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Ego: Plastic Soul

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The possession of a functional ego is, for the most part, an existential necessity, for without one it is not possible to operate in this peculiar social reality. But what do we mean when we accuse someone of having ’too much ego’? What is ego really? We observe ego has evolved to be wielded as a big stick – a phallic instrument used to beat, tarry and impale. With consummate certainty of its own supremacy and a singular, aggressive obstinacy, the ego is both the brilliant engineer of humanity’s ascension and the unwitting architect of its downfall.

The possession of a functional ego is, for the most part, an existential

necessity, for without one it is not possible to operate in this peculiar

social reality. But what do we mean when we accuse someone of having

’too much ego’? What is ego really?

We observe ego has evolved to be wielded as a big stick – a phallic

instrument used to beat, tarry and impale. With consummate certainty

of its own supremacy and a singular, aggressive obstinacy, the ego is

both the brilliant engineer of humanity’s ascension and the unwitting

architect of its downfall.



What is Ego? .................................................................................................................... 2

Cathexis ........................................................................................................................... 3

The Super-Ego .................................................................................................................. 4

Ego & Persona .................................................................................................................. 6

Ego Development ............................................................................................................. 7

Life-cycle of Ego ............................................................................................................... 8

Ego & Conscience ........................................................................................................... 10

Gratification, Preservation & Validation ...................................................................... 11

Augmentation & Borrowed Ego ..................................................................................... 12

Density ........................................................................................................................... 13

Undermining & Ego Battle ............................................................................................ 14

Transmutation ............................................................................................................... 16

Conclusion ...................................................................................................................... 17

References ....................................................................................................................... 19


What is Ego?

The ego is commonly defined as the central complex within the human psyche which has

become differentiated from the unconscious substrate, as an island appears above the

water-line. It is the seat of consciousness and that component or surface of our psyche

which directly interfaces with and perceives the outside world. The ego is tasked with

mediating between the often conflicting demands of three agencies: our id (instincts), our

super-ego (conscience), and the external world.

The evolutionary differentiation of man’s conscious ego from the unconscious substrate 10

(the instinctive id) is the foundation stone underlying civilisation. Without this sufficient

separation from the environment and critical level of self-awareness, humanity would not

have developed the idiosyncrasy of complex culture, nor its far-reaching ability to

manipulate the environment.

Freud describes the ego with an insightful, qualified analogy of a horse and horseman:

“The functional importance of the ego is manifested in the fact that normally control over

the approaches to motility devolves upon it. Thus in its relation to the id, it is like a man

on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse; with this

difference, that the rider tries to do so with his own strength while the ego uses borrowed

forces. The analogy may be carried a little further. Often a rider, if he is not to be parted 20

from his horse, is obliged to guide it where it wants to go; so in the same way the ego is in

the habit of transforming the id’s will into action as if it were its own.” (Freud, 1927)

It may be established that the development of ego was ‘useful’ in the sense it lifted man

above his animal ancestry and enabled him a measure of control over his own destiny.

Left to its own devices, the unreined id would instinctively follow the course given it by

nature. To what purpose our volitional ego evolved remains a question unanswered –

presently our sense of entitlement clings to the ‘primacy’ of human beings, despite our

recent track record as stewards of the planet. The development of ego seems at variance

with the elegant economy overwhelmingly displayed by nature, which is seldom observed

endowing that which is unnecessary. 30

In a simplified sense, ego can be viewed as being caught between two opposing forces: a

mediation between animalistic instinct arising from the id below, and civilised ‘moral’

system bearing down from the super-ego above:




There is some wisdom in establishing a cautious identity that the id represents a set of

raw, undifferentiated instinctive drives (Survival, Procreation, Sexual Gratification,

Pleasure, and Territorialism) mediated by the ego and subjected to distortion and

redirection by the introjected moral agency of super-ego.

Put another way, ego is a partial effect of super-ego imposing moralisation to redirect

energy down channels other than physical survival and reproduction. Civilisation has

gradually reduced the base amount of energy required to sustain existence. Its protections 40

from nature, its institution of law to protect from others, its provision of basic

infrastructure – collectively amount to a significantly lower expenditure of energy to

survive, at least for those of us fortunate enough to be living in ‘advanced’ economies.

The liberated energy is then channelled into pursuits outside basic survival and

procreation – into creative, intellectual and cultural endeavours, into material

indulgence, into vanity, and into ego enlargement. This channelling (or investment), to

the extent it concerns libidinal energy, is defined as Cathexis.


The concept of Cathexis rests on Freud’s assumption that there exists a store or reservoir

of displaceable psychological energy (libido) which is capable of being redirected and 50

transferred between different objects.

A defining characteristic of our species is our highly volitional ability to redirect this

libido, the action of which we attribute as an act of will. Cathexis describes both the

process by which displaceable energy is devoted to an object, and the investment itself.

