In Western culture we have become fascinated, dazzled and bewitched by our own egos. We know what we like and what we don’t like. We know who we like and who we don’t like. And we know what parts of ourselves we like and those we want to change. Therapists collude with this tacit assumption that somehow more ego is better. Indeed in our increasingly atomised social world, where independence is prized above all other qualities, it often feels that we have to ‘fully’ be ourselves, in order to exist.
This view of self or ego, I want to suggest, is a modern malady, and one that hoodwinks us from our potential to become fully human. Let me explain.

When we are born we make a physical separation from our mothers. We are still completely dependent upon her, and our sense of self as a separate being is in embryonic form. We have no ego, or sense of self, to speak of.

As we develop as children we start to gain a clearer, and secure, sense of our own separateness from our mothers. Our ego is developing. But as children our egos are still very fragile, easily disrupted by the contingencies of living. We are still very much dependent on our mothers to feel secure in the world.

The really big shift in our development comes at adolescence. If things are going well, we feel secure enough to experiment with severing the ties with our mother. I think this is what Freud meant when he said ‘the duty of the adolescent is to rebel’. If we are lucky, we have parents who understand what we are doing, support us in our choices, and yet remain the bedrock of our security until we need it no longer.

If adolescence works well for us, we emerge as independent young adults’ capable of taking responsibility for our own behaviour. We ‘get a life’, and live it on our own terms.

This process is shown in the graph below.
ego strenght graph

Of course for a therapist, I see many clients whose movement from dependence to independence has been disrupted for a whole range of reasons. For example, a parent may have died catapulting the child to a position of responsibility in the household too early. Alternatively, a mother may fail to protect her child from an abusive father, leaving the child feeling vulnerable in the home and outside of it.

Whatever the cause, the result is the same. The child becomes an adult who is insecure at being an independent person in their own right. They have trouble taking responsibility for their own behaviour, and are dependent on other people to meet their needs.

Much of my therapeutic time is spent helping people build their ego strength. Separating securely from their parents, and learning to trust their own being to meet their needs.

But this is not the end of the story. Western culture would lead us to believe that achieving the height of ego strength and independence is the pinnacle of achievement, but this is not so. As human beings there is still further along the path of self awareness to travel. In fact we can learn to transcend ego.

If we allow ourselves to grow beyond independence, we find that our ego is not as substantial as we first came to believe. In fact our existence as a separate individual is itself slightly illusory. We need other people in order to exist. We find that our existence is mutually interdependent with other people’s existence. This may be experienced as frightening when we first come across it, and go retreating back into the safety of the strong ego.

For those who can work past the fear, there is a greater potential to be unlocked. The potential is for a balance between self and other, work and play, mind and society, a balance that transcends such dualities, and leaves the person with a deep sense of peace and happiness. In fact this is the only place where a lasting happiness can be found.

To start wandering down this path we need courage, for sure, we need guidance, undoubtedly, but we also need, paradoxically, a strong ego with which to start. For people with a fragile ego process, the fear encountered by confronting the true nature of ego can be simply too much to bear.

Of course the diagram shown above charts the rise and fall of ego with the move from dependence, through independence, into interdependence. It is true that some systems of thought such as Buddhism hold that it is possible to permanently and completely extinguish the ego. Whether this is true or not, I don’t know. In any event it is likely to only be a reality for a small proportion of humanity.

For the rest of us we wax and wane through different levels of ego strength. When we are attacked, for example, we may experience a challenge to our ego, one that leaves us feeling a fragile sense of self. When we give our Power Point presentation we may need to inhabit the full power of our ego. Similarly, in our more sublime moments, say when observing a beautiful sunset, we may capture something of the piece that comes from a release of ego.

Wherever you are on this continuum right now, and whatever range you occupy on the continuum at different points in time, I believe that this is one of the best ways of understanding where we are at, and what we need to do to progress.

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