Evolution of the Ego

by Adrian W. Hall, MFT, ATR

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To be honest with you, the first time I read this section of the book, I really didn’t get it.   

When I read it again, I literally screamed “for real?!?!” … a couple of times.  I love it so much because David Richo gives a name to a process that I could feel and sense but not intellectually understand.  In this section, he is talking about the evolution of the ego.

Just to give you some context, the evolution basically goes from the neurotic ego to the functional ego, which then surrenders to the Self. 

To clarify these terms, David Richo describes the ego as “the center of our conscious, rational life, and is functional when it helps us fulfill our goals in life” (p. 18).  He defines the neurotic ego as acting in a “repetition of archaic ways of protecting ourselves against what no longer truly threatens us” (p. 18). 

So, hold on for a second.  It would be easy to stop right here and think “I don’t have a neurotic ego, that doesn’t seem too good”.  You’re right, it’s not flattering.  I know my behavior when that guy is in charge is not fantastic or desirable.  But we can look at it this way:  we all have pain that we have experienced in our life.  So, if you have experienced pain, naturally, there is fear of experiencing that pain again.  What happens is we construct ways to set ourselves up so we don’t experience it again.  All that construction occurs mostly unconsciously.  It’s pretty awesome that our brain will just help us out like that without us even asking. 

The fear does not seem like what you would typically think of when you think of fear.  It is more subtle and also more powerful.  Usually, when we experienced the initial pain, we were young and had ways of coping that were not very sophisticated.  One hint that the neurotic ego is present:  either you are presenting with “arrogant, inflated grandiosity” or “deflated, victimized, self-abasement”. 

The other term, the one I get so excited about, is the Self.  David Richo says:  “the Self is the same in everyone: unconditional love, perennial wisdom, the power to heal ourselves and others” (p. 18).  So, basically, this Self goes beyond who we each are individually and is actually the rich, abundant source that connects us all.  Belief systems have different words for this source, so I won’t include any name for it besides the Self.  I like how David Richo distinguishes between the two:  “Our ego is our capacity for light, the Self is light itself” (p. 20).

David Richo is proposing that the ultimate goal is for us to bring our ego into the service of the Self.  That’s the tricky part!  The ego is the EGO and does not take kindly to being dethroned.  It fears being displaced by the Self.   Sometimes it actually takes a crisis for this surrender to occur. 

Along the way, David Richo explains, we have to do the work of forming a fully functioning ego.  Why?  Because we want to be successful in our life in at least one or two important places, right?  The problem with the neurotic ego is that it makes us unhappy and sabotages our functioning in the places that matter to us the most.  To form a functional ego means acknowledging the pain we have experienced and how we act out of that pain.  If you don’t know what your unresolved pain is or how you act from that place, ask your partner, your friends or your family.  They know because they have been affected by it.  You can also think back on critical feedback you have gotten from people over the years and see if there are any patterns there.  But, please, if you ask, really be curious and open.  You are asking so you can grow, not to defend yourself (even though you really might feel like you need to defend!).

The process of moving toward the functional ego through healing the pain that causes the neurotic ego to act up takes time.  It also takes active effort and courage.  This is what people are working on when they come to see me (even if they didn’t know that is what they were trying to do).  Allowing the emergence of the Self is not an effortful process.  It is a surrender.  And what comes from that surrender is a tremendous amount of peace, love and faith; giving you the ability to be more buoyant with the truths of existence. 

We all need our functional ego because it is a part of our humanness.  We have this human body and mind to use as an expression of the Self here on this earth.  The idea, as David Richo puts it, is to have the functional ego and the Self work in concert.  That way, you have the power of functioning in this human life and you have the power of the Self behind that expression making the process of being human more easeful, fulfilling and, most importantly, fun!


*To learn more about this blog and the author, please visit the About section of this website.

 *This post based on the section "Fear and Ego" (pp. 18-20).