Without too much effort, we are able to identify common conditions resulting from

disproportionate investments of psychological energy:

We frequently find that libido invested into an object by cathexis insistently seeks another

object to attach itself to if the original object is no longer investable. Vulnerability to less

discriminate attachment following the breakdown of a relationship is reflective of this 60


The greater the similarity or character between the old and new objects, the easier the

transition. Illustrations abound in such occurrences as the replacement of pets with

another of the same species, men who marry the characters of their mothers, and the

blood succession of monarchies.

• Excessive cathexis of libido into an object/personOBSESSION

• Excessive cathexis of libido into an ideaFANATICISM

• Excessive cathexis of libido into the egoNARCISSISM





Cathexis occurs in a manner which is seldom fully conscious. Invariably, we recognise the

feelings of trauma and instability resulting from its volatility and unintended withdrawal,

but do not incline to consider why we experience such feelings other than as the mourning 70

of object-loss.

The Super-Ego

The super-ego can be a real or imagined agency which is beyond the individual ego and

stands as judge to the tried in its relation to the ego.

Freud places the super-ego as the outcome of a cathexis which is transferred to a

substitute authority once the individual has sufficiently detached from the parents as the

primary source of behavioural guidance and validation.

It is only a short bow to draw that the precursor behind wholesale obedience to external

authorities such as the state and religion is the vesting therein of withdrawn cathexis

previously attached to the parents. As in Freud’s story of the blacksmith, the object is less 80

important than the act of fulfilment:

The narrative takes place in a small Hungarian village, where the local blacksmith

commits a crime punishable by death. However, because the village only has one

blacksmith and he is thus indispensable, the town magistrate orders that one of the town’s

numerous tailors be hung instead.

We observe that the crime demanded expiation –it didn’t matter who the blame and

punishment were levied upon, only that they were levied. Cathexis is observed to operate

upon a similar irrational rationale – when it is displaced from one object, it will seek to

reattach itself to another object in relatively indiscriminate fashion because the

unconscious is more concerned with resolving the displacement than the character of the 90

object it is resolved upon. Emotional susceptibility and vulnerability immediately

subsequent to an unexpected relationship breakdown is a manifestation of this


When cathexis is displaced from the parents, it seeks to attach itself to another agency as

a substitute authority and censorship. The super-ego is this agency, which retains

remnants of parental influence and adds to them values introjected from the world

outside. Thus the super-ego may be viewed as a composite voice of an idealist which

exercises authority over the actions of an inferior ego.


It is important to note that this authority mustn’t necessarily be of moral character, it can

also be amoral, contingent on the governing principle it is based upon. 100

In this regard, there exist two governing systems which may proxy as super-ego. One is

the law of the jungle or ‘survival of the fittest,’ which holds that the animal best adapted

to its natural environment will have the best chance of survival. Under this governing

principle, the super-ego closely approximates or coincides with external reality, such that

their demands placed upon the ego overlap. For the ego, external reality and the super-

ego are effectively merged into one ‘master’ whose demands are aligned with the

instinctive id because instincts are refined evolutionary adaptations to the natural

environment coincident with external reality.

This Jungle Law is strictly amoral, meaning it has no metaphysical value system which

differentiates between ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ This is identical to the operation of the 110

undifferentiated unconscious mind – in the chaotic scenery of dreams, it is not uncommon

to encounter gratuitous, depraved and violent behaviour. The proviso, of course, is that

this may simply be the unconscious’ counterstroke to balance the heavy sanitisation

constraints which morality places upon ego-consciousness.

The other governing principle is moral in the sense it is charged with introjected values

absorbed from outside. Ego must here negotiate between internal demands of the id,

internalised demands of values and morals (super-ego), and external demands of the

prevailing social climate and physical reality.

Under Moral Law, the demands of external reality and those of the super-ego are not so

analogous as they are under Jungle Law. The distance between them is effected by a thick 120

overlay of human values, laws, norms, conventions and expectations which alienates the

two masters and forces the ego to bridge the distance between them. To add further

complexity, external reality is not a homogenous seasonal environment as it is for most

other species, but a dynamic landscape of constantly changing circumstances and

innumerable heterogeneous value systems which are often frictional and conflicting.

The difference between the two governing principles is evident whenever external reality

imposes a demand upon the individual, and the individual cannot satisfy the demand

without compromising to the super-ego. Let’s consider a hungry man who sees an apple

tree. Under jungle law, the action of picking an apple and eating it is entirely consistent

with the demands of both external reality and the super-ego: if you’re hungry and you 130

come across food, you take it. Under moral law however, the apple tree is most probably

someone’s property, and therefore the action of picking an apple would be stealing, which

is generally inconsistent with the moral demands of the super-ego.

