From the perspective of Carl Jung, the ego is the conscious agent and actor of the personality, as well as the center of reflective awareness. (Stein, 1982) The ego is in relationship with larger field of unconscious subjective awareness, personified by the anima image (soul).
Taking a slightly different perspective, Jacques Lacan tells us that the ego is an imaginary function. Our real subjectivity is something more, something greater than the illusions of the ego. The ego is an imaginary identity. It lies outside of self, transcending the self. The ego is trapped in the world of images, creating a struggle between the our true (but fragmented) subjectivity and the spectral image we have of ourselves.
For Freud, the ego is constancy within the flux. The ego is continually struggling against waves and eruptions from the unconscious, as well as the stimuli from the outer worlds. Freud says the ego “must not relax but is constantly prepared for struggle.” (SE 20) The ego is oriented toward “reality.” Freud said “The ego clings to its relations to reality and to consciousness, employing all of its intellectual facilities to that end.” Like a ship upon a sea, the ego forms a point of stability and constancy within the vast expanse of the unconscious.
In each of theses theories there is an archetypal dialectic between the ego and the larger field of the unconscious. The ego is dominant in this dialectic, and with this orientation there is a loss, for we become alienated from our own internal depths. Our deeper subjectivity becomes unknown, obscure, hidden; and we are left with an “internal alienness” (Laplanche, 1998).
Though we may identify with the ego, it is only a small aspect of the totality of who we are. Freud knew this when he said pondered the “core of our being”. Freud said:
The core of our being, then, is formed by the obscure it which has no direct communication with the external world and is accessible even to our own knowledge only though the medium of another agency. (SE 14)
If these perspectives on the ego are true, then this is the dialectical work of being: to bring our deeper subjectivity into fruition. Carl Jung called this deeper subjectivity the Self. But getting to know our deeper subjectivity is no easy task. The Self extends beyond subject-object distinction. It is an undifferentiated awareness, and is known only in so far as it is reflected within the mirror of the ego.
- Sigmund Freud Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety, SE 20
- Laplanche, Essays on Otherness, 1998
- Sigmund Freud, Instincts and their Vicissitudes, SE 14