What Really Controls Your Behaviour: 10 Ways To Develop and Strengthen A Healthy Ego.16 min read

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Our actions and behaviours are ultimately controlled by our minds, which are mostly housed and generated by the brain, which also happens to be the most complex thing in the known universe (with an average of 86 billion neurons each firing off 5-50 messages per second). 

But the mind is also influenced by a vast gamut of very complex and powerful external factors such as genetics, relationships, education, trauma, stress, nutrition, media, substance, etcetera.

Needless to say, it is no easy feat to understand why we act the way we do. But, this does not mean there haven’t been very good attempts with useful implications.

In this post, we will look at how the mind works internally, how it interacts with external factors, and what we can do to better control our behaviour (according to psychoanalysts).

What exactly goes on in your mind?

Sigmund Freud, an Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, postulated a model of how the human mind works. He suggested that the mind is made of conscious and unconscious elements that are often in conflict – more correctly, try to balance each other. He suggested that these psychic or mental apparatuses are generally divided into three – the id, the ego, and the super-ego.

There are a lot of complex psychological explanations of what each of these is and how they influence our behaviours (and ultimately fate – life), but I’ll use a simple illustration to help you grasp it. 

Imagine your mind is a Restaurant: The Building is your brain, the Manager is your id, the Chef is your Ego, and the Waiter is your Super-Ego. Furthermore, the restaurant interacts with customers who represent the external world, and these customers give feedback which represents values, expectations, and laws.

To simplify:

  • The building (the brain) is the physical organ that houses the mind. It has colour, size, and weight. It is built up of almost a hundred billion cells and made up of many different parts – including the Cerebrum, Hypothalamus, Brainstem, and so on – just like a restaurant is built with bricks and constitutes many different rooms with furniture.
  • The manager (the id) is the part of the mind that operates on “the pleasure principle” – i.e. it is always seeking pleasure and gratification. Just like the manager of a business seeks to make profits, its main goal is to ensure that your primal desires and impulses are met or expressed. Such impulses and desires could range from (normal) instinctive desire for food and sex, down to “dark”, “inaccessible”, and “non-rational” impulses for hatred and violence. 
  • The customers (the external world) are the people and things that interact with us and influence our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Just like different customers come with different tastes and needs, the external world can be our friends and family, the weather, what we ate, substances we take, and even how our environment appears, all expecting/demanding different responses/behaviours from us.
  • The waiter (the superego) is the part of the mind that functions on “the morality principle” – i.e. it is responsible for relaying and enforcing social norms and morality. Just like the waiter brings the customer’s complaints to the chef, the super-ego is responsible for making us feel anxious, guilty, or ashamed when we do something wrong. It can also make us feel pride and joy when we do something right. It simply tries to uphold the moral principles and values we’ve learned/internalised (mostly from childhood).
  • The chef (the ego) is the part of the mind that operates on “the reality principle” – i.e. it is responsible for balancing/aligning the id’s desires with the moral demands of the super-ego, and the reality of the situation. Just like the chef ensures the manager makes a profit whilst keeping the customer’s taste buds tingling, the ego keeps finding ways to satisfy our desires in a way that is realistic and socially acceptable.

Needless to say, the manager’s desire for maximum profit does not always align with the chef’s plan to ensure the waiter’s complaints are considered, hence anxiety – tension, pressure, and internal conflicts – often arise. The mind is constantly under pressure – hence adapting, compromising, and changing – to ensure our lives progress. 

The truth is that the id, ego, and superego do not really care about good or bad. They just want you to be alive (and hopefully happy). However, it is easy for things to go horribly wrong and you end up experiencing severe internal conflicts and start behaving in counter-productive ways.

The three forces that shape your personality and behaviour:

Before we proceed, it is important to note that the id, ego, and super-ego are not physical parts or regions of the brain. They cannot even be observed under an MRI scan. They simply are just models or conceptualizations that are used by psychoanalysts to explain the mental processes that suggest how we think, feel, and behave.

Continuing with our restaurant illustration, just as a business can not thrive doing only what the manager demands or what the waiters heard the customers complain about, but should rather find a healthy balance or compromise, so also an individual cannot function properly unless they learn to balance their instincts (id) with their moral standards (super-ego). And, that responsibility (of balancing the desires) rests on the ego.

We will now take a closer look at these three forces to better understand our own behaviours

The id (“the it”): What happens when it gets too strong and dominates?

The id is an unconscious part of our psyche that holds our instincts – it drives hunger, thirst, and sexual lust. It is also responsible for our most primitive emotions, such as rage, fear, and love. It is often described as being like a wild/untamed animal – impulsive, demanding, and always looking for satisfaction without caring about the consequences of its actions. 

