Who Needs an Ego? When Ego Can Help Us—and When It Hurts
Ego? What is that thing, anyway? We all talk about it, especially psychologists. But what are we really talking about? And how does it help or hurt?
The term “ego” gets used a lot in ordinary language. Often it’s used when someone has a very high opinion of him- or herself, as in “He’s got a big ego.” (See the picture of our friend above!) But in a psychological sense, the word carries a different meaning. The word “ego” is taken from the Greek word for “I”. For psychology, the ego is the centre of consciousness—of our “I” awareness.
The ego may be the centre of our awareness of “I”, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the whole of our personality. Freud saw the ego as the central part of our personality. As the seat of our conscious awareness, he gave it the vital role of being the place where outer, external reality meets our inner subjective life. He saw it as a kind of mediator of the inner and outer worlds. Jung wouldn’t disagree with this assessment, as far as it goes.
Ego: Not the Whole Enchilada
However, Jung would emphasize that there is a lot more going on in the personality than just the functions of the ego. As Jungian Andrew Samuels tells us, “Though the ego is concerned with such matters as personal identity, maintenance of the personality, continuity over time, mediation between conscious and unconscious realms, cognition and reality testing”—it is still not the whole and complete sum total of what we are.
Both Freud and Jung held that, not only is there a conscious part of the personality, of which the ego is certainly the centre, but a large other part, called the unconscious. Freud saw the unconscious as a repository of everything that we have forgotten, along with everything that we’ve repressed because it’s too unpleasant or difficult to look at. Jung would agree with Freud as far as it goes, but would also emphasize that there are more things in the unconscious than Freud acknowledged:
…everything of which I know, but of which I am not at the moment thinking; everything of which I was once conscious but have now forgotten; everything perceived by my senses, but not noted by my conscious mind; everything which, involuntarily and without paying attention to it, I feel, think, remember, want and do; all the future things that are taking shape in me and will sometime come to consciousness…
So, this unconscious dimension of who we are is a very important part of the whole picture!
When the Ego Thinks It’s Running the Show
Even though the ego certainly is not the sum total of what we are, it can sometimes act like it is! All too often, the ego can act like it’s “the only game in town”. This center of the conscious part of the personality can carry on as if our conscious thoughts, feelings and wishes are all that there is to us. It can be easy for people to feel that they “know themselves’, when it may be that all they’re aware of is the conscious portion of who they are.
There are many kinds of situations where the ego chooses to ignore, or repress, what other parts of the personality may know or feel. For instance, it may be that we’ve gotten the message from family or peers that our real feelings about family relationships are unacceptable, and so we repress them. If the ego operates while ignoring our deepest feelings about key matters in our lives, that’s a recipe for trouble. Among other things, we may fall into the depths of depression or intense anxiety, or even worse psychological situations.
Similarly, if the ego ignores or dismisses other kinds of promptings from the unconscious, we may lose a very great deal. For instance, if the ego ignores our intuition, which comes from the unconscious mind, we may lose a very precious source of perceptions about our lives and the world. In much the same way, if dreams are ignored or dismissed, a potentially invaluable communication channel with the deep workings of the unconscious gets lost.
The Ego in Right Relationship to the Self
The ego can certainly stand in the way of connecting with the whole personality, or, as Jungians call it, the Self. Yet, on the other side, the ego can definitely do things that help us to connect to the whole of who we are. There is a lot we can do for ourselves that opens up the connection with the unconscious personality, and the whole of who we really are. We can take advantage of techniques that increasingly open the ego up to everything that we are thinking, feeling or perceiving. There are many possible techniques. One fairly straightforward approach is the practice of journalling on a daily basis about what has gone on in your inner and outer life, and how you have reacted to it. As writers such as Rebecca Strong emphasize, the value of journalling is now widely recognized far beyond the Jungian world. Other viable techniques include noting and writing down your dreams.
Something that can certainly help the ego and the rest of the personality to get along better is entering into the process of Jungian /a-midlife-transition or analysis. A supportive therapeutic relationship of the right type can certainly help the ego to hear and support the voices of the rest of the personality. This is a key part of the journey towards wholeness.
Wishing you every good thing on your personal journey,
© 2022 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)