You would think one ego would be enough, especially if it’s notably vain, petty, grasping, and needy. But we appear to have four egos. Or, more likely, four dimensions of one big ego. Either way, becoming more conscious of these dimensions can help us to overcome the irrationality and misery we generate from within.
The ego’s four dimensions are largely unconscious. Even the first of these dimensions, the conscious ego, is often a candlelight in the wind. This ego largely permits us to illuminate only what its flickering vanity can tolerate.
Even in its pale glow, though, it still manages to dazzle us with the illusion of self-determination. Our inner fears are abated through the mirage of being incisive observers of reality, players who know the score. Our authentic self, in contrast, is highly resilient: It’s immunized against the fear of life.
The conscious ego produces an unstable identity on which to ground oneself. From its perspective, we inhabit a bag of skin and gaze timidly or gamely outward at the world, fixated on how best to cope with self-doubt, keep ourselves safe, fulfill our desires, and make pleasurable connections. Many people collapse into self-doubt, misery, and self-defeat because their conscious ego, while a protective filter, is nonetheless under the influence of conflict-ridden inner dynamics involving its deeper dimensions.
Obviously, an egocentric person can have plenty of “success” in the world. Yet psychological maturity with its enhanced wisdom, consciousness, and ability to avoid negative emotions and outcomes will likely be lacking.
The second dimension, the unconscious or subordinate ego, harbors its own set of dynamics. It produces emotional and mental impressions of ourselves, as well as behaviors, that consist largely of defensiveness, stubbornness, righteousness, and passivity. This ego, guardian of our irrational fears, is a little genius in its own right, conjuring up, in service to our psyche’s inner conflict, scores of clever defenses intended to repel the third ego, the super-ego. As an advocate for our wellbeing, this second ego is highly undependable.
It’s a dependable enabler, though, of the third dimension, the superego or inner critic, a primitive expression of self-aggression. The superego is a psychological drive that pummels and mocks us with accusations of folly, indecency, weakness, and failure. This drive or function derives from the physical aggression that’s built into our biology. In early childhood, this aggression, unable to release all its driving energy externally, turns against its host, our own self. As adults, we’re still prey to this aggression, experiencing it as self-criticism and self-denigration. As we absorb the aggression (by way of the second ego, the unconscious or subordinate one), we experience guilt, shame, and depression. The third ego is a bully of the second.
The more we absorb the superego’s aggression, the more we also redirect it at others and (with cynicism, bitterness, anger, and violence) at the world in general. Many modern psychologists believe the superego or inner critic is a guiding force, a mostly benign inner conscience. If we believe this, we’ll likely not appreciate or be able to regulate humanity’s inborn capacity for wrongdoing and evil.
The fourth dimension consists of the ego-ideal. This psychic structure is an unconscious mentality that arises from children’s instinct to preserve some vestiges of their profound self-centeredness. Children often say and feel with sincere, grandiose conviction: “I’m going to be president when I grow up,” or “I’m going to be the biggest movie star.” (For me, it was faith in becoming Superman.) These over-optimistic claims remain on record in the adult psyche.
When we fail to live up to these claims imbedded in the ego-ideal, the superego pounces on the discrepancy between the childish proclamations and our current state of achievement. Even decent successful people, when under attack in this manner, have difficulty feeling their goodness and worthiness. They’re loaded up with regret and guilt because their subordinate ego fails to protect them from their superego’s ridiculous allegations. They absorb punishment from their superego, thanks to the ego-ideal’s pretensions and the subordinate ego’s passivity.
The ego-ideal is a major player in varieties of human folly. It’s through the ego-ideal, I suspect, that many people refuse to accept the reality of human-caused climate crisis: “No way could we ever be so stupid as to inherit this earthly paradise—and then destroy it!” Even when we begin tentatively to explore the idea of being pawns of unconscious dynamics, the four dimensions of the ego protect their own existence with defensiveness, resistance, and an aversion to being humbled by exposure to inner truth.
How did this four-part ego structure and our identification with it come about? Babies and young children are highly inexperienced and subjective, and they experience themselves as if life revolves around them (just as early humans believed earth to be the center of the universe). As mentioned, this egocentric mentality offers some protection from feeling overwhelmed by chaos, complexity, and instinctive fears. In adults, the conscious ego continues to provide a degree of self-assurance, offering the consolation of thinking we know what end is up. Through this ego, we produce belief systems that we feel make sense of the world, thereby moderating our insecurities and fears.
Our destiny, which is to become more evolved, is resisted. The demise of one’s egotism spells danger: It signifies the prospect of collapsing into nothingness, becoming a nonentity. Identified with the ego, we feel we’ll be nothing without it. With behaviors that are largely unconscious reactivity, people engage in deceit, irrationality, and militant ignorance—even violence—to maintain their old, familiar sense of being. White supremacy is an emotionally based adherence to egocentric values.
Throughout its four dimensions, the ego remains overly sensitive to the first hurts of early childhood: feeling deprived, refused, helpless, controlled, criticized, rejected, betrayed, and abandoned. These hurts are sometimes as prevalent and distressful for us as adults as they were in childhood. Our better self, in contrast, transcends these old hurts and fortifies itself with integrity, courage, and resilience.
