Exploring as many different spiritual and
psychological approaches to understanding the ego
as we could get our hands on, a contemporary psychoanalytic philosophy
of ego development known as "object relations theory" captured our attention.
We were fascinated to discover that many leading thinkers at the interface
of psychology and spirituality.In his more than forty years of research,
including clinical work with severely disturbed patients,
Dr. Kernberg has inquired with laser-like precision into
the subatomic components of the psyche and identified
what he believes are the most fundamental building blocks
in the construction of self-identity.I was drawn with him
into looking at human experience through the
piercing clarity of the object relations microscope.
WIE: Could you please define the word "ego"
as you have come to understand it?
The ego is an invention of the English translation
of Freud's "Ich." "Ich"in German means "I,"
and it refers to the categorical "I," or to what also
is called the "self," insofar as it has a
subjective quality to it. Freud never clearly
differentiated theimpersonal, structural quality
of what "ego" means in English from the subjective
quality that the word "ich" signals in German.
James Strachey, in his translation of Freud,
tried to make him sound more scientific by
bringing in Latin terms and making everything more precise.
In the process he decreased somewhat the fluidity,
humanity, warmth and flexibility of Freud's terminology
and the poetic aspect of Freud's writings. It is true
that Freud in 1923 started to describe his "Ich," his "I,"
his "self," as a structure of the psychic apparatus
in contrast to the id and the superego.
And this was then
picked up by the ego psychologists, particularly in this country.
Many characteristics of the ego have been defined.
The ego is the seat of consciousness; it's the seat of perception.
The ego controls motility; the ego controls unconscious defense mechanisms;
the ego is the integrating agency that brings together
the demands of external reality and the superego.
While all of this sounds a little mechanical, they are impersonal functions,
and classical, pure ego psychology went in
that direction, losing touch with the subjective quality
of the self-concept.
So this is why nowadays there has been a reaction against this.
Object relations is a contemporary psychoanalytic theory
that puts the emphasis on the importance of earliest relations
with significant others
as the building blocks of the construction
of the tripartite structure of ego, superego and id.
We absorb what's going on around us,
our relationships with things and with people.
The ego is like a computer, absorbing information, integrating it
and learning how to sort out what is important from what is not;
what is good, what is bad;
what is helpful, what is damaging.
We learn the control of our own body,
and we gradually learn to differentiate
what's inside from what's outside.
And eventually, an internal world is built up.
Part of this remains in conscious memory,
in consciousness—a small part.
And a large part goes into unconscious memory,
into what is called the "preconscious."
The preconscious is like a reservoir
of information that we don't think about
all of the time, but that we have access to.
And part goes into a still deeper level,
the dynamic unconscious or the id.
Now, what's in that dynamic unconscious or the id?
All of that which the ego or self
cannot tolerate in consciousness.
It's just too intense;
it's too dangerous,
and it tends to get forbidden.
Freud said that what are particularly intense
and tend to get forbidden are
early sexual impulses and desires .
. So the ego has the double task of general learning
as well as setting up an internal world
of representations of self and others.
And these representations are gradually integrated,
so then the ego develops an integrated sense of self
and an integrated sense of significant others—
an internal world of the people we love
and who love us
—orwhat Joseph Sandler called the "representational world."
The ego, in short, is the seat of consciousness, of perception,
of motor control, of conscious memory,
of access to the preconscious.
But also—and very fundamentally—
it's the seat of the world of internalized
object relations and an integrated sense of self.
WIE: Many spiritual traditions define the ego
very differently from the way
that the psychoanalytic tradition
usually speaks about it.
In fact, the ego is seen not as something that
we would want to cultivate
or develop, but as the very force within us
that we must do battle with and ultimately
extinguish if we want to evolve spiritually.
In these traditions, the ego is understood
to be the force of narcissism
and as the insatiable
and fundamentally aggressive
need to always see ourselves
as separate from others.
These traditions see the ego,
in this sense, as the enemy on the spiritual path
—as that which thwarts our higher spiritual aspirations.
In your work, have you encountered anything
like this within the human personality?
OK: I'm familiar with this approach to spirituality;
one finds this particularly in
Eastern religious movements.
However, it seems to me that there are
semantic problems here.
There is a psychoanalytic concept of narcissism.
At the clinical level, "narcissism"
refers simply to self-love, self-esteem and,
at a more theoretical level,
to the investment in the ego with libidinal energy.
When Freud coined the concept of narcissism,
he assumed that libido was first invested in the self
and then later displaced onto others.
And eventually, a certain equilibrium
is established by which one invests both self
and others with libido or love.
One implication of this early formulation
is that if there is too much self-love,
there is not a lot left for loving others.
And if there is too much altruism,
there is not much love left for self.
This early formulation, however,
has been questioned in the light of later findings.
Now, the dominant psychoanalytic thinking
is that the loving investment in self
and in others occurs simultaneously
and that under normal conditions,
self-love and love of others go together.
Those happy natures who have been treated
well are at peace with self,
can be very secure,
and at the same time be
very committed to others.
