Although one might think the ego would be the easiest of all Jungian concepts to speak of, I always find it one of, if not the, most difficult. It belongs indeed in the conscious realmin contrast to other terms such as anima, animus or archetype but, for that very reason, one finds oneself in the position of Baron Munchhausen who had to pull himself out of the bog by his own plait! One must try to confine oneself to giving a formal description of the ego, for every other way of looking at it would have to allow for individuality, which is the main characteristic of every ego. Every ego is different, even unique, so that one can only sketch the main general characteristics very roughly. Any insistence on specifics would do violence to its individual character.
In order to make a start, we will begin with a short summary of Jung's description of the ego in "Aion". The ego, as a content of consciousness, is a complex of intricate factors. On the one side, it is founded on physical sensations, which are yet perceived psychically from within, and, on the other, on the totality of unconscious psychic contents. These two fields are the foundation of the ego and the ego itself is their point of relation. The ego is presumably brought into existence by the collisions of the body with the environment, and once a subject is present goes on developing by collisions with the outer world and the inner world. It is individually unique and is the center of the field of consciousness.
As such it is the subject of all our efforts at adaptation. On the other hand, it is not the center of our personality, although we are often under the illusion that it is.The common assumption which regards the ego as representing not only the center of our personality but everything that we are, was challenged long before the time of either Freud or Jung. But it is an idea which dies hard, and even today it is a great shock to the average layman when he realizes he is not the master in his own house, that he must reckon with other wills than the one he identifies with in his own field of behavior.When we study ourselves objectively, we have to realize that the ego is only one among many complexes that exist in our personality, though it is indeed the nuclear center of our field of consciousness.
It has a very high degree of continuity and identity, which normally increases in the course of life, but which is also inclined to become more and more one-sided.
As Jung has made particularly clear in his essay, "On the Nature of the Psyche," there is nothing we can really call consciousness on the animal or primitive level, but only a kind of luminosity. Most of us can probably remember a time in our own childhood when our consciousness was on a similar level, when we questioned neither ourselves nor our surroundings, but just accepted things as they were, like an animal. If we look back on those days, we can also remember the emotional moments and incidents that woke us up to a realization of our separate existence.
At first, the experience we gain in the usually painful way is like little separated sparks of light in the sea of a general consciousness. Slowly connections appear, resemblances between these experiences, for instance, and gradually these separate sparks cluster together and form a kind of island that we call the ego complex. The ego complex is not, of course, identical with the field of consciousness, which last is more than the function or activity which maintains the relation of the ego with other psychic contents. Everything which is not related to the ego is, for that particular person, unconscious. Consciousness is capable of indefinite extension, whereas the ego complex is more or less bound by the laws of space and time. To use a rather cheap illustration, we might liken the ego to an operator at a telephone exchange, and consciousness to a net of telephone wires all over the world. Obviously this operator can only be connected with one or two wires at the same time, and the ego complex is in much the same position.
Of course, such a simile cannot be ridden to death, for a telephone operator knows where all the wires lead, whereas a great many of the wires which reach the ego come, at times, from an unknown source which, of course, adds greatly to the confusion. But it may serve to illustrate the difference between the ego and the field of consciousness.
Although if we are asked what we mean when we say "I," we usually point to our body, the body is by no means identical with the ego complex. We might almost say that the body is another field of luminosity which is often connected with the ego complex, but which is also frequently separated from it. The intuitive type, for instance, as is well known, is often entirely unaware of the body. It is as if the ego complex, sitting at the telephone exchange, never made use of the wires to the body orin extreme casesas if the wires had never been connected. It may even he the main task of an analysis to establish this connection.
In that same essay, "On the Nature of the Psyche," Jung says one could think of psychic processes as a scale along which consciousness "slides":
At one moment it finds itself in the vicinity of instinct, and falls under its influence; at another, it slides along to the other end where spirit predominates and even assimilates the instinctual processes most opposed to it.
