I have put off this post for quite some time simply because the topic of human ego is so huge that it has taken a while to figure out what to include in a discussion about it. For days, maybe even months, i have been walking around, observing manifestations of ego in others and in myself and putting these observations against my reading. As with a great many ideas passing through my mind, Freud adds a noteworthy dimension. Freud is kind of like Darwin in that what he was getting at, seems to have some pretty far reaching implications. The Greek origin of the word ego is literally the primary pronoun for the first person singular which translates to " I " in English. Freud like so many others of his time took the Greek word to express a transformed concept in his own language. It seems that at some point in our history, Greek stopped being the word and became the origin of the word. When that happened it is as though we became free to redefine everything but this is another post entirely. Back to the concept of Ego for a second. Freud took the original notion of " I " as a pronoun and placed it between an id and a superego. This defined the I in a new way. This defined the I as essentially stuck between the drive of desires to fornicate and to kill and the conscience which is what you truly believe to be right and wrong. The desire to fornicate and kill could also be called libido and destrudo or desires of love and destruction (The two things we tend to do a lot of...). In Freud's way of thinking, the ego still retains it's original meaning of I but it takes on a more qualitative dimension as a core I which is in conflict with other competing I's. Get it? This means there is a central you which sits in between two competing You's at either end. Actually, now that I think of it, this is like the image of having an angel on one shoulder (the superego) and a devil on the other (the id). How do you like that, Freud's notion of ego rejoins the concepts of heaven and hell within most religions! And he was an atheist! Religion seems to exist whether we like it or not, it seems to be here to stay in some form or other. After all, we never would have made it if it had not served some function for us. Getting of topic again. Stay with me, i'll stay with you. Most of what i know about ego actually comes from experience, like most of what i know about anything actually. Books are great, but you will never know ego unless you actually study it in yourself and in others. Some might say that what i have just proposed, suggests that i have a big ego. Having a big ego is the concept which most of us have adopted as the meaning of ego. We use terms like ego-maniac, egotistical and having a big ego but these are just forms of ego, not definitions to be used to understand what ego is.
When someone asks you who you are or what you do, your ego is answering. When you ask yourself who you are, your ego is answering. The fact that you can ask yourself who you are is a pretty good indication that this ego thing of ours exists. There can be no I without it. Being an I means you have one. Freud's psychodynamic theory posits that this ego is your primary identity and that it is the interface between you and your external world. Jung might have referred to the ego as the mask or the self but we need more research to see if these terms are equivocal. In any event, when you look at yourself and say this is who i am, you are most likely talking through your ego, ie. your sense of self. If you are really balanced and really in equilibrium, that ego encompasses your desires, your fears, your conscience and you are not too defensive. You accept yourself as you are with your failings, your successes. Your failings are not dramatic causes for depression and your successes are not used as narcissistic means of inflation of your ego, thus making you an ego-maniac. Ego maniacs or egotistical people revamp stories of successes again and again all with the expressed interest of self inflation or feeling better about themselves. If you are too defensive, your ego becomes rigid, inflexible and prone to cracking. Remember that what does not bend, breaks. If your ego is not flexible enough to tolerate a certain amount of criticism and judgement than it will invariably become so rigid that when it finally does break, is will be destroyed. This, according to Freud would be one primary cause of psychosis. This is the stuff that ends one up in a mental institution. It is generally believed among psychodynamic practitionners that a flexible or semi-permeable ego is more adaptive for the human psyche. On the other hand, an ego which is overly permeable has no boundaries. This will also lead to psychological trouble. We may all know of one or two people who refuse to draw any lines in the sand or commit to anything. Everything is always fine. Usually these people are advocates of anarchy and cahos choosing to believe that there is nothing to be done any way you slice it and that a certain kind of nihilism is the best position to adopt. These boundriless egos are led left and right and unfortunately, they are often enslaved by the rigid egos who need them to do their bidding. You can see that most of the boundariless egos are on the bottom of the social strata while most of the rigid, authoritative and inflexible egos belong to people at the top. People at the top naturally have an interest in the more flexible and maleable egos because they can be controlled, much to the dismay of the individual who calls himself an anarchist.
