Free association

Ego is the term Freud used to describe self or “I.” It is part of Freud’s theory of a tripartite structure of the mind that includes ego, id, and superego and is elaborated  in his 1923 paper “The Ego and the Id.”. The ego mediates between the id, our unconscious drives, and superego, the seat of conscience and societal prohibitions. It is what gives us our feeling of identity. See also “Id”, “Superego”, and “Oedipal phase.”

Ego dystonic is a term that refers to feelings that create conflict for the ego. If I have to wash my hands 2o times a day because I am so anxious about germs and I am distressed about the fact that I have to do it, I feel it is unreasonable, even irrational, but I cannot stop, then the experience of hand washing for me is ego dystonic. If, on the other hand, I have to wash my hands 20 times a day and believe that that is totally reasonable, given the shocking danger of germs and the high risk that I may get sick, then the experience of hand washing is ego syntonic. I have no conflict over it. Freud first introduced these terms in two 1914 papers, “On Narcissism” and “On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement,” when discussing instinctual trends generating guilt or self-reproach. In 1934 in “Outline of Clinical Psychoanalysis”, Otto Fenichel applies the term dystonic to symptoms. By 1970, when ego psychologist Anna Freud clarifies that “symptomatic structures may prove ego-dystonic and continue to produce mental pain and discomfort; or they may be accepted as ego-syntonic and become part of the individual’s character”the terms are established vocabulary in the psychoanalytic literature.

Good Enough Mothering was Winnicott‘s term for the psychological holding (see “Holding Environment” below) a mother provides for her infant that is adequate for his/her development to proceed. In normal conditions, a ordinarily devoted mother will be exquisitely attuned to her infant for the first few months. Over time, however, as the infant separates and begins to develop his/her own identity, the mother will inevitably fail to be so perfectly attuned to her infant. Ideally such empathic failures will be small enough so that the infant is not overwhelmed but can become a bit more self-reliant, can begin to symbolize his/her experience, and hence can grow. Growth requires such struggle. Winnicott elaborated his ideas about the good enough mother in “Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self” (1960) in The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment” and in his BBC radio broadcasts. Current researchers, such as Ed Tronick, Peter Fonagy, and Beatrice Beebe who do observational studies of mothers and infants, theorize that while the empathic failures are inevitable (no attunement is perfect), it is the way the mother and infant repair the rupture and reconnect that is the mark of good enough mothering.

Holding Environment refers to environmental provision that an infant needs. In “The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship,” Winnicott says that holding is

the actual state of the infant-mother relationship at the beginning when the infant has not separated out a self from the maternal care on which there exists absolute dependence in the psychological sense.

Holding includes but is not limited to holding in the physical sense. While Winnicott observes that physically holding a baby is certainly necessary, the holding environment includes all the maternal care that results in the infant’s feeling protected from anxiety and empathically understood.

The mental health of the individual…is laid down by this maternal care, which when it goes well is scarcely noticed and is a continuation of the physiological provision that characterizes the prenatal state. This environmental provision is also a continuation of the tissue aliveness and the functional health which (for the infant) provides silent but vitally important ego support.

Id: The id is one part of Freud’s tripartite structural theory of the mind, outlined in his 1923 paper, “The Ego and the Id.” It represents our basic drives. As a neurologist, Freud’s theory was rooted in physiology,and the drives were basic biological forces. We are born with our drives, and we need to learn to channel and control them, but the id is a structure in the mind that holds these drives or impulses in their most primitive form. In short, the id wants what the id wants. Freud theorized that the id drives were primarily sexual drives and aggressive drives. Later ego psychologists added a drive for mastery. The other two structures are the ego and the superego. The superego is basically our conscience, the voice in the mind that reminds us of social prohibitions. It is a civilizing force. The ego mediates between the id (our basic drives) and the superego, the prohibitions that we must endure in order to live peacefully in society with others.


Locus of control refers to the extent that a person believes he/she controls his/her fate. It is therefore closely related to the concept of personal agency. A person with a high locus of control believes that she has free will and can influence events in her life. (Check out this website for more information on locus of control and for links to other articles.)  A person with a low locus of control believes that he has little to no control over the events in his life. Things happen to him, perhaps due to fate, karma, or others’ influence.

MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory) is a questionnaire that was first published in 1943 to assess personality traits and psychopathology. It has since been adapted for adolescents (MMPI-A). This test must be administered by a trained professional. More information about the MMPI can be found here at the University of Minnesota Press website.

Narcissism: In psychoanalytic terms, narcissism is not necessarily a bad word. It refers to our self-esteem. If we have a healthy amount of narcissism, we can function well, feeling basically good about ourselves but strong enough that we can admit our weaknesses and failings. If we lack enough narcissism, we easily crumble in the face of criticism. Some defend against a paucity of narcissism with arrogance, and they seem full of themselves; however, underneath the facade of self-confidence lies a fragile and vulnerable self. When we refer to narcissistic personalities, we are typically referring to those who lack adequate narcissistic supplies and who defend against that lack with arrogance. They become easily enraged when criticized, and we refer to this as narcissistic rage. Because they lack an inner sense of their own goodness, they desperately seek (and need) approbation from others. Freud first discussed the development of narcissism in his 1914 paper, “On Narcissism.” Heinz Kohut, the founder of the movement in psychoanalysis called Self Psychology elaborated and developed Freud’s original ideas about narcissism to reach a new understanding of the dynamics of narcissism in mental health and illness. He outlines his ideas about the development of a narcissistic character in his 1968 paper, “The Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorders–Outline of a Systematic Approach” and more thoroughly in his 1971 book, The Analysis of the Self A Systematic Approach to the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorders.

Oedipal phase in classical Freudian psychoanalysis takes place at around age 4-5 when the young boy is in the midst of an intense love affair with his mother and a rivalry with his father for her affection. A healthy resolution of this stage of development occurs when the child comes to realize that he cannot marry his mother but must relinquish her to his father. He manages the disappointment and loss by identifying with his father and with his father’s power. In this identification, in addition to identifying with his father’s power, he takes in the prohibitions of incest (love of mother) and murder (desire to kill the father), and the superego (or conscience) is born. Freud’s description of the female oedipal phase is a bit more complicated and controversial because the girl’s first love, like the boy’s, is her mother, so she has to shift love objects from the mother to the father before she enters the oedipal phase proper. Freud named this developmental phase the oedipal phase after Oedipus Rex, the Greek play by Sophocles in which Oedipus unwittingly murders his father, Laius, and marries his mother Jocasta. Freud’s 1925 paper “Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes” outlines his theory of the oedipal complex.

Positive symptoms is a term that typically refers to symptoms of schizophrenia. The positive symptoms are visible, such as hallucinations and delusions, while the negative symptoms are social withdrawal, lack of affect, and an absence of some feeling or motivation that would be present in a healthy person. The National Institutes of Mental Health define the positive symptoms as hallucinations, delusions, thought disorders, and movement disorders and negative symptoms as flat affect, reduced pleasure in activities, a paucity of speech, and difficulty beginning and sustaining activity. See more about the symptoms of schizophrenia at the NAMI website.

Potential Space is related to but different from transitional space, which denotes the area between inner reality and the outside world. By contrast, potential space is where ideas are generated, thinking can emerge and creativity can flourish. In Playing and Reality (1971), Winnicott claims

The place where cultural experience is located is the potential space between the individual and the environment (originally the object). The same can be said of playing. Cultural experience beings with creative living first manifested in play…It is useful, then, to think of a third area of human living, one neither inside the individual nor outside in the world of shared reality. This intermediate living can be thought of as occupying a potential space, negating the idea of space and separation between the baby and the mother, and all developments derived from this phenomenon.

If one can inhabit potential space, one can imagine possibilities and live creatively. Indeed, one can create and re-create one’s own identity and relationships with others in potential space.

Primary Maternal Preoccupation is an idea conceived by Winnicott to describe the intense identification that a mother has with her as yet unborn baby and then with her infant. In The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment (1965) he states

By and large mothers do in one way or another identify themselves with the baby that is growing within them, and in this way they achieve a very powerful sense of what the baby needs. This is a projective identification. This identification with the baby lasts for a certain length of time after parturition, and then gradually loses significance.