To give a simple example of each end of this scale: A monk, for instance, experiences the archetype of the union of opposites only at the spiritual end of the scale in the idea of the unio mystica, whereas a person who is only conscious of the physical end experiences the same archetype in concrete sexuality. Both experience the same living mystery, but one only in the spirit and the other only in the body. Normally, our consciousness is somewhere in between and, therefore, the two experiences are mixed to various degrees.
When consciousness is centered at one end or the other of this scale, we are, of course, particularly prone to be possessed by something which belongs to the other end. We can see this, for instance, in the accounts of St. Anthony and the other ascetic monks, who would sometimes live in the desert for years concentrating upon, and only conscious of, their spirit, entirely ignoring their bodies. As is well known, they were tormented by continual visions of naked women and so on, really possessed by their ignored and maltreated bodies. In just the same way, the "isms" are flourishing today mainly on account of the modern materialistic standpoint that ignores the power of the idea.
The ego complex was feeble one might almost say nonexistent in primitive man. He required a rite d'entrée, something to wake up his emotions, before undertaking any great effort. This always seems a deprived condition to us because in the
course of centuries we have developed an amount of free will that is infinitely greater than that of the primitive.
The development of consciousness and the fact that humanity has rescued the ego from the primitive state of twilight sleep are perhaps the greatest achievements of mankind. It is undoubtedly a great mistake to undervalue either the ego or consciousness. Yet we must admit that we live in an age which has grossly overrated their power. In the nineteenth century, it was still possible to believe that they were even powerful enough to bring about a Utopia on earth. But the twentieth century has surely brought us sufficient proof that this was a regrettable error. Therefore, it is certainly wiser to look carefully at the weak points in our consciousness than to trust its strength blindly.
In a seminar given in Zurich in 1935, Jung vividly described the shocks experienced by the ego while it was discovering that it was not the king in its own realm, but only one of many inhabitants in a vast, mainly unexplored land, ruled over by an "unknown grand power." This grand power would represent the Self, as we know it in Jungian psychology.
It is clear that the ego is by no means absolved from responsibility for its own small corner of the psyche by the existence of this "unknown grand power," and also that the ego is really in a much weaker position while it is unaware of this power than when it accepts its rule and tries to come to terms with it.
It is also evident that the small island of the ego complex has always had difficulty in maintaining itself in the great sea of the unconscious, and that therefore it is only to be expected that every ego complex will have an innate tendency to build itself ramparts, as it were, as a defense against invasion from within and without. On the inner side, this defense is a natural phenomenon and is formed by animus and anima.
Anima is the Jungian term for the feminine soul of man, and animus the term for the masculine spirit of woman. These complexes have an individual character so that, when we investigate them, we find ourselves justified in speaking of "my" animus or "your" anima. But, on the other hand, they are figures of the collective unconscious and thus form a kind of natural barrier between the individual and collective territories.Although the real function of animus and anima is to protect the ego and to bring unintegrated contents of the unconscious to its notice, both these figuresparticularly before we recognize them and come to terms with themare apt to affect the ego in a most unpleasant way. The anima produces disturbing moods in a man, and the animus rigid opinions in a woman.
In general, they act as a sort of rampart against the waves of the unconscious, but the moods and opinions are a great difficulty when we are trying to see behind them and to reduce anima and animus to their proper place in our psyche as mediators between conscious and unconscious. However, even in their negative aspect they have their positive use and, undoubtedly, they often protect a too-weak consciousness from the waves of the unknown which might overwhelm it.
Facing the outer world, the rampart is formed by the so-called persona, which is the Latin word for an actor's mask. Its original function was to signify the role played by an actor, and thus the very word contains a certain suggestion of "putting on an act," or "playing to the gallery," that is, appearing as something which is just not what we really are.
