Ego Defined: Getting A Sense For The Self

Updated August 14, 2023by Regain Editorial Team

The term “ego” is one of those that may get thrown around a lot. It can mean different things given the context. Still, you may wonder what the word “ego” really means from a psychological perspective.  Here’s the four-part definition of ego from the American Heritage Dictionary of Medicine:

Is Your Ego In Check?

  1. The self, especially as distinct from the world and others.
  2. In psychoanalytic theory, the consciousness division is responsible for our feelings of selfhood and directly interacts with external reality.
  3. An exaggerated sense of self-importance; conceit.
  4. Appropriate pride in oneself; self-esteem.

The various definitions for ego are quite distinct from one another. Moreover, “ego” is often used synonymously with “the self,” but the two words don’t necessarily mean the same thing.  Read on to see examples of “ego” and how “the self” is related to “ego”.

The Self, As Distinct From The World And Other Selves

As infants, we have no sense of ego or self. As we begin to explore the world outside of us, our cribs, our mother, our toys, etc., we begin to develop a feeling of being distinct from the world of objects and people. Humanist psychologist Carl Rogers believed that people behave as they do because of how they perceive their situations. He maintained that we human beings have a single basic motive. That is, we aspire to self-actualize, meaning to fulfill our potential and attain the highest level of “human-beingness” that we can. 

Parental love and acceptance lay the groundwork for children’s success in self-actualizing, in that they allow children to put all their energy into developing and understanding themselves. Rogers believed that for someone to attain self-actualization, they must be in a state of congruence. This means that self-actualization occurs when our “ideal self” (who we would like to be) is congruent with our actual behavior (self-image).

Origin Of Ego

The word “ego” comes from the Latin for “I”. Sigmund Freud used the word to denote a specific aspect of the self. It was Freud’s translator who chose the word “ego”.

Psychoanalytic Theory

Sigmund Freud, the father of ego psychology, believed that the human personality was made up of three distinct parts: the id, the ego, and the superego. Freud maintained that these three elements combine to create the complex behavior of human beings.

The Id

The id is the personality’s most basic part and is present from birth. It also embodies our most primal urges such as the desire for sex or food. The id seeks immediate satisfaction for our wants and needs. When these wants or needs don’t get met, a person can become angry, anxious, or tense.

The Ego

The ego is the part of the personality that operates in reality, striving to satisfy the desires of the id in socially acceptable ways. Whereas the id feels tension when wants or needs are not met immediately, the ego knows that gratification must sometimes be delayed. The ego strives to rid us of the id’s tension. It recognizes that everyone has wants and needs, and being selfish may not be beneficial in the long term.

The Superego

The superego is the last aspect of personality that we develop, beginning at around age five. It is comprised of two parts: the ego ideal and the conscience. The superego concerns itself with morality and judgments about right and wrong. The ego-ideal could be thought of as the image we possess of our ideal self – that is, the person we want to become.  The conscience is composed of rules for bad behavior. When we perform actions that conform to the ego ideal, we feel proud of our accomplishments. When we engage in behaviors that our conscience considers bad, we experience shame and guilt. Although the ego and the superego may agree on some things, the superego bases its decision on moral values. In contrast, the ego bases a decision on what others will think or how an action’s consequences could impact the individual.

Carl Jung And The Self

Carl Jung, a contemporary of Freud, believed that the ego was the center of the field of consciousness, the element of the psyche that houses our conscious awareness, our perception of identity, and existence. It lies at the center of our inner and outer worlds, knitting together our relationship with that which is external to us.

Jung identified the Self as one of four major archetypes. An archetype is a theme or an image that has a universal meaning across cultures that shows up in art, literature, dreams, or religion. Considering the definition for ego, this “self” is distinct and different from the ego.

Jung theorized that the personality has two centers. He viewed the ego as the center of consciousness and the Self as the center of the total personality, including consciousness, the unconscious, and the ego. The Self comprises both the whole and the center. Whereas the ego could be seen as the self-contained center of the circle that the whole contains, the Self could be understood as the greater circle.

Common Usage Of The Word Ego: Conceit Vs. Self-Esteem

The third ego definition in the American Heritage Dictionary of Medicine comes closest to popular usage:

“An exaggerated sense of self-importance; conceit. Appropriate pride in oneself; self-esteem”

Consider the first part of this third definition of ego. Conceitedness implies a big ego. Using “ego” in a sentence, one might say, “His ego is bigger than the state of Texas”.

6 Signs Of An Oversized Ego

From the outside, it might look like egotistical people have it all figured out. They might look happy; they always seem confident; and even if they are annoying, it doesn’t matter because they don’t care what other people think anyway.

But this outward appearance may be a facade. In fact, people who have huge egos often deal with serious insecurities and even anxiety. If you think your life is supremely important, or if you believe that all eyes are on you, then suddenly your problems may seem a lot bigger.

This is why it may be important to recognize when you have an oversized ego, not just for the benefit of others but also for yourself. Here are six signs you may have an oversized ego:

  1. You only listen to wait for your turn to talk.

While someone is talking to you, you might nod your head along, but internally, you’re thinking, “I already know all of this”. You might direct the conversation primarily toward yourself, then zone out if the conversation does not directly relate to you. 

