After Freud, a number of prominent psychoanalytic theorists began to elaborate on Freud's functionalist version of the ego. They put much effort into theorizing the ego's various functions and how they can be impaired in psychopathology. Much of their work focused around strengthening the ego so it could better cope with the pressures from the id, super-ego, and society in general.
The central functions of the ego were traditionally seen as reality-testing, impulse-control, judgment, affect tolerance, defence, and synthetic functioning. An important conceptual revision to Freud's structural theory was made when Heinz Hartmann argued that the healthy ego includes a sphere of autonomous ego functions that are independent of mental conflict. Memory, motor coordination, and reality-testing, for example, ought to be able to function without the intrusion of emotional conflict. According to Hartmann, psychoanalytic treatment aims to expand the conflict-free sphere of ego functioning. By doing so, Hartmann believed, psychoanalysis facilitates adaptation, that is, more effective mutual regulation of ego and environment.
David Rapaport systematized Freud's structural model and Hartmann's revisions of it. Rapaport argued that the central principle of Freudian theory is that mental processes are motivated and shaped by the need to discharge tension. Clarifying Freud's work, Rapaport portrayed the mind as divided into drives and structures. Drives contain fluid energy that pushes for rapid discharge through the immediate gratification of wishes. Because it is rare that wishes can actually be immediately gratified, the mind develops the capacity to delay gratification or achieve it through detours. Consequently, drive energy becomes tied up in the relatively stable mental structures comprising the ego. Rapaport defined structures as mental organizations with a slow rate of change, slow in comparison with the more fluid drives.
Arlow and Brenner argued that Freud's earlier theory of the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious systems of the mind ought to be abandoned, and the structural model used as the sole psychoanalytic theory of the mind.
Recent ego psychological authors have taken the approach in a number of directions. Some, such as Charles Brenner, have contended that the structural model should be abandoned and psychoanalysts should focus exclusively on understanding and treating mental conflict. Others, such as Frederic Busch, have argued for an increasingly nuanced and sophisticated concept of the ego.
Ego psychology is often confused with self psychology, which emphasizes the strength and cohesion of a person's sense of self. Although some ego psychologists write about the self, they usually distinguish the self from the ego. They define the ego as an agency comprised of mental functions, whereas the self is an internal representation of how one sees oneself. In ego psychology, emphasis is placed on understanding the functioning of the ego and its conflicting relations to the id, superego, and reality, rather than on the subjective sense of self.
The clinical technique most commonly associated with ego psychology is defence analysis. Through clarifying, confronting, and interpreting the typical defence mechanisms a patient uses, ego psychologists hope to help the patient gain control over these mechanisms.
Criticisms of ego psychology
Many authors have criticized Hartmann's conception of a conflict-free sphere of ego functioning as both incoherent and inconsistent with Freud's vision of psychoanalysis as a science of mental conflict. In Freud's view, the ego itself takes shape as a result of the conflict between the id and the external world. The ego, therefore, is inherently a conflicting formation in the mind. To state, as Hartmann did, that the ego contains a conflict-free sphere may not be consistent with key propositions of Freud's structural theory.
Some have also accused Hartmann of proposing a conformist psychology in which the ego is considered most healthy when it adjusts to the status quo. Hartmann claimed, however, that his aim was to understand the mutual regulation of the ego and environment rather than to promote adjustment of the ego to the environment.
Also, Jacques Lacan, a prominent psychoanalyst, had a certain disdain for ego-psychology. He took issue with the movement insofar as his form of psychoanalysis focuses on the unconscious. It also splits the ego and theorizes how one never has a true relation to their ego because it is an illusionary relationship to an ideal image, and is a product of the unconscious itself.