In order to fulfil the demand of external reality (hunger) without contravening the

demands of super-ego (not stealing), the man has to purchase the apple by exchange, else

beg for it. Depending on the nature of external reality’s demand, if an individual goes

about satisfying it in a way which wrongs the super-ego, they will likely be subjected to

some combination of guilty conscience, social punishment and prosecution for a criminal


To avoid such negative consequences, the ego must work to maximise the satisfaction 140

yield of self-gratifying drives within the confines of a framework of rules and constraints.


Stuck between hammer and anvil, it will tend toward bending or breaking these rules

instead of denying the id gratification. The moral or social system must often threaten a

‘preservation’ id drive in order to overcome this subversive propensity of ego.

The ego must intermediate the perpetual conflict between an animalistic id and moralistic

super-ego. The former has no clearly defined concepts of right and wrong, whereas the

latter preserves them as subjective standards. As such, ego can be likened to a rope under

immense tension from its ends being pulled violently in two opposite directions.

So great is this tension between the underlying id and the several idealisations required

by super-ego and external reality that the ego must function through different facets to 150

cope with the sheer variance of demands placed upon it.

Ego & Persona

These numerous facets are discerned as personas. Despite the term person sometimes

being used interchangeably with ego, the two are entirely different pieces of apparatus:

“The persona is a complicated system of relations between the individual consciousness

and society, fittingly enough a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definitive

impression upon others, and, on the other, to conceal the true nature of the individual.”

(Jung, 1957)

The persona is whatever facet of ego we present externally at a given moment, adjusted

to a perceived social mandate of how we should appear to be in that specific situation, role 160

or context. Persona is to ego what mask is to face: both a concession made to adapt to the

outside world, and a means to obscure our true selves from it.

The formation of a persona typically involves the introjection of additional attributes

which augment the ego’s ability to interface with social reality. The persona, as a

composite mask worn by ego, consists of an ego-ideal (impression we want to give to the

external world) and a false-self (impression we feel the external world expects us to give).

Whilst it is generally accepted that an individual has a single ego or face, he or she may

have multiple personae or masks, and it is important to make the distinction that

personae, like masks, can be put on and taken off; whereas the ego is a fixed entity in the

sense it is a continuous part of our psyche. 170


Where an individual identifies with a particularly strong persona, we sometimes observe

the inflated persona fusing with ego such that the mask cannot be taken off and the

individual becomes the persona. It is this phenomenon which is often misattributed as

being ‘ego,’ but which in reality is more a case of packing in too much stuffing:

"A pompous, self-important, overweening individual is thought to hold himself the way he

does because of a cork stuck in his sphincter ani, which prevents his vaporific dignity from

being dispersed. The removal of the cork causes the individual to deflate, a process usually

accompanied by a shrill whistle and the reduction of the outer envelope to a poor fleshless

phantom of its former self." (Eco, 1988) 180

Ego Development

Unlike the stuffing of taxidermy, the primary development of an ego is more analogous to

inflating a balloon. As air is blown in, it begins to take form, filling out and assuming a

defined shape, which continues to expand. The balloon retains an element of flexibility; it

can be prodded to an extent and its shape will adapt to the external pressure.

Under Jung’s representation, this air – the character of the ego, comes partly from

inherited dispositions and partly from unconsciously acquired impressions;1 which is to

say the ego has both innate and learned aspects.

The secondary development of an ego is akin to covering this balloon with successive

layers of papier-mâché which petrify the balloon’s shape; making it increasingly heavy 190

and impermeable, and imparting the attendant problem of brittleness. A second-stage ego

is generally able to requisition more energy from the id with which it can direct outwardly

or lavish upon itself as a love-object via cathexis. Observed in an extreme, this auto-erotic

tendency is the characterisation of Narcissism.

How far an ego need develop to be ‘adjusted’ to the environment is a function of the

prevailing social and temporal context. A co-operative tribal society, for example, would

not demand the same density of ego as the hypercompetitive, highly specialised industrial

society of the present age.

Considering why this should be the case, we observe that in a primitive culture, the

disparity and tension between the demands of external reality, the instinctual id and 200

the moralistic super-ego is comparatively low (as against a modern culture). Therefore,

although the primitive ego must still serve three masters, it expends less effort therein

given each master’s demands aren’t so heavily divergent. The modern ego is charged with

similar demands by the id, but the demands of its other two masters (external reality and

the super-ego), have become excessively differentiated, both from those of the id, and

between themselves.

It may be posited that the overdevelopment of ego is a necessary adaptation to cope with

the increased effort required to placate its three masters, in much the way a muscle under

stress gradually strengthens to better bear the strain.

1 Analytical Psychology and Education, Collected Works 17, par. 169.



The consequences of the ego failing to fulfil the demands placed upon it is documented

succinctly by Freud in his 1924 paper Neurosis and Psychosis:

“Neurosis is the result of a conflict between the ego and its id, whereas psychosis is the

analogous outcome of a similar disturbance in the relations between the ego and the

external world.” (Freud, 1924)

Life-cycle of Ego

In a typical space-shuttle mission, the initial lift is provided primarily by two booster

rockets, which provide the tremendous thrust required to lift-off from a standing start.

