Jungian Psychology Series: The Ego

Jungian psychotherapy is a comprehensive approach to the human psyche based on the psychology of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. A contemporary of Sigmund Freud, Jung shared Freud’s deep respect for dreams and the role of the unconscious in human behavior. Distinct from Freudian theory, however, Jungian psychology is more holistic and spiritual in its outlook. Where Freud tended to view dream images and events as cleverly disguised wishes and forbidden impulses bubbling up from the unconscious, Jung viewed dreams as spontaneous and straightforward expressions of the Self – the center, or core, of the psyche. Thus, while Freud has interpreted the dream image of a person climbing a flight of stairs as a veiled sign for sexual intercourse, Jung would have been more likely to interpret it as a symbol of the dreamer’s progression towards a higher plane of awareness. The deepest drive within the human psyche is not sex or aggression, argued Jung, but the drive to individuation, the psychological and spiritual development of the personality.

Jung observed that the human psyche has a unique structure and that this structure is reflected in our dreams and daily life. According to Jungian theory, the basic components of the psyche include: the ego, persona, shadow, anima/animus, and the Self. This article examines the ego and its manifestation in dreams. Subsequent posts in this series will examine each of the other components in turn.

The ego is our conscious mind or worldview. When we use the word “I,” as in, “I believe this,” or, “I did that,” we are speaking from the perspective of the ego. In dreams, the ego is symbolized by the dreamer, or by a vehicle that the dreamer is in. A woman dreams, “I am on a boat in the ocean. I am alone. The boat is small. I am drifting about. I see a larger boat, which is a few miles away. The water is calm. I jump in and start to swim towards the boat.”

Water is a symbol of the unconscious. The dreamer and her boat are symbolic of her ego, her conscious orientation to life. The dream points out the psychological reality that consciousness floats upon the unconscious and is quite small in relation to the unconscious. Like the dreamer, we are all on a journey, and the waves and currents of our life are, frankly, negotiated more than they are chosen. (For example, did you choose your talents and gifts, your sexual orientation, your likes and dislikes?)

Because a large boat is safer and more stable on the ocean than a small boat, movement from the smaller boat to the larger symbolizes an opportunity for expansion and development of the personality (a similar meaning is found in dreams in which we discover a new room in our house, or when we dream of moving to a bigger or more sturdy house). It will take courage and, perhaps, a leap of faith for the dreamer to claim her larger identity, but the calm waters suggest that the timing is right and the unconscious is on her side.

When analyzing dreams, it is important to understand that all elements of the dream are placed there (by the Self) for a purpose. The objects and their colors, the events, the people and the things they say, etc., all are part of the puzzle and worthy of reflection. A man dreams, “I am on a plane with many passengers, my family included. We are flying over the ocean when the plane goes into a spin. We are losing altitude and I realize in detached shock that we are going to crash.” As in the previous dream, a journey is depicted, but, whereas the boat (ego) is connected to the water (the unconscious) in the woman’s dream, the airplane flies high above the water in the man’s dream. Depending on the dreamer’s psychological process, this could suggest a lack of groundedness in the dreamer’s conscious attitudes and approach to life. This is sometimes referred to as “inflation” of the ego. Our ego is inflated when we are too idealistic or too much in our head, when we are “high” on anger (or drugs), or when we stubbornly pursue goals that are not in accord with our deeper nature. In other words, inflation results when the ego sets itself up as the center of the psyche rather than its servant.

Such an interpretation may be appropriate for this dream for two reasons. First, the plane is going to crash. Dreams are a metaphor for some aspect of our psychic life and this metaphor clearly symbolizes a process of coming back to earth. Second, there are many passengers on the plane. Vehicles of mass transportation–whether a plane, train, bus, or cruise ship–are often symbols of collective consciousness and societal values. In general, society encourages conformity and the adoption of the consensus worldview. However, societal attitudes and values can only take us so far on our journey for we are each called to become our unique selves, not clones. If you have a dream of being in a vehicle of group transportation, it can be helpful to ask yourself, “In what ways does my life need become more reflective of my deeper values, gifts, and abilities?”

While we are on the subject of egos coming back down to earth, it may behelpful to briefly explore a similar motif from the world of film. “Snakes on a Plane” is a movie that was released to much fanfare in 2006. It’s the story of a passenger plane that seems headed towards a crash when poisonous snakes escape from the cargo hold. Movies, like myths, are the dreams of a society. They grab our collective attention because something about them speaks to our collective situation. Snakes are symbols of the psyche because, like the psyche, they continually grow beyond themselves by shedding their ill-fitting skin. The initial popularity of “Snakes on a Plane” could reflect a tendency towards psychological inflation among the people of this country, or, conversely, our nation’s inflated view of itself. Movies involving clones probably reflect our general tendency to conform and let others do our thinking, feeling, and living for us.

A final example of the ego in dreams is the dream motif of being chased. In these dreams, the dreamer is typically being chased by a monster, an animal, or some person or group of people unknown to them. It is also common to find in these dreams that the harder we run the more menacing the pursuer becomes. Dreams of being chased often symbolize the conscious mind’s estrangement from the unconscious. The dreamer/ego is being pursued by an aspect of the unconscious personality that has been ignored or rejected. So, for example, if you dream of being chased by a hungry lion, perhaps you need to nourish your “inner lion.” If you are passive, or have difficulty standing up for yourself, this lion energy and wisdom could be your salvation.

On other occasions, fighting back might be the appropriate response to the pursuer. A woman who dreams that an abusive boyfriend is chasing her might do best by turning around and defending herself. If you dream of being chased, turn and face your pursuer. Ask him what he wants to tell you, listen to your instincts, and respond accordingly. If you are unable to do this while you dream, you can do it through your imagination after you awaken. Working with your dream images in this way can have subtle, or sometimes profound effects on your outer life and relationships.

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