It would he a great mistake to think of the persona as a conscious deception. It is something that forms quite naturally from our childhood on, and people often find it almost as difficult to see their persona as to become aware of their shadow, animus or anima. The persona usually begins to form as a result of conflict with the outer environment. The complete naturalness of a child, for instance, is apt to he embarrassing to the adults around them, and most children learn fairly early to protect themselves by hiding their most spontaneous reactions. They often see, for instance, that some child in their environment gets on better in this respect, does not put his or her foot into it so regularly, and almost unconsciously they pick up something from that child. Or they admire somebody they know and, consciously or unconsciously, begin to imitate them. Or they realize that some natural characteristic of their own makes an impression and they begin to use it for that purpose instead of spontaneously, and so on.
That the persona is the result of contact with the environment is shown by the fact that if people are alone for a long time, they lose their personas. I remember seeing the photograph of a man who had gone to the Arctic regions for observations. He got caught in an avalanche and was completely buried by the snow, which also covered the high pole he had set up as a landmark, so the relief party failed to find him. He had been buried for several months and without light for six weeks. All trace of any masculine persona was gone and he looked exactly like a woman. No doubt, as he returned to civilization, his persona built up again, but for a time there was no trace of it. A similar change has been noticed by other people who have met their friends coming from long periods of isolation.
The development of the persona forms an important part in education. You can see this particularly clearly in the English public schools, where it is or, at any rate, was in my generation far more important to become a "gentleman" than to pass examinations with credit. The boy who will not take on the "old school tie" ideal is, or was, more or less an outcast from the beginning. I saw this clearly with my own three brothers. The two younger ones took over the public school persona without difficulty and thus fitted into their environment easily. But my eldest brother just could not accept it.
Consequently he was miserable at his school, and always gave the impression of being an oversensitive snail who had somehow mislaid its shell. After several years of being a lecturer, he acquired a peculiar kind of ill-fitting, professorial persona which he always produced at the wrong moment. He would suddenly address a luncheon party, for instance, as if it were a class of small boys. He was well over fifty before he overcame the disadvantages of his early experience.
Naturally, when we grow up and have to adapt and even earn our living by means of the way we can fit ourselves into our environment, the building up of a suitable persona becomes vitally important, but how it goes on strengthening is much the same as in childhood. It consists really of tiny fragments which slowly amalgamate to form a kind of crust between the ego complex and the outside world. For the most part, these fragments come from general collective values, from behaviors that are acceptable to the general public and are adapted to the social values of our time.
The individual nature is mainly to be found in the particular choice of this or that element, so one can say that the persona is partly the effect of what our environment obliges us to be, that is, totally impersonal, and partly oneself, personal. This structure resembles that of its inner counterpart, the anima or animus, which also has individual and collective aspects.
It is evident that a persona is an indispensable part of the personality. People with a deficient persona are really at a great disadvantage in outer life. They have no shield against the projections of others and are in constant danger of falling back into the original state of participation mystique with their environment.
Its dangers, however, are equally apparent. As we have seen, it is a mask, a role, seldom the true essence of our personality, and we are always in peril of identifying with it. In the first half of life, we must indeed identify with it to some considerable extent or we shall not succeed in meeting the demands of our profession or of life. But in the second half of life, because it only contains a small fraction of what we really are, identification with it becomes a great hindrance, especially if we have used it, as is only too often the case, as a mask toward ourselves as well as toward others.
Everyone knows examples of people who believe implicitly that they are what they appear to beand how empty and shallow they become. I remember once, when I was leaving the old Roman theater at Carthage, where we had seen a rather poor French rendering of a Greek play. I saw one of the actors, unable to relinquish his role, acting it all over again by himself behind an old Roman wall. I cannot tell you how ridiculous he looked, and yet I have often involuntarily been reminded of him as I have watched older people who have remained identical with their persona.