Once the shuttle has gained momentum and reached a critical height, the booster rockets

are jettisoned, falling back down to Earth, and the less powerful shuttle engines take over, 220

burning fuel more slowly from a much larger primary tank.

When the primary tank has been depleted of fuel and the shuttle is near enough to stable

orbit to run on its own reserves, the primary tank is jettisoned and burns up in the

atmosphere. The reserves are important for manoeuvring about in space and for

controlled descent when the mission has been completed.

From an energic perspective, the space-shuttle metaphor closely approximates the nature

of ego development. Ego begins to develop from the moment the infant begins to

differentiate between itself and its external environment – when it realises the ‘I’ is

distinct from everything else. Initial ego growth is rapid, and continues well into adult

life, albeit at a slower pace once identity stabilises in the third decade. 230

In some cases, as the need for ego declines, energy is diverted into development of the self

– the entity which integrates the ego along with other fragments previously repressed or

neglected. Seemingly, the ascent phase, characterised by the outward expansion of ego

into the world and driven by Eros (libido or life instinct) gives way to a descent wherein

energy is withdrawn inward, and the character of that energy shifts to Thanatos (mortido

or death instinct).

In other cases, this arc-shaped life-cycle is not observed, and instead of changing course

at some juncture in mid-life, the ascent is pushed further, perhaps allowing the

individual’s ego to reach a greater height, but expending too much fuel in the process. In



external reality





consequence, the mission risks being either being lost in space or crashing back to earth 240

for not having adequate reserves to glide back and accomplish a smooth landing.

Thus we distinguish one life-cycle which reflects an ascent followed by a descent, and

another which resembles a diagonal line projecting upward. The former holds for all

observable organic nature, for historical civilisations and empires, for planetary bodies

and for man’s physical creations: creation and destruction, growth and decay. The latter

reminds us of Icarus’ fateful fall after burning his wings for flying too close to the sun.

Moving through life, a common trajectory involves accumulating people, possessions and

experiences which affirm the ego and differentiated function at the expense of the

undeveloped functions. These collected elements form a protective shell or cocoon that

renders measures of identity, validation and ontological security. The external structure 250

we build incorporates accoutrements of family, friends, occupation, home, car, clothes and

social in-groups, and is heavily influenced by the value climate in which we are immersed.

The temptation arises to take the building of this structure to be the purpose of life, which

contributes to an overvaluation of ego because our living energy has been devoted to

constellating things around it as opposed to the extension of personality toward the

realisation of self.

It is perhaps the grandest fault of our modern education systems that we emphasise the

development of the ego and neglect all else. Individuals are produced whose ego-

identification is so strong that apperceptive faculty and awareness become virtually non-

existent in their conscious lives. An impoverishment of the self is effected due to excessive 260

investment in ego, whose weight becomes increasingly evident with age in those who carry

its burden. By fixating their diminishing energy upon it, they simultaneously increase its

weight and weaken their strength to bear it.

The modern education system is specifically geared to serve for the first half of the

individual’s existence, the climb up the mountain. It largely ignores the second half, the

descent toward death, because this is of limited value to the industrial machine.

In consequence, the mid-life crisis results, a juncture at which the individual is hit with a

shock realisation that their training is no longer appropriate to their situation. The

severity of this crisis is contingent upon the individual, and runs the gamut between

nonchalance and psychosis. 270

In response, a noteworthy proportion of us elect to follow the ‘diagonal line’, continue to

drive with our foot on the accelerator, amplifying our ego and further immersing ourselves

in its tyrannical authoritarianism, convincing ourselves we are on the correct course:

“Anyone who has any ego-consciousness at all takes it for granted that he knows himself.

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.

In this respect the psyche behaves like the body, of whose physiological and anatomical

structure the average person knows very little too.” (Jung, 1958)


The differentiation of the ego is often pushed too far because it becomes synonymous with 280

ontological security. Whether or not the heavy focus on ego-building is a by-product of, or

compensatory reaction to, society and its de-individualising remains a point of contention.

Maintaining a sense of individual importance is more difficult in an ever-expanding sea.

As the human population grows, as urbanisation intensifies, as cities become larger and

more depersonalised, increased differentiation is needed to prevent conscious loss of

identity. Because there is no adequately familiar alternative to ego, it is clung to in the

matter of an ontological security blanket whose loss is perceived as calamitous.

Clinging to ego, however, leaves underdeveloped and shadow aspects of the self neglected

and impoverished. No effort is made to integrate them and so they remained potentiated

in the unconscious, sometimes irrupting in neuroses and psychoses where ego’s defence 290

mechanisms and delusions are not enough to hold them at bay.

