The True Self Versus The World

Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see a shadow.

- Helen Keller

The True Self is divine in its mission. Like the sun, its goal is to shine brightly and empower the game of creation. Yet much like the sun, the light of the True Self casts a shadow.

If the True Self is an ever-shining, always-expanding star, the archetypes of the psyche can be seen as its solar system. The True Self lies at the centre of this universe, photosynthesising and giving life to everything. Driving it toward manifesting into the world is what Sigmund Freud called the id.

The id

The id is the True Self’s pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, being driven by urges, desires and needs. Our need to be loved and seen, our desire for sex, our urge to avoid abandonment, all of these drives and more lie at the heart of the id.

The id is powered by the life instinct, and operates on what Freud called the ‘pleasure principle.’ When you are hungry, you eat. When thirsty, you drink. When you want attention, you demand it. If you like something, you take it. If something is uncomfortable, you avoid it. When someone bothers you, you get angry. The id thrusts us away from the death instinct and wills us toward life. Much like a child, it is blind in its pursuit of gratification — until it faces the consequences of its actions, of course.

The ego

Our drives can clash with others, and our environment does not always accommodate us. To get what we want, we sometimes need to resist our urges. Instead, we might need to first analyse, predict and understand the world around us to know how to best fulfil our drives, which is a task for the mind. With each experience, we eventually form a map in our brain for how to best navigate our environment.

As we move through the world, we begin to notice differences between ourselves and others. Some people seem confident, others more withdrawn. Some are more powerful, others subservient. Furthermore, how people treat us shifts based on how we act or do not act. By withholding certain drives, we notice we get better treatment. Other instincts, on the other hand, are welcomed. In time, a concept forms in our mind of how accommodating the world is and who we are in it. This idea of who we are and, above all, who we can be, is our ego.

The ego is a construct the mind uses to negotiate and interact with the world on our behalf. It determines how we can behave in the world, not just how we want to. Over time, this concept of ourselves evolves based on the messages we receive from those around us. If we are constantly celebrated and loved, our ego believes us to be worthy of love. If we are neglected, ridiculed or abandoned, we see ourselves as inherently bad, and learn to repress our drives.

The descent of the shadow

Beginning with our parents, there will be a specific set of drives which the world deems unacceptable. In some families, crying is not allowed, nor is protesting or getting angry. Curiosity and excitement can be crushed by an intolerant parent. This creates enormous tension between a True Self that wants to energetically expand, and an ego which deems it ‘wrong.’ As our drives clash with the world, the tension gets too much. To cope, we reject these impulses outright and determine them to be bad. Yet they do not disappear. They remain within us, in an area of the Self which Carl Jung called the shadow.

The shadow contains the urges, desires, traits and needs we were unable to satisfy or express. Because they were rejected by those we loved, and because they were so painful, we dissociated and pushed these parts deep inside, and ‘forgot’ them. In the conflict between holding onto love and expressing our authenticity, we sacrificed core parts of ourselves to be accepted. As we grew, we developed amnesia to ensure we never had to face these ‘flawed’ parts, unaware that the past would eventually come back to haunt us.

The great escape

Between a rigid ego and a bloated shadow lies unbearable tension. The healthiest form of release is to satisfy those urges within one’s environment. Yet when we have determined those drives to be bad, the tension remains permanently in place. We are then forced to vent through addictive behaviours and substances, acting-out, overworking, binge-eating or binge-watching, and other forms of escapism.

Another powerful way we release the tension of the shadow is through fantasy. In this way, we can numb our pain and create the illusion of satisfying our drives. We imagine a perfect person who will save us from our prison of agony. We daydream of our circumstances magically changing, or we visualise going to another place where life might improve.

Fantasy can also infect the concept of who we are, i.e. the ego. If we are constantly rejected, neglected and mistreated, the tension of the resulting pain leads us to compensate by imagining ourselves as desirable, valuable, or even superior. While this can provide relief, it inevitably clashes with reality. Much like a drug, when fantasy runs out, we need a higher dose to get back to where we were. Also, the stronger the shadow, the more powerful the fantasy must be. In extreme cases, when enough of the True Self is cast into the shadow, it becomes lost. Fantasy then becomes the only defence, where imagining oneself as superior crystallises in the ego and forms into a grandiose false self; a construct detached from reality.

Meanwhile, the shadow lurks, ready to burst out unexpectedly. A Cold War emerges between the ‘all-bad’ shadow and ‘all-good’ grandiose false self, ready to turn hot at any moment. The ground then becomes fertile for narcissism to grow.