The Ego - Self Axis

The Ego – Self Axis

The discussion about Jung’s Diagram and shadow work presupposes an ego complex that is strong enough to withstand what could feel like moral criticism without the patient becoming demoralized or destabilized. Before unpacking this sentence, let us review our terms.  The ego complex is one of the emotionally-toned complexes, a special complex, the complex that carries conscious awareness.  At the core of any complex is an archetype; in the case of the ego complex the archetype at the core is the Self.  Just as the ego complex is a special complex, the Self is a special archetype:  the archetype of archetypes, so to speak.  The God image, according to Jung,  is connected with the Self.  Through experience, especially early childhood experience, the ego complex emerges from the Self. (Late in adult life during the last stage of the individuation process, Jung states that the ego complex circumambulates the Self.)  Good enough parents humanize the archetype for the child by providing safe and sound experiences in childhood that help to form a strong, supple, and resilient ego complex in the child, an ego complex that can continue to grow and develop throughout an entire lifetime.  This version of the ego complex can withstand the rigors of shadow work and benefit from it.  (Freudian analysts specify that such an ego complex is analyzable, suitable for a classical psychoanalysis on the couch.)

What if the child does not experience a good enough childhood?  What if, one or both parents are simply unable or unwilling to provide good enough parenting for their child?  What if the environment in which the child grows up is unsafe, unstable, or unsuitable for the child to thrive?  In this unfortunate and all too common situation, not only is the child’s ego complex weakened but the ego – Self axis is perturbed, giving rise to problems (e.g., defenses of the Self) that must be addressed in therapy or analysis before shadow work is advisable.  The analyst must create the conditions in therapy or analysis that would strengthen the ego complex and restore a viable ego – Self axis.  First, the analyst must create a sustainable temenos or safe holding environment.  Second, the analyst must focus on providing empathy to the patient, willing and able to address any empathic failures and repair them promptly and transparently.  Resonating with the patient takes the place of making interpretations at this stage of the therapy.   Third, the analyst needs to be prepared to facilitate the acquisition of ego skills, especially interpersonal skills, as required.

During my training in Zurich, I saw very few disturbances of the ego – Self axis in my patients, especially in comparison to what I have experienced clinically in my office since returning to the USA in 1985.  What I saw there was more akin to the psychoneuroses described in such rich detail by Freud and his associates.  Why is that?  Here are my reflections in a nutshell.  In Switzerland, a person is born into his or her community which provides support and resources throughout the life cycle for health care, education (including undergraduate and graduate or professional education), and care at end of life (in the form of community supported old peoples and nursing homes).  There is currently a referendum under consideration to supply each and every citizen with a stipend of $2800 per month, unconditionally.  Every man, woman, and child!  This must make a difference in the holding environment, especially when contrasted to the lack of such a supportive social system here in the USA.  Of course, there are other fundamental social and cultural differences between the Swiss and Americans (e.g., Switzerland is a small wealthy country with a homogenous population, the USA not so much.)  My clinical experience, while informative, is not definitive; the findings of a scientifically correct  cross-cultural research investigation would be much more convincing.

So why have I chosen the Golden Gate Bridge as the Featured Image for this blog entry?  In my mind, the Golden Gate Bridge is an outer symbolic representation of the ego – Self axis connecting my home in Sausalito (the ego) with the Self in San Francisco as reflected by my psychic investments in the San Francisco Jung Institute, my office, the Columbarium, and the JCCSF.   When I return to the Bay area from a trip away, I am always heartened to see and feel the numinous wonder of the Golden Gate Bridge at journey’s end.

Dr. Seth Isaiah Rubin, Ph.D.