Ideally, the ego’s differentiation throughout the ascent phase gradually subsides and gives

way to the integrative objectives of the self, as focus shifts in the afternoon of life. The

centre of gravity moves away from the ego as the spectres of loneliness and death solidify

and close in. Ego becomes less important when there is nothing left to prove, when one is

released from being beholden to external perception. Some however are not able to let go,

continue to focus upon differentiation, and affix to ego with heightened tenacity.

Ego & Conscience

The Ego’s active mediation between the id, super-ego and the external world is conducted 300

against an exemplar whose name is conscience. Frequently, conscience is an extension of

super-ego, an agency toward which the ego experiences anxiety because it stands in a

dependant relationship as an inferior seeking validation from a superlative. The greater

the dissonance between the ego’s action and the conscience’s ideal, the higher the friction

created. When wronged, the conscience has an uncanny way of exacting retribution upon

the ego, by way of a phenomenon we habitually experience as guilt. In normal pathology,

guilt inhibits pleasure and is therefore a sentiment the ego seeks to avoid.

Conscience, for its share of super-ego, is an introjected judging agency formed by the

initial cathexis in the parents, which is gradually withdrawn and transferred onto other

external authorities (teachers, superiors, religions, the state, etc.), wherein the infantile 310

desire to please and obtain validation and approval is not completely dispensed with. The

watchful and judging character of the super-ego forms an instance of conscience to which

the ego is subjected. The values which inform this conscience are introjected heavily



•Spiritual advantage




•Material advantage





during development, and hence influenced by the environment (family, community,

exposure to stimulus) in which the child develops.

Though it is outside the locus of this analysis, we find that the propensity to engage in

unconscionable action is increased under the influence of alcohol precisely because the

toxin dims the faculty of conscience. In a state of intoxication, the ego is given to pursue

pleasure-driven id impulses with less restraint and more impunity because the vigilance

of conscience has been numbed. 320

Whether or not the conscience is a phylogenetically evolved morality based on successive

generations of human experience is open to debate. It may simply be a product of what

we believe to be right given our predominantly introjected values, our observation of

behaviour, and our experience of consequences.

To the extent an internal impulse is at variance with an external expectation in the course

of our actions, we are forced to choose from two alternative alienations. We may either

alienate our own conscience, or alienate the other. This is seldom an active, conscious

decision and the common reinforcement which results from ‘self-alienation’ can lead to

internal dissonance.

Suppose we make-believe that Penelope’s conscience wants to act in a certain way, but 330

she acts differently because she is beholden to some expectation of Ophelia. She chooses

to alienate herself rather than alienate the other – a destructive action against her own

psyche. However, if Penelope’s sense of her own identity or worth is related to Ophelia’s

good opinion of her (i.e. introjected or internalised), which will be reinforced by her acting

in accord with expectation, then the self-alienation provides external validation.

An insight is thus provided into the prevalence of psychological disorders of the schizo-

(split) genus. Considering that the reinforcement feeds back into Penelope’s ego (which is

a false-self system by virtue of being exclusionary and repressive of other contents), the

alienation of and from the self drives a wedge between ego-consciousness, potentiated by

the complicit introjection of Ophelia’s opinion, and the self-consciousness or conscience, 340

potentiated by being deceived, but whose dissent is supressed by ego-consciousness.

At a critical level of consciousness, this contradiction becomes unequivocal and the

decision moves into the domain of volition. Now, wherever the individual finds herself at

a decision point, she makes a lucid choice between the social consequences of alienating

the other, and the interior consequences of alienating her conscience. How her decision

falls rests upon the relative dominance of internal versus external validation.

Penelope’s ego, as an agency, finds itself in a similar position sandwiched between

internal and external demands, with the consequences of this friction manifesting as

neurosis and psychosis respectively. A conscience isn’t typically bothersome if one listens

to it. When ignored however, it will contrive for its revenge. 350

Gratification, Preservation & Validation

Due to the conflicting demands of its masters, the ego, as the seat of intelligence and as

conscious administrator of displaceable libido, seeks to achieve a convergence. It must


expend a proportion of its borrowed resources attempting to deceive either the id, the

super-ego, or the establishment of the outside world from which super-ego is drawn.

The wild animal has its whole libido at its disposal; there is no valve to regulate how much

energy is converted into action, other than the relative state of satiation of carnal desires.

If the lioness has just fed, she will not hunt again until sufficiently hungry. Man, by

contrast, has his libido moderated both voluntarily and under duress.

Harking back to Freud’s analogy, ego requires a measure of strength to preserve itself 360

and to keep the wild horse of id in check. Some of this strength is sourced from the id

itself, whereby the ego lavishes cathected libido upon itself a love-object.

This auto-erotic cathexis is a subjective internal process which often seeks outside

sanction and endorsement. It is almost as if the ego needs external confirmation to

validate itself and is strongly reliant upon the modality of phantasy to maintain its image.

