Building Psychological Muscle

by Mark Sichel, LCSW and Alicia L. Cervini

What is known as the "ego" in psychoanalytic theory is the area of the personality that powers our psyche. It is our Chief Executive Officer when it comes to operating and competing in the world. The strength of our ego is actually the sum power of our psychological muscle. So, think of articles like this one as a personal trainer -- here to help you bulk up on your psychological muscle.

Psychologists use the word ego in a very different way than those who toss the word around casually as a part of our popular culture vocabulary. In pop culture terminology, "ego" tends to mean something negative: someone who is conceited, self-involved, self-aggrandizing and oblivious to others would be described as having a "big ego" or being an "egomaniac."

In actuality, this "egomaniac" is quite the opposite. Typically, people who behave in an overtly conceited, self-aggrandizing, or spotlight-grabbing fashion tend to be the people with the flabbiest psychological muscle and the weakest egos in psychological terms. The irony is that this "egomaniac," who tells everyone that he thinks the world of himself, probably thinks very little of himself deep inside.

People who think positively about themselves and inherently possess a strong ego, in the psychological sense, do not tend to brag or stroke themselves the way an "egomaniac" would -- they don't have to. Individuals with strong egos don't need continual acknowledgement and adoration from the world around them because they implicitly believe in themselves. People with strong egos have a quiet grace and confidence that allows them to be open, giving and supportive to others and their endeavors.

So, keep in mind, as you browse the other articles on building psychological strength, that we are using the term ego to represent a group of functions that as a whole are reflective of our psychological strength. Strong egos are our goal! But how do we achieve them? Well, keeping the gym analogy going, to build a muscle, you have to work it: Struggle is the Stairmaster of the psyche. Sounds a little crazy, but it's true.

Struggle, persisting doggedly against the odds until you achieve success, is what makes your ego and your psyche strong. How do you strengthen a boxer's weak arm? Make him swing twice as many times with it. Yes, it's harder to swing one arm twice as many times, but ultimately it makes the arm stronger. Weak in algebra, but strong in geometry? Do twice as much algebra. Yes, it's tedious to do twice as much algebra, but ultimately it makes the math easier. Being forced to struggle with the challenges of daily life is what makes your ego stronger and better equipped to handle future conflicts. The path of least resistance is not where you want your psyche to be strolling.

Like each individual ego function -- which is discussed further in the Psybersquare Gym -- a person's ability to tolerate struggle at any given time is directly related to that person's history of success tolerating struggle in the past. Lots of struggle in your past dealt with head-on? Chances are your ego is pretty strong. Lots of struggle in your past that was avoided and sidestepped? Chances are your ego is pretty weak. But it doesn't have to be! Once people understand how their ego works and recognize the ways in which they HAVE successfully struggled with challenges in the past, then they are able to grasp the benefits derived from taking on new struggles. The more new struggles you confront and wrestle to the ground, the stronger your ego will be!

All right, you're warmed up. Now let's head over to the Psybersquare Gym...


Copyright 2000, 2001 © Psybersquare, Inc.

Psybersquare Inc. does not provide professional psychiatric or psychological counseling, advice or services. The exercises, information, and journalistic content of are for informational purposes only, and are in the nature of a self-help book or magazine article rather than a treatment service. provides content exclusively for educational, informational, self-help and entertainment purposes only.