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Was ist "das Ich"?

An interview with James Hollis on Carl Jung
by Amy Edelstein


James Hollis Ph.D. is Executive Director of The Jung Educational Center of Houston, Texas. Hollis trained as a Jungian analyst in Zurich, Switzerland, and is the author of eight books and over forty articles on Jung's work. He has his own active therapy practice and travels around the country lecturing to audiences of students and peers on Jungian theories of human development and what he calls "the meeting point of psyche and soul."

What, according to Jung, is the ego?

JAMES HOLLIS: The ego as defined by Jung is the central complex of consciousness. When we hear the word "complex" we tend to think of something that's pathological, whereas all a complex really is, is an affectively charged cluster of energy. The complex of the ego begins to form when we first split off from the primal other, which is typically our mother; that is when we separate from the breast. And while that separation is necessary for the formation of the individual, it's also very painful because it's the loss of that early experience of unity and sense of primal belonging.

Jung saw the formation of the ego as essential for consciousness. Consciousness is predicated on the split between subject and object—to become conscious I have to know that of which I am not. I have to have a sense of "that over there" versus "this over here." He also saw the ego as a necessary agency of intentionality, focus and purpose. How is it that you and I arranged to meet at the same time to address the same subject? It was a function of "ego focus" that was critical for this conversation to occur.

The ego, as a complex, is extremely malleable and "invadable." When the ego gets invaded by contents from the unconscious, when it's in the grip of other complexes, it becomes insecure or power-driven, or whatever the case may be. You see, what we often call "ego" is really the ego under a state of possession by one or more of the complexes, such as a money complex, a power complex, a sexual complex or an aggression complex. These complexes are not an individual's core nature, but they do have the power to usurp or possess the ego.

WIE: In Jung's view, is the ego a positive, negative or neutral force in the personality?

JH: As I described earlier, the ego is a necessary formation for the creation of identity, consciousness, intentionality and purpose—all of which are pluses. The ego itself is not a problem. However, when it's in a state of possession by our insecurities, when it's in the grip of our history, it becomes neurotic, so to speak—it gets in the way. So the problem is not the ego; the problem is what happens to the ego. The perfect balance—if we could ever achieve it—would be an open ego state in dialogue with the other parts of the outer and inner world, where we could absorb messages from the culture, but not necessarily be subsumed by them, and we could also dialogue with the unconscious.

WIE: Do these complexes have a will of their own or do we, in the end, choose which complex predominates?

JH: Let's take an example: A person could say, "When I look at my history I see that there are certain patterns there. The only person who has been in every scene in the history of my life has been me, so I am somehow the manufacturer of those patterns. I can blame Western civilization or my parents, if I want to, but I have to recognize that somehow I am doing this." We'd say that that's good work by the ego because it's opening up dialogue with other parts of the psyche.

WIE: Is the ego, according to Jung, equivalent to who or what we refer to when we say "I"?

JH: Generally speaking, "who I think I am" is the ego state. But the problem is "who I think I am" can also be a complex. I could be born a slave and have the identity of a slave. The only time we're in a pure state of ego, I think, is when we're responding strictly reflexively to the moment. In an activity of sports, one is normally not in a complex. One could be at the batter's plate so filled with anxiety that one couldn't swing the bat, but usually in the moment of the ball's flight, one is wholly absorbed and present to the moment. That's a pure ego state.

WIE: Would Jung's pure ego state be equivalent to a condition where we were in touch with reality directly as it is?

JH: Yes, that's right. In that sense it would be not unlike the Zen concept of "no mindedness"—it's just pure being. And yet to function in culture, we need an ego that allows us to structure time and organize our energies in service to certain abstractions like economics or service or whatever.

Jung's concept of the ego evolved over time. Early on he wanted, I think, to privilege the messages of the unconscious and to say that the job of the ego was to serve what the unconscious wanted. Later in his life he modified that and emphasized the need for ethical responsibility. For example, if I dream I'm murdering someone, I don't wake up and murder the person. I say, "What's that about?" That's a proper use of the ego—to serve as a conscious processing of life's experience, neither giving too much authority to the outer world, nor too much to the inner world.

WIE: What was Jung's view on the relationship between conscience and ego?

