A strong ego (our conscious sense of self) is required to successfully do inner work. During this process, the structures of our identity are being torn down and rebuilt as we enter into the unconscious. Our ability to receive these contents and to integrate them is predicated on the resiliency and fluidity of the ego.
“The ego, the subject of consciousness, comes into existence as a complex quantity which is constituted partly by the inherited disposition (character constituents) and partly by unconsciously acquired impressions and their attendant phenomena.” - C.G. Jung, “Analytical Psychology and Education," CW 17
The inherent limitations of the ego, however, make this a difficult task. In early development, it rises out of the unconscious depths, slowly differentiating itself. Drawing upon natural dispositions and adaptations, our psyche begins to construct the fortress of our personality.
Each formative situation leaves an imprint upon the ego. We come to rationalize who we are, at the center of our known world, based on the experiences and relationships that fate has sent our way. Some of these moments are taken into the conscious attitude, we claim them as “mine” and shape foundational pillars around them.
Others are rejected, banished to the shadow. But they never lie buried for long. These contents build in intensity over time. They demand our attention, manifesting as symptoms, dream images and repetitive patterns that we cannot seem to shake.
If we are determined, receptive or forced into confrontation, we begin to notice these symptoms and take them seriously. We are tasked to develop consciousness further. The first step is admitting how unconscious we truly are by recognizing our blindness and finding humility in our limitations. In this process ego is redefined and transformed; not dissolved but strengthened.
Structures of the Ego
In my post, Constructing the Vessel, I spoke about the early stages of this work. Utilizing the metaphor of the alchemical vessel, we can establish structure and containment.
Taken psychologically, I understand the vessel to be the psychosomatic preconditions for doing inner work. If we rush in too quickly, with a container that is weak and unformed, it is likely to shatter under the pressure. If we naively begin the process without any container and attempt to force change (much like the hero entering into the dragon’s cave), we may find ourselves badly wounded or woefully unprepared.
Establishing the container is well and good, but what does progress look like? How can we measure something so nuanced? What indicators arise to tell us that the intricate web of the ego complex is actually transforming?
Marie Louise von Franz shares:
“The rock stands for the steadfastness of the personality, which comes from a long process of assimilating the unconscious. If one has experienced for long enough those great ups and downs which are entailed by the meeting with the unconscious, then slowly an unshakable kernel is formed. I think that even a psychological cure or development, which is the same thing, does not change the conflict or cure a problem; what is really changed is the ability to stand it better, and that is the real development.” - Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology
This inner steadiness exists in contrast to the fragility of an underdeveloped ego. Shadow, projections and uncomfortable truths are now seen as potent prima materia. Each carries a message, a creative spark, a new essence that wants to come alive within us. Most importantly, we establish direct communication with the unconscious. This indispensable lifeline acts as a regenerative dialectic between the layers of our psyche.
New perspective, energy and insights flow into the ego structure as we engage with the unconscious. Stone by stone, we can begin to restore what is broken, dilapidated and damaged. Rather than demolish whole parts of the personality, we move slowly. A consistent and tempered approach allows us to notice the subtle shifts; to stay grounded and embodied through periods of flux and destabilization.
As von Franz says, psychological development does not cure a problem. Our issues, however old or new, never truly go away. How we relate to them (one of the key tasks of the ego) is what transforms. We continue to carry these scars throughout our lives. If we have worked to strengthen our ego and to integrate what has been lost, rejected or wounded, we are no longer flooded by the emotions and sensations that accompany these memories. We do not falter when presented with evidence of our egodystonic qualities. Instead, we invite them in, and allow ego once again to go through a reconstruction.
Love this! To make the ego as strong as possible and as small as possible. To form a conscious relationship relationship with our complexes; the birds in the trees, the creatures in the forests. To hold fast to the center. To develop enough resiliency to bear the tension of the opposites.
Thank you Alyssa for the excellent analysis you have put forth on strengthening the ego complex. I have been fascinated with C.G. Jung and his teachings for some time now, and am always appreciative to learn from others that have read and synthesized his work into new insights to be passed on. I became introduced to your work last year through your podcast “Golden Shadow.” Keep up the good work!