It’s okay to enjoy talking but consider taking a back seat and trying to learn from others whenever you can. You may want to seek out people who challenge you and make you better. This can be difficult, especially if people disagree with you. But it might be worth it when you learn more about the world around you. 

You may have heard of the concept of a beginner’s mind. Someone who considers themselves advanced in a subject may learn less because they think they’ve already figured it all out. On the other hand, someone who considers themselves a beginner is eager to learn from everyone they meet, always assuming that the other person knows more and has something to teach. No matter how much you know about a subject, try to keep a beginner’s mind, because it may be what enables you to really learn.

  1. You never try to figure out your flaws.

Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of being human is that we always have the chance to grow and improve. A certain level of confidence may be beneficial, but too much might prevent you from being self-critical. You may never have the chance to grow if you don’t know what your flaws are.

If you want to identify your flaws, you could try talking to someone who you trust, perhaps someone who knows you inside and out. A person who knows you intimately might be more aware of your flaws than you are because they see you from the outside while you only have your first-person experience. A close friend might also be gentle, letting you know how you can improve without upsetting you or being rude.

Another way to see your flaws is to take a step outside your comfort zone. Traveling can be a great way to look at things from a different perspective. Alternatively, you could try a new job, hobby, or workout. Seeing yourself as a stumbling beginner can be healthy because you learn about who you are without all the usual bells and whistles you may use to prop yourself up.

  1. You treat some jobs, places, or people as if they are beneath you. 


If you have a big ego, you might turn down jobs because they are embarrassing to you. You could think that you deserve to be a celebrity or a renowned genius. You may talk down to people who have jobs that you consider demeaning, or you might speak about certain places or countries in a bigoted or harmful way.

In the end, this attitude may only hurt you. Most everyone has to start at the bottom and work their way up at some point. There is no shame in any job that makes you an honest, legal living. Characteristics like appearance or nationality do nothing to tell you the true character of a person. If you surround yourself with certain people just because they fulfill shallow characteristics, you may miss out on the deep connections you could form with good friends who really have your back.

This may also manifest in trying to do everything alone because you genuinely think you can do everything better than other people. Or you might rage with jealousy when others succeed, thinking that you deserved it more than them, even if they were the ones who really put in the work.

  1. You crave respect and recognition from others.

If you have a big ego, you might have a very strong response to applause. You may remember the compliments you’ve received in the past, and you might use them as fuel. Even if the compliments were inflated or disingenuous, you might take them to heart and crave more. The enjoyment that you get from these compliments may go beyond simple validation. They might satisfy you because you feel that someone finally sees you for the star that you really are.

This might leave you vulnerable to being manipulated because compliments are often used as a social tool rather than the expression of a true opinion. You may want to be wary of people who come on too strong or give you extreme compliments like calling you a genius or their best friend after very few or no intimate conversations. These people may have recognized an inflated ego and tried to use that to their advantage in pursuit of an ulterior motive.

  1. You become very defensive or jealous.

Everyone experiences jealousy, but it might become extreme when you feel that someone else doesn’t deserve their success as much as you. Consider, though, that it’s not for you to decide who deserves success. Moreover, you may not know what they’ve sacrificed to enjoy the level of success they have.  

Being defensive is a similar emotion. When you’re going in the wrong direction or making a serious mistake, you may know it deep down, even if your ego keeps pushing you in the same direction. This could make you touchy and defensive when someone offers their perspective, even if they are simply trying to help.

You might want to pause for a second and ask yourself if the person offering their perspective is trying to help. Consider that they might be right, even if it’s tough to admit. If you are making a mistake, you may want to know before it’s too late.

  1. You don’t help others unless it’s in a very public way.

People with oversized egos may expect praise for even the smallest gestures. If you do good deeds for the cameras or feel the need to post on social media any time you do something nice, you may have an ego issue. 

Someone with a big ego might scoff at charities or helping other people. They might feel little to no responsibility for the people around them, even their closest friends and family.

Healthy Egos

The ego definition that reads “appropriate pride in oneself; self-esteem”, on the other hand, suggests a healthy ego. Self-esteem is a neutral term. It can imply a healthy or impaired ego, depending on the circumstance. Healthy self-esteem suggests that a person’s ego is balanced. It implies a person can realistically and honestly gauge both their strengths and failings. Other people’s opinions of them don’t concern them. They accept their own flaws without judgment, which is when self-acceptance exceeds self-esteem.

Online Therapy Can Help

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Is Your Ego In Check?

Both childhood and adult trauma can result in ego damage and low self-esteem, bringing shame and guilt. A weak ego can indicate that you need to heal from past trauma or depression. A therapist can assist you with changing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to help heal your ego, whatever its size. 

A disproportionately sized ego could make reaching out for help from a mental health professional challenging, especially in person. You may be embarrassed about your ego issues, for example, or may fear being seen going to a therapist’s office. Online therapy may make you feel more comfortable since you can access it from the comfort of your home. You might also find it more convenient since appointments can be made outside of normal business hours. 

This form of internet-based therapy has been determined to be just as effective as in-person counseling. A comprehensive meta-analysis of studies in the field found no significant differences regarding outcomes for individuals who attended counseling sessions online versus in-person. The review considered various populations and mental health conditions.


Regain makes it easy to get help right away. We have licensed mental health professionals who are ready to make your ego issues a priority. Reach out today and get started toward a more balanced sense of self through online counseling.  

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