Tag Archives: ego pathology

Here You Are

BES_Personality CodeOnce upon a time you fell out of union with maternal providence and exited to a realm of bright light, sharp noises, cold air, and hard surfaces. In an instant your animal instincts were activated in the business of keeping you alive. If all had been well in the womb, then in all likelihood this new blooming, buzzing environment soon resolved into the soft warm skin and cooing face of your mother. Her (or your caretaker’s) attentive presence quickly calmed your nervous system and helped you feel assured that reality was sufficient to your needs.

This assurance, imperfect as it is and without guarantees, is known as security. I symbolize it in my diagram above with a triangle, stable with a wide base and balancing everything else on its tip, suggesting that under conditions of insecurity the higher system might not hold together so well. When the nervous system registers a hostile reality instead of a provident one, the resulting pathology can be a borderline personality chronically at risk of falling through the floor and into the body’s urgency.

Your adequate care outside the womb provided an attachment bond which partly pacified your lingering insecurity, as well as served to shape your brain for life in relationships. Research confirms the vital significance of that primal bond, as a mother’s right (intuitive, emotional, and empathic) hemisphere entrains the infant’s brain into a coherent state. I have symbolized this need for attachment with a circle, with its suggestion of inclusion and belonging. If you imagine a vertical energy axis anchored in your gut where the environment is metabolized into the mass and energy of the body, then with attachment our focus has shifted upward to the heart-center.

While we’re on those shape symbols, let’s complete the set by adding a square to represent your emerging need for meaning – to have a mental model that makes sense of reality as you experience it. We’ve moved now from the heart to the head. The frame of your square tends to be as large as your attachments allow, which is simply to say that stronger attachments have the effect of shrinking the scope of relevance only to what is urgent or useful in keeping the bond intact. As a constructivist I regard meaning as something human beings construct rather than “discover” in reality. You are always busy making meaning that protects your attachments and calms your insecurity.

All of this goes into what I have called your Personality Code, referring to the preferred way you orient yourself in reality (gut/security, heart/attachment, or head/meaning) and the relative clarity of consciousness across the three centers. A high degree of clarity correlates with “ego strength,” where your personality is sufficiently stable, balanced, and unified to support experiences of ego-transcendence known as power, love, and truth. For more on the Personality Code, see

Almost imperceptibly we started with your birth once upon a time and followed the path of early development into your personal identity as an ego. The steps along the way to a fully established sense of who you are – all the drama around your need for security, attachment, and meaning – shaped part of your personality that sits just beneath and behind Captain Ego, called your inner child. I’ve put the term in square brackets to make the point that your inner child, which was who you were during your actual childhood, is today kept inside and out of your adult affairs.

However, still today as an adult whenever you get pinched, triggered, or poked emotionally, to the extent that you feel your security, attachments, and meaning threatened, something very “childish” comes out of you. You become reactive, impulsive, defensive, aggressive, manipulative, or sullen. The particular forms of expression this takes for you is what I have named your neurotic styles, which evolved as adaptive strategies for getting your way. For more on that, see

It’s important to see that your ego is not some thing, like a metaphysical entity living inside your body. It is simply the self-referencing center of executive control that inhabits the roles provided by your tribe (family, peer group, professional community, political party, nation, etc.). Not only is your ego an actor playing a variety of roles in the realm of relationships, it also serves the function of managing the numerous “sub-personalities” that live inside you. You know these sub-personalities as distinct trajectories of impulse, mood, and motivation that come out and drive your thoughts, feelings, and behavior. One of ego’s principal contributions is to provide some executive management over these various (and occasionally competing) aspects of your personality.

For the most part your ego does a decent job managing this crew and steering through the role plays that comprise your daily life. Somehow through it all you want to keep your identity intact, feel secure, stay connected to the people who matter to you, and live a meaningful life. The system that makes this possible is called your world. In previous posts I have described this concept of a world on the analogy of a spider web. The spider (your ego) spins out a design of thread (your world) across The Void and proceeds to live inside it. Your world is your personal “spin” on things, the peculiar way by which you construct meaning, connect to others, and maintain your sanity.

In my diagram you’ll notice that ego isn’t the crowning achievement or last word on what a human being is or can become. While experience at this level is very dramatic and seemingly all-important, ego and its world are really nothing more than a delusion of consciousness. The neurotic styles of your inner child, the role plays where so much of your attention is invested, and even that executive center of identity called “I, myself” (ego) are a kind of reaction-formation entirely conditioned by your upbringing, your socioeconomic location, your life circumstances, and the somebody you’re trying to be. It’s not only possible but highly likely that most people spend an entire lifetime (in the Orient, numerous lifetimes) striving to keep it together, hold on to what matters, and reach a better station at some point in the future.

