Nouns often mislead thought into assuming substance where actually there is none, so the word 'ego' tends to suggest something tangible or thing-like and seems to imply its resistance to change or inertia. However, it does not make good sense to try to define the ego in objective terms, for it is not substantial, not an objective-physical entity but a pattern of subjective identifications. The ego is construed out of personal identifications... subjective tendencies, feelings, desires and judgements. The ego comes to expression in and through the social environment, where it can be studied through reconstruction. This has been shown very subtly and extensively in Jean-Paul Sartre's shortish book 'The Transcendence of the Ego'. 3
DEVELOPMENT OF EGO AND PERSONALITY
From childhood onwards we accumulate experiences which affect us in our thoughts, feelings and actions so that we develop a specific personality. It may be an orderly, comfortable personality or it may be the opposite. The personality is formed by the interplay between our attempts to protect, satisfy and express ourselves and the world in which it finds itself. It is never independent of the social, cultural conditions under which one grows up and lives. Thus, personalities may harmonies more or less well with the surrounding world and people vary as to the degree of inward harmony and fruitful outward relationships. Persons whose characters are formed in one society can therefore have major problems adjusting to having to live in another, while a relative misfit at home may thrive abroad.
Though ego-identity is not automatically forced upon adult persons by circumstances, the cumulative effects of having grown into one's ego-identity may mean that the sense of identity is not easily freed from the ego. The ego's tendency is to cling to what is 'me and mine', and what I desire or expect in self-interest. But it can be changed both by external circumstances and efforts of personal reflection and redirections of the will. When a person develops an improved sense of security, one can relinquish the ego's complex of self-defences and reduce its toll on oneself and the environment of other people. By relaxing one's attachments to material things, social esteem and social ambitions one makes progress towards internal freedom. Self-interest almost always narrows vision and thus becomes self-defeating in the wider scheme of life.
The origin of the ego is sought in identifications made in very early development and in how these have taken part in forming the particular personality and character. The ego-feeling most probably arises with the first assertion of 'I want', of possessiveness, and its growth is closely connected with the need to feel pleasure and avoid pain.
The normal human identity is developed in part precisely through perceiving and learning distinctions between 'I' and 'the other', between 'mine' and 'not mine'. The sense of 'me, mine and I' are obviously unavoidable in the growth of the normal human person, though personal growth eventually stops if these identifications are not later transformed. Conditions of extreme psychic unbalance - from alienation, identity crisis, intense withdrawal to certain states of depression and amnesia - usually involve a self-negating disruption of normal processes of ego-affirmation, especially in early life.
A basic thesis of modern developmental psychology is that "some sense of self does exist long prior to self-awareness and language. These include the senses of agency, of physical cohesion, of continuity in time, of having intentions in mind and other such experiences..." 4
Controllable experiments combined with well-grounded inferences have shown, contrary to most previous psychological opinion, that a subjective sense of self is present at least from birth onwards as the infant gradually relates to its body, its surroundings and to persons as being other than itself. That is to say, the infant is not a passive object of external stimuli that gradually generate a sense of self and experiences connectedness of things, events and actions so as slowly to form the ego or personality, but is from the start an active participant in the organization of the personality.
The natural and healthy development of the ego-feeling from early childhood, attendant on the growing discovery of self as 'me/mine', relates identity to body, possessions, abilities and thought (mind) in a progressive discovery of selfhood ('I'). Early on the ego-identity becomes related to the body, yet whether the sense of 'I' as subject is or can be present prior to these body-identifications cannot be tested definitively, not least due to the child's lack of language at that time. One is almost self-evidently not born with the sense of me and mine, but with the capacity for developing it, along with the body and the mind. Even the reflexive idea 'my body' does not arise until the child is many months old, and identity has been shown to be based on the relatively stable and continuous 'body-feeling' (excluding tragic exceptions where deformity or injuries disturb this process).
