Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Ego—a Term with Many Meanings

Originally posted on August 3, 2010

In a number of contexts—“new age,” psychology, consciousness studies, spirituality—the term “ego” has been used as if it’s a problem. There are several meanings of “ego” and it may be worthwhile considering these.

First, the word is Latin for “I” and is attributed by the English translators of Freud’s writings to that part of the psyche that mediates between the impulse-driven “id”and the social conscience-driven “super-ego.” Continued explorations of the nuances of the sense of self, though, reveals further sub-divisions.

George Herbert Mead, a philosopher writing and teaching about social psychology around the 1920s and 1930s drew a differentiation between the essential subjective observer as the I and that which is observed, the object, as the “me.” The point to make here is that the observation of the self is mediated by interpretation and bias, so that there’s a tendency to select out certain elements and leave others. Sometimes this is more negative—our tendency to over-estimate the significance of our blunders or weakness; and sometimes it’s more positive—out tendency to over-estimate our strengths, accomplishments, skill, intelligence, and so forth. Some over-estimate their impact on others, others tend to under-estimate this impact. (See my paper on the nature of the “self” on my website.)

Another key element in the sense of “ego” involves the dynamic of identification, which refers to the way we tend to think of certain qualities as part of us or describing us, while other qualities (we think) do not refer to us. There’s room for repression and denial here, so some qualities that are more obvious to others may be unknown to us. This is the meaning of the saying by Jesus that we should remove the stick (or beam) in our own eye (vision field) before we criticize the tiny splinter (or mote) in the other person’s eye.

Ego is also applied as a synonym for self, so that egocentric and self-centered-ness seem to be the same things. Ego in this sense may be imagined as a sensitivity about such things as “how am I doing? Do you like me? Do you think I’m attractive? Do you find me interesting?” Some of this is okay for assessing one’s status and the harmony of social membership, even if it’s never spelled out. Some people, though, make this concern more central to a wider range of operations, in which case they may be labeled as excessively egocentric or “narcissistic.”

Ego concerns operate when people are consciously or unconsciously expending a fair amount of energy of determining such things as “how well am I doing? Am I getting enough attention? Do I want (or even deserve) attention?  Do I feel proud of myself or ashamed? Am I being given enough or does my sibling or neighbor get more, is it fair?”—”self-conscious” things  like that. When it interferes with the capacity for relating in a more matter-of-fact way on a task, then the egotism edges over into mild or not-so-mild range of being problematic..

Egocentricity is another aspect of this word, “ego,” and refers to the tendency to measure other phenomena in terms of what one knows: “Well, doesn’t everyone? Isn’t everyone like me? If I like chocolate, how can you not like chocolate?”  It takes a bit of maturation to get past this, and it’s possible to get past it in some ways and hold on to it in others. (Indignantly) “What do you mean you don’t want to do this? What’s wrong with it?” (Egocentric people perceive others who don’t share their preferences or beliefs or religion, etc., as thereby criticizing their own choices. Egocentric people have difficulty conceiving of the very idea that someone simply has different preferences, or resonates with a different set of symbolic images or ideas, but others are not necessarily criticizing the egocentric person’s preferences.

Personal maturity involves growing past this tendency that arises out of a lack of sophistication, a lack of awareness of the great variety in preferences, and includes the awareness that being “different” need not be taken as a criticism.

Back to the psychoanalytic use of the term: The ego operates both consciously and unconsciously. Few people have an adequate appreciation of the depth and rapid skill of the subconscious mind. Perhaps we should find terms that make this differentiation more explicit. The more conscious and ordinary “self” practices, has more control over attitudes, insight, and self-discipline. The subconscious parts can operate in several ways: (1) The conscious part can learn about it and from this insight can update attitudes. (2) The subconscious ego can use foolish, magical thinking patterns that are used as the most prevalent “defense mechanisms.” These overlap with the tendency toward logical fallacies that make people more vulnerable to manipulation by others, including politicians and advertisers, through their rhetoric. (3) An interesting discovery is in the way the subconscious mind can operate in a way that is faster and more subtle, clever, and elaborate than anything the ordinary conscious mind can generate. Behavior enacted through this channel is often inspired, part of what Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.” I think this part of the mind can be energized when a skill is well learned and practiced, and also it operates as a dream-maker to make the stories in dreams vivid and seemingly “real.”

I am interested in the capacity of ego to become more explicitly self-aware, to think about the way it thinks. This is called “meta-cognition.” I think psychotherapy should address this part of “you-as-manager-of-your-many-parts.” The more we know about psychology, the more we can take on the identity of self-manager, which fosters in turn the goal of further maturation and self-awareness.

Back to the emergence of “ego” psychology from “drive” psychology in the field of psychoanalysis, mainly in the 1930s. Instead of analyzing the underlying motives, what began to happen was that therapy involved also analyzing the defenses, the avoidances, the adjustive maneuvers that people used to disguise or cope with their deeper drives. From this came an awareness that some “defenses” are more flexible and mature than others—or they could be, if applied more consciously and with discrimination. For example, suppression is a maneuver by which we can consciously choose to avoid thinking about that which is for the time being distracting or uncomfortable, but that which is put off is not sealed away in a way that’s more pathological (i.e., repression). We all need to do this just to not become too scattered.

Another more mature defense is humor, making a joke, a lightening up which also serves usually as a healthy maneuver. One of the more under-estimated maneuvers is that of sublimation, making something that is partly motivated by less worthy desires into something that is truly sublime, socially useful. Used to foster consciousness and mental flexibility this way the ego-mind is a friend.

Some spiritual writings differentiate between the ego and the cap-s “Self,” and this needs to be unpacked. The ego in that context is generally associated with more immature attitudes about life. The sense that I am here and stand over and against others and nature is a key example of the kind of ego-attitude that is generally targeted for deconstruction in the service of mind-expansion. My concern is that we not over-value the desire to eliminate the ego, because such measures are too often part of the mind-control maneuvers found in cult brainwashing. It makes more sense to me to work gradually in expanding the person’s mental flexibility and skill set so that there can be a balancing, an openness to inspiration, higher values, and balancing these with practical issues and one’s more natural psycho-spiritual development.

Sometimes the “Self” with a capital S is imagined to be the core or true identity, while the ego is a small and partly illusory structure. I think we need to note, first, that all these terms and the mental maps that support them are just that—words and maps, constructions of the mind—and more, as words, socially-agreed-upon terms and meanings. They will vary over time, and what they may have meant a century or a millennium ago may be different from what they mean today and what they may mean in the future.

Jung uses the cap-s Self to speak of that archetypal function of the deep mind that organizes experiences into the illusion of unity in flow of time and coherence and value. The term also is imagined to be a core of being, but here the word blurs into metaphysical speculations. This use in analytical psychology blurs nowadays in overlapping with other transpersonal approaches.

Some spiritual approaches speak of “Self” with a capital S to suggest the core or spiritual dimension. I suspect there may be some value in imagining that we can partake of that energy-flow-structure, but I fear that the time isn’t yet ripe for a widespread agreement about how we should language these various elements. One problem is that they overlap, can blur into each other, generate the illusion of being awake and mature even while indulging in less-mature activities, and so forth. I am hopeful, though, that this preliminary effort at least draws attention to the variety of ways the word “ego” is used.

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