Leon Hoffman, M.D.,
is Chair of
the American Psychoanalytic Association's Committee on Public Information, Director
of The Parent Child Center of the New York Psychoanalytic Society, a contributing
editor for the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association and
a training and supervising psychoanalyst in adult, child and adolescent psychoanalysis
at The New York Psychoanalytic Institute. He has written extensively on Sigmund
Freud, women's psychology and children's issues. As spokesperson for the APA,
he regularly speaks in public forums about the role of psychoanalysis in addressing
both personal and societal concerns in contemporary American culture.
WIE: Can you please define the word
From a technical psychoanalytical
perspective and the way it's used in psychoanalytic therapy, "ego"
has a very specific meaning. Freud initially divided the mind into three theoretical
constructs: the id, the ego and the superego. The id has to do with the person's
passions, the person's wishes: sexual wishes or aggressive wishes. The goal
in life is to gain control of these passions and utilize them in the most effective
way. We've got all these impulses, and basically the goal is to get a balance
between using these impulses and at the same time curbing them in some way.
That's how the concept of superego first came into psychoanalytic thinking.
Superego forms in the development and socialization of the child, through the
interaction with the parents. Take a very simple example: A child wants to eat
all of the time, wants to grab everything, and the parent—particularly the mother
in early life—will start imposing restrictions. And eventually when a toddler
starts to crawl and wants to put his or her hands into an electric socket, the
parent is going to say, "No, you can't do that." So "no"
is a very important part of child development. There's this constant balance
between forces of wanting to do everything right now and other forces saying
no, you cannot do this right now, you have to control it. You have to delay
gratification. This is where the concept of the ego comes in, because the ego
involves your capacities for memory, your capacities for perception and your
capacities for controlling your impulses. Freud in fact once said that the
first person who spoke a curse, who spoke words instead of hurling a stone,
was the creator of civilization. So, I'm angry at you, I'm not going to punch
you, but I may tell
you that I'm angry with you. That's a very important
concept for our understanding of the way the individual develops the ability
to live within a social environment. The ego could not exist by itself; the
ego can only exist within the context of relationships with other people.
the ego is the part of the person's mind that achieves compromises between a
variety of opposing forces to develop one's self in the most adaptive way in
one's social environment. The ego has to do with adapting to your social situation
while at the same time resolving the conflict between your inner desires and
wishes and your inner sense of morality. It's like in a marriage when one person
says black and the other person says white. You have to resolve that in some
WIE: So the main function of the ego is
to negotiate between the various instinctual drives and social forces in order
to adapt appropriately to the environment?
Yes, "negotiate" is the perfect
WIE: How would you define "conscience,"
and how does conscience fit into psychoanalytic theory?
Well, that's what the concept of superego
is. Superego is really one's sense of morality. In psychoanalytic theory, the
development of morality is a crucial concept. It starts from day one, from the
fact that in rearing children, you have to begin to say "no" very
early. At some point the child is put to bed when he or she doesn't want to
go to bed. The development of conscience is very much connected with the child
learning that his or her passions can't be gratified all the time. And you want
to develop a "healthy" sense of conscience—not too strong and not
too weak. Oftentimes, if parents are too permissive, the child develops a very
strong self-punitive streak because they are frightened that nobody is controlling
their impulses. So a simple definition of conscience would be our internalized
controls, the way we have learned to regulate our wishes.
WIE: Some developmental theorists speak
about there being a qualitative difference between conscience that is based
on internalized societal "shoulds" and "shouldn'ts" and
fear of retribution—the more traditional Freudian definition of superego—and
conscience that is based more on an independent reckoning with our interconnectedness
with others and genuine concern for the effects of our actions on others. It
could be seen as more of a spiritual conscience than a conformist conscience.
Does psychoanalytic theory recognize this kind of distinction?
Well, I would say that, psychoanalytically,
these are two extremes of one continuum. Everybody to some extent has an inner
sense of control and an outer sense of control. So, for example, there are these
catch phrases: "When you're drunk, alcohol dissolves the superego."
In other words, you do things when you are intoxicated that you wouldn't do
otherwise. Or, "If you're far away from home, your superego stays at home."
There's a gradation between controlling our impulses to a greater extent or
a lesser extent. Some people need the policeman right there all the time; otherwise
they will steal. That's one extreme. And other people are so conscience-ridden
that if they pick up a paper clip, they'll feel so guilty they'll have to confess.
So I think you have these various gradations. One of the central concepts in
psychoanalysis is that the difference between health and pathology is much more
. So I would not say there's such a qualitative
between these two kinds of conscience. I would say there's a continuum between
those two extremes.
WIE: Over the past several decades, many
spiritual teachers have criticized traditional religious teachings that emphasize
renunciation and self-denial, feeling that they are repressive and life-denying,
an archaic throwback to an oppressive patriarchal era that we should strive
to move beyond, and that they only promote greater conflict and fragmentation
within the self. The late maverick spiritual teacher Bhagwan Rajneesh has gone
so far as to say, "Let it all be expressed. Let your biology be satisfied
to its fullest. . . . If your biology is completely satisfied, there is no fight
between the conscious and the unconscious. You become one whole." My question
is: What effect do you think letting the id run wild has on ego development?
That's a huge problem! If the instincts
run wild, not only can you not live in society—you can't really live with yourself.
It really would lead to enormous problems. It would lead to a total disorganization
of the personality. It would be completely inconsistent with the ability to
live. I guess the most dramatic example of instincts or id running wild would
be somebody in a flagrant manic psychosis, where everything goes. In the sixties
and seventies, when people started doing things like primal scream therapy and
"letting it all hang out," a lot of people got very, very disorganized.
I think this is an example of where the idea of "letting it all hang out"
is a distortion of Freudian theory.
WIE: Many contemporary psychotherapists
and self-help authors have put a great deal of emphasis on the idea that we
all have "wounded egos." They encourage us to get in touch with the
wounds and traumas of childhood, to unconditionally love and accept ourselves
just as we are, and to stop judging ourselves in order to heal our fragile and
damaged egos. At the same time, however, the movement from seeing oneself as
a victim to seeing oneself as fundamentally
not a victim—as having free
will and responsibility for one's own life and choices—is essential for psychological
health and maturity. Do you think that contemporary therapeutic approaches that
emphasize our woundedness and victimhood are helpful in furthering self-development?
Or do you think they run the risk of promoting a kind of developmental arrest?
You see, nobody is whole. But to go to
this extreme and say "You're very wounded" could reinforce a kind
of masochism—the idea that "I'm a real sufferer," that kind of thing.
It's a little bit like the idea of victimhood. Now it is
to understand the impact that racism in our society has on African American
people. And you have to be aware of the impact that homophobia has on homosexuals
or the impact that any prejudice has on the sufferer. However, victimhood can
take on a life of its own, where everything gets explained by projection: "Oh,
it's not my fault. I'm this way because society is prejudiced against me."
The goal of any kind of therapeutic endeavor is to help the person realize that
they have more control over their life than they acknowledge. So you have to
be careful that in focusing on your ego's need to be repaired, you don't reinforce
the idea that "I'm a weak, helpless person." The danger is that you
can reinforce a passivity.
WIE: Can you describe what the ultimate
goal of psychoanalysis is with regard to the ego?
The ultimate goal of psychoanalysis is
to help the person to understand, as much as possible, factors from the past
that are persistent in the present unconsciously and to gain better control
over some of these factors in order to make the best adaptive decisions in the
present. Adaptation is a very important issue here, a very important concept.
WIE: What is an optimally healthy ego? What
did Freud mean when he referred to "optimal psychological functioning"?
Optimal psychological functioning is where
you don't experience too much anxiety, too much pain, you don't get into too
much trouble in your social environment, and where you are using your resources
as adaptively as possible. It's adaptation to the environment and the balance
between the environment and your own inner forces.
WIE: What makes the difference between two
people who, despite being in the same environment—let's say a hostile environment—respond
very differently? What enables one person to rise above their circumstances
and become an inspiration to others, while another person in that same situation
is defeated? It seems that there is more involved than just adaptation.
Yes. I was just thinking, "What
do you say about someone who was in Nazi Germany?" It probably takes a
very unique person to be able to do some of the things that need to be done
in that environment. How somebody like that survives, God knows. There's no
psychoanalytic answer for that.
WIE: Can you please explain the traditional
psychoanalytic understanding of what are called "ego defenses" and
how they work?
Well, from the very beginning of life,
you learn particular devices and defenses, or ways of coping with unpleasant
situations. People sometimes think about the defenses as something abnormal,
but it is a normal part of life and a normal part of the way the mind works.