Unbalanced parental reactions to a baby's burgeoning desires to control its environment - when to feed, sleep, move etc. - can stunt the growth of a healthy ego-personality. The mean between over-indulgence and unreasonable discipline has to be found. The process of allowing babies to learn self-regulation and to behave within a reasonable sphere of autonomy furthers the establishment of a more harmonious ego. The drives on which the ego is founded can be wrongly diverted into unusual channels, giving rise both to feelings of inadequacy, and compensatory egotism. Undue frustration or regulation of these drives leads to destructive tendencies and/or undue passivity and can lay the ground for complex inferiority and superiority feelings.
The ego arises along with three basic formative drives in human life: the urges to be (self-preservation), to experience pleasure (joy) and to know (in general).2 These drives are (presumably) not personally articulated at birth, but receive specific form and structure from the growing person's interaction with the environment, physical, social and spiritual. This does not mean, however, that one is not born with predetermined tendencies of a psychic nature. Controlled observations showing marked differences between individual children at very early ages indeed, differences that are not explainable by any known environmental influences, are now being tracked back to variations in the genetic coding of individuals, which has only been achieved during the last decade or so.. Though Vedantic and similar religious thought insists that we are born with 'tendencies' (vasana), karmic inheritances from the previous existence of our souls, there is no reliable proof of this, though narratives have developed about it in attempts to explain personal differences (often actually genetically influenced) and to try to account for 'divine justice' (through reincarnations in which former bad acts are punished and good acts rewarded).
The sense of identity and patterns of behaviour that sustain and protect it can be said to form an 'ego-structure', which may for example be more or less weak/strong, rigid/flexible and so on. How a person reacts to whatever opposes the satisfaction of desires or to what hinders straightforward personal development will influence the particular kind of ego-structure. This raises issues like whether there is a need for so-called 'defence mechanisms' to protect the ego when (felt to be) threatened. This again leads to the question of the origin of personality disturbances and pathological states caused by irregular ego-development.
Changing the ego: At all times, there is some potential of a new identification. However much attachment to the things of the world and their perceived consequences the ego may involve, it can be changed by sustained subjective effort. Under most normal life conditions, the requirements and pressures of life that go to sustain the ego may have at least the appearance of real powers operating upon the person from outside, seemingly beyond one's control either now or in future. It is a complex, but inwardly-observable, fact that the ego is a construct of the mind, sustained indirectly through a very deep-seated habitual process of will. Though conditioned by many influences, the ego is ultimately upheld by the will of which it is an expression. This is shown by the fact that all changes in the ego - including its wax or wane - take place only with the assent of individual consciousness or voluntary exertion of will power. This can be verified by indirect observation and the correct kind of research.
THE FREUDIAN CONCEPT OF EGO
The Freudian concept of ego is the most commonly-known psychological conception of ego, which is largely different from later more developed views. Freud saw that part of the psyche he called ego as necessarily formed in a 'struggle' between interposing inner forces ('the id') and outer influences (internalised as 'the superego'). He regarded the ego as those conscious resources of a person which defend us from being overwhelmed by the 'id' or instinctual drives and other irrational, unconscious or narcissistic tendencies which aim to maximise pleasure at all costs (i.e. 'the pleasure principle'). These he considered to be 'blind urges' which are mainly opposed to our real and longer-term needs in living a civilised life (i.e. 'the reality principle'). The psychoanalytic concept of superego is usually thought to include our (gradually internalized) conscience which, in the view of Freud, could only have arisen exclusively from the environment... that is, in the form of ideas impressed on the child's feelings and mind in the process of upbringing and social adjustment. The ego (Freudian) stands between the diametrically-opposing forces of the id, which seeks unrestrained pleasure, and the superego, which seeks to impose the restraints of all types of civilised norms on the ego... especially rational thought and behaviour.