JH: Well, let me step back and I'll come around to that in a moment. You see, for Jung, the superordinate reality is what he called the "Self"—which is not to be confused with the ego. In the first half of life, our task is to develop an ego, a conscious sense of who we are that's strong enough to leave our parents and go out into the world and say, "Hire me, I can do that job"; "Have a relationship with me, you can trust me"; etcetera. If we fail to develop our ego awareness sufficiently, we remain children. The dialogue in the first half of life is the dialogue with the world: What does the world ask of me? But the second half of life, Jung said, was for the ego to develop a dialogue with the Self. The question then is: What does the Self ask of me?—which is much more of an interior dialogue, and one could say, a religious dialogue. Because the Self may very well wish one to go in a direction that the ego would prefer not to go in—a direction that might lead not to a path of self-aggrandizement but to a path of sacrifice. For example, if the summons of the Self is to be an artist, then chances are you're going to starve in our culture. And yet if that's what the Self is asking and the ego continues to fly off in the other direction, immense internal suffering is going to be the by-product. So ultimately, the ego would have to come to respect what the Self was asking. There would be an ethical and religious responsibility to dialogue with that and still live in the real world. And part of the task of the ego is to cope with the conflict that that could produce.

WIE: What is the Self according to Jung? Is it that which represents or calls us to realize our highest potential as human beings?

JH: The Self would be the wisdom of the organism. The totality of the purposefulness of that which we are, which transcends consciousness.

WIE: You mentioned that in "dialoguing with the Self," one might discover that one's destiny was to become an artist. When Jung refers to this "summons of the Self," it seems that he is referring to that undertaking or role in life for which we are best suited, which utilizes our talents most fully, regardless of what it may be—and that it is not necessarily a summons to the spiritual path.

JH: Well, it would be our true vocation in the sense of the Latin vocatus—to be called. What is it that one is called to be, as a being, as a person?—which has very little to do with ego. History is full of people whose egos could have been well-served by the position they were in, but who felt some other kind of summons and had to leave that secure world in service to meaning or enlargement or depth.

WIE: What would you say would be the goal of Jungian psychology? Would it be to help us realize our highest potential?

JH: Yes. You see, for Jung the central metaphor was "individuation," which is so often confused with ego development. It isn't ego development—it's positioning the ego in relationship to that superordinate reality that we all are. Individuation means becoming that which the gods intended, not what the ego intended. And there can be quite a difference. When one says, "Not my will, but thine," that's the ego dialoguing with the Self. Now, the "Self" is a word like "God"—it is meant to be ambiguous; it's not referring to an entity, it's essentially referring to a mystery.

WIE: How does Jungian therapy help us cultivate the willingness and ability to respond to the call of the Self?

JH: Well, the by-product of not responding to the Self is symptomatology. When the Self is violated, it will show up in our relationships, it will attack the body, it will be in our dreams, it will produce emotional states. In other words, the symptomatology is a measure of the autonomy of the Self because it's saying, "Look, you are off course." And the purpose of therapy, whether it's formal therapy with a therapist or an individual process, is to pay attention to what those symptoms are saying. The Jungian approach to symptomatology is not to suppress but to ask, "What do they mean? Where is the wound and what is the corrective asked?" For example, it's not our goal to remove depression. Depression is really a way of saying some vital dimension of our life is not being lived.

We have some paintings in our institute by the Swiss painter Peter Birkhauser. When he first started out he was a graphic artist. He was very rational and thought modern art was anarchic and valueless. Then, at midlife, he went through a real depression. He went into therapy in Zurich, and his therapist asked him to start painting his dreams. He did, and this led to a whole different realm of creativity and to a different kind of art for which he became rather famous in Switzerland. This was an example of the Self critiquing the narrow range of his ego's understanding of himself. There are paintings in which he shows himself afraid of that creativity. One's called At the Door, where he's anxiously holding the door shut and at the other side of the door is this huge beast. Naturally the ego's going to be afraid to open that door—it's going to be eaten up! But the beast was his own calling, and when he opened the door, he was flooded with energy. So you can see why it's necessary for dialogue with the unconscious as well as with the outer world. And there's a need for the strengthening of the ego, so it can take on this dialogue, but not strengthening it in the fantasy that it will be in control. The proper attitude for the ego is really humility.

