Last summer, I think it was, a bunch of paper fliers showed up around town. They were on white letter-size printer paper, and they had a message hand-written on them in what appeared to be highlighter:
“You Are Not Your Ego.”
This is a regrettably common sentiment among the creative types; the idea that the Id is somehow the true self and that the Ego is harmful or not a real part of you because it restrains the Id out of a sense of fear.
Okay, before I go on, I want everyone to know that I have no background in psychology, and in fact am a community college drop out. It’s important to understand that I do not at all know what I’m talking about here.
Okay, so I think that people who dispense this claptrap do it with the best of intentions, I really do. But I feel like either a) the people who do so don’t understand Freud’s Structural Model and are using the words incorrectly; b) that it’s a side effect of an aspirational approach toward human thought and behavior that is not just wrong, but also damaging; or c) both of the above.
So let’s talk terms.
The Id, as Freud described it, is a mass of instinctual desires. It is the only part of the structural model that we are born with. It drives libido, aggression, hunger, all of those things that are more or less common to all animals. It will not tolerate delayed gratification, it wants what it wants immediately and there is no reasoning with it. Infants have no moderating influence; they are just Id… so if they are hungry and are not fed, they cry. They cannot tolerate the conflict between the desire and the availability of the object of that desire. I’m sure that you can see, particularly in adults, how the Id can be capable of a lot of darkness and danger. This is why it terrifies me when people assert that the Id is the true self.
The Ego moderates the desires of the Id with reality, and seeks to satisfy those desires in the least harmful way possible. For instance, the Ego is responsible for enabling us to not just take what we want, but to purchase it instead. The Ego restrains the Id, and as it does so, it fulfills basic and genuine needs. Functions such as cognition, judgement, intellect and memory reside in the Ego. The Ego is the root of conscious awareness, and of a sense of self.
For the sake of completion, the Super Ego is the portion of the psyche that internalizes societal rules and expectations. It is where morality and feelings of guilt come from. It restrains the Id, galvanizing the psyche toward morally and socially appropriate actions. The Ego mediates between the Id and the Super Ego.
It’s worth noting at this point that as I understand it, Freud’s structural model is no longer in use in practical psychology, or if it is, it’s generally not used in the way that it was originally conceived. Freud had some odd ideas about human psychology that are too firmly based in gender and sexuality to be of much use in modern psychology. Still, if you’re going to use words, you should probably know what they mean.
The fact of the matter is, we are very much our Ego. As seen from my brief and inexpert description above, the Ego acts in a conciliatory and defensive way, and some of the strategies that it employs may be deceptive in nature, but that doesn’t mean that the Ego somehow doesn’t exist, or can be excised from the psyche. The strategies that it employs are employed in the pursuit of fulfilling very real and valid psychological needs. Moreover, the ego is what makes us people, rather than a collection of desires and social directives.
This idea that we are not our ego is well-intentioned, but incorrect and in the end probably damaging. It’s a sort of a hippy-dippy notion that says that you can have whatever you want and can be whatever you want to be if you live without fear. This on the surface is a benign statement that some may find inspirational, but it’s yet another aspect of the sort of aspirational thinking that seems to come in cycles in western culture.
The most extreme example of this that I’ve encountered is The Secret: a book and a film that propose that one can have whatever one wants through the miracle of positive thinking. This of course leaves people dying of cancer bearing up under the burden of not having thought positively enough to cure their cancer, or the homeless person not having thought positively enough to bring himself a modicum of prosperity.
I feel like I’ve been writing about this a lot lately. What I’m saying is this: while it might seem harmless to espouse this living without fear as an ideal, the reality is that these fears, these dangers, and these risks all exist, and are valid. To insist that the ideal way to be is to exist outside of them is to insist that the ideal existence is outside of humanity, and this sort of thinking is why I left religion. This view of life as a struggle toward unattainable goals sets all of us up for failure.
The doctrine of the positive thinking movement does not set us up with the tools that we need to deal with the darkness and the horror that exist in the world… instead, it seeks to distract us with work that will never be finished, like Sisyphus and his stone, and we never give ourselves the opportunity to feel and work through those feelings, and this activity, this experience and internalization and rationalization of horror is a big part of what being a person is.
People are not perfect; they were never intended to be and not one of us every will be. We are all just people; and we are all a little monstrous. We are all terribly terribly flawed, and we are just thrashing in the mud and struggling to find or make a place in the world for ourselves. And to expect ourselves or anyone else to be anything more than that is not just wrong… it’s cruel.
We are all our egos.