Psychoanalytic thought holds that over-restrictive and rigidly moralistic childhood influences produce too powerful an 'internalised conscience' (i.e. superego). The ego then has to struggle for its very survival against this inculcated will of others (eg. father, authorities, and the mainly punishing type of 'God'). When there is too weak a superego, the person may be too much at the mercy of the id and be unable healthily to regulate instinctive impulses and bodily desires. A 'healthy ego' in the psychoanalytic tradition is, at best, a condition of personality structure that creates balance between two constantly opposing tendencies. In short, psychic health is viewed as a compromise rather than as a condition that is fundamentally natural to the human being.
Conscience is generated in the developing personality through perceptions of others' behaviour and views, which are unavoidable to its development and manifestation. Experience is obviously crucial for the conscience to become a conscious influence, for small children do not distinguish between moral right and wrong until they have learned it in some way, whether by example, observation or teaching.
The dictates of conscience are never merely utilitarian or only self-seeking, which makes conscience a brake on strong egotistical tendencies (and which is why Freud characterized it as 'superego' in the sense 'above ego').
DISCERNIBLE STRUCTURES IN THE EGO
Many studies have been carried out on the role of the environment in the development of specific patterns of personality, including the ego. It is likely that the more harmonious and less prone to conflict the family, local environment and society in which one grows up, the less likely that strong self-defensive and dominating ego traits will be required and developed. Also, the earlier in life that difficult emotional and social burdens have to be borne, the less likely a well-balanced ego pattern with good self-control can be developed.
'Ego-structure' can refer to those personal characteristics by which the individual's identity is established, known and asserted through words and actions, whereby this structure becomes indirectly accessible to empirical study through reconstruction based on in and through the social environment. For example, an ego-structure can include strong possessive attachments to certain persons and properties, negative and fearful feelings about other persons, difficulties in expressing positive feelings verbally and a tendency to criticism, back-bite and slander. Many fine distinctions between differing ego-structures can be made according to one's purpose.
One can distinguish a continuum between the strong, assertive ego and the weak, self-denigrating ego. The types of ego at these extremes are generally less suited to positive developments than those types in between, according to psychological researches. The overbearing ego, with its sense of possessive attachment, often disturbs learning and its related processes such as perception, judgement, memory, capacity to abstract and symbolise etc. Extremely egocentric behaviour includes manipulative psychopathic tendencies and other mental derangements. The ego is also the main cause of most kinds of projection onto others of one's own emotions and thoughts or distorted variants of these.
The alternative to ego-centered living with 'defences' against whatever is perceived as a threat to the fulfilment of desires, is self-experience without defences, that is 'being oneself'. What being oneself implies depends in each case upon the individual and the stage of self-fulfilment reached. It implies integrity of character in so far as being oneself is not trying to deceive others as to one's person, acting roles, lying about oneself. How we best may control or transform a (developed) egocentric tendency and its likely motivations includes questions of self-discipline, social control, self-knowledge, self-transformation and eventual self-mastery through transcending the ego-feeling.
The ego-structure in a balanced psyche must be determined both across the spectrum of human qualities and for all types of socio-cultural environments. It includes, for example, the ability to recognize both one's strengths and weaknesses or limitations and to be relatively free from 'projection', whether emotional or mental. Further, there must be a certain interactive balance between feeling and thought, between imagination and reasoning, so that the personality is not overwhelmed and brought out of true by strong impulses or ideas that arise from time to time. Too many perceptual derangements, consistent or systematic errors of interpretation of the world or of others', and one's own behaviour speak of unbalance and even serious psychic disturbances, which may have physical causes (like brain tumours) or may be more due to the disorder in 'internal' psychic processes.
Signs of a well-functioning ego-structure - and the contrary - are detectable in social relationships. A person having little internal tension such as sense of insecurity will tend to be widely able to relate to others with sympathy or tolerance and without losing self-esteem. Ego-adjustments have been made so as to suit the environment, whereas chronic difficulties with everyday social surroundings indicate an unbalanced ego. The ability to recognize one's failings is, perhaps rather paradoxically, the beginning of permanent strength, for it is a key to self-discovery. Failure to see or face one's own weaknesses is the greatest of weaknesses. One common way of failing here is to place the blame elsewhere. This may be done quite intentionally, and with good reason, but it may also be an expression of an ego-disturbance.
