The Ego, the Body, and the Self

The term ego is used in many ways in psychology. In the work of Wilhelm Reich and Alexander Lowen the ego is used roughly to designate the mind and will together. Another way to say it is that the ego is all the parts of a person that are not just natural functioning. The body is a term often used to designate not just the flesh, but all the rest of a person, all that is natural, including a natural spirituality. The 'self' is personal 'sense' that encompasses both the ego and the body. This is perhaps a gross simplification but hopefully a useful one. However, it is the ego that perceives the self, and also perceives for the self through self-perception.


The ego, the self, and the body must work together for a cohesive sense of self and a satisfying life. 'Listening' to the body does not weaken the ego, it strengthens it. The ego may dislike or be unable to stand aspects of the body, which unlike the mind always tells the truth. When this happens, the ego will weaken or shut off self-perception, or try to change the body in accordance with an image. When the ego is at odds with the body, the sense of self suffers, and the ego alone has to stand in as the self in interpersonal affairs. This brings to life a bias toward image and away from feeling.


The sense of self never disappears in a person but can lose cohesion, or operate only in the deep background, or both. The ego may become inflated to fill the void, but insecurity is constant. Many try intellectual development (insight) or dis-embodied spiritual development to 'fix' the ego, but this only leads to greater confusion. Even bodywork can be done in an image-driven ego-pleasing way, and thereby fail. The self has to emerge, it cannot be made.


In the Freudian tradition, a strong distinction is made between the super-ego and the non-super-ego parts of the ego, and emphasis is focused on righting the conflict between them. To Alexander Lowen, the ego is considered 'in one piece' as a construct that is subject to many influences, self-negating and otherwise. Focus is on whether the ego can be guided by pleasure and a healthy body, in which case it becomes 'self-cleansing' of negating aspects.


It may seem at times that when the concepts of the Reich and Lowen tradition are discussed, the ego is 'bad' and the body is 'good'. That of course is not true. It is an 'artifact of trying to bring balance to a 'disembodied', ego-heavy culture. In lessening the suffering of the present day, often the ego needs some trimming, and the body needs some freeing, only because in our culture, the ego has overgrown itself and done damage to the body which, after all, is its foundation.


For many of us, in developing feeling and purpose, limiting aspects of character must be made ego-dystonic. That is, these limitations must come to be seen by the individual not as who he or she is, but rather as something he or she does or has done. For some of us, in developing joy, suffering must become self-dystonic. That is, suffering must come to be seen by the individual as not who he or she is, or the price of admission to life, but rather as something that happens. This latter point is particularly relevant where negating experience has occurred very early in life. Where character defenses are alloyed with the ego, there is a lack of flexibility. Where suffering or deprivation is alloyed with the self, there is a pervasive feeling of defectiveness.


Though it is tempting to align the concepts of ego and conscious together, and align the concepts of body and unconscious together, it does not quite work that way. The ego functions unconsciously also-- that is often the most problematic part. The unconscious as a concept encompasses two very different types of things, one physiological functioning, and two, emotion, desire, and memory that a person 'cannot recognize at the moment.'


A major understanding of both Wilhelm Reich and Alexander Lowen is that these two types of unconscious things affect each other immensely. That is why, in their perspective, conflict is more often framed along the lines of ego versus body than it is along the Freudian lines of conscious versus unconscious.