September 09, 2008

Ego-dystonic and Ego-syntonic

Breakfast in Bed by Mary Cassatt

 "is a sign, symptom or experience which the patient finds uncomfortable or doesn't want."

Ego-syntonic: "is a sign, symptom, or experience which the patient finds acceptable and consistent with his personality." ~Nicholas G. Ward

 is a life-altering experience. We're challenged to face our emotional immaturity, consider the long-term impact of our behavior, to become as reliable as reliant children need us to be. I hadn't given much thought to the power a mother has over powerless children, until watching my impatient self react to their demands. It occurred to me in a flash of self-observation: I was acting out of character and didn't like myself very much.

If Mary Cassatt were commissioning portraits today, she'd never ask me to pose for a painting. Who'd buy an all-too-real portrait of an exhausted mother murmuring complaints when her child woke up early in the morning?

Mothering cuts through youthful narcissism if we accept responsibility for our impact on children. If that means going to bed early ourselves so we don't mind snuggling next to a stinky child at 6:00 a.m., so be it. Children can't be expected to accommodate their mother's...ahem...lack of self-discipline. Rather than blaming my kids for being kids, I knew impatience was my problem to fix.

The first step towards eliminating guilt for behaving in a very un-Cassat-like manner, was talking with other mothers like myself. Did they get frustrated? Did they yell? And if so, what did they do to change?

Now this was back in the 1970's when running to a therapist was NOT the typical and norm. We didn't even like therapists back then. The only people who needed therapy were people who were so messed up, they couldn't help themselves. Most likely, we didn't even have a counselor in our local community though I never checked the yellow pages to find out. My friends and I relied on self-help books, tapes and group discussions. One of my friends suggested listening to a ten-tape program on self-defeating behaviors which of course, I was eager to do.

This was the beginning of a long process uncovering the root of my frustrations which had nothing to do with my children---but everything to do with myself.

It's fair to say that for me, yelling at toddlers was ego-dystonic. I knew it was nutz to blame my kids for being----kids. Yelling made me feel guilty and fortunately for me, this guilt motivated changed behavior rather than defining myself as a Bad Mommy. At the time of course, I had no idea how mentally healthy it was to question my sanity, rather than rationalizing or projecting the guilt that was mine to bear and mine alone.

A ten-tape session with Dr. Sterling Sills (I think that was the psychotherapist's name...this was a long time ago!), offered insight into why we act the way we do if underlying issues remain hidden from our conscious awareness. I did the grown-up thing and took healthy steps towards positive change by changing 'me'; thus becoming more congruent with myself. I believe I was 26 at the time and yes, that was a long, long time ago. ha!

If I had been comfortable with my behavior (or unwilling to question my sanity), then yelling would be ego-syntonic. There would be no need to ask for help, listen to tapes, talk openly with mothers like myself. I'd view my temper tantrums as perfectly sane considering the annoying toddlers I had to live with! In other words, the problem was them, not me.

I'm guessing most therapists are loath to deal with people who see no fault in themselves, nor question the validity of their perceptions. "Of course I scream at my children!" they might say. "That's how kids are supposed to be treated, so don't try and lay a guilt trip on me!" That would be an example of ego-syntonic behavior. There is no problem with her, you see; the problem is her selfish children.

Thanks to anonymous eyes for encouraging me to examine the meaning of dsystonic verus syntonic behavior. Unfortunately, we're prone to psychoanalyzing ourselves to pieces in an effort to understand our relationship with a narcissistic partner. When we scrutinize ourselves through biased lenses however, we overlook courageous steps we took to confront ourselves: to overcome our past; to take responsibility for the future; to stop the inter-generational transmission of unhealthy parenting.

Though my life did not turn out as expected, my relationship with my children is deeply interconnected and loving. That was no accident. I earned their respect and love because I was willing to face myself.


Nicholas G. Ward. Essential Psychopathology and Its Treatment, page 485


  1. Bravo! It's often minimized - the work one does to create the change you have described. And, the friend introducing the tapes? Has to have been a guardian angel and spiritual mother for the masses. Now, you are sharing the gift bestowed upon you with all of us.

    Thank you,


  2. I have been digesting all the info about ego-dystonic/ ego-systonic along with axis II info.

    I am thinking about how triggers they work.

    With a trigger it is most likely that an ego-dystonic behavior will happen.

    There is a catch to PTSD in all of this that perpetuated it all and kept it locked into place despite the need and desire to do other.

    I think it is important to bring behaviors in to the light but sometimes (past tense for the most part here) I didn't know where they came from or how they were even invented.What were the behaviors doing? What was there purpose?

    Ultimately, for myself, it isn't/wasn't easy as simply noticing a behavior that I don't like it requires unraveling and digging to acquire the insights into the behavior. Then there is the retraining after that is all happened.

    I believe this is the back bone to the therapy I have been working with. It is the mundane practice that happens every singe day.

    Before all of this could even begin there was a process of
    learning emotional regulation. That would be the catch to PTSD. That is the part where every one else who is not PT can actually see behavior and motivate. With PTSD You can not get your hands on it. Everything is so high wired that there is no moment to comment or reflect. The whole body drags through a hurricane.

    So I would say that on the level of ego - systonic in relation to PTSD everything is based on experiences and behaviors that I do/did not want.

    Here I am saying the complete opposite of how I had originally responded. It took me a while to see the equation and understand the definition.

    At first glance at the definition is sounded as though one is cut off from knowing or fully experiencing behavior. That is how I interpreted it.

    Now that is cleared up.

    Thank You CZBZ for bringing this subject up. Now that I am more rather than less disengaged with ego-systonic behaviors I can actually reflect and see the map of it all a whole lot better. These terms do make sense.



  3. You have the most fascinating blog. Your wtiting is honest and intelligent and very interesting! I think I will spend some time here reading you. I think I will learn a lot.

  4. I have just spent about the entire day now reading every single narc blog. I enjoyed reading these so much. Having a twin that is one has been horrifying, but somehow I still managed to laugh through many of these posts. Lovely writing. Thanks!

  5. Glad I found this. Have a lot of catching up to do.

    Feel free to take a look at my blog:'

  6. Is there some way to contact you?

  7. We can talk here if you'd like. Or, you can join the Web of Narcissism forum and we'll talk though the General message Forum. Would either of those options work for you?

    The url to the message board is:


  8. Thank you so much for further clarifying these two terms and from a parenting perspective. I just briefly learned it from a therapist in an effort to understand my teenager's ego syntonic behavior. I love your blog as psychology is a big interest in general and living terms for me.

  9. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog, anonymous! I have a deep respect and appreciation for psychology, too. Especially in application to 'normal' functioning.

    Our current focus on social psychology is cutting through people's fear of therapy as pointless navel-gazing. A perception that in some cases, merits criticism. Learning about the human psych, how we think, why we do the things we do, improves the quality of our decisions and facilitates healthier relationship with other people and of course, with ourselves!

    I am sorry to hear that you are going through a rough time with your son. Anytime you'd like to talk about your experience, feel free to post on my blog or join our forum. It can help so much, just talking with other people and finding out that we aren't alone.

    Big hugs,

  10. this is how the alcoholic recovers when behaviors are recognized, when the drinking is stopped, the work ( working the steps ) begins to change them or return to the darkness of alcoholism. Egosyntonic, narcissistic personalities, selfish and self centerness is the root of the problem, the ego must be deflated at depth and stop playing God.


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