To understand the ego, we must have a considerable amount of information about the nature of the challenges set by the social environment and a person's particular circumstances. Also, when someone enters a much altered situation, such as immigrants, refugees and many other displaced persons do, their psychic balance may be unduly disturbed even after a very sustained period during which a well-balanced ego would otherwise normally be able to adjust.
The relative imbalance of the ego can arise between the demands of an over-active 'internalised conscience' (eg. Freud's 'superego') and pressing needs or desires, or between experienced needs and the limits or conditions imposed by the social environment. A combination of all such factors may often be at work. For example, the over-possessive mother may become thus unbalanced partly through an unfulfilled life of loneliness combined with ingrained beliefs about the extent of the duties of motherhood in conflict with - or otherwise not pertinent to - the child's unhindered development. This conflict can occur in many social contexts, such as when people of Eastern origin move to Western societies.
The underdeveloped ego-identity: Many studies in child developmental psychology from the time of Freud onwards have dealt with problems of inadequacy due to early suppression of a reasonable ego-growth. Upbringing and socialization vary very greatly with culture, society and family and this vastly complicates the formation of generally valid guidelines for satisfactory or optimal development. Those with the sort of 'weak ego' that occurs where personal autonomy and choice is almost absent in the main strata of strongly traditional, conformist societies may well not be problematical until the social order is radically disturbed, such as where revolution or the effects of modern warfare destroy the economy of roles and social traditions. A huge body of materials evincing the evidence of modern world history strongly indicates that radical disruptions of rigid social orders can lead to 'eruptions' of suppressed tendencies both at the individual level (egs. the Malay 'running Amok' or the sudden psychopathic mass killer) and at the racial or national level (eg. the Nazism of the 'Third Reich' and the Bushido doctrine of the WWII Japanese forces, resulting in the release of powerful unconscious forces and not least the collective consequences of Gotterdammerung and mass hara-kiri).
Particularly in modern and highly pluralistic societies, the consequences of continuous suppression of a child's autonomy, such as through denial of self-regulatory behaviour appropriate for the age and peer-group, often leads to ego unbalance.
The fortified ego-identity: At another extreme is the strongly fortified ego with extensive and well-constructed defences. These defences are ways of forcible or manipulative reactions, designed to protect the ego's perceived interests, which imply a person who experiences unusually strong needs and desires. Such an individual may also sometimes forward the interests of others while this supports or, at least, does not conflict with his or her own aims. The 'strength' here involved is largely of an outward nature, and is not necessarily experienced as such inwardly. Strong desires and needs, whether inborn or acquired, whether normal or the result of aberrations in development, are rather a sign of psychic weakness than the contrary... a lack of self-control and mind-discipline. This is because the very basis behind such ego is insecurity of some sort or another. Of course, a fortress ego is, by its very nature, vulnerable.
EGO-CENTREDNESS CONTRASTED TO SELF-EXPANSION
The ego is characterized by its original impulse of possessiveness and is at the root of (perceived) self interest. Self interest within reasonable bounds is the very basis of healthy self-dependence and it is virtually necessary and unavoidable as long as anyone lives, even though its role can be reduced by some persons to almost nil. Degrees of egoism that are self-destructive are particularly seen in systematic egocentricity and intense narcissism, which can be both blatant and deceptively hidden. It may trumpet itself in self-certainty that is at least outwardly knowing or it can dissemble as shrewd charm and manipulation. What is but an appearance of self-confidence in egoists is opposed to authentic self-confidence. Clearly, the inventiveness of the human being is such that no reliable catalogue could ever be devised to account for all the varieties and shades of egoism. More than psychological studies and classifications, the arts, especially great literature, surely provide the best range of descriptions in both its inner and outer aspects.
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3. ('The Transcendence of the Ego' - An existentialist theory of consciousness. Translated Williams & Kirkpatrick, New York 1960. Available under title on-line in pdf).