The Depth Coach | Ego: The Nexus of Personal Identity
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26 Feb / Ego: The Nexus of Personal Identity

People throw around the term ego all the time. 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”. So the term, like other Jungian ideas, continues to have widespread currency in contemporary culture and social discourse, regardless of how hackneyed 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 due to 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)

A Basic Model of the the Personal Psyche (“à la” Jung) in relation to the ego.

The abovementioned description merits further discussion. Jung is suggesting that the ego is a complex among complexes. However, the difference between it and other complexes is that it is the “I” complex. It 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 my 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, CW 10, 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.


Solitary ego

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).

So to recap:
1) 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.
2) The ego is subordinate to the self, which circumscribes the totality of the psyche (personal and transpersonal), in its conscious and unconscious configurations.
3) The ego is not only grounded in the psyche but also in the body.
4) For a person to know something, its image or gestalt must be apperceived and associated with the ego-complex.
5) The differentiation between the ego and other complexes, as well as the self, is essential to the process of individuation.
6) The ego-self relationship could be said to be analogous to the earth’s relationship to the center of the solar system, the sun.

Next week we discuss another important idea in Jung’s psychology, which bears a formative influence on the ego: the shadow. Until then.


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. (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. (19880. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: Notes of the seminar given in 1934-1939. Princeton
University Press: Princeton, NJ.

  • Bill Jackson

    I read the article and it’s interesting. However, It’s hard for me to process all these terms or see it in a way that makes sense in the real world. I mean, aren’t these just models or ideas (i.e., ego, self, image, etc.) that psychologists and social scientists throw around at cocktail parties? I can’t see or measure an ego, but people say it’s real. Is it not just a product of our imagination?

  • The Depth Coach

    Bill, great comment and question. This is admittedly some heady stuff, and granted, one can scour the world and never find an object called an “ego.” It’s an idea based in empirical observations. Effects are sufficient to demonstrate empirical content. One could apply the same litmus test to the atomic world. One cannot visually see a proton or electron, but the contemporary scientific paradigm asserts that these subatomic particles are real, and they likely are. However, there is a huge gulf between what something actually is and model that we create to throw light on its reality.One could say that it is symbolic. The Western mind tends to view things in Cartesian dichotomies and instead of suggesting “and/or” we really should consider “both/and” possibilities.

  • Paracelsus

    Another informative and thought provoking article. No doubt the placement of the decisive image at as a precursor to your article lends an important foreshadowing of the topic at hand. I would put forth that the Monad symbolizes the very micro/macro dialectic that we experience in virtually all aspects of our being. For instance, you mentioned the astounding, yet beautifully simplistic example of the earth and its orbit around the sun. One could further extrapolate upon this to a higher (spacious) level and go from planetary to solar and solar to galaxy ect. Conversely, we could break it down in the opposite direction and consider how this formula acts in the same way on a more minute scale; earth to human, human to atom, atom to proton. But then what? Perhaps at some level the proton (or a smaller particle, yet unnamed by modern science) will prove to follow the gnostic adage, “as above, so below” and reveal the ‘orbit’ between man’s physical, corporeal existence and his/her spirit. Philosophy aside, here we see the idea that the Monad is the perfect representation of man’s interaction with the spirit and the necessity of realizing the role of the ego and the part it plays in the ‘complex’ that makes up one’s complete being.

  • The Depth Coach

    Paracelsus, As your namesake would indicate, you are very astute in your observations. We exist in a symbolic world that in some paradoxical way bridges the expansive gulf between the transcendent and the immanent—the world of everyday experience. You are right to underscore the parallels between the ego and the monad, although the ego is purely a psychological idea and the Monad is a philosophical or metaphysical one. However, in its Gnostic articulation, one could view the Monad as a forerunner of Jung’s archetype of wholeness or the Self. Jung visited this idea fairly often throughout his work, particularly his later work. Whatever the case is, these are merely models and heuristic tools that we have constructed in order to develop a more accurate understanding of how it all comes together. The symbol (circumpunct) I chose to depict the ego, could just as well symbolize the relationship between the ego and the self, which is a topic I have reserved for a subsequent blog. The circumpunct, which has its roots in both Gnosticism and the Kabbalah (to name just two epistemological systems), is a very good example of an archetypal image because it has parallel meanings across cultures and historical periods. Interestingly, it also plays a prominent role in Dan Brown’s book The Lost Symbol. In end, the world is much more than meets the eye, and I think such a mindset keeps us humble. Thank you for your comments.

  • Sherry S.

    I do agree with you that the dominant culture misunderstands the word ego. I think it was James Hillman who referred to it as “the imaginal ego” but It’s been sometime since I read his work. Thanks for posting.

  • Paracelsus

    Indeed. Arguably, our very lives are concentric circles of what is, what has been and what is ‘becoming’, with true knowledge being the only way to understand where we find ourselves within each ring at a given time in our lives. A symbolic world, you’re absolutely correct in this statement. What better way to transport ideas in a more understandable way which could surpass time, language and culture? Rather amazing that we could look at an image and relate similar concepts, but this is a discussion for another blog 😉

  • The Depth Coach

    Paracelsus, Even in Dante’s Divine Comedy, hell was comprised of a series of concentric circles (nine in total if I recall correctly). So the idea of nested hierarchies continues to crop up in literature, myth, religion and other exterior manifestations of the psyche. You see it seems, and this is merely speculation, that there is the known world of phenomena and another kind of world similar to Kant’s idea of a noumenon, the thing in itself. What we have going for us (or against us) is our uncanny ability to turn images into concepts. Thanks again for the feedback.

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