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Freud's Concept of the Ego-Ideal

Karen Horney's central concept of the idealized self seems to have originated in Sigmund Freud's concept of the ego-ideal.

In the editor's introduction to The Ego and the Id, James Strachey (pg. xv) outlined Freud's use of the concept of the ego-ideal:

"The functions of the system Cs. (Pcs.), as enumerated in 'The Unconscious', Standard Ed., 14, 188, include such activities as censorship, reality-testing, and so on, all of which are now assigned to the 'ego'. There is one particular function, however, whose examination was to lead to momentous results—the self-critical faculty. This and the correlated 'sense of guilt' attracted Freud's interest from early days, chiefly in connection with the obsessional neurosis. His theory that obsessions are 'transformed self-reproaches' for sexual pleasure enjoyed in childhood was fully explained in Section II of his second paper on 'The Neuro-Psychoses of Defence' (1896b) after being outlined somewhat earlier in his letters to Fliess. That the self-reproaches may be unconscious was already implied at this stage, and was stated specifically in the paper on 'Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices' (1907b), Standard Ed., 9, 123. It was only with the concept of narcissism, however, that light could be thrown on the actual mechanism of these self-reproaches. In Section III of his paper on narcissism (1914c) Freud began by suggesting that the narcissism of infancy is replaced in the adult by devotion to an ideal ego set up within himself. He then put forward the notion that there may be 'a special psychical agency' whose task it is to watch the actual ego and measure it by the ideal ego or ego ideal—he seemed to use the terms indiscriminately (Standard Ed., 14, 195). He attributed a number of functions to this agency, including the normal conscience, the dream-censorship and certain paranoic delusions. In the paper on 'Mourning and Melancholia' (1917e [1915]) he further made this agency responsible for pathological states of mourning (ibid., 14, 247) and insisted more definitely that it is something apart from the rest of the ego, and this was made still more clear in Group Psychology (1921e). It must be noticed, however, that here the distinction between the 'ego ideal' itself and the 'agency' concerned with its enforcement had been dropped: the [xvi] 'agency' was specifically called the 'ego ideal' (Standard Ed., 18, 109-10). It is as an equivalent to the 'ego ideal' that 'das Über-Ich' makes its first appearance (p. 18 below), though its aspect as an enforcing or prohibiting agency predominates later. Indeed, after The Ego and the Id and the two or three shorter works immediately following it, the 'ego ideal' disappears almost completely as a technical term. It makes a brie [sic] re-emergence in a couple of sentences in the New Introductory Lectures (1933a), Lecture XXXI; but here we find a return to the original distinction, for 'an important function' attributed to the super-ego is to act as 'the vehicle of the ego ideal by which the ego measures itself'—almost the exact terms in which the ego ideal was first introduced in the paper on narcissism (Standard Ed., 14, 93)."

Sigmund Freud (1962). The Ego and the Id. Trans. Joan Riviere. Rev./Ed. James Strachey. New York: W. W. Norton.

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