I go a bit deeper now into the core of the problem. Many people are willing to conjure up negative reactions and emotions (e.g., aggressively blaming others, wishing harm to others, hating others, hating oneself) when doing so serves to cover up or to deny their unconscious willingness to identify with (and emotionally entangle themselves in) the weak, disconnected, childish if not infantile aspect of themselves, their inner passivity. A person’s superego is able to be only as intrusive and condemning as this person, through inner passivity, allows it to be.
The subordinate ego (the second dimension) is the seat of this inner passivity. This ego is so weak that it’s ultimately masochistic. Masochism means, in this sense, being compulsively and emotionally identified with weakness, submissiveness, and a lack of value, despite the misery this entails. Inner passivity describes the essential nature of the subordinate ego, which is to persistently experience weakness in terms of helplessness, paralysis, indecision, procrastination, cynicism, indifference, and hopelessness. An unconscious identification with the subordinate ego and its passivity blocks people from accessing the impulse to act on their behalf with appropriate assertiveness or aggression.
At the level of the conscious ego, this condition produces, often chronically, the displeasures of self-doubt, self-rejection, oppression, depression, and a sense of being insignificant and lacking in value. This experience includes a persistent mental and emotional processing of unpleasant and painful speculations and considerations.
We’re infused with inner passivity and impeded by it according to how much punishment—usually as guilt, shame, or self-loathing—our subordinate ego absorbs from our superego. In other words, much of the misery we experience in daily life derives from the degree to which our subordinate ego processes the aggression from the superego in a defensive, deceitful, and masochistic manner. Our plight is even more dire when our subordinate ego meekly cedes to the superego’s most preposterous accusations.
The superego can even attack us for what we might just imagine in the sense of wrongdoing, let alone for what we’re actually doing or have done. Even on such bogus grounds, our subordinate ego still accepts and absorbs punishment. The cowardice of the subordinate ego is breathtaking. Its spinelessness contaminates our whole sense of being. It’s no surprise that people hate to see this passive part of themselves: It’s us at our worst. This infirmity of human nature exposes the pretentiousness of the ego-ideal and the ignorance of the conscious ego.
Recognizing this flaw, our willingness to remain entangled in inner conflict and absorb self-punishment, is mind-boggling and profoundly humbling. As this flaw becomes conscious, though, the new awareness liberates us from much of our suffering.
The subordinate ego ought not to be bashed unequivocally. Depending on an individual’s emotional health, the subordinate ego can at times exert sufficient strength and flexibility to curtail inner conflict. This ego often manages through its defenses to produce, in the form of sublimation, a limited victory over the superego. Now an individual can function at an optimal level in at least one particular area of achievement, even for extended periods, although painful dysfunction can persist in other areas of this person’s life.
Still, the subordinate ego, in its characteristic passivity, is beholding to the superego, often terrified of it. As another telltale of our ignorance, the subordinate ego doesn’t consult its host—you or me—as to the appropriateness or justice of the defensive bargains it makes with the superego. Its conniving is solely for its own preservation.
Meanwhile, our conscious ego, greatly influenced by these inner dynamics, activates our mind and emotions, leading us in many instances to become unwitting stand-ins or spokespersons for a negative view of life. We can become mindless agents of the dark side, witless promoters of its values, as we regurgitate into our surroundings the hash of negativity that’s generated by the conflict between the passivity of the subordinate ego and the self-aggression of the superego. Ignorant of deeper dynamics, we express a litany of complaints, injustices, grievances, and bitterness, all of which have originated from our own unrecognized inner conflict. The complaining or whiny voice we take on is often the vocalization of the subordinate ego’s own sense of fearfulness, oppression, defensiveness, and suffering.
Sometimes, people become (instead of a voice that parrots the subordinate ego’s values) a clone of the superego, a troll for its prerogatives. They’re more likely to be stone-hearted, malicious, and sadistic. These individuals are likely, as well, to identify with a malignant narcissist or psychopath (or be one themselves) and become an impassioned supporter. When people surrender their will to a political tyrant or cult-leader, they exhibit externally a rendering of how, on an inner level, they have, in unconscious fear and passivity, surrendered their will to their superego and become its surrogate.
This identification with the superego’s values manifests as an authoritarian mentality. The authoritarian’s desire to rule over the weak and dictate the terms of governance derive from his unconscious determination to cover up his identification with inner weakness at the core of his own psyche.
Those identifying instead mostly with the subordinate ego are also prone to becoming blind followers or fervent fans of political, religious, or cultural figures. Decent, kind people among everyday neurotics can easily be pulled into one or the other of these unhealthy identifications.
As we escape staunch ego-identification through these insights, our improved consciousness enables us to connect more steadfastly with our better self. Now we can hold the superego in check. No longer can the superego impose upon us its primitive power-trips, malicious condemnations, and unfair punishments. At the same time, our subordinate ego retreats into a back corner of our psyche, while our conscious ego and ego-ideal give up the ghost. This victory of self-knowledge over the infirmities of the unconscious mind undermines the potency of the ego structure. What emerges is a more evolved person, the authentic self we’re destined to be.