The fundamental assumptions on which ego psychology rests were formulated by Freud in the early 1920's, when his new formulation of anxiety compelled a revision of many earlier views. Kris reviews the stages of Freud's work after more than fifty years of development.
Freud's first assumption in turning his interest to psychotherapy was of a connection between mental conflict and mental illness. He based his first views on neurophysiological assumptions, which he designated as 'the law of constancy', the tendency of the central nervous system to keep energy tensions constant. This law permitted Freud to formulate his assumptions on the interaction of conflict, mounting tension, defense (repression) and abreaction in hysteria. In the nineties, Freud was engaged on a treatise on general psychology and psychopathology, in which he attempted to replace psychological by neurophysiological assumptions. Later, he defined the id, ego and superego in the same manner in which physiological organ systems are defined, in terms of their functions. Freud sometimes used the term ego to describe the total personality, the self; at other times, to define an organization. Such inconsistences showed his constant attempt to unify explanatory concepts and at the same time adapt theoretical assumptions to the needs and findings of the clinician. In his early neurological drafts, Freud spoke of ego neurons and an ego organization; when this did not work out, the concept of an ego organization dropped out of his writing for two decades, and the concept of defense lost its dominant position. Of the defenses which he described early, repression especially attracted his attention. This interest led to his great discoveries concerning the role of early experiences, the discovery of infantile sexuality, the interpretation of dreams, and insight into the mechanisms of the neuroses and perversions, including fixation and regression. His interest at this time turned to the id, although it still centered on the nature of the mental conflict and on the interplay of opposing forces.
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The growing insight into the dynamic function of resistance was bound to direct more attention to the ego. Freud's advice to start psychotherapeutic work 'from the surface', to interpret defense before content, already implied some principles of psychoanalytic ego psychology. When his attention was drawn to the psychoses, these forced on him a new approach, and in introducing the concept of narcissism, a first attempt was made to turn from isolated functions of the ego to a coherent organized ego. The appearance of new types of cases, the character disorders, led to a closer study of this ego organization. These new types probably began to be recognized because psychoanalysis had altered and broadened the concept of what was to be considered psychiatric illness. New types of resistance appeared—the negative therapeutic reaction and other manifestations of unconsciousguilt and self-punishment.
It was now no longer possible to account for mental conflict as due to opposition of various strata of consciousness to each other, since defense and resistance were processes not mobilized by consciousness. With these data, the vicissitudes and transformations of instinct needed to be supplemented by structural concepts. Freud temporarily assumed that the ego was endowed with drives of its own, the ego drives as opposed to the sexual drives, but this assumption could not stand up under the pressure of clinical experience.
Freud next studied the aggressive drives. (He later explained his having overlooked them as caused by his own unconscious.) He combined two steps, a new assumption about the role of aggression in mental conflict, and a speculation concerning the life and death instincts. New insights were gained into the function of the superego and especially into the role of internalized aggression. Attention was later focused on the ego which was no longer regarded as having ego instincts of its own, but as being supplied with energy largely by sublimated or neutralized instinctual drives.
By replacing his earlier theory of anxiety, Freud gave up a toxicological way of thinking in favor of an adaptational one oriented toward a general biological approach. The new formulation turned the attention of workers to the mechanisms of defense and led to new insight into the relationship of resistance during psychoanalytic therapy to defense against danger. Ego psychology has had a tremendous influence on psychoanalytic technique, and even the goals of therapy have become more accessible to formulation. The goal of therapy has become the improvement of the ego's integrative capacities.
Under the guidance of the newly formulated ego psychology, it became possible to distinguish by observation preoedipal and Oedipal conflicts in the child's development. The study of ego development in childhood is likely to give renewed emphasis to the study of normal child development, and of the influences of changing cultural conditions, by observers with psychiatric and psychoanalytic training.
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Rahman, L. (1954). Samiksa. V, 1951. Psychoanal. Q., 23:300-301