What is... psychology series

What Is… Ego Dystonic & Ego Syntonic

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms.  This week’s terms are ego dystonic and ego sytonic.

The terms ego dystonic and ego syntonic come from the field of psychoanalysis, and were coined by Sigmund Freud in 1914.  Ego syntonic ideas match up with the ego’s needs and view of the self.  Ego dystonic beliefs do not match up with personal values and self-image.


In obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), the obsessions are often ego dystonic.  They are experienced as distressing and unwanted.  A paper in The Psychiatric Quarterly described a very small study that found ego dystonic grandiose beliefs (i.e. wishing not to have the special identity/abilities that one delusionally believes they have) may be a warning sign for risk of dangerous behaviour directed at the self or possibly towards others.

Problematic ego syntonic beliefs

Ego syntonic beliefs that fuel problematic behaviours can be challenging to treat.   In obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), behaviours may be consistent with perfectionist beliefs.  With narcissistic personality disorder, elements like grandiosity tend to be viewed as desirable.

Disordered eating in anorexia nervosa can be seen as compatible with ego syntonic beliefs around the need for control, which can translate into strong resistance to treatment.  Bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder are more likely to revolve around ego dystonic beliefs.

Sex-related beliefs

A Google search for the term ego dystonic yields a number of hits that relate to sexual orientation or sexual practices.  These do not fit with the individual’s conception of the self, and cause feelings of guilt

A study published in Sexual Medicine looked at ego dystonic masturbation, calling it “a clinically relevant cause of disability, given the high level of psychological distress reported by subjects with this condition and the severe impact on quality of life in interpersonal relationships.”

I also discovered a page on Conservapedia (yes, such a thing exists) devoted to ego dystonic homosexuality.  Regarding the American Psychiatric Association’s decision to do away with homosexuality as a mental disorder, it says “The APA made their 1973 decision, only after active, practicing homosexuals gained a majority in the APA through totalitarian zapping the shrinks method and took over the editorship of the DSM.”  Um, okay then.  Presumably, so-called conversion therapy is wrapped up in this too.

What about suicidal thoughts?

It would be interesting to consider suicidal ideation in terms of being ego syntonic or dystonic.  One factor would be whether you consider the ego to be the intact, well ego, or if you consider the depression version of the self.  When I’ve had thoughts of suicide, they are distressing but I don’t experience them as unwanted.  They are highly compatible with my depressed self, but not compatible with my well self.

Do you have elements of your illness that you would consider ego syntonic or dystonic?


Psychology resources: What Is insights into psychology series and psychological tests

You can find a directory of the terms covered in the what is… series here.

There’s also a collection of psychological tests here.

10 thoughts on “What Is… Ego Dystonic & Ego Syntonic”

  1. That is so interesting. Yes, I tend to judge people based on a lot of “surface” issues; i.e., I make snap judgments about people on the spot. It’s something I think is wrong, so that would make it ego dystonic. I also have ego dystonic issues with my paranoia, when people (like at the grocery store) insist I interact with them, and I don’t want to speak, I always feel sort of guilty about it afterward. Like, gee, it’s not that person’s fault that I can’t cope with on-the-spot conversing.

    With suicide, I guess it would be ego dystonic for me…? I get terrified of myself and start trying to talk myself out of it; or I’ll try to latch onto anything that will protect me from myself.

    I wonder if there’s a correlation between the proportion of syntonic (versus dystonic) beliefs with a person and their level of self-esteem? Huh.

  2. Conservapedia is funny (they used to have an article on fat atheists implying atheism leads to obesity), but I wouldn’t take it too seriously. I got the impression there are only a couple of people actually editing it. I’m not even sure that the whole thing isn’t a satire.

  3. Excellent post. Ive only recently discovered the Ego dystonic/syntonic paradigm and it has made a lot of things clearer in my life when it comes to understanding my OCD.

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