People often use the term ego. The word is often associated with selfishness or overconfidence. An egotistic person, for instance, is considered brash, pompous, and overly boastful. We have all heard the cliché: “Your ego is writing is writing checks that your body cannot cash.” Thus, the term, like other Jungian concepts, maintains widespread currency in contemporary culture and social discourse, regardless of how cliched its usage has become. Yet, the ego is much more than a colorful adjective to describe shades of self-centeredness and boastful pride. It is a key idea in depth psychology and because of the concept’s importance to the integrity of the personality, Jung often emphasized the ego’s central role during the course of child and adult development. In fact, he equated the ego with the complex of identity. Thus, one could just as well call it the ego-complex.

Jung (1921/1971) defined the ego-complex in Psychological Types.

The ego-complex is as much a content as a condition of consciousness, for a psychic element is conscious to me only in so far as it is related to my ego-complex. But inasmuch as the ego is only the centre of my field of consciousness, it is not identical with the totality of my psyche, being merely one complex among other complexes. (CW6, para. 706)

     The abovementioned description merits further discussion. Jung was suggesting that the ego is a complex among complexes. However, the difference between the ego and other complexes is that it is the “I” complex. The ego belongs to me. One’s ego is not merely a psychic construct but also has a somatic basis. In other words, the ego is also associated with the body. Jung (1951/1959) wrote “The somatic basis is inferred from the totality of endosomatic perceptions, which for their part are already of a psychic nature and are associated with the ego, and are therefore conscious” (CW9i, para. 3). Furthermore, the ego is the personal center of identity, whose limited knowledge is grossly overestimated:

But the ego knows only its own contents, not the unconscious and its contents. People measure their self-knowledge by what the average person in their social environment knows of himself, but not by the real psychic facts which are for the most part hidden from them. (1957, CW10, par. 491)

There is me, myself, and I, and then there is everything else. What the “I” knows it claims to own and what it does not know it views as something entirely other. This otherness is the experience of the complexes outside the ego’s domain, or what Jung also referred to as splinter psyches. Sometimes these so-called splinter psyches can assume a pathological form which can irrupt into the field of consciousness and cause disturbances. The ego perceives these archetypal forces as unwelcome intruders or foreign invaders that have trespassed into one’s backyard. Furthermore, as Jung suggested above, there is a transpersonal center of identity which he called the self.

     One could say that the relationship between the ego and the self is analogous to the relationship between the earth and the sun. As we know, the earth revolves around the sun and the former, along with the other planets, is subject to the sun’s massive gravitational field, which really holds together the entire solar system. The self, like the sun, is the center of the personality, however, it is not at all difficult to understand how the earth can mistake itself as the center. Jung (1988) provided a similar illustration:

In every individual it is the same; we have a large indefinite unconsciousness and only a part of it is definite; whether it is central, we don’t know; presumably not. Perhaps it has the same relation to the center as our earth has to the sun. The center of our solar system is the sun, and our center, our world, is revolving around the sun; we are the children of the earth, and so our consciousness is eccentric relative to the center, as the earth is eccentric relative to the sun. That is possible, our consciousness may also be like a planet revolving around a central invisible sun, namely round the presumable center of the unconscious, which is called the self because the center of the unconscious and the conscious. (p. 410)

     So in this way the self contains the ego, whose position is subordinate to totality of the self. “This totality comprises consciousness first of all, then the personal unconscious, and finally an indefinitely large segment of the collective unconscious whose archetypes are common to all mankind” (1950, CW9i, para. 634). Jung defined the Self, an idea that we will subsequently explore, as the totality of psychic awareness, the center and the circumference. Throughout life, the ego tries to assimilate its experience of the world at large.

     One of the most essential tasks of individuation—another important idea that we will explore in a subsequent blog—is to differentiate the ego-complex from the other complexes in the personal unconscious. The ego is sandwiched between the collective forces of the outside world and the subjective influences of the unconscious. A strong and healthy ego can successfully navigate among other complexes without identifying with them. Similarly, it is easy for the ego to identify with one of the many personas it dons as a means of social adaptation. For the ego’s knowledge is restricted to its own contents. It cannot know what lies beyond its experience, the contents of the unconscious. In this way, we often view our limited knowledge of the world as though it were everything, whereas in actuality, to quote Shakespeare, “There are more things in heaven and earth . . . than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Shakespeare).

In summation, to recap:

  • The ego is a complex, but the difference between it and other complexes is its privileged position in the personal psyche. It is the complex of identity.

  • The ego is subordinate to the self, which circumscribes the totality of the psyche (personal and transpersonal), in its conscious and unconscious configurations.

  • The ego is not only grounded in the psyche but also in the body.

  • For a person to know something, its image or gestalt must be apperceived and associated with the ego-complex.


References:

Jung, C.G. (1950). Concerning mandala symbolism. In H. Read, M. Fordham, G. Adler & W. McGuire (Eds.), The collected works of C.G. Jung (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.) (2nd ed., Vol. 9i, pp. 290-354). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

Jung, C.G. (1959). Jung, C. G. (1957). The undiscovered self. In H.Read, M. Fordham, G. Adler, & W. McGuire (Eds.), The collected works of C. G. Jung (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.) (2nd ed., Vol. 10, pp. 307-412). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

Jung, C. G. (1971). Psychological types. In H. Read, M. Fordham, G. Adler & W. McGuire (Eds.), The collected works of C.G. Jung (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.) (2nd ed., Vol. 6). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1921)

Jung, C.G. (1988). Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: Notes of the seminar given in 1934-1939. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ.