The ego gets a pretty bad rap these days. People say things like “It’s just ego,” as though the ego were something we could just dispense of at will.
As the center of our conscious mind, the ego is a psychological necessity. Perhaps a lot of what people say today comes from the influx of Eastern philosophy. We should remember that the idea of the dissolution of the ego arose in a different cultural context.
Dissolution of the ego is not something we can simply adopt as an attitude. It is something, however, to which we can adapt – if we keep the practice within the context of our culture. Individuality is one of the greatest contributions of Western culture to humanity.
I think we should be more respectful of something so precious as our individuality. Individuality is an expression of authenticity. The idea that an individual can contribute something of value gives a human being a sense of meaning and purpose.
Meaninglessness, by the way, is something from which a lot of people suffer these days. I work with some of these people on a daily basis. Of course, their presenting problem is rarely, “I suffer from meaninglessness”, but it often comes down to that.
What Affects the Ego?
We are surrounded by the Collective on two fronts: the Collective Consciousness in our external world and the Collective Unconscious in our inner world. Both of these act upon us like objects – meaning that each front has a certain level of autonomy over which we have no control.
From the external front, Collective Consciousness, we are bombarded with cultural norms, social pressures and social roles (personas). These promote societal and cultural conventionalism.
Conventionality assimilates individuality. On the internal front, we have the Unconscious, which encompasses both a personal (biographical) and a collective (archetypal) aspect.
The difference is important, the details of which are best left to another topic. For now, let’s look at the Unconscious as those overpowering emotions, thoughts, moods, fantasies and daydreams which can possess us against our will.
What is the Ego?
The ego is the “commander in chief” as Jung called it,
… its reflections and decisions, its reasons and doubts, its intentions and expectations are the general staff, and its dependence on outside factors is the dependence of the commander on well-nigh incalculable influences emanating from the general headquarters and from the dark machinations of politics in the background.
A stable ego provides us with the necessary foundation from which to do our transformational work as individuals. We can look at the ego as a sort of complex that serves as the center of consciousness. Consciousness – what we know about ourselves – transforms only by the work of a well-established ego.
A well-established ego works in conjunction with those forces that are beyond its control. When our ego is not well-established, the onslaught paralyzes us. Moods, thoughts, emotions, and images can take over and possess us in such a way that we no longer feel like ourselves.
In order to withstand the onslaught of life, we have to build up strong ego boundaries. In psychological terms, this boundary is called a stimulus barrier. Hence, when our stimulus barrier is too permeable, we can become overwhelmed, especially when we are in particularly dark states of hopelessness and fear. Similarly an alchemical text reads:
… be not too hasty in bringing your work to pass, and remember that your door be well and firmly shut, that he which is within fly not out and thus by the help of God you shall obtain a wished effect.
Generally speaking, the work we are bringing to pass is our own transformation. Whenever we collapse under the pressure of the world, we lose a piece of ourselves.
The Ego as the Vessel of Transformation
In terms of alchemy we can look at our egos as an aspect of the “vessel” in which the work of transformation takes place. When we leave the door of the vessel open too wide, we become overwhelmed by both fronts – duty, obligation, and service on one and difficult thoughts and emotions on the other.
This is a tension that must be born. Only when we have a keen sense of our egos can we distinguish between our authentic selves and conventional opinion on the outside and the “dark machinations” of the Unconscious from the inside.
Our process of individuation, or Self-discovery, is the means by which we excavate what is truest to our individual nature.
The greatest events of world history are, at bottom, profoundly unimportant. In the last analysis, the essential thing is the life of the individual. This alone makes history, here alone do the great transformations first take place, and the whole future, the whole history of the world, ultimately spring as a gigantic summation from these hidden sources in individuals. In our most private and most subjective lives we are not only the passive witnesses of our age, and its sufferers, but also its makers. We make our own epoch.
(Carl Jung, Collected Works 10, par 316)
Ego and Personality Development in C.G. Jung’s Psychology
As with many of my posts, this piece started with a question about Jungian psychology:
How would you explain Jungian psychology? Is it all about trying to find the ‘real you’ or your real personality?
As usual, the phrasing of the question is tricky because it makes a lot of assumptions. We have to keep in mind that Jung meant something very specific with the words he used. He always clearly defined what he meant when he used certain words by establishing an operational definition. Many people argue semantics instead of getting clear on what Jung meant he said something. What did this guy mean by “real personality” and “real you”?
For Jung, there was no difference between real personality and real you. He even used personality and soul interchangeably. In Jungian psychology, the development of personality is a soul-searching journey called individuation.
To see what Jung mean by personality, let’s return to the quote above:
Personality is the supreme realization of the innate idiosyncrasy of a living being. It is an act of high courage flung in the face of life, the absolute affirmation of all that constitutes the individual, the most successful adaptation to the universal conditions of existence coupled with the greatest possible freedom for self-determination.(C.W. vol 17 par 289)
We need to unpack this quote in order to understand Jung’s definition of personality. We’ll explore what he means by the following:
- universal conditions of existence
- successful adaptation to these conditions
- innate idiosyncrasy
Personality Development: What is Personality in C.G. Jung’s Psychology
For Jung, personality is the supreme realization of the innate idiosyncrasy of a living being, “an act of high courage flung in the face of life.”