In an earlier paper, “Primitive Maternal Preoccupation” (1956), Winnicott describes the ordinarily devoted mother as one who can

feel herself into her infant’s place, and so meet the infant’s needs. these are at first body-needs, and they gradually become ego-needs as a psychology emerges out of the imaginative elaboration of physical experience.

In this description of the earliest relationship between mother and infant, Winnicott is elaborating a theory of mind; in other words, he is theorizing about how a mind or consciousness or ego develops in the context of a relationship, in an intersubjective field. For Winnicott, primary maternal preoccupation is the appropriate response to an infant’s need. The infant does not desire such care but needs it. If this need is unmet, ego development will be disrupted, and

there appears a false self that hides the true self, that complies with the demands, that reacts to stimuli, that rids itself of instinctual experiences by having them, but that is only playing for time.

Superego: The superego is one part of Freud’s tripartite structural theory of the mind, outlined in his 1923 paper, “The Ego and the Id.” The superego is basically our conscience and thus is a civilizing force. It tells us right from wrong and holds the rules and prohibitions of society. When we are first told “no,” we are being introduced to these rules and prohibitions, and in time and through certain psychological processes, we internalize the rules and prohibitions, which reside in the superego. The other two structures are the id and the ego. The id is the place in the mind where are basic drives and impulses reside. The ego mediates between the id (our basic drives) and the superego, the prohibitions that we must endure in order to live peacefully in society with others.

Transitional objects are actually familiar to most people. They are that special plush toy or blanket that a baby endows with almost magical qualities, the one she cannot do without. The transitional object is significant in that it is often the first “not me” object. In his 1953 article, “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena–A Study of the First Not-Me Possession,” Winnicott theorizes that this special object inhabits the

intermediate area of experience, between the thumb and the teddy bear, between oral erotism and true object-relationship…

Winnicott goes on to suggest that the transitional object functions to move the infant in her journey from a truly subjective stance to one in which she can experience both her own subjectivity and that which is outside of her–the objective world. In standing for the first object, the mother, who was not initially perceived as separate, the transitional object helps the infant to manage the terror associated with separation.

Transitional phenomena (see also transitional objects) refers to experience that stands between inner reality and the outside world. Transitional objects examples of transitional phenomena. According to Winnicott, transitional phenomena are the products of creativity. Winnicott develops an understanding of transitional phenomena in his 1953 article, “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena–A Study of the First Not-Me Possession.”

Transitional space as theorized by D. W. Winnicott is the psychological space between inner reality (our subjective experience) and outer reality (the world of objects, objectively perceived) and makes possible our ability to negotiate and navigate between inner and outer, between me and not me.  In Playing and Reality, Winnicott links this transitional space to our ability to play–to pretend or to invest something with symbolic significance. In Winnicott’s simple words,

The important part of this concept is that whereas inner psychic reality has a kind of location in the mind or in the belly or in the head or somewhere within the bounds of the individual’s personality, and whereas what is called external reality is located outside those bounds, playing and cultural experience can be given a location if one uses the potential space between the mother and the baby.

True Self/False Self: The True Self is spontaneous and, with good enough care, can feel omnipotent. Gradually, the feeling of omnipotence is recognized as illusory, but the True Self is free to play and imagine. Without good enough maternal care, particularly when the mother impinges on or exploits the infant’s self with excessive demands for compliance with her agenda, a False Self construction is defensively formed. In such cases, an individual feels disconnected from the authentic True Self, whom Winnicott believes is hidden and protected. In The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment (1965), he says,

Only the True Self can be creative, and only the True Self can feel real…[while] a False Self results in a feeling unreal or a sense of futility.

Undifferentiated infantile self refers to the earliest phase in development, when an infant feels undifferentiated from the mother. During this phase, if the mother is appropriately attuned and devoted, the infant can experience his/her grandiosity as controlling the mother to satisfy all needs. According to Winnicott, in “The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship” (1060), the mother will inevitably fail the infant; in ideal circumstances, however, the failures will be small enough such that the infant can manage them, and during these times of empathic failure or breach of empathy, the infant gradually and incrementally becomes self-reliant. Thus, the undifferentiated infantile self gradually begins to experience him/herself as separate from the mother, ultimately becoming a fully differentiated, autonomous self–a separate subject.