Many a time we see, not what we are, but what we would want to be - successful when we are actually not; confident when actually we are not; smart, beautiful, slim, rich, famous, responsible, patient, when actually we are none of these things.
All of this is what comprises your "ego ideal". It is your picture of the perfect you. In other words it is your picture of the ideal you, the ideal self, or the ideal ego.
Freud and Structure of the Psyche
The mind is an abstract thing - unlike the brain. It is not tangible. But that does not mean it should lack structure. Sigmund Freud gave the structure of the human psyche and divided it into three main components - the Id, the Ego and the Super-ego.
The Id is the first form of consciousness, and probably the only form that a baby has. The Id deals with basic instincts - such as hunger, sexual desire - and calls for their instant gratification. If thought on the background of rationality, the Id seems to lack logic, or any concern for morality.
The Ego, on the other hand, is aware of practicality and tries to downplay the Id. However that does not mean the Id is kept behind locked doors - the Ego tries to provide the Id with things it craves for, but without violating rationality. The Ego is aware.
However, it is the Super-ego that determines and shapes our sense of right and wrong, just and unjust; it is the parent of the mind. The Super-ego plays the role of an elder, guiding the 'children' Id and Ego so that they do not misbehave and put the 'being' at the risk of being ostracized.
Ego Ideal and Super-ego
So the Super-ego is our sense of right and wrong - in short, our conscience. But what shapes this Super-ego? One among these sculptors is ego ideal. Our conscience tells us what is right and wrong; it tells us how we should behave, act, while living in the society.
Our conscience tells us stealing is wrong, lying is immoral, killing is inhuman. In the process, the conscience slowly builds an image of what our ideal self is, what our actual self should aspire to be. This ideal self is the ego ideal.
Ego ideal is a sub-set of the Super-ego. The Super-ego classifies between different desires of the Id and different means in which the Ego tries to provide for the Id; the Super-ego categorizes means of the Ego as fair and unfair; and should the Ego choose that which is unfair, the pay-off of the choice is 'guilt'.
As the Super-ego categorizes things, the 'being' becomes aware of qualities it should aspire to inculcate; all these qualities go on to build a picture, an image, which the 'being' puts on the highest of its pedestals. Other sculptors of the Super-ego include individuals like parents, teachers, role-models, mentors and things like upbringing, society etc.
This elicits the fact that ego ideal is universal only to the limit that everyone indeed has an ego ideal - however that of you and your parents, or siblings, or friends, colleagues will greatly differ, for personal experience also adds to the ego ideal.
Ego Ideal - A Grown-up Version of Narcissism?
Many psychologists believe that the ego ideal is nothing but a grown-up version - or rather a grown-up's version - of narcissism. A newborn has no moral sense whatsoever. It is hungry, it wants milk, and it wants milk PRONTO.
Instant gratification is very important to the existence of the Id. The Id knows only self-love. But as Ego comes into being, the Id is compelled to lose its narcissism. However, what is the ego ideal if not a kind of self-love? Seeing a 'perfect' you, a 'higher' you, an upgraded version of who you are, is it not a kind of narcissism?
Ego ideal is the successor of narcissism of the Id. However, in spite of being a kind of narcissism, ego ideal helps you better yourself. It is a measure we set for ourselves; it is something we always, constantly, incessantly try to be; it is who we aspire to be.
As with every other concept in psychology, the ego ideal has been one much discussed and debated. Every psychologist comes up with his own concept of the ego ideal, based on his understanding of the original Freudian concept.
The Freudian concept in itself is said to be based on the German one of 'das Es', 'das Ich' and 'das Über-ich' (or the It, the I and the Over-I, respectively). Psychology is the only science without a definition, as they say. So we are all in a position to interpret the concept as suits our own Super-egos!
In conclusion, an ego ideal is much like The Mirror of Erised. The mysterious inscription on the famed magical mirror from Harry Potter's world says Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi. As Albus Dumbledore explains to Harry what it means, we realize the magic of the mirror.
Just like the Mirror of Erised "shows not your face but your heart's desire"; the ego ideal represents not what is, but what your heart aspires to be! Taken in the right sense, this could indeed act as a constructive force, shaping us into responsible individuals of the society.