WIE: In spiritual traditions the ego is seen as a negative force in the individual; for example, as the force of pride or selfishness. From that perspective, it is entirely paradoxical to imagine the ego cultivating an attitude of humility. Yet it seems that Jung was elucidating two different aspects or stages of ego development—one where the ego, as a self-regulating function, needs to be strengthened in order to help us navigate the challenges of life, and the other, where the ego needs to be humbled in order to allow the individual to discover the deeper and more subtle wisdom inherent in life.

JH: That's correct. Generally speaking, there are two tasks in our development. One is the formation of ego to be strong enough to take life on, to meet it on its own terms. The other is to have the strength to humble the ego and say, "Now what do the gods want of me?" That's a whole different thing.

WIE: Jung spoke in depth about the shadow. What is the shadow in his view, and how is it related to the ego?

JH: Well, the most functional definition of a shadow is: that within myself which makes me uncomfortable about myself. So we would quickly think of typical issues like anger. I would not want to acknowledge my anger because it's unsettling to my self-image. But many times, as in the case of the Swiss painter, our most powerful qualities are also a part of our shadow. So the shadow is anything that would challenge the ego's fantasy of control.

WIE: So the shadow can also include our positive traits or those impulses within us that could lead us into something unknown and potentially even further our growth?

JH: Yes, absolutely. And that's why the shadow is not synonymous with evil. The shadow is omnipresent in our culture—in our indifference to suffering around us, in our own pettiness, and in our own sins of omission as much as commission. But on the other hand, the shadow is often the place where the real creative energies are to be found.

WIE: Would Jung see evil as a complex or force within us? Or would evil be our own egotistic or narcissistic urges taken to an extreme?

JH: Well, those are all possibilities. In Jung's book Answer to Job, he talks about the shadow side of God and says that our entire Western theology has been one-sided. The shadow got split off and sent underground or projected onto the enemy over there. The dark side of divinity is our own opacity toward the dark side within ourselves. Underneath those dualities is a unity of life's energies; it's just that ego—and this is a good example of what ego can do—in feeling uncomfortable with the ambiguity of all of that, tries to split things off: "I'm good. You're bad. Our people are good. Those people across the Hudson are bad." It even tries to create a split in theology. What do you do with evil in monotheism? Well, it gets split off into Satan—the "adversary"—or the devil, which means "the opposite principle." And that split is the ego at work seeking to privilege its own insecurity. I would say that the sign of a healthy ego is its capacity to live with anxiety, ambiguity and ambivalence—triple A's—without trying to always solve them. Because life is anxious, life is ambivalent, life is ambiguous, and that's the reality. And the more we try to solve that or resolve that or split it off, the more we're going to fall into a fundamentalism of some kind—military, political, theological, economic, psychological—and that has the seeds of totalitarianism in it. Much of what I would call fundamentalism is really an anxiety disorder—which they try to solve by black-and-white thinking and projecting onto others. It's very unconscious, and it's very poor ego development. You can see how important it is for the ego to be strong enough to tolerate those tensions. When I can't tolerate them, I'll dump them on you. That's all projection. And projection is that which the ego is just not dealing with.
You can see how we use the term "ego" in so many different ways. And there's a place for the positive ego; it's not always an obstacle in enlightenment. It's responsible for consciousness and for ethical behavior and for dealing with the conflict of opposites.

WIE: Many Western psychologists have criticized Eastern spiritual traditions for their "ego negative" views. They fear that the Eastern emphasis on taming, subduing or destroying the ego could hinder healthy ego development in ourselves and jeopardize our normal maturation as individuals. What do you think about this discrepancy of views?

JH: Frankly I think a lot of it is just terminological confusion of ego with egotism. Even Jung's concept of individuation has been misunderstood as a form of egotism, when in fact it's about humility and submission to one's calling as a person. And that's far from egotism.

WIE: Jung's view of our highest potential as human beings seems to include more of a spiritual dimension than Freud's view did.

JH: Absolutely. The Self is really, in the generic sense of the term, a religious encounter. In fact Jung says, "Every genuine encounter with the Self is experienced as a defeat for the ego"—because the ego's fantasy of control or comfort is overthrown by what the Self wants.


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This article is from
Our Ego Issue