Some defenses are considered to be more mature than others. Denial is an example
of an immature defense. Denial is when something happens and you deny it. Let's
say a parent dies, and the child doesn't talk at all about it; the child goes
on in his merry way and he acts as if everything is normal. That would be an
example of denial. Now, there's always a border between pathological and normal,
because in everyday life we use denial all the time. I mean, the fact that we're
not immortal—we just don't think about that. It's been reported that people
with cancer who have denial often have a much better prognosis than people who
are just focused in on the cancer—"I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die."
So some forms of denial are extremely adaptive and useful.
of a defense that is quite useful, and would be considered more mature, is what's
called "sublimation." Say a child had a family member who had some
kind of sickness, and the child later became a doctor. This is when you change
emotional conflicts into something that's socially useful. Intellectualization
is another common defense, where you cope with your feelings by learning all
about them and you change your feelings into ideas.
WIE: What was Freud's view on the ego defense
mechanisms? Did he believe that successful psychoanalysis should lead to the
giving up of the defenses?
Well, Freud started out with one theory
and then later came to a second theory. In this first theory, the idea was that
the cause of pathology was repression and the goal of psychoanalytic treatment
was to undo repression. So, for example, if you had some early traumas or sexual
fantasies and you repressed them or forgot about them, this was the cause of
a neurotic symptom. So the idea was to undo the repression, to undo the defenses.
The analyst was like a bulldozer, and come hell or high water the idea was to
find out what these old memories were, what these old fantasies were, and make
them conscious, and that would cure your neurosis. It then became clear that
a lot of the time this was not therapeutic, so by 1926 he developed what was
called the "second anxiety theory." What he had come to understand
was that it's not just old fantasies or wishes that are unconscious but also
these mechanisms of defense
that are unconscious. So the goal of analysis
became trying to understand the unconscious defense mechanisms that the person
is employing. The person may not be aware, for example, that he's using denial
to deal with something that's disturbing. So the first goal would be to try
to understand the ways in which the person is dealing with stress unconsciously.
Freud wrote about the idea that "mental health" involves illuminating
a lot of these defenses. He said that the goal of analysis is: "Where id
was, there ego shall be." And what that means is: You make everything conscious.
If you make the unconscious conscious, that will lead to mental health.
what I was saying earlier is different from at least the original version of
Freud. To some extent, you need
defenses. You know people sometimes say,
"Oh, he's being so defensive," as if the person is doing something
bad. But you need to have that. You can't go to work and start screaming at
your boss even though you're furious. That would be an example of appropriate
repression. You have to act in a certain way; otherwise you're going to lose
WIE: In many Eastern religious traditions,
the highest goal of human evolution is called "enlightenment." One
way of defining enlightenment is that it is a condition in which one is utterly
awake and in touch with reality exactly as it is. It is a condition in which
one is no longer in any way motivated to distort reality to preserve one's self-image
or to support any personal bias or agenda. In this view, the ego is seen as
a distorting mechanism, as the colored glasses that must be removed if we are
to be able to see things as they are and to respond to life with true integrity.
Now, one of the central activities of the ego is the "screening" or
distorting mechanism that we've been speaking about, by which impressions or
information that contradict or challenge one's self-image or worldview are selectively
ignored or distorted. My question is: Did Freud think it was possible to reach
a state where one is no longer in any way compelled to "screen" anything
out in order to protect one's self-image or worldview? Did he think it was possible
to attain a condition where one has no need or motive whatsoever to distort
reality in any way and, therefore, is able to be completely in touch with reality
exactly as it is?
What comes to mind is what Freud said about
the goal of analysis being to help the person deal with neurotic misery in order
to be able to confront the misery of daily life. The goal of any kind of psychological
treatment is to deal with reality as best you can. What you're talking about
in enlightenment would be a different view of reality, I assume, from the view
of reality from a psychoanalytic perspective—like the idea that there's a higher,
metaphysical reality that we try to aspire to. But when I think about reality,
I think about it in a very simplistic way, in terms of your real interactions
with people, your real interactions with yourself, understanding your body,
understanding your relationships with your family and with your friends.
WIE: Enlightenment, in the way I'm describing
it, would in no way exclude the tangible realities of our daily experience.
What I'm wondering is whether Freud believed it was possible to see
clearly, to be completely free from distorting defense mechanisms, and completely
free from the
motive to distort or be deluded. Would Freud have viewed
this as an attainable ideal?
Well, he might have called that "ideal
health"—even though he believed that was a fiction.