Self-Transformation, Step 1: Building the Ego
To transcend our egos, we have to have one.
Posted August 25, 2019 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
Our species evolved to be embedded in caring relationships and community from the beginning of and throughout life (Hrdy, 2009). Many children arrive at school with weak selves, not strong-boned or strong-hearted. Their selves were never knit together by loving care.
What does supportive (‘loving’) companionship care do? In a just-published paper, I wrote:
“In early life, reciprocal communication and companionship care convey to the infant that s/he matters, that the feelings the infant communicates matter, that relational communion is the normal way to be in the world. From beginnings in the womb and under good care after birth, for the child the world of experience is centred around Mother, gradually expanding to include a community of other ‘mothers’. The gradual distinction of the internal and external environments occurs through experience with multiple caregivers who sensitively bring to life the child’s self within a social world.” (Narvaez, 2019, p. 641)
Object relations theory and social schema theory point to how our understandings of the social world are sculpted by early experience (Beebe & Lachmann, 2002; Cassidy and Shaver 2008; Eagle, 2013; Stern, 1985). The mothering (nurturing responsive care) we receive from mothers, fathers, and others shapes our relational being.
“A vibrant, true self develops within relationships of mutuality that ‘affirm, validate, acknowledge, know, accept, understand, empathize, take in, tolerate, appreciate, see, identify with, find familiar …love …’—what Jessica Benjamin calls practices of mutual recognition, experiences commonly noted in research on mother–infant interaction: ‘emotional attunement, mutual influence, affective mutuality, sharing state of mind’ (Benjamin 1988: 15–16).
What happens when early life does not provide consistent “mutual recognition” experiences? What happens when a child does not experience our species’ evolved nest?
The child can become dysregulated on many different levels—endocrine, immune, digestive, respiratory—depending on the intensity, duration and timing of the missed care. Self-conception and the ability to deal with changing situations is limited. Such children are easily thrown out of balance because they have very little solidity. They can become overreactive and withdraw, aggress or dissociate. Capacities requiring good foundations, like sociality and self-in-world, become impaired, leading to the plethora of maladaptations that child therapists face (Barish, 2019). Such children get lost in their dysregulation and reactivity to perceived threat, unable themselves to grow out of it without help.
In the 1970s, educators first noted the lostness of children, their lack of self-confidence, and so instituted practices to boost “self-esteem,” now widely criticized for its superficiality and lack of foundation in actual competence (from which true self-esteem emerges). But the problem has not gone away. Many children are still lost in a diffuse sense of self and stay paralyzed or become attached to phones, videogames, foodstuff, power, in order to feel grounded somewhere.
Many arrive at adulthood still ungrounded. You might think, as an adult, that a weak self is where you want to be anyway—lose the ego so you can be enveloped in a unitive, nondualistic consciousness, as many traditional approaches to self development contend (Cortright, 1997).
But to let go of ego you have to have an ego to begin with. You can’t be an oak tree if the acorn never sprouted and grew. Being a “no-self” is not the same as being a non-self. The empty, non-selfness that is widespread today is susceptible to the manipulation of others who know your weakness, your reactivity, your fearfulness. Politicians love to get you fired up against some threat so they can control your attitudes/vote/pocketbook. Weak non-selves can easily be deluded. If you don’t have a strong ego, you will be a sheet in the wind and could be used by others to do a lot of damage in the world.
In other words, you need a basic ego for the chance to live a good life.
Many psychotherapists work with clients to develop the ego, to build self-confidence, to learn to find and love the self that has hidden in a deep cave, undernourished or paralyzed. Therapists often work on helping the client heal the primal wound that derailed healthy ego development (Balint, 1968). Therapists who demonstrate interest (not coldness), empathy (not distance), encouragement (not detachment) can set in motion positive change (Barish, 2019).
In my experience, therapists spend a lot of time probing for stories of relationships where the client felt loved and respected. Then they build on those feelings and perceptions. With this kind of psychic nourishment, the client can face and transform the trauma(s) also experienced.
Play is also a useful form of therapy, especially for children. In fact, child therapy began as play therapy (Barish, 2019). Play helps children master anxiety. They can express thoughts and feelings that are otherwise unacceptable. The book by Lawrence Cohen, Playful Parenting: An Exciting New Approach to Raising Children That Will Help You Nurture Close Connections, Solve Behavior Problems, and Encourage Confidence, helps parents help their children mend minor traumas through play.
Adults too can learn through play, but there are other techniques. As noted in a prior post, Maslow’s principles of self-actualization are a way to build the self, the ego. Get to know your unique responses to the world. If you hid yourself away, it will take consistent effort to “learn your self.” Learn your self so you can let it go (next post).
Next post: Self-Transformation Step 2: Ego-Dissolution
Balint, M. (1968). The basic fault: Therapeutic aspects of regression. London: Tavistock Publications.
Barish, K. (2019). How to be a better child therapist: An integrative model for therapeutic change. New York: W.W. Norton.
Beebe, B. and Lachmann, F. (2002). Infant research and adult treatment: Co-constructing interactions. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.
Benjamin, J. (1988). Bonds of love. New York, NY: Pantheon.
Cassidy, J., & Shaver, P. (Eds.) (2008). Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications, 2nd ed. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Cohen, L. (2002). Playful parenting: An exciting new approach to raising children that will help you nurture close connections, solve behavior problems, and encourage confidence. New York: Ballantine Books.
Cortright, B. (1997). Psychotherapy and spirit: Theory and practice in transpersonal psychotherapy. Albany: Sate University of New York Press.
Eagle, M. (2013). ‘The implications of conceptual critiques and empirical research on unconscious processes for psychoanalytic theory’. Psychoanalytic Review 100(6): 881–917.
Hrdy, S. (2009). Mothers and others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
Narvaez, D. (2019). Evolution, childhood and the moral self. In R. Gipps & M. Lacewing (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of philosophy and psychoanalysis (pp. 637-659). London: Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198789703.013.39
Stern, D.N. (1985). The interpersonal world of the infant. New York: Basic Books.