The spiritual life is ultimately about an awakening of consciousness beyond ego and its world. While this idea is too often conveyed in mythic-literal language as an out-of-body, end-of-life deliverance to a heavenly paradise, it is actually all about here and now. In fact, because the ego-world duality effectively cuts out a genuine present-moment awareness of existence, awakening from this trance (earlier I called it a delusion) brings you to the very ground of your being, where “I” dissolves away and All is One. This is what I name the present mystery of reality.

Your higher self, then, not only refers to your taller adult self that is capable of taking a more rational and responsible perspective on things. It also names your creative authority for transcending (“going beyond”) me and mine (as well as beyond the tribal us and ours) in a larger, more inclusive, interconnected, and holistic understanding. It is in this spirit that the term “universe” is used to speak of all things turning as one. Rather than merely naming a scientific fact, this concept expresses a spiritual realization, which is to say, a realization reached by your spiritual intelligence (SQ) of the unity of being. In other words, as I’m using it here, “universe” is not simply what’s out there and all around us, but a sacred name for the breakthrough intuition that here and now is all there is.

The universe is not only infinitely larger than your personal world, insofar as it exists on the other side of meaning; it is also prior to all meaning, deeper than words, and nothing (no thing) to speak of. It is: this – farther out than you can see, and That which quietly contemplates it all through your eyes …


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Do You Know Anyone Like That?

Mythic Quest CycleIn “The Mythic Quest of Captain Ego” I offered a model that helps us track individual identity through a gauntlet of developmental challenges that both shape the ego and continue to influence it throughout the lifespan by way of deep patterns called archetypes. These archetypes belong to larger clusters that correspond to the formative phases of birth (the perinatal cluster), early childhood (the developmental cluster), and a critical passage that is unlocked only to the degree that these earlier challenges were relatively successful, opening into an experience of the grounding mystery of being itself (esoteric cluster).

It is at this threshold, in fact, where ego (identity) is surrendered to soul (communion), that theism as a paradigm of religion gives way to post-theism. Indeed, if we can better understand how it goes (or gets blocked) for the ego, we will have in hand a key insight into the evolutionary purpose (and common pathologies) of theism as well. This is because theism and ego are coeval (of the same age and equal duration). How it goes with ego, so it goes with theism – and vice versa. In this post I will explore the healthy and dysfunctional forms of both.

Before I begin, however, perhaps that last statement – about ego and theism developing together – needs to be explained. The essential idea is that ego, as the executive center of the personality, has its counterpart in the deity who is executive-in-charge of the tribe and its world. “Tribe” is here playing a mediating role, shaping the individual’s identity as “one of us” according to the moral ideal represented in the patron deity. At this stage (in theism) the game is all about clear roles and rule-bound relationships, as the arena where the social constructs of identity, membership, and obligation are set in place.

The patron deity serves a dual function as the sovereign authority behind the tribe’s moral code, and as the focus of worship and aspiration in its members. In obeying their god, individuals are cooperating for the common good, while in glorifying the divine virtues of grace, mercy, compassion, patience, wisdom, forgiveness (etc.) – and seeking all the while to be like the deity in these ways – they are gradually growing toward that ideal. Along the way, what had been addressed as outside the self (i.e., the patron deity) is slowly internalized, as it were, until the individual is able to drop the identifier of “me and mine” altogether and simply be one with everything.

It happens, and all too frequently, that ego development gets hung up (or blocked), which, if the hang-up is fairly widespread across the tribe, can have a distortion-effect on the deity as represented in art, story, theory and doctrine. As a people regress, so does their patron deity. Just as in positive development the deity contains dormant or newborn virtues of a morally advanced community, when its official custodians (the priests and theologians) slip or get pulled into degenerate vices such as dogmatism, bigotry, vengeance and cruelty, the deity undergoes a similar makeover and soon the tribe as a whole falls into its gravity.

Ego StrengthSo what is a healthy ego and deity, and what are their contrasting pathologies? First we should recall that ego-formation comes about, initially at least, through a process of restraint-and-redirection, as the impulsive drives and animal urgencies of the body are trained into socially appropriate behavior. Of course, the underlying urgency of biology and instinct doesn’t just stop doing what nature requires, which means that ego is first gained and thereafter suspended just above the borderline separating the personality from this primordial (deeper, darker) animality.

Added to this responsibility of managing the animal impulses of the body – at least the small percentage of milder inclinations that can be controlled – is the task of establishing a center in the personality where moods can be kept in balance. As distinct from urges and impulses, moods are global and sustained internal states that work to match an organism to its environment and motivate behavior that is adaptive to the challenge at hand. Because circumstances change and new challenges are always presenting themselves, particularly in the social arena where ego is at home, the personality needs to adjust quickly.

