Phil Mollon Ph.D. DCEP
Ego and identity are illusions. What is behind or beyond them?
In order to function in the physical and social world, the child has to form a map and a working model of what to expect. Our early experiences, including those of pleasure, pain, and danger, form a template in our mind – to which later experiences are perceived and assimilated. To some extent, the template can be modified to accommodate later experiences – but the early learnings tend to have the strongest structure building capacity. The templates are unconscious. They contain the psychodynamic patterns of [a] desire/need/emotion, [b] perceived danger of expressing it, and [c] the defensive solution or compromise. Aspects of self that are perceived as dangerous or as unacceptable to others may be repressed, or expressed only indirectly.
Based on this template, the ego learns ways of getting needs met as best it can in the world. A healthy ego develops a flexible range of options and resources, becomes able to substitute thought (trial action) for immediate expression of impulse, develops a tolerance of frustration, and is able to distinguish fantasy and hallucination from reality.
Another important component of ego development is that of identity. Part of the template includes images of self and other. Initially these are fantastical, fluid, and often partially fused. Gradually the child’s internal representations of self and other become more realistic and separate [In states of psychosis there is a regression to more unrealistic and fused representations]. The child must identify with the images provided by the family and culture – and these include many details and nuances of familial, cultural, religious, and racial identities. Insofar as these are entirely dependent on a particular location in geography, culture, and time – and therefore draw upon whatever is available, and perhaps forcefully imposed, in the immediate socio-cultural environment – these identifications are all essentially false. They are necessary illusions, required to function in the socio-cultural world – but they are inherently limiting. These illusions are woven with narratives and beliefs about our lives, our history, and our possible future – which are also limiting.
All this is essentially Freudian – perhaps with a little Lacan added.
In psychoanalytic work we may explore these templates, identifications, and narratives – perhaps managing to bring about some loosening in these otherwise rigid structures. The conscious mind may achieve some degree of reappraisal of the early learnings as they emerge from the unconscious.
However, suppose the basic templates structuring a person’s psyche are fundamentally dysfunctional or flawed – causing immense suffering and sabotage of attempts to form satisfying relationships, health, and success in work? Suppose our therapeutic endeavours work to challenge the templates in an effort to allow the person a greater degree of inner and outer freedom? What is the person likely to experience? Delight and joy? More commonly what is felt is overwhelming anxiety – ‘disintegration anxiety’ (Kohut’s very apt term) when the basic structures of the psyche are threatened.
This anxiety is greater the more the person believes there is nothing else beyond these dysfunctional templates. He or she is confronted by a dread that the precious identity, held to with such intensity, is an illusory façade, behind which lies nothing but an empty desolation. At such stages of the work, the person may dream of disintegrating structures or of buildings that turn out to be merely a stage set.
Many people do have a sense of something greater beyond the ego. It is a spiritual sense – of deeper and perhaps infinite intelligence – but is not tied to any particular religion. For those fortunate beings, the psychotherapeutic journey becomes inherently also a spiritual quest. Surrendering the illusory ego and identity is experienced as a blessed lightening of a burden, supported by a deeper wisdom and resource.
For others, the traumatic damage to the spiritual sense is such that they can have no trust in anything behind the façade and their familiar narrative. Their psychotherapeutic experience will be characterised by an endless repeat of the same narrative.
The spiritual sense can be damaged by a variety of traumas – and such damage always does seem to be a result of trauma. Religious abuse is one source of spiritual damage. Extensive interpersonal abuse in childhood will also tend to cause such damage by inducing a pervasive distrust and disillusionment. Severe suffering by ancestors, in warfare and other catastrophes, may also have this effect. The symptoms of spiritual trauma are essentially anxiety or intense hostility to the very idea of something deeper or greater than, or in any way beyond, the illusory ego. In such instances, the ego and its narrative are not perceived as illusory but as the truth.
Those suffering spiritual damage may experience difficulty in benefitting from energy psychotherapy, for two reasons. The first is that the inherent effectiveness of energy psychology modalities is feared, because it threatens the illusory ego – and the second reason is that energy methods tend to enhance awareness of the spiritual realm, and this evokes further intense anxiety. Part of the illusory ego’s perspective may be that there is no higher realm – or, in the case of the religious person, that it consists only of a rigid fundamentalist story that is also illusory.
Part of the task, to enable the person to benefit from energy work, is to heal the spiritual trauma – but some people are highly resistant to such an endeavour. This may constitute one of the limits to the scope of energy psychotherapy.
When people feel there is nothing beyond the illusory ego and its childhood templates, their natural tendency is to look to the relationship with the psychotherapist (or other relationships) somehow to compensate for what was wrong or absent in the childhood experiences. From this perspective, the therapist is meant to provide a better experience than that of childhood. This leads to the client becoming excessively preoccupied with the psychotherapist, since he or she does not sense there is any other resource available – they have no awareness of a deeper Self, or wisdom and guidance within. In my experience this does not lead to a good result – although much psychoanalytic practice is based around work with the ‘transference’, and many (perhaps most) psychoanalytic colleagues would disagree with my view. Where transference work can be useful is in identifying the template patterns and the childhood experiences that have contributed to these (the original Freudian perspective on transference) – but there is often a powerful and subtle pull toward the client seeking compensatory reparative experiences with the therapist. Such strivings may lead to very intense, difficult and profoundly conflicted feelings towards the therapist, and commonly result in disillusionment, which is sometimes destructive.
I do not consider the relationship with the therapist is the crucial component of the healing process – although it has to be adequate to facilitate that process.
My purpose in writing this is to alert potential clients to the role that spiritual trauma might play in their difficulties. Some of the phenomena we address in energy psychotherapy are ‘beyond the psychological’ – they are of a spiritual or energetic nature, components or inhabitants of realms beyond the purely physical.