Freud's psychodynamic theory centered around a number of concepts but none is perhaps more central than that of ego defenses. Freud observed in thousands of hours of psychoannalysis that patients were defensive. If he poked in one area, the patient would reinforce the wall. If he poked in another area, the patient would bite back. At other times, a poke at the ego would lead to a spiral of depression or hysterical outbursts. Freud eventually came to name many defense mechanisms which his patients tended to employ. You can witness any one of these defense mechanisms daily in any of the people around you, though i do not suggest you make it your job to do so because you will stop living the relationship and begin intellectualizing it and this intellectualizing is in itself a defense mechanism. The defenses described by Freud are among others: Intellectualiztion, denial, reaction formation, sublimation, displacement, repression, regression to name some of them. If you are interested, there are others listed here:
There is a lot at stake in the ego. After all, if you can imagine that the ego is everything you think you are in this world, there is a lot to loose by having that concept smashed to pieces. Look at religions as a prime example of the manifestation of ego. Look at how inflexible religions are to each other. Look at how unwilling each religion is to accept some part of the others. This is ego defense in action. Ego defenses of course, operate on the instinct of fear. Fear of death to be more precise. The destruction of the ego means nothing less than the dissolution of self and ultimately, you can not live without a self. It is metaphorical and litteral death for anyone who experiences it. Naturally, we are willing to kill to protect it. This has been known throughout history as dying for what you believe in. Countless people have done it through the ages and many do so as i write this. Fear directs behaviour. Freud saw this early on and put into words the idea that we run from death towards libido or love and that we kill to overcome our the fear of death or put another way, we kill to survive. Or so the ego believes. Of course our consciousness or superego tells us differently. Our superego tells us it is wrong to kill, but it only tells us this once the killing is done. The ability for the superego to reflect to us an image of who we are is only secondary to the egos drive to be who we are. Based on this, i believe that a significant portion of behaviour and human action is actually not cognitive in origin. Put another way, our behvious is thoughtless dribble which is reflected upon afterwards. Freud saw this too in his notion of Id. The id is an animal within us made of pure instincts. It is driven to satisfy those instincts without any thought being required anywhere in the process. Drug addiction would be an illustration of Id overcoming ego. All instinctual behaviours such as obsessive compulsive behaviours are essentially unthinking behaviours which are eventually followed by thoughts like: "maybe i shouldn't do that" or "why am i doing this?". Cognitive Behavioural specialists posit that thoughts themselves are at the origin of those behaviours and while they make an incredibly solid case for this view, i continue to feel that much, if not most of our behviour transcends thought or at least precedes it.
Now that we know we have an ego, what are we going to do with it? The Buddhists propose that we forget it. Or more precisely that we condition ourselves to observe the illusion of ego. Buddhists meditate for lifetimes on end to this effect. They focus on the formlessness of form. What is ego but a bubble which one has built to contain the I within it. It is a uterus which the human psyche can not do with out. We are born into this world crying and we can not bear the initial trauma of that separation at birth so we spend our lives recreating that initial environment of protection by building a house. When a buddhist says we must destroy the house that ego built, this is what is meant. Still, even a buddhist can't have no ego. I think it is more that the ego becomes so flexible that it is immutable and invulnerable to attack. Look at a blade of grass. It is walked on, rained on and a hurricane may even blow over it though it may remain intact. Of course there are conditions which must be met in order for the grass to grow and be healthy. For a buddhist, i think these conditions amount to compassion and humility but i'm not sure. I hope to ask the Dalai Lama some day.
That's it for now. this is a big topic and i could see myself updating this post in a few days. Please consider that I write these things for nothing else than the pleasure of having you read them.