We are born with it and cannot change or eliminate it. And, if the id is not kept in check, it can lead to serious problems in our lives. 

When the id is allowed to dominate, we see the emergence of a psychotic personality. This is an individual who is selfish, short-sighted, impulsive, violent, and destructive. They have little regard for the rules or norms of society. They may also have difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality and between healthy and unhealthy.

This is the person who constantly drinks, smokes, does drugs, and doesn’t mind indulging in unsafe sex with strangers and sex workers simply because it feels good. They may also choose video games and porn over sports and actual sex (because the former are easier and quicker to get and arguably far more stimulating).  

Not surprisingly, a study found that people with psychopathy have lower levels of guilt and remorse. 

The Super-ego (“over-i”): What happens when it gets too strong and dominates?

The superego is another unconscious part of our personality that represents our conscience – it tells us what is right and wrong, and it tries to keep us in line. This idea of right and wrong is mostly developed in early childhood and is learned from parents, other authority figures (like teachers and religious leaders), the immediate environment, as well as the media.

The super-ego is often described as being like a harsh parent – it is demanding and critical. It does not care about our happiness or need but is only concerned about making us behave in a way that is considered to be moral and ethical (though it only truly seeks to ensure we do things that will cause us to be adored or accepted by the external world)

The super-ego often helps us to resist the urges and impulses of the id so we can make choices that are in our best interests, even if they are not the most immediately satisfying. 

However, when the super-ego is given the upper hand, we see the emergence of a neurotic psyche. This is someone who is characterized by excessive anxiety, worry, and fear. They constantly feel guilty and ashamed and are perfectionistic or overly critical of themselves and others.

When allowed to continue for too long, this can lead to depression, low self-esteem, obsessive-compulsive behaviours, and even self-destructive behaviours. All this is because the super-ego keeps judging, cajoling, and punishing perceived flaws or shortcomings. 

It is also possible for the superego to transform into a false ego, which is not really after upholding the moral good, but instead seeks to simply look good and be accepted by everyone (hence, making us feel guilt, shame, and anxiety about the wrong things). 

This can result in inferiority complex, fear of rejection, and unhealthy competition. On the other hand, it can also lead to superiority complex, hubris, and entitlement. This false ego is the enemy, and what we are often asked to reject, as it is unrealistic and toxic.

The Ego (“I”): What happens when the ego takes control?

The ego is the part of the personality/psyche that is responsible for reality testing (i.e., ensuring our desires are attainable within the physical, economic, and social constraints we find ourselves in) and decision-making (i.e., deciding how to meet the demands of the id and superego).

When the ego is able to successfully balance/integrate the id and superego, we witness the emergence of a healthy psyche. This is an individual who is able to balance their basic needs and desires with the demands of reality and morality. They are able to make decisions that are both satisfying and socially acceptable.

When under pressure or overwhelmed, the ego is also responsible for developing defence mechanisms – such as denying the reality of a situation, repressing painful memories, rationalising our behaviour, or projecting our feelings onto others, etcetera – which are unconscious strategies that we use to cope with anxiety and stress. However, defence mechanisms often backfire if relied on too much and for too long.

The way the ego juggles all these responsibilities ends up creating our sense of identity and determines how well we can function in the real world. 

It is important to remember the ego is not the enemy. It is simply trying to keep us safe while helping us achieve our goals. However, the ego can sometimes be misguided/blinded/overwhelmed because it is weak compared to the id or super-ego. It can also be damaged by trauma or by negative experiences.

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How to heal, develop, and strengthen the ego:

So far we’ve discussed how the id provides the drive to live (albeit, recklessly), the superego strives for moral perfection (albeit unrealistic), and the ego tries to strike the balance. Now, we are going to explain a few things you can do to better equip the ego for the task.

Below are a few things you can do to heal, develop, and strengthen the ego:

Acknowledge and accept your basal instincts:

This means recognizing that you have basic needs and desires, such as the need for food, shelter, safety, intimacy, companionship, etcetera. It also means accepting that you have certain emotions, such as anger, sadness, and fear. And that you don’t have to be ashamed of any.

For example, if you see a naked pretty person, your desire for sex might emerge spontaneously. Now, you don’t have to deny or resent it. You should rather accept that this is part of who you are – that the lust you’re experiencing is there for the primal good aim of procreation. 

When you acknowledge and accept that you have basal instincts – that can emerge on their own, and for good reasons – you can better notice and manage them in a healthy way.

Understand and direct your instincts:

When you feel desire or tension arise within you, you should not feel bad or panic. Rather, try to understand what is triggering it. Sometimes these feelings/urges/impulses arise because of the lack or presence of something.