It would of course be exceedingly inconsiderate and unwise to throw away our persona as we become older. It would be like throwing away our clothes and appearing naked in public. There is a story of the poet Shelley that illustrates this point quite well. His father had an estate in Sussex, where there was a pond large enough for swimming. Shelley was very fond of the water and spent a lot of time there. One day he suddenly remembered that it must be past lunch time and, forgetting everything but his stomach, hurried off to the dining room, appearing before a conventional Sussex lunch party without a stitch of clothing. When he saw their horrified faces, he still did not tumble to the real situation and said in surprise: ''Why, it is only me"! Although it may not be so evident, "only me" has quite as disturbing an effect in the psychic as it does in the physical sense.We must have a persona, then, just as we must have clothes, but we must gradually learn to use it rather the same way as we use our clothes. This is by no means as easy as it sounds, for in many cases the persona has grown into our flesh, so to speak, and is no longer detachable. There is, then, only one thing we can do: realize that every solid object on this earth casts a shadow and turn round and face this fact.
If we are at all honest in this attempt, we shall soon realize that there are many things which are undeniably part of ourselves, but which do not fit at all with our idea of ourselves or our persona. The realization of these factors will provide us with all the material we need in order to detach ourselves from identification with the persona.
As we try to adapt ourselves to the outer world and begin to form our persona, we mostly tend to repress those qualities that hinder us in this task, or that spoil the ideal picture of ourselves that we secretly cherish. These qualities retire into the dark, often highly charged with emotion, but they continue to exist and are usually a good deal more visible to our neighbors than they are to ourselves.
Undeniably it is a terrifying undertaking, and one that must be faced again and again, to turn our backs on familiar illusions concerning our own character and face the unknown darkness behind. It is indeed, as Jung once said, an almost superhuman task. But every sincere effort in this direction, however small, is the one task which never lets us down. Whatever ground we can reclaim from the shadow is firm and fertile ground that enables us to commence building the house founded on the rock. In contrast, everything built only on the light side of the ego complex or on the persona, invariably turns out to have been built on sand.
It is a platitude to point out that everything in this world consists at bottom of an equal amount of black and white, of light and darkness, and yet, when it comes to ourselves, we easily lose sight of this fact, obvious and simple as it is. Moreover, we find it all but impossible to see our dark side without losing confidence in our light side. Yet this is indispensable, for, naturally, the fact that we also have shadow qualities in no way cancels out our good qualities. Actually, it is never so necessary to keep them in mind as when we are facing the fact that we have repressed a great deal which is their direct opposite.55
Although it is painful and humiliating to face our less admirable qualities, it would be comparatively easy were it not for the fact that everything which falls into the unconscious becomes contaminated with other contents. To give one example: the personal shadow becomes contaminated with the collective shadow. The word ''collective," as it is used in Jungian psychology, applies to all psychic contents which are not peculiar to one individual, but common to many at the same time, that is, to a society, a people or to mankind in general. The personal unconscious, therefore, consists of contents which belong to that one person, and the collective unconscious of contents which are common to many or even all. Insofar as we are aware of our personal shadow, it is attached to our ego like the actual shadow to our body. But, insofar as we are not aware of it, it falls into the unconscious and becomes indistinguishable from the other contents of the unconscious, particularly from the collective shadow. Then people can even fall into the error of regarding their personal shadow as the devil himself. This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of the shadow problem, but I hope to make it somewhat clearer later, by means of a dream.
The second great difficulty in recognizing the shadow is due to the fact that all the things we lose sight of in ourselves have a tendency to be projected onto our outer environment. Of course, we never consciously make projections, but there is some unconscious factor in us which seems to have a devilish habit of slipping these repressed pieces of our own personality into someone else. (Naturally there is some similarity, or there would be no hook for the projection.) I remind the reader, for instance, of the many people who cherish a bête noir. This bête noir usually carries the projection of what we hate most in ourselves, and it is also just this projection which falsities our picture of the person in question, making him or her so completely unacceptable.
It is a very difficult task to disentangle such a projected factor from the carrier of the projection. Perhaps one of the most dependable indicators of a projection is the presence of emotion. If other people's weaknesses or bad qualities make us unduly angry, we may be pretty sure there is some proection involved, because at bottom we do not resent the weaknesses of othersthey may even give us a pleasant feeling of superiority. The weakness or bad qualities that we resent are always our own. There is, of course, always the danger of introjecting such qualities if this point of view is exaggerated, that is, of taking into ourselves traits that do not belong to us. But we have a certain instinctive recognition of what does or does not belong to us, an instinct which only fails us if we do not want to see ourselves as we really are. This instinct says, "It clicks," when something returns that is really ourselves, and says "No" when we try to introject. Whether ''it clicks" or not is really our final criterion.
