What is an Ego State?

We all have experiences at times in our lives during which we feel overwhelmed, and sometimes we are not able to fully understand and make sense of the experiences. When we think about them, it is as if a part of us got frozen in that moment, stuck in our inability to come to terms with the experience. A part of us never moves on- that part is an ego state.

Later on, if something reminds us of the experience, we may act as though we are still there, stuck in a childish, adolescent or emotional state, without access to the wisdom, maturity and balance we may enjoy at other times.

Safety First

Having ego states or parts that are not integrated into the rest of our minds is especially common for people whose childhood caregivers were not closely attuned to their emotional needs, or who experienced neglect or abuse during childhood or adolescence. We are all born helpless, unable to meet our needs for survival, and unable to soothe our own emotions. We depend on the care of adults around us to meet our needs and regulate our emotions. Even as adults, survival and emotion regulation are group tasks; we live in societies, and we share our experiences with others to help us to cope with difficulties.

Healthy psychological development depends on an environment in which it is safe to express valid needs and emotions. When children grow up without this safety and security, they frequently feel overwhelmed. They may learn to dissociate their needs and emotions to avoid their unbearable overwhelming feelings, to reduce stress on the family, or to prevent further exposure to danger from their caregivers.

Dissociation happens in the first place because of a lack of emotional safety. It follows then that healing dissociation among ego states, or parts of your mind, begins by creating an internal atmosphere of psychological safety for all your parts. As a child, you had little or no control over your environment. As an adult, you have many choices that can help you to be safer, and to overcome your difficulties in the past and the present.

Purpose of Ego State Therapy

Ego state therapy was developed to help people to understand themselves on a deep level, in order to reduce internal conflict among their parts and establish inner harmony. If there are parts of your mind that are banished or unwelcome, these parts may interfere with your safety, your goals and plans, and your overall wellbeing. If you suspect that you have some unintegrated ego states, it may be wise to look for a therapy that helps you to work with them, like ego state therapy.

Adaptive Information Processing Model

As depicted in the figure above, ego state therapy moves you from a situation of fragmentation, in which the healthy, adult part of you is at risk of being swamped by unresolved fear and anger, to a situation of integration, in which you resolve and absorb the fear and anger, so that your healthy adult can be at the centre of your daily functioning.

If you are going to work on healing the dissociation among your parts, it will require you to:

  • Remember that no part of you will ever be destroyed by this work. All your parts are real, valid parts of you, and while they can learn to cooperate and support you better, they will not disappear, and we would not want them to.
  • Figure out how each part developed to help you solve an important problem in your past, and learn to be grateful for the assistance that you have received from that part at that time.
  • Validate your parts' feelings, which are appropriate and proportionate to the experiences of your past, even if they appear to be extreme in the present.
  • Nurture and care for your parts to make up for the gaps in nurturing in your past.
  • Learn to be the head of your internal family, and remember that as an adult who survived your past, you know everything you need to know to solve your own problems. No matter how confronting a part of you may seem, you are the adult. You are bigger, you are stronger, you are wiser and you are kind, and you can help your part to heal.
  • Learn to love all the parts of yourself, no matter how many difficulties you feel they have contributed to.

Some people pursue this work until they achieve full integration of their parts, and no longer feel like they have separate parts, but instead play different roles when appropriate. Others use this work to establish a cooperative team within themselves, but choose to maintain their separate parts because it adds to the diversity in their lives. Each person must make their own decision about when the work feels finished for themselves.

Academic Resources

Braun, BG (1988) The BASK Model of Dissociation. Dissociation, 1(1): 4-23.

Dell, P.F. & O’Neil, J. A. (2009) Dissociation and the Dissociative Disorders: DSM-V and Beyond. London: Routledge.

Forgash, C & Copeley, M (2008) Healing the Heart of Trauma and Dissociation with EMDR and Ego State Therapy. New York: Springer Publishing Company. Lewis Herman, Judith (2002) Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books.

Kluft, RP (1991) Multiple Personality Disorder in: Tasman, A & Goldfinger, S (Eds) American Psychiatric Press Review of Psychiatry. (Vol 10, pp 161-188). Washington DC: American Psychiatric Press.

Krakauer, SY (2001) Treating Dissociative Identity: the power of the collective heart. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

van der Hart, O., Nijenhuis, E.R.S. & Steele, K. (2006) The Haunted Self: Structural Dissociation and Treatment of Chronic Traumatization. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Watkins JG & Watkins HH (1997) Ego State Therapy. London: W.W. Norton & Co.

Young, Klosko & Weishaart (2003) Schema Therapy. New York: Guildford Press.