For example, you might be feeling anger after someone stepped on your toes. But, this does not mean you should immediately act on that impulse by knocking the person on the head. No. Rather, you should try to understand why it happened. Perhaps they were unaware, couldn’t avoid it, or really wanted to get you mad. 

Taking the time to understand doesn’t mean the desires will evaporate, or that you shouldn’t act on them, but that you should understand how to act on them. In the case of being stepped on, this might mean exclaiming and then informing the person what they did in order to get an apology (which will soothe the desire).

Identify and challenge your moral values:

This means taking a close look at your values and beliefs and asking yourself if they are still serving you well. It also means being open to changing your values if you find that they are no longer aligned with what is best for you or what is truly good (realistically).

If you grew up in a religious community and were taught that sex before marriage is wrong, but you are finding it difficult to get married (considering the financial requirements, the years spent schooling or some other reason), you may decide to reconsider that belief.

Moral values which are overly at odds with our desire only end up creating anxiety – shame, guilt, and depression. And it is by scrutinizing our beliefs and challenging them that we set ourselves free.

Practice self-awareness:

This means paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours (in real-time), and then asking yourself a series of “why?”s to figure out their triggers or motivations. You can use journaling for this exercise.

For example, if you find yourself comparing yourself to others at a party, you can practise self-awareness by asking yourself why you are comparing yourself to others. Perhaps it is because of how nice everyone is looking. Then, you have to ask yourself why that matters. And, as you dig deeper, you may end up realizing that you just want to be accepted and loved by them.

Self-awareness helps you find the root cause of your distress so that you can handle them more effectively. In the example above, the realisation that you got an invite and everyone is smiling at you is enough to help dissolve your anxiety – to realize that you’re already loved and accepted.

Learn to forgive yourself:

This means letting go of any negative thoughts or feelings you have about yourself. It also means accepting that you are not perfect and that you will make mistakes.

For example, if you slapped someone for insulting your partner, you can learn to forgive yourself by acknowledging that you made a mistake and then letting it go. 

Forgiving yourself requires loving yourself despite the mistake – accepting that the part of you which nudged you to make the mistake ultimately thought it was in your best interest. This does not mean you should get used to justifying your actions, but that you should acknowledge that you will make mistakes from time to time, and that’s okay.

Plan and set realistic goals and expectations:

This means planning and setting goals that are challenging, but achievable. It also means setting expectations for yourself that are realistic.

For example, if you want to pass a test with flying colours (which the super-ego wants), you can set a goal of reading every day from 7pm to 9pm. This way, you get to study as well as get adequate rest (which the id wants).

Planning and setting realistic goals will save the ego from being overwhelmed by either of the other two forces.

Take care of yourself:

Remember that the id and super-ego both want what’s best for you. So, always make out time to take care of yourself. 

This could mean getting new clothes, working out, eating right, and making sure your environment is beautiful. It could also mean visiting new places, seeing movies, and spending time with the people you love.

Spend time with positive people:

This means surrounding yourself with people who support you and make you feel good about yourself. It also means avoiding spending time with people who are toxic or overly critical.

For example, if you have a friend who encourages you to smoke, drink, or get into fights. Such a friend will only end up boosting your id. Similarly, if you make friends with someone who is all about looks and appearances, they might end up boosting your super-ego.

Rather, make friends with people who support and want the best for you. People who won’t let you degenerate into your basal nature, and those who will help you pursue important goals.

Practice gratitude:

Practising gratitude can help you understand and appreciate the big and small things you have, which can help you resist the id’s recklessness in seeking immediate gratification. It can also help you develop a more positive self-image, which can help you counter the superego’s self-critical tendencies.

This reminds me of the saying, “The things we destroy we do not understand, and the things we understand we do not destroy”. 

Seek professional help if needed: 

If you are struggling to find balance, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. A therapist can help you to understand the internal workings of your mind and help you overcome your challenges.

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” – Carl G. Jung

Conclusion: “A healthy ego saves you from misery”

I’ve noticed that many problems people face are because they have an unhealthy ego – they allow themselves to skew toward their id or super-ego.

For example, a hedonist who prioritizes pleasure and gratification may end up losing valuable relationships and destroying their health. We can see this in the case of a chronic alcoholic. On the other hand, an altruist or people-pleaser who neglects or denies themselves what they need may also end up losing their relationships and well-being. We can see this in the case of a workaholic.

A healthy ego can help you avoid being taken advantage of by others, cope with failure and criticism, better handle stress and adversity, and achieve your goals. 

In short, a healthy ego can help you to live a happier and more fulfilling life.

Below are other resources you might find useful:

I enjoy writing long-form SEO content for self-help and personal development blogs. I can also do simple graphics design and copywriting. I’m an author, coach, logician, introvert, and storyteller. I love simplicity.

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