Another way we can realize our shadow is by our effect on the people around us, for we do have certain effects on other people that we can neither predict nor adequately explain. To give an extreme example: we had a washerwoman when I was a child who always quarreled with everyone in her environment. When rebuked for this fault, full of injured innocence, she replied, "How can I help that? I never saw anything like the tempers in the people I meet!" Of course, in such a case it is not difficultthough undoubtedly painfulto see that the temper is our own. But it becomes much more difficult when the effect comes from something far more obscure than a bad temper. The mechanism, however, is always the same and, when we continually have the same effect on different people, it is a place where we are likely to make valuable discoveries about our shadow, animus or anima.
Perhaps it should just be mentioned here that, naturally, an unknown shadow does not only get contaminated in the unconscious with the collective shadow, but also with other dominants, most particularly with anima and animus. This often results in a kind of marriage between shadow and animus or anima, which is particularly disastrous to the ego, for it is then at a disadvantage with the unconscious, being outnumbered.
In the 1935 seminar mentioned earlier, Jung gave a description of accepting the shadow that has always remained in my mind. Briefly, he used the simile of our consciousness being like a ship or bowl floating on the surface of the unconscious. Each part of the shadow that we realize has a weight, and our consciousness is lowered to that extent when we take it into our boat. Therefore, we might say that the main art of dealing with the shadow consists in the right loading of our boat: if we take on too little, we float right away from reality and become like a fluffy white cloud in the sky. If we take on too much, we may sink our boat.
We must still ask ourselves the question, what does a lowered consciousness mean practically? This is very difficult to answer theoretically, as it is really a matter of experience. Consciousness is mainly connected with our superior functions, where we are capable of a very clear, though one-sided, conscious perception. But, when we bring up something from the unconscious which demands a broader reaction, it forces us to widen our point of view, because we must then also react with our undeveloped functions and our instinctive side.
We are thus confronted with the task of reconciling the reactions of our clear consciousness with those from the darkness or, at best, from the dim luminosity of our inferior or instinctive side. This naturally dims or lowers consciousness, but at the same time it makes it more substantial, three-dimensional instead of two-dimensional, so to speak.
There is another important aspect of the shadow which we must mention. Many people live the negative side of themselves, and then the shadow can be much more decent and have more positive qualities than the conscious ego. You all know the sort of people who live their shadow, as it were: they are always putting the wrong foot forward, and sometimes even seem to indulge in such behavior. If you ask such people about their shadow, they will inform you that it is terrible, a cut-throat, a murderer, and so on, because of the general illusion that the shadow must be negative. But if this film of illusion can be removed, one often discovers a most decent person behind it. Jung even said once in a seminar that there can be eighty percent pure gold in the shadow.
The great difficult in discovering the shadow is to findor perhaps still more to acknowledge just the components of which it is made. Naturally, it is pleasanter to find gold than a decaying corpse, for instance, and preferable to discover that we are more decent than we thought rather than vice versa. But, curiously enough, it is often just the people with the pure gold in their shadow who show the most resistance to digging it out. This is usually because they had a secret purpose, perhaps unknown to themselves, in burying the gold or repressing their positive characteristics. Good qualities carry an obligation, and possibly they did not want to take the responsibility which is always involved when we live something positive. Such people are like the man in Christ's parable who preferred to bury his talent; in other words, they live below their real level in order to shirk the responsibility of what they could be.
To sum up the relation of ego and personal shadow as simply as possible, one could say that the one is always the reverse of the other and that, therefore, discovering one's one shadow is necessarily pioneer work. The exact elements of which it is composed are different in every case and general rules are usually more misleading than helpful.