I have been writing about the ego and the self as different phenomena, which may cause some confusion. Since these terms are often considered interchangeable, I thought I should clarify my use of them, since a differentiation and conscious relationship between them can make all the difference in our lives in regards to living an authentic and meaningful life. Please bear with me as I do my best to describe their dynamics without being overly technical.
The ego, as I am using the term here, is the part of us that we usually think of as ourselves, in other words how we identify ourselves. For instance, if I asked you about yourself you might tell me what you do for a living, where you live, and whether you are married or single and whether or not you have children – and/or pets. You might mention what you like and don’t like, your political leanings, goals in life, etc. These would all be associated with the ego.
Before I go further let me say that we need this part of ourselves which we call an ego. We sometimes hear that the ego is something we should dismantle or reject, as is believed in some Eastern traditions, and that is not the perspective I am coming from. It is important to note that the Buddhist definition of ego is quite different from a western one and even the Dalai Llama insists we need the ego as it is defined in the west.
But problems do arise if the ego remains weak or if we identify too much with it, and not with the self. This is why the ego is also sometimes referred to as the “false self.” If the ego is focused on getting approval, admiration, and/or glory, if our perceived value is based on how many stars we get on our life report cards, we are in trouble. The inflated ego takes full credit for gifts and accomplishments but it is alienated and adrift like a pretty flower blown about in the wind, cut off from its roots and foundation.
When the ego is alienated from the self it believes it is the whole person (flower). It is reliant on positive opinion, successes and achievements to feel good about itself and valuable, whether this involves looking attractive physically, being financially successful or through status, etc. If it receives no outer validation it feels as if it is nothing and judges itself as a failure.
Our self (sometimes spelled with a capital S to emphasize it is different from the ego) is something which is grounded in a greater matrix, and as some would say it is where we are connected with the divine. It is a wiser part of us which knows what we are really about and what we need to thrive. It is not static, however, and develops as we journey through life, through the dark days and the “fire”, those most challenging and painful times, and so on. The self transforms through life.
From a Jungian perspective, when we are born, the ego and the self are one, and we cannot differentiate ourselves. We have no sense of “I”. But as we become more aware, our ego begins to separate from the self. Over time, the ego becomes separate. I will try to describe it visually. Picture a circle with a smaller circle within it. That smaller circle is the ego within the self, and is the situation when we are born. See the smaller circle rise and see that for a while there is an area of overlap between the circles. Eventually the smaller circle separates completely and rests on top of the larger circle. Now see a dotted line from the centre of the smaller circle down through to the centre of the larger circle. This is the ego-self axis, which exists when the ego and the self are connected and in relationship. This axis is the vital connecting link between the ego and self.
When the ego is attuned to the self, and in relationship, this axis is strong. When the ego remains humble and interested in the self and its wisdom, and is in collaboration with the self, serving as its hands, so to speak, this axis is really strong. There is a relationship of trust and we feel grounded and confident (we are confiding in ourselves).
If we have a strong ego-self axis, we can weather failures and negative outer evaluation because we recognize this is not all of who we are. I am not my job, my looks, my financial status, or my popularity. I am something which is inherently valuable, or maybe the concept of value is just irrelevant.
We can develop this inner axis and relationship by taking an interest in our self and attuning to our inner voice and truth. Listen more to our body and felt sense, our intuition, and our heart helps strengthen it. Paying attention to our dreams and finding creative ways to express ourselves, including play, also make this link more solid.
One thing that is important to remember is that paradox is always present in regards to the self. It is not just one thing, it is also the opposite. The self is inclusive and whole. Also, though our self is our individuality and uniqueness, our weird and our fate (as in nature), it is also not separate from a larger whole. It is connected to the Univeral self and all the other selfs within it. We are part of a larger body, and a Great Work. And we need a relationship with our self to fully experience this.
If you are still with me, I thank you and I will summarize by saying that our ego is a necessary part of ourselves which gets us through life. It is out in the world and it has an important role. Its primary role is to attune to the self within and find ways of expressing that self in the world. Rather than being a slave to the self, though, it is a partner and collaborator. We are co-creators, with our selves, our nature, and with that which is wanting to happen.