A third factor of ego strength is its ability to hold the personality together as a whole. Various and sometimes divergent streams of affect (feeling), motivation, thought, and disposition need to be supervised, coordinated, or reconciled for the sake of maintaining a unified self. There are times when a certain stream comes close to breaching the ego’s hold, which, if successful, could result in guilt, embarrassment, or personal injury. As the executive center, ego serves the important function of self-integrity.

In summary, then, healthy ego development – and let’s remember that this will be true of the divine ego of the patron deity as well – is demonstrated in a stable, balanced, and unified identity. The personality is kept from falling through the floor into animal urgency, it is able to maintain a center of emotional composure, and it is held together under a governing director who monitors all things “me and mine” (our Captain Ego). From this stable, balanced, and unified platform, an individual is capable of leaping out into a larger reality, transcend the self entirely, and consciously join the present communion of all things – which is the mystical experience of spirituality.

Against this profile of healthy identity we can more easily describe the different types of pathology that afflict both ego and the patron deity.

You should probably know that I am deeply skeptical over the modern confidence in naming and classifying so-called mental disorders. Biological psychiatry and diagnostic psychotherapy have invented a complicated web of clinical disorders without a clear definition of mental order. Critics of this enterprise – and it is a wonderful conspiracy of inventors, drug manufacturers, and insurance companies, served by a cadre of well-compensated physicians and therapists – are highly doubtful that health and suffering can be so cleanly divided into “normal” and “abnormal.”

With that said, my description of pathology in the ego and theism’s deity is not intended to deny the legitimate cases where something is really, and deeply, wrong with the brain (in ego’s case). While I have chosen the names of a few outstanding and “popular” pathologies for my purpose, I readily concede that there are times when biology has “gone wrong” and a patient needs medical (drug and/or surgical) intervention. But such cases are much rarer than is commonly believed, which is part of the delusion that the conspiracy is intent on perpetuating.Ego PathologySo here we go. When the boundary separating ego from the lower animal urgencies is not very strong, the personality is not able to control the border and keep spontaneous impulses in check. Consequently the identity system will unpredictably collapse and be overtaken by sudden urges or reactions, making the person behave in socially inappropriate ways that end up damaging relationships. Do you know anyone like this?

What I’m calling borderline personality, then, is not so much a clinical disorder as an extreme variance in identity formation where ego strength is insufficient to keep the personality above the surface of animal urgencies. Individuals who lack a stable ego often suffer from loneliness from having offended their former friends, and a chronic restlessness in never knowing when the floor might fall out from beneath them.

What happens when the missing part of ego strength is the center that would otherwise hold a person’s moods in balance? Wide and erratic swings, and not only of the familiar “manic” to “depressive” poles. Wild fluctuations in mood inevitably land the individual in situations where the body’s internal state is completely incompatible with his or her present circumstances. Because moods are more global and enduring than the momentary feeling responses that naturally occur in the course of normal experience, a bipolar person can be so totally possessed by a mood that he or she is insensitive to the surrounding cues.

The bipolar personality is also socially disruptive, but in a different way from the borderline personality. While the borderline issue puts everyone on the edge of not knowing when the next outburst or collapse is going to happen, bipolarity trains those around the individual to withhold confidences and responsibilities from him or her out of concern that they won’t be followed through to completion. Do you know anyone like that?

Finally, when ego strength is unable to hold the personality together as a unified system, the numerous undercurrents of identity, attitude, motivation and behavior that might normally be allowed expression by Captain Ego in appropriate social environments and situations, can simply and unexpectedly “show up.” Roberto Assagioli, the Italian founder of psychosynthesis – stressing the necessary work of constructing a healthy self, as opposed to Freud’s strategy of taking apart the sick self with psychoanalysis – referred to these relatively self-contained minor identities within the dominant personality as “subpersonalities.” They are normal components in the normally complex personality system.

But when the ego is too weak to maintain a unified self, the personality “dissociates,” giving way to any one or a number of these subpersonalities. Observers of this phenomenon are often perplexed at how so-and-so is suddenly “an entirely different person” than he or she was just moments before. This isn’t about impulses breaking through the floor, but rather coherent substreams of alter-identity that take over in a social situation.

(At one point, this was named “multiple personality disorder” by psychiatry, but it later got relabeled as “dissociative identity disorder.” I’m suggesting that it is far more normal (or better, common) than the clinical designation will admit.)

Now that we have a model of ego strength before us, along with an understanding of the major pathologies that compromise it, I will return to my original suggestion. Just as there is a developmental partnership between the healthy ego and its patron deity, where the external causality and higher virtues represented in the deity are gradually internalized by the caring and self-responsible ego, so we should expect to find instances where ego pathology (borderline, bipolar, dissociative) is reflected in depictions of God – for example as temperamental, capricious, and internally divided (think of the subpersonalities of Yahweh in the Bible as threatening and wrathful, or as compassionate and forgiving).

Do you know a religion like that?


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