Ego-syntonic and Ego-dystonic Behaviors

Every person judges their way of thinking and acting, and feels comfortable or uncomfortable with it. From this ego-syntonic or ego-dystonic sensation, arises the desire for change. We tell you why.
Ego-syntonic and Ego-dystonic Behaviors
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 22 September, 2022

We all have our own qualities or attributes that we like and that make us feel proud. We also have others that make us uncomfortable, and we wish weren’t there. They’re called ego-syntonic and ego-dystonic behaviors respectively.

You might think that ego-syntonic behaviors are positive because they make you feel good and that ego-dystonic behaviors are negative because they make you feel uncomfortable. However, it’s not always that simple. In fact, there are many behaviors that cause you certain conflicts with your environment, but they don’t pose a problem for you. In the same way, there are behaviors that you strongly reject but, in reality, you shouldn’t.

Analyzing these aspects is an excellent way to personally develop yourself. In fact, by working with your egosyntonic and egodystonic sides, you can increase your personal well-being and success in relationships.

Woman looking in the mirror with fear

Ego-syntonic and ego-dystonic behaviors

The term ego-syntonic refers to that which is in tune with the ego, or the self. They’re the, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that are consistent with what you think of yourself and are acceptable to your self-image. They don’t cause you any kind of discomfort or internal conflict. Furthermore, you have no intention of changing them.

For example, a person with a narcissistic personality disorder is comfortable with grandiose ideas and unempathetic behavior. Indeed, although their conduct causes pain in others or even in their own relationships, their thoughts and attitudes are aligned with what they think of themselves and are consistent with their values and ideals.

On the other hand, the term ego-dystonic refers to that which causes dissonance with respect to the ego or the self. They’re the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that are incongruous with the image that you have of yourself. They conflict with your values and objectives. There are many examples. For instance, a homosexual who feels guilt and shame about their sexual orientation. Or, an individual suffering from social phobia who suffers great discomfort due to their shyness and tendency to avoid social situations.

However, one of the clearest examples occurs in obsessive-compulsive disorder. These people often have intrusive thoughts that are so at odds with their values that they generate great anxiety. This is what triggers their compulsive behavior.

For example, a mother who adores her children may have the thought (while cutting bread) that she’s going to attack her children with the knife. Or, someone who loves their partner can be assailed by the idea that they no longer feel anything and don’t really love them. These thoughts are so uncertain and contrary to the truth and the essence of these people, that anxiety is triggered uncontrollably.

How the behaviors relate to change

Ego-syntonic and ego-dystonic are two terms widely used in the field of psychology when it comes to categorizing an individual’s symptoms.  They involve the way in which each person perceives, interprets, and values their own attitudes. This is decisive when change is sought.

For instance, if you’re satisfied and feel comfortable with the way you are and how you conduct yourself, it won’t cross your mind that you should change anything. On the contrary, if you’re uncomfortable about who you are, your discomfort will prompt you to make changes.

There are certain situations in which an egosyntonic trait or symptom does need to be modified. It occurs when, although the individual isn’t apparently causing any conflict or displeasure, in reality, they’re harming themselves or others. For example, a person with avoidant attachment who’s inadvertently destroying their relationships. That’s because they consider their ‘need for independence’ to be normal and permissible.

In other cases, the objective won’t be to change the behavior, but the assessment that the individual makes of those thoughts or behaviors that disturb them. For example, the person who judges themselves harshly and rejects themselves for being shy. They may stop perceiving this trait as ego-dystonic if they stop being so self-demanding and adopt a more flexible kind of thinking.

Worried woman, depicting egosyntonic and egodystonic behaviors.

Reflect on you

If you want to get to know yourself better and work on yourself, you can begin by analyzing your ego-syntonic and ego-dystonic aspects. To do this, start by listing your main qualities, thoughts, and attitudes. Then, determine if you feel comfortable or uncomfortable with them.

Next, analyze if they’re bringing you positive or negative repercussions. Once you’ve decided to make changes, define whether you need to modify your way of acting or just your way of interpreting and judging what happens.

In this process, it’s really helpful to have professional support. A professional can guide you in any changes you need to make. Furthermore, they can even help you discover those areas that may not bother you but do, in reality, require work.

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  • Hart, W., Tortoriello, G. K., & Richardson, K. (2018). Are personality disorder traits ego-syntonic or ego-dystonic? Revisiting the issue by considering functionality. Journal of Research in Personality76, 124-128.
  • Sandia, I., & Baptista, T. (2020). Egodistónico: Una Revisión en Busca de Definiciones. Revista Colombiana de Psiquiatría.