This is very different from abnormal conditions
in which there is abnormal self-love.
Pathological narcissism is
what is usually called an "ego trip."
This is an individual with
an exaggerated love of self
and in whom there is a devaluation of others.
There is an impoverishment
of that internal world
of significant others,
the representational world
that I described to you.
So these individuals
who are very full of themselves
at the same time
don't have an internal world
of representations of significant others
nor the richness of an internal moral world,
and they are excessively dependent
on being admired and accepted by others.
On the one hand, these people are
very grandiose, yet on the other,
they are easily hurt,
feel easily rejected
and easily can get very envious
and resentful of other people
who don't suffer from the same
hypersensitivity that they do.
When you have somebody with what's
perceived as a very great ego,
that usually indicates the existence
of abnormal narcissistic structures,
where the love is invested in self
with a kind of grandiosity,
entitlement and ruthlessness.
There is also a sense of emptiness
that goes with this
because the richness of life comes
from our gratifying intimate relations
with significant others
as well as from our appreciation of ideals
that are outside of us,
for example, in the area of truth
or science, or the area of aesthetics
in the area of religion and moral values.
People with an abnormal
grandiose self-sense cannot invest
normally in these values,
and their life is impoverished.
So from the psychoanalytic viewpoint,
the idea that spirituality implies
an effort to reduce the importance of the ego,
in order to open oneself up
to religion, to art, to truth, holds true
for narcissistic pathology,
but not necessarily fornormal
self-esteem or self-regard.
That should be harmonious with
And there is a natural religiosity
that is part of normal development,
reflected by all of the trends toward
developing an integrated
internal moral system.
Psychoanalysis has nothing to say
about the existence of God—
that's a philosophical problem,
not a psychological one.
But certainly there's something to say
in the sense that religiosity
is a profound human need
and that the religions—
or universally organized moral systems
are directed to protect what is good against evil
—make eminent sense
from a psychological viewpoint
because evil exists.
It exists in the sense that primitive aggression
is always there
as a potential in the human mind.
It shows up not only under
abnormal conditions of the individual
but it also shows up when there are
what we call "regressive group situations,"
regressive mass psychology situations
in which aggression can rapidly
take hold and, therefore, represents
concretely what we call "evil."
WIE: Traditional religious
or spiritual perspectives
tend to see these matters
as more absolute;
there is not a distinction between
"normal" and "healthy" narcissism—
and, in fact, "healthy narcissism"
would be seen as an oxymoron because,
from this point of view,
any form of narcissism would be seen
as a negative expression of
self-centrism and failure
to show awareness of
and concern for others.
From this perspective,
the seeds of narcissism are the seeds of
corruption and evil.
Based on your experience as a psychoanalyst,
do you think that it is possible
to uproot all vestiges of
negative narcissism within the self?
Is this an ideal that you would even
encourage people to strive for?
OK: Well, again, the idea that spirituality
and narcissism cannot go together
I think is a mistake, because
it does not properly differentiate
between normal and abnormal narcissism,
as I have explained.
Secondly, by the same token,
one cannot say that the evil in the world
is constituted by narcissism.
But it is significantly constituted
by pathological narcissism.
And I would add even further,
it is constituted not just by any
but by the most severe forms of it—
in which there is a particular malignant
that consists of a return
to primitive aggression
and an idealization of the self
as an aggressive self with power over others.
This pathological idealization of the self
as an aggressive self
clinically is called "malignant narcissism."
And this is very much connected with evil
and with a number of clinical forms
that evil takes, such as
the pleasure and enjoyment
in controlling others,
in making them suffer,
in destroying them,
or the casual pleasure in using others' trust
and confidence and love
to exploit them and to destroy them.
That's the real evil
—that synthesis between pathological
narcissism and primitive aggression.
And we find that at the level of individuals
and in groups as well.
Sometimes we find it in organizations.
We find it in certain fundamentalist ideologies;
we find it in certain aspects of mass psychology.
That's the real evil.
But to answer your question:
No, it is not ideal to divest everybody
of narcissism ,
because normal narcissism
is a source of pleasure in living,
of enjoyment of self,
enjoyment of healthy self-affirmation,
enjoyment of sexuality,
eroticism, love, intimacy.
This is all part of normal narcissism.
And what I am trying to say, in essence,
is that I see no contradiction
between normal narcissism and the
although there is all the contradiction
in the world between abnormal
narcissism and spirituality.
Excerpts of an interview with
by Susan Bridle
Dr. Kernberg is not only a principal architect of object relations theory
but is also widely regarded as the world's leading expert
on borderline personality disorders and pathological narcissism.
Current President of the International Psychoanalytic Association,
founded by Sigmund Freud in 1908, he is also Director of
the Personality Disorders Institute and the
Cornell Psychotherapy Program at The New York Hospital
Cornell Medical Center and Professor of Psychiatry at
the Cornell University Medical College.
He is the author or coauthor of thirteen books as well as
dozens of research papers.