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
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
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
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