The Depth Coach | Understanding the Ego
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28 Sep / Understanding the Ego

In a world with a 24-news cycle, the human mind is constantly inundated with what most would consider “bad news” piled on “bad news.” As I begin to navigate my forties, it seems that more and more people that I befriended or befriended me in my youth are gradually going by way of wind and dust. In just the past week and a half, two older friends of mine passed away, one from pancreatic cancer and the other from a tragic fall that could have been avoided. In times like these I ask questions, questions regarding the meaning of life and how we can overcome it. Although I rarely receive any answers for my trouble, I am comforted by the works of C. G. Jung, who proposed a variety of novel and helpful psychological ideas during the twentieth century. Interestingly, Jung’s theories were largely influenced by his own self-experiments and later on his own interest in Eastern thought. Two concepts—ego and complex—in particular I think can contextualize the problem and offer a remedy, albeit a provisional one, to life, the universe, and everything. The ego is the complex of identity and accepting that we are more than the I, can help cultivate a rich and positive psychological attitude. These statements and explanations I find helpful for understanding the ego:

  • The ego is a complex among other complexes.
  • Although people infrequently view the ego in these terms, the ego is merely a complex, yet arguably the most important and continuous one that we experience throughout our life. Our entire biography and legacy rides on the existence of the ego. Despite its central position within the personality a wave of other complexes can sometimes, although rarely, overcome the ego. The ego tends to attract other complexes or feeling-toned associations based on the intensity of their latent energy. A complex typically arises from one or two things. The first thing is life trauma, abuse, or some kind of situation that leaves an imprint or scar on the psyche. The other case is that complexes arise from the deep psyche beyond the personal unconscious. These complexes are far more mysterious and cannot be reduced to biography. The arise from the collective unconscious, the realm of what Jung called archetypes: universal patterns of psychic functioning.

  • The ego desires survival.
  • Like life itself, the ego will do nearly anything to survive. The ego wants to live and enjoy the warmth of life’s energy. It will do whatever it can to maintain its primacy at the helm of the personality. However, Jung (1955-56/1963) pointed that “the experience of the self is always a defeat for the ego,” (CW14, para. 778) which means that the ego fears that which it does not understand. The self subordinates the ego to a provisional position on the pecking order of the psychic hierarchy.

  • The ego tends towards uniformity.
  • It’s not surprising that the average person goes to great lengths to avoid change. The ego too enjoys routine things because of their familiarity. During change, the ego has to adapt and this requires additional energy, which the psyche has to allocate from within because it is a semi-closed energic system. Thus, the natural tendency of the ego is towards uniformity, which is not commensurate with growth.

  • The ego is a psychosocial program.
  • The ego is a psychosocial program written by millions of years of trial by error. Nature designed it blindly for psychosocial purposes so that the species, humankind, may advance its reach throughout the world at large. The ego then, just as the psyche as a whole, is purposive in nature and aspires to attain a goal.

  • The ego is a provisional construct.
  • The ego is a provisional construct and thus we should be careful when assigning it too much value. Although everything we do depends on it, in the final analysis, it is as transitory as a flash of lightning.

  • The ego can inflate at the expense of the greater psychic economy.
  • Ego-inflation is a common phenomenon. It happens quite frequently when people fail to ground themselves and unconsciously identify with their persona—the collective layer of the personality. Jung (1946/1966) wrote:

    The ego lives in space and time and must adapt itself to their laws if it is to exist at all. If it is absorbed by the unconscious to such an extent that the latter alone has the power of decision, then the ego is stifled, and there is no longer any medium in which the unconscious can be integrated and in which the work of realization could take place. The separation of the empirical ego from the “eternal” and universal man is therefore of vital importance, particularly today, when mass-degeneration of the personality is making such threatening strides.(CW16, para. 502).

  • The ego hoards experiences that reinforce its own existence.
  • As previously indicated, the ego will make every effort to survive. Accordingly, it will go to great lengths to reinforce its provisional role as the master of its ship, the ruler of its kingdom, even though when seriously examined, the former and latter are illusions.

  • The ego follows the rules of scarcity and surplus.
  • The ego’s focus is one of limitation; it is shortsighted and driven by fear of death and cessation. As a result, the ego sees everything in a limited sense: not only finances and food, but also happiness and healthy relationships.


Jung, C. G. (1963). Mysterium coniunctionis: An inquiry into the separation and synthesis of psychic opposites in alchemy. (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). In H. Read et al. (Eds.), The collected works of C. G. Jung (2nd ed., Vol. 14, pp. 3-556). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1955-1956)

Jung, C. G. (1966). The psychology of the transference. (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). In H. Read et al. (Eds.), The collected works of C. G. Jung (2nd ed., Vol. 16, pp. 163-323). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1946)

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