The biggest problem people run into is thinking they already know what their individuality is. But we actually don’t know that. That’s because part of our individuality is conscious and a bigger part of it is unconscious.
Your true individuality is a lot more than you are conscious of. We have all kind of ideas, thoughts, feelings, and emotions beneath the surface of consciousness. All of that stuff comes up through your dreams.
Furthermore, the unconscious aspects of your individuality are the source of most of your issues. The ego strives in one direction, but the unconscious counterweight holds it back.
Anxiety, depression, panic, stagnation, lack of success in life – all of these are symptoms that you are out of touch with your true individuality. And all of this is what we work on in Jungian Analysis.
That’s where courage comes in. It takes courage to let go of who and what you think you are.
Individuation means becoming an “individual,” and, in so far as “individuality” embraces our innermost, last, and incomparable uniqueness, it also implies becoming one’s own self. We could therefore translate individuation as “coming to selfhood” or “self-realization.” (C.W. vol 7 par 266)
As I said above, the universal conditions to which we must successfully adapt are the external world of society and culture (aka, the collective) and the internal world of the collective unconscious. Everyone has to find a way to adapt to both of these forces of nature. Only when we do that are we truly self-determined.
Personality development: Recognition of our universal conditions
I’m pulling some old posts together, so forgive me if I repeat myself here. If you’re like me, it never hurts to hear something again.
Again, there are two universal conditions to which each of us must successfully adapt: the external world of society and culture and the internal world of the objective psyche. Jung called the external world the collective consciousness (or sometimes the collective psyche) and the internal world the collective unconscious. Successful adaptation basically means that we have recognized the unconscious components of our personality and their effects on us.
As I said in the post on the necessity of the ego, essentially we are surrounded by the collective on two fronts: the collective consciousness in our external world and the collective unconscious in our inner world. Both the external and the internal world have a certain level of autonomy over us. By this I mean that certain things just happen to us and there’s nothing we can do about it.
From the external front, collective consciousness, we are barraged with cultural norms, social pressures and social roles (personas). All of these promote – and to some extent, enforce – societal and cultural conventionalism. Conventionality assimilates individuality.
On the internal front, we have the unconscious, which encompasses both a personal (biographical) and a collective (archetypal) aspect. For example, we are born into certain families and that family dynamic has a profound impact, not only on how we see ourselves, but also on how we see the world. That lens is part of your personal unconscious.
The universal conditions at the collective level are the archetypes, which form the basic structure of the uniquely human psyche. Archetypes are generalized patterns of human perception and behavior.
Personality Development and Collective Consciousness
When Jung uses the term collective consciousness he means the general thoughts, ideas, behavior, and feelings shared by a people, a culture, or humankind in general. This includes the generally accepted truths according to religion, science, or society. We also call this conventionality.
You can identify conventionally-minded people within a few seconds. These people are simply collective. They completely merge with the collective consciousness and unconsciously identify with the conventionally accepted opinions, thoughts, and beliefs of their external environment. For example, surely we all know people who watch the nightly news or read CNN or Fox, and then, repeat what they’ve heard or read in conversation with each other, with all of the authority and conviction of an original opinion.
As a rule, collective consciousness wins hands down with its “reasonable” generalities that cause the average intelligence no difficulty whatever. It still believes in the necessary connection of cause and effect and has scarcely taken note of the fact that causality has become relative.(C.W. vol 8 par 424)People like this have never actually considered their own thoughts on matters, much less actually researched anything on their own. And by research, I mean digging into resources outside of mainstream mass media. Sadly, most people know only what conventional opinion tells them.
An authentic opinion is cultivated by honest reflection and consideration of the matter at hand.
Collective Assimilation of the Individual
Many people are collective, meaning they unconsciously identify with either the external or the internal world. Some merge with the collective consciousness, where they identify with the collective opinions of the external world.
For example, the people mentioned above, who only watch the nightly news or read CNN or Fox, and then, repeat what they’ve heard or read in conversation with each other.
Others are merged with the collective unconscious. This would amount to identification with or possession by the archetype, in particular, the god-image. We see this in religious, idealistic, or political fanaticism – anything with an ism after it has you.
In any one of these situations, the true individual gives way to the collective. We have to extricate ourselves from both collectives in order to discover and embrace that “innermost, last, and incomparable uniqueness,” something which is innate in each of us.
When Jung speaks of embracing our innermost, last, and incomparable uniqueness, he did not mean that we should embrace “some supposed peculiarity rather than … collective considerations and obligations”. That, he called individualism. While individualism is essentially the opposite of collectivism, both have the same effect: alienation of the true individual.
The true individual is both collective and unique. That particular aspect of Jung’s idea of personality development is lost on a lot of people.
Personality Development: don’t be one of the sheeple
Here’s another example of falling into collective mindset. My good friend and her teenage daughter were visiting me in 2003. This was back when internet chat rooms were common. My friend’s daughter had been carrying on in those rooms all day long.
I took a look at the list of rooms and noticed one where artist-types hung out. There were only five people or so in the room. I casually mentioned, “that looks like the place to be”. My friend’s daughter innocently responded, “No, this room has 100 people in there. That’s where all the cool people are.”
Now, I certainly wasn’t going to let that one go. I wish I could remember exactly what I said to her, but it went something like this: being cool is unique. The room with the most people in it is anything but unique.
Or take the comment section YouTube. If you see a video with 47,000 likes and 1,200 dislikes, you’ll see insult after insult about those 1,200 dis-likers! This is how badly people can’t stand those who step outside of the majority. I mean, seriously – it’s baffling.
It takes a lot of courage to do your own thing, whether you are walking a path that no one else walks or expressing an opinion that’s outside of the norm.
C.G. Jung and individuation
Personality development and individuation are the same thing. Jung defined individuation as
The better and more complete fulfilment of the collective qualities of the human being, since adequate consideration of the peculiarity of the individual is more conducive to a better social performance than when the peculiarity is neglected or suppressed. (C.W. vol 7 par 266)
A peculiarity is not a strangeness, but rather
a unique combination, or gradual differentiation, of functions and faculties which in themselves are universal. (C.W. vol 7 par 267)
Like I said before, first we have to extricate ourselves from the universal/collective qualities before we can discover our uniqueness – not to alienate ourselves, but rather to embody and fulfill those qualities in our own unique way.
The universal factors that form the psychological structure of our humanness, i.e., the archetypes, are infinitely variable – in the same way that we all have the same anatomical structure, but with individual expressions of it.
Individuation, therefore, can only mean a process of psychological development that fulfills the individual qualities given; in other words, it is a process by which a man becomes the definite, unique being he in fact is. (C.W. vol 7 par 267)
Personality and Personhood
That unique being is what Jung called the whole personality. Now remember, he wrote in German. The word personality in German is Persönlichkeit, which is almost like saying, “personhood”. I use this wording to make it sound like neighborhood.
A neighborhood is a community of people living in the same vicinity. Our personhood is also like a neighborhood. Each of us lives with a community of others, but it is an inner community. The dreams we have with all of those strange people wandering through them – they are our inner community. Learning to listen to them is part of personality development. Why?
… in each of us there is another whom we do not know. He speaks to us in dreams and tells us how differently he sees us from the way we see ourselves. When, therefore, we find ourselves in a difficult situation to which there is no solution, he can sometimes kindle a light that radically alters our attitude—the very attitude that led us into the difficult situation. (C.W. vol 10 par 325)
Personality Development: Who are the people in your neighborhood?
The whole personality includes both conscious and unconscious aspects. These elements of a whole personality include: ego, persona, shadow, and anima/animus, and the self. The self is the closest to the center of the whole personality.
Each of those aforementioned elements have their rightful place and function in our personality. Identification with any of these elements is always problematic. The ego has to discover that it’s not the master of the house. It must learn to listen and answer to something far older and infinitely wiser than itself.
- We need the protective cover of an authentic persona in order to face and navigate the external world.
- We must integrate our shadow – both its light and dark aspects – so that we don’t project it onto others.
- We need our anima or animus, not only to discover our inner opposite, but also in order to face and navigate our way through the inner world.
- And we need contact with the self so that we can orient ourselves to something beyond this infinitesimal field of awareness that we call consciousness.
The Differentiated Individual
Individuals are formed and differentiated through a recognition, understanding, and integration of all of the different elements and dimensions that make up a living personality. I use the passive voice purposely because sometimes we are formed by forces other than ourselves. We like to think that our will drives everything, but anyone who’s self-aware knows that this is not true.
Each of those aforementioned elements have their rightful place and function in our personality. Identification with any of these elements is always problematic.
Inborn in each of us is an authentic, whole being which wants to be expressed and fulfilled, but we have to work with it and not against it. This means that sometimes we have to let go of the ego’s petty wants and desires and really pay attention to a deeper impulse. Only then can we become that individuated being that Jung speaks of.
Very succinct and inspiring.
Thanks for putting this together! I agree with the above comment. This article covers a lot of ground in an orderly and comprehensive way without getting overburdened by detail and a jungian lexicon that is becomes difficult to follow and integrate without much deeper study. This feels like a solid, general ‘lay of the land’ for Jungian theory.
In terms of deeper study, do you have any intuitive suggestions of where to start? I prefer starting with macro perspectives first before delving deeper. Thanks!
Hi Sean, thanks for your comment. I would suggest reading this post on how to read Jung.
Thank you for having the patience to put together an elaborate post that helps us to understand Jungian perspective in simpler terms. I am here as a reader because I am trying to decipher my own dreams. The inner world has been quite insistent in sending messages that it becomes hard to ignore it.