The Ego wants explanations always in order to assert its experience (Jung, 1973, as qtd. in Frager and Fadiman p. 69).
According to both Freud and Jung, we are not born with an Ego. It is “born” out of our unconscious: more specifically out of the Self (Frager and Fadiman 2005, p. 69). To refresh your memory, the Ego archetype – according to Jung – is at the center of the conscious mind, while the Self archetype is both deep in the unconscious, and at the center of the entire psyche (conscious and unconscious). The Ego functions only as the command and control center within the conscious part of our psyche, the Self is the totality of the entire psyche. We can see the potential for major problems.
Here is a wonderful parable from Jungian scholar, Dr. Marie Louise von Franz (1970), on how the Ego works on a physiological level:
Imagine your instinct tells you to run away from a dangerous bull…you do not need to consult your Ego, you better consult your legs. But, if your Ego consults with your legs as you run, telling you where to hide, or how to best escape the bull, then the situation is perfect. If, on the other hand, you are a philosopher who’s legs want to run, but you say “Stop! I must first find out if it is right or wrong to run away from the bull” then the Ego blocks the instinctual urge…and becomes a destructive nuisance….[paradoxically] The Ego could also be useful in resisting instinct. Lemmings get an instinctual urge to migrate to another country to seek new food sources, they gather in great numbers and march as a mass. If, by a piece of bad luck, they come to a sea or river, they go into it and drown by the thousands….if a lemming could ask itself what it was doing and reflect that it did not want to drown, and could go back, that would be very useful to it. (pp. 61-62)
Why does the Ego, then, receive such a bad rap? Well, maybe it is because the Ego, especially the Ego of the average Westerner, tends to ignore the Self, from which it was born, and think and act as if it is the Center. It sees itself as “Me, Myself, and I”. The Ego has no conscious knowledge, or interaction with, the rest of the psyche – with the exception of the Persona, of course, which is the Ego’s spokesperson. The Self, on the other hand, is at the center of the entirety. While it resides both deep in the unconscious, and also in between the conscious and the unconscious, it seems to know what is going on more than the Ego. Problems arise when the Ego refuses to listen to the Self, let alone acknowledge the existence of something more important than its self.
In myths and fairy tails, the Ego archetype is usually expressed as the “hero” or protagonist of the tale. While this seems rather obvious, when we look deeper, we find that things are a little more complex. The stories are not just about the Ego running around doing heroic deeds to puff up the Ego, although this seems to be what most hero based stories in pop culture churn out. The Ego in traditional tales tends to express a multi-faceted situation and only the hero can set it right. Take for example the “dummling” tales like “The Brave Little Tailor” and “Ivan the Simpleton” . These fairy tales follow the archetypal pattern of a kingdom in some kind of trouble and a reward is offered – usually the hand of the kings daughter- to anyone who can solve the problem. Then, enter three sons, or brothers. Each sets off to solve the problem and win the princess. And, it is ALWAYS, the youngest son, the”dummling” who unwittingly, or through innocent cunning, and the ability to accept guidance, saves the kingdom, and wins the princess.
This pattern, according to von Franz (1970), is in which “the hero is the one Ego that restores to healthy, normal functioning to a situation in which all Egos of that tribe or nation had deviated from their instinctive regulating pattern within the totality “(p. 62). This is to say, the Ego, like a true paladin, is meant to serve the Self – a higher good so to speak- rather than assert itself as the only thing that matters. “The hero then [ in stories] is an archetypal figure which presents modeling of an Ego functioning in accord with the Self…he [ or she] serves as its instrument and completely expresses what the Self wants to have happen (von Franz 1970, p. 63). The hero, then is both Ego and Self in these kinds of stories. We need our Ego. We need our Ego to solve problems: the ones on the outside, and also the ones on the inside. Without it, we’d have gone extinct way back then, on the Savannah.
A writing exercise: How to check to see if your protagonist’s Ego is working the way it should in your story. Take stock of the “ordinary world” at the beginning of the story. Something should be lacking in your protagonists life. Something is just not right. This should reflect the inner life of your protagonist. Ask yourself, what does my protagonist “want”? Next, check out your inciting incident – the thing that launches them into the story – how is it a real problem? How does it reflect your protagonists inner and outer conflict? What does your protagonist have to “give up” to get this deeper want? The more they have to give up the better. At the end of your story, check in. How has your protagonist changed? Have they even changed at all? How have their actions “changed their world”? How do they re-assemble back in the real world? If there is no change, if they and their world are basically the same, no matter how exciting the “action”, then you got an Ego problem.
Thanks for reading.
Frager, R. and Fadiman, J. (2005). Personality and personal growth. 6th ed. New York: Pearson
von Franz, M-L. (1970). The interpretation of fairytales. Boston-London: Shambhala