout life. [E.g., at this moment I'm debating between assimilating your thoughts into the web page, versus an accommodation of creating a new one! Poor analogy, but true.] With maturation, through stages Piaget describes of first learning that reality is constant ("object constancy") and leaving behind remnants of magical thinking, we then develop the "fuzzy logic" you describe, with inferential reasoning and other higher-order thought processes.

The "fuzzy logic", as well as "memory" aspects (e.g., does "working memory" equal RAM?) are very interesting, and have the effect of broadening my own schema. Thank you for bringing up the reference to our computerized way of life and sharing your own schema. Internet users, I find, are constantly assimilating new "computer stuff" into existing schema, and also have to accommodate completely new experiences, ranging from chat room adventures, to software updates and hardware crashes. And each of these gets placed in yet another box, and contribute, within the context of our experiences, our relationships, our realities, and our impulse control, into what I referred to as

"The Ego: Cauldron of Personality"
[Citation: Fenichel, Michael, The Ego: Cauldron of Personality,, accessed date, 20xx.]

If Freud were with us here and now, I do believe he would remind us of the validity to this day of some of his own "concepts", or "schema", or "theories". In particular, there is something he called "the Reality Principle". People's ego, people's personality (including defenses and social styles), are all strongly related to each individual's daily reality. Two kinds of reality are salient, in my opinion: one's life experiences and one's willingness or ability to process the world in objective versus fantasy terms. But Freud's reality principle in current day terms, means that besides those "boxes" which our minds use to organize our experience, each with our unique equipment to do so, there are realities such as:

Freud would clearly posit the ego in terms of one's conscious and unconscious thoughts about both reality concerns about our own unique lives, and the more universal drives which comprise the "unboxed" portions of our lives which in some instances are the more prevailing portion of one's "personality" or "ego", the starting point of this discussion.

Ego: What's Your Definition?

(from FUNK & WAGNALLS Standard Desk Dictionary)

ego -

1. The thinking, feeling, and acting self that is conscious of itself and aware of its distinction from the objects of its thought and perceptions.

2. Psychoanal. The conscious aspect of the psyche that develops through contact with the external world and resolves conflict between the id and the superego.

3. Informal Self-centerednesss; conceit.

Questions for the 00's: What are the goals and expectations for Online therapies - and the outlook for Cyberanalysis? Are we approaching an era of easy, accessible & effective mental health treatments online? Assessment tools?

Question for the 10's: How can we be mindful - focused on here & now relationships, experience, and reasoning tasks, while being bombarded by information/input (TMI) and distracted by ever-present portable/wearable screens and devices?

Is psychotherapy equivalent, in computer terms, to "defragmenting" our hard-drives, or "freeing up RAM"? Re-booting?

How should "adjustment" and "outcome" be measured -- by how big our buddy lists are? By how much time we spend online (or off)? Quality of time? Freedom from addiction?

Online Therapy : Technical Difficulties & Formulations | Myths & Realities of Online Clinical Work
Repression (Re-visited) | 2001: A Cyberspace Odyssey | CyberTravels / APA 2002 | 2003 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008

[Current Topics in Psychology]


Comments? Contributions? Click here.

Copyright © 1997-2018 Michael Fenichel, Ph.D.

Valid HTML 4.01!