Show of hands: how many of us think of the ego as a "bad thing"-- something we should be trying to get rid of? 🙋🏼♀️ It's not uncommon in new age parlance to think of our ego as problematic. For this discussion, however, we're going to be talking about our healthy ego. From a Jungian standpoint, "ego" refers to our healthy sense of self. To have a healthy ego in this sense means to know who you are and to feel confident and capable in that knowledge. It is only when we possess a strong enough ego that we are able to complete the process of individuation-- becoming who we really are meant to be.
The Ego-Self Axis
In his seminal work, Ego and Archetype, Edward F. Edinger lays out a beautifully simple way to visualize this process. We've already discussed what the ego represents. In the diagrams below, we must also understand what Jung (and Edinger) mean by "The Self" (note the capital "S"). In this system, we could understand or refer to the Self in many different ways, depending on what resonates for you. We can think of it as our ultimate Source; Godhead; our Buddha nature; the totality of our psyche; or the indefinable principle out of which we are all born.
As you can see in the left-hand picture, as children, we are completely identified with the Self. Our ego is completely contained within that totality, and we lack any kind of differentiation.
As we grow older, the process of separation begins. At this point, we are in the state depicted in the second diagram-- still partially identified with the Self.
If we are fortunate enough to receive good-enough parenting and community support, we can feel confident about who we are becoming. We are able to try new things, learn that it is okay to fail, and feel that we have choice and capacity in our lives. At this point, we develop what Edinger called "the ego-self axis;" that green line that allows us to (hopefully!) move from the second picture to the third, in which the ego is clear of the Self, but-- importantly-- still connected to it through that axis (the green line in our diagram). This is the process of individuation.
so, about that healthy ego...
What we see depicted above is the idealized process. In reality, many of us haven't been able to develop the necessary strength in order to move into the individuation process (that final diagram). A few possible signs that we might be lacking necessary ego strength could include a pervasive sense of uncertainty in ourselves; a lack of confidence around our abilities; a feeling of being "stuck," or never knowing what's right for ourselves. In our bodies, we might also feel trapped, weak, or limited.
There are many reasons that the ego hasn't been able to develop in this way. Whether we've experienced traumatic stress that keeps us locked in familiar patterns of safety, or we didn't receive the necessary care needed during our childhood, there's still plenty of hope. Each of us can train our healthy sense of ego, regardless of our circumstances.
Our movement practice is a great place to start.
stability, strength & capacity
Our experience as human beings exists on a spectrum from the soma (body) to the psyche. When we make a change to one part of our system, the rest responds. One of the first things we should consider in this work is the ability to feel stable and safe in our bodies. For example, folks who have difficulty breathing well, or who live with hypermobility, or whose core isn't able to stabilize them, may be living with an embodied sense of anxiety that can't be alleviated by talk therapy alone. Strength training can provide internal scaffolding so that we feel sturdier and more stable from the inside out. A healthier ego starts with feeling that we can support ourselves; we grow more confident as a result.
For other folks, living with chronic pain or limited movement can keep us feeling small or constrained. Rehabilitative treatment and mobility training are two approaches that I use with my clients. As embodied creatures, when we have more movement options, we experience ourselves as having more options in our lives. We feel our sense of capacity and agency increase; our healthy ego grows stronger.
The importance of relational support
Perhaps more important than the techniques employed is the relational component. For clients that have never had the opportunity to feel strong in their own bodies; to experience their own power, or establish embodied boundaries; to learn how to play, to risk failure, or to move in novel ways-- having a coach, therapist, or embodiment buddy is crucial.
The practitioner's role is to provide not just education and exercises, but to create a safe-enough container for this type of ego development. Encouragement, mirroring, and believing in the client are especially important if these were missing components during early development.
...and what about individuation?
Maybe you've heard the e. e. cummings quote, "It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are." From a Jungian perspective, this is absolutely true. Without the courage, confidence, and stability that come from a healthy ego, we risk never finding our way to become who we're really meant to be.
The path of individuation is unique to each of us. While no practitioner can tell us who we "really are," I believe that we can and should make space in this work for these possibilities to emerge. A strong ego-self axis is a pre-requisite, but we also have to allow space for the unexpected, the wondrous, those internal nudges, that small still voice only we can hear. We can encourage this through creative movement, dream work, and active imagination exercises, either within our movement practice, or in conjunction with it. If we've created the circumstances, the next step is all but inevitable.