Ego Theory, Self Theory, and Object Relations Theory

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  • 0:07 Psychoanalysis
  • 1:21 Ego Theory
  • 3:09 Self Theory
  • 5:47 Object Relations Theory
  • 7:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

You may look at psychological problems in terms of problems with the ego, the development of the self, or relationships with others. In this lesson, we'll look closer at ego theory, self theory, and object relations theory.


Ansel Bourne seemed like a pretty normal guy. He was a preacher in the 19th century, and he had a good life. But one cold January day, he left his life behind and set up a stationary store several states away. He changed his name to A.J. Brown and settled into a normal life. Then one morning in March, he awoke with a shock. He didn't know where he was! When he looked outside, he was surprised to see the beginnings of spring because he thought it was still January. He had no memory of being A.J. Brown; he was Ansel Bourne again.

Bourne was probably suffering from what psychologists call a dissociative disorder, where a person forgets who they are or has multiple personalities. Dissociative disorders are one type of psychological disorder studied in abnormal psychology. What causes dissociative disorders? For that matter, what causes any psychological disorder? There are many theories about what causes mental illness. Let's look at three theories that involve a person's self and relationships to others: ego theory, self theory, and object relations theory.

Ego Theory

The psychodynamic model of psychology looks at the way that a person's experiences and relationships can cause psychological problems. One idea underlying the psychodynamic model is that there is a cohesive being that is the self. Some people call this self the soul, spirit, personality, or heart of a person.

Ego theory argues that there is a continuous self that is made up of our sensory experiences. The ego relates to the outside world. It is this part of us that looks around and says, 'The world works like this, so to get what I want, I have to do that.'

For example, imagine that you're at the store and you want to buy something. But when you go to check out, there's a really long line. What do you do? If you have an underdeveloped ego, you might just ignore everyone else and shove your way to the front of the line. It's your ego that recognizes that there are social rules around waiting in line and forces you to follow those rules.

Of course, an overdeveloped ego can be just as bad as an underdeveloped one. If you live your entire life according to the rules and expectations of society, you'd never follow your own heart and might never know what truly makes you happy.

Remember Ansel Bourne? He became another person for a few months and didn't even remember who he was. An ego theorist might explain Bourne's behavior by saying that his ego split. For whatever reason, the part of him that dealt with the world outside his own mind broke in two. He had two realities: Ansel Bourne and A.J. Brown. In that case, therapy would focus on finding the reason for the split and figuring out how to bring those two parts of himself together again.

Self Theory

Ego theory is not the only way that the psychodynamic model explains abnormal psychology, though. Self theory is similar to ego theory, in that it says that there is a universal self that is influenced by experiences. But unlike ego theory, self theory is focused on the development of the self.

According to self theory, there are four parts of a person's self:

1. The Nuclear Self - This is the 'inside' you - the person you are deep down. You are born with a nuclear self, and long before your experiences of the world can impact you, you have a nuclear self.

2. The Virtual Self - This is the 'outside' you - the person that others see. For example, a person might see himself as a shrewd businessman, when others around him see him as an immoral, cutthroat salesman. The way that people see you influences how they treat you. In this way, the virtual self can have an impact on your actual personality. If everyone around you treats you as though you are very smart and talented, you might begin to internalize that message.

3. The Cohesive Self - This is a combination of the virtual and nuclear self. In our example above, if a person is treated as though she was very smart, that might become a part of her nuclear self. As a result, she develops a cohesive self, which is a person who is able to merge the nuclear and virtual selves.

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