The academic who lectures to a theatre full of wide-eyed students receives confirmation

of her ego-identity of an intellectual. The wine-bar modern who regularly incorporates the

likes of ‘nepotism’ and ‘inculcate’ into casual conversation has his poet ego-identity

stroked by the companion who fawns over his words.

Although phantasy as a modality does not coincide with physical reality, we frequently 370

find that physical realities are constructed to support phantasy. Thus the need for ego

validation is often reflected in the types of people we surround ourselves with, the

institutions and associations we form, and the ideological schemata we invent. The

auxiliary ego validation and gratification provided by fitting with an in-group is among

the reasons many professions display the distinctive cohesiveness of a tight enclave.

Augmentation & Borrowed Ego

It is the peril of the modern that he must create a differentiated image around himself in

order to support his fragile self-esteem and conceal his insecurity.

Those that cannot attain to heightened differentiation through autonomous idiosyncrasy;

through their own skill, intelligence and wisdom, will tend to seek differentiation 380

externally via identification with possession, groups and ‘isms.’ The panoply of objects,

associations and opinions with which the individual accessorises himself is merely an

externalisation of ego masquerading in the guise of a lifestyle, network, and philosophy


Ideologies, collectives and groups provide mechanisms through which ego can augment

itself by borrowing differentiation and identity from a singularity (ego group) whose

perceived ontological mass is more substantive than that of the individual.

To address the need to feel differentiated, the individual looks outside in search of patches

from which to sew an identity. Large patches are often sought from ideologies and

orthodoxies which fall into the classification of ‘isms’. A person who defines themselves by 390

any noun ending in ‘ist’ is borrowing ego from the ‘ism’ from which it derives. This can

sometimes be an indication of being carried away by a strong current which moral stamina

is inadequate to resist. Borne along by the current, the individual subsumes the collective

ego of the ‘ism’ and becomes bound to its decrees.


In exchange for adherence to whatever idiosyncrasies it stipulates, the individual receives

an identification with the ‘ism’ whose collective volume and mass supplements his or her

identity. The measure of pride we attach to being an ‘ist’ of any variety reveals the amount

of borrowed ego derived from the group differentiated by the ‘ism’.

Ego-consciousness and its personae owe their existence to differentiation, and this

differentiation is validated by the reinforcement and belongingness that accrues from 400

association with ego groups. It is therefore unsurprising that many individuals experience

an identity shock when they are rejected or unwillingly distanced from one of their ego

groups. Like sitting on a chair which has had one of its legs knocked out, the loss of

borrowed ego creates instability which requires a new balance to be learned, save the

missing leg be replaced by another through the familiar process of cathexis.


Density presents an attribute which can accrue to an ego from excessive identification

with an ego group, and tends to feed back into the ego group via a process of continuous

bidirectional validation: the constituent ego is validated by the group, and the group is

validated by its constituent egos. 410

A select-entry private school typifies this process: the institution’s elitist identity is

imprinted during the prominent developmental stage of adolescence and the constituent

egos of the students absorb some of this density. Density is then fed back by the student

collective, increasing the institution’s differentiation, which increases the imprinting

power of the group ego, and so on.

On a broader level, high-density ego is a typical outcome wherever a dimension of

insularity is dinned into a child, particularly with the aid of powerful institutional forces

such as social class and religion.

Real or perceived persecution by external reality also impose a greater need for ego

density to shield and defend the individual against the outside world, against which his 420

or her attitude typically becomes adversarial or inflated.

Low-density egos tend toward being more self-critical and have a higher sensitivity to

introjected sentiments. They are vulnerable to criticism and are subject to feeling

trampled by social reality, particularly where social reality has the character of a high-

density ego. Low density egos are also more susceptible to horizontal distance experienced

as alienation, isolation and estrangement.

High-density egos are generally more susceptible to shadow projection due to their

comparatively lower degrees of self-awareness and objective empathy. It is most always

the case that excessive differentiation furthers a perspective that perches itself on high

and looks down - the distance it creates is vertical rather than horizontal. This 430

phenomenon is commonly attributed as a superiority complex or narcissistic personality


Whilst the higher-density ego may be privileged in worldly aspects of attaining to material

and social advantage, like the lower-density ego, it is overwhelmed by events and

situations which fall outside its operating locus. Take for example of the authoritative,


unassailable executive whose wife leaves him or the scandalised celebrity who falls

abruptly from grace. It is not at all uncommon to witness a grown man or woman in the

throes of tantrum as a result of not getting their way or over an event they can’t control.

By virtue of fact, ego is only a subset of a larger totality and cannot competently mediate

with anything lying outside its circle. It is for this reason that even those with highly 440

developed ego-identities tend to react in an infantile manner when confronted with

phantoms of the unconscious. The contention parallels domain-specific intelligence which

holds authority in a narrow context (for example, the legal intelligence of a lawyer), but

fails once it is taken out of its native domain.

Undermining & Ego Battle

Ego, invested in its own authority, is particularly sensitive to criticisms and provocations

which draw attention to its own internal conflict and often meets them with fierce

defensiveness. When ego feels undermined, it threatens the stability of the individual

precisely because undermining directly attacks the contrived agency which prevents the

brittle truce of personality from being psychologically torn apart by unconscious forces. 450

Ostensibly, because the ego’s growth closely parallels identity development (most

individuals identify their self with their ego, as two circles overlapping entirely), the

undermining of ego is perceived as a direct threat to the individual’s existential security.

This is so because the individual ego has established a set of practiced structures,

processes and stratagems for relations with its id, its super-ego and external reality which

allow it to minimise conflict and function with a degree of stability.

The ‘undermining’ of ego deserves special attention as it originates friction and animosity

– reactions to be expected when one threatens to destabilise the ground another stands

upon by virtue of mining under. Nowhere is such defensive aggression more evident than

in domains of celebrity, academia and professional specialist vocations, wherein the 460

phenomena takes variegated forms, spanning the full gamut between infantile outbursts

and passionate argumentation in public forums.

In the context of a workplace, this refractory tendency of ego responsible for productivity

loss, infighting, and anxiety which carries-over into other aspects of life. Passive-

aggressive behaviour and militant nit-picking, character assassination or humiliation via

carbon-copy email are workplace behaviours typified by a threatened ego.

As an environment where control and approval are sought, where judgements are meted

and suffered by ego – the workplace provides an ideal setting in which to examine the

dynamic between egos. The default adversarial engagement is an encounter between two

egos; a stronger and a weaker, whereby the former assumes the role of aggressor. 470

Under attack from a stronger ego, the weaker ego has options to engage, retreat, yield

(surrender), subvert or evade:


Ego OBATTLE Stronger Ego Weaker Ego

Engage / Success (by contest) Defeat (loss by contest)

Retreat ¢ Success (by default) Defeat (loss by flight)

Surrender Success (by default) Defeat (loss by forfeit)

Subvert ` Defeat (perceived as success) Success (by subversion)

Withdrawal / Defeat (disrupted) Success (disengaged)

Assessing the consequences of ego engagement, there are two distinct outcomes. The first

is the energic outcome, i.e. who perceives gain from the engagement. The second is the

technical outcome, i.e. who actually prevails. These outcomes are not always the same.

The weaker ego can subvert – allowing the stronger ego to believe he or she is the

‘smartest person in the room,’ by conceding defeat superficially but contriving a

subversion that defies the stronger ego. Tactically, the stronger ego can also be placated 480

by the weaker ego fashioning a straw-man and allowing it to be defeated. In this scenario

it is possible for both egos to perceive gain and for the weaker ego to prevail.

The strategy of withdrawal from a confrontation involves an unveiling of the game which

is experienced as disruptive by the opposing ego because it is caught out.

When a manipulative infant is told by an adult “I know what you’re playing at” and the

infant’s game is laid bare, we often observe the infant relinquishes the game. Of course,

the opposing ego may be of such density that it will fall-back to denial and not

acknowledge it is engaged in a game. Attempting to unveil an infantile ego contest is

particularly dangerous wherever there is a repeating game, because an open defeat

engenders spite in the opposing ego which tends to strengthen animosity and can result 490

in behaviour becoming malicious.

It is a function of the self to withdraw the ego from a conflict, thereby rendering the

opposing ego impotent. This is because the ego cannot appropriate energy when it is faced

with a higher-order self. It can only cannibalise itself by reiterating its own illusions, or

otherwise seek validation elsewhere.

Ego cannot engage when confronted by self because it is powerless against a totality of

greater array. It must take the route of performing a procedure of subjective alienation

upon the opposing self in order to internally neutralise the threat. Encounters which

threaten the ego are very often mystified, lampooned or gossiped in carrying out this

subjective alienation. 500

Similarly, those characters who draw attention to shadow aspects and attempt to

challenge ego authority are demonised and ostracised. Although we may identify with a

vigilante’s cause, we seldom practice what we preach. When an antagonist draws

attention to our mistakes, misgivings and faults, we do not take too kindly to her at all

and correspondingly see to it her mouth is taped shut.


Nation-states engage these self-same ego dynamics on a scale which makes the potential

consequences of sparring catastrophic. Seldom does confrontation between two individual

egos end in worse than a scuffle. Individual egos don’t have nuclear armaments, but

nation-state egos do.

Transmutation 510

Adjunctively, the psychology of war can be linked to the residual animality of ego. How

often we forget that unconscious instincts are amoral and thus have no concept of right

and wrong. Morality is a property of the conscious mind, conditioned and imposed to keep

peace with the super-ego. To operate in a ‘moral’ way is seen as being well adjusted, but

morality is always relative to context.

The id is endowed by nature and is the original reservoir of psychic energy. Without

exception, animal species don’t seem to have an observable problem self-regulating their

affairs unless human beings have interfered –the natural channels through which their

instinctive impulses seek discharge are not inhibited.

In man, the heavy suppression of the id by the ego and super-ego constrains the normal 520

discharge of instinctive impulses, leading to repression and transmutation.

The transmutation of id drives is an imperfect substitute for their authentic expression

which is inhibited by morality. The energies underlying the two classes of instinct,

represented as Libido (Eros, creation) and Mortido (Thanatos, destruction) are

redirected into substitute channels through which they seek discharge and expression.

Transmutation of these id drives through the ego, by the super-ego into derivative

substitutes results in diluted and vicarious modalities of fulfilment which leave an

unexpressed residual. The existence of this residual carries instructive value for

illuminating certain of humanity’s queer behaviours. 530

In the ancient epic of Gilgamesh, civilisation is represented by Gilgamesh, his great

walled city, and the order therein. The opposite pole is represented by unbridled nature,

personified by the savage Enkidu. Perhaps when we talk about a ‘civilised’ society, we

mean one which is largely divested of chaotic instinctive animality in the form of physical

and sexual aggression and more partial to hygienic, conditioned animality in the form of

economic and emotional opportunism. In short, how each scheme’s inhabitants go about

satiating their instincts.

Animal Instincts





One could be forgiven for thinking the two schemes of existence are mutually opposed,

our propensity to shield ourselves from nature – we build houses, wear clothes, use

umbrellas, and spray insects, suggests we are civilised, and yet we are unable to overcome 540

our own lower nature.

However, though we may attempt to convince ourselves otherwise, we simply transmute

instinctive impulses into substitutes which are relatively more socially acceptable.

‘Invisible’ emotional violence is substituted for physical violence, emotional and financial-

risk taking is substituted for physical risk-taking, libido is transmuted into career, thrill-

seeking substitutes for corporeal danger, and residuals are channelled into creative

pursuits and psychopathological conditions.

Inadequate authentic expression gives rise to a residual of instinctive energy that has not

been exhausted by our transmuted expenditures. Could this explain some nuances of

human behaviour? It attests to the power of the instinctive drives that the transmutations 550

effected by ego in concert with social and moral systems time and again fail at suppressing

their potency.

Canines have been domesticated for over ten thousand years, yet they are still prone to

fits of uncontrollable violence. What does this tell us about man’s ability to supress

nature? If he cannot eliminate a natural but ‘undesirable’ behaviour from a lower creature

with two thousand generations of compounded conditioning, then what hope does he have

to eliminate it in himself?


Ego contains within itself the potentiality to destroy the species, a potentiality inherent

by its self-belief of primacy and centrality, not unlike the mistaken conviction that the 560

universe revolves around the Earth. It may be the check nature places on the expansion

of humanity; a seeming paradox considering ego has given us the means to disrupt and

reduce virtually all natural population controllers: predation, illness, famine, weather.

The super-ego acts in the manner of training wheels because man is yet to overcome

himself and needs a tutelary agency to confine, transfigure and sterilise his latent

animality. These bounds defined by subjective morality and law aren’t needed when the

human learns that he is self-regulating and comes into true knowledge of himself.

An unfortunate consequence of increasingly authoritative explicit and implicit directives

of the super-ego has been the overwhelming of man’s volitional ability to independently

determine the course and purpose of his existence; a liberty which he has surrendered to 570

external authority.

Ego allows us to reconcile ourselves to the world and time we live in precisely because it

is partially composite of the world and times. Aside from growing abandonment to

external authority, we cope with the increased general complexity and uncertainty of life

by concentrating our focus and energy over a smaller domain.

Since these smaller individual spheres are intimately associated with the ego, they are

presided over by ego-consciousness and its personae, which comprise each semi-

autonomous personality or mask worn by the individual in their various roles.


Ego-consciousness, with its pillion passenger Scientific Rationalism, encourages us to

believe that a short piece of string wholly circumscribes a globe, when it is barely long 580

enough to cover half the circumference. This feat is performed by only ever presenting one

view of the globe, specifically, that view which shows the contiguous string reaching across

from end-to-end, but which hides the opposing face of the globe, across which the string

does not extend. It then proposes that the string goes all the way around.

For this specific arrogance, and though continued narrowing of focus and specialisation,

the ego is able to attain to heightened differentiation; a provinciality which comes at the

expense of the self, the integration of which is the highest level of differentiation possible.

Until such time as there is a wholesale realisation that ego-consciousness does not define

the limits of reality, humanity will remain at an intermediate stage of development.

Should we survive another thousand years without extinguishing ourselves, future 590

civilisation will view the age of ego as an intermediate step of evolution.


Paul Xavier Waterstone

Oxford, 9th November, 2013



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