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The Return to the Self

In the process of individuation, we awaken the parts within us that we never knew existed. This essay is both an exploration and a discovery of the inner world of the psyche. It discusses the theories of the ego and the Self, persona and shadow, archetypes, anima and animus as well as the psyche-body connection. The personal experiences and reflection of these themes are interwoven throughout the essay, as an integration of the learnings with a somatic awareness. Through this journey returning to the Self, I learned how I can work with my body to live a fuller and more purposeful life.

Ego and self

The ego, ruled by consciousness, and the Self, in itself is the unconscious, are two sides to a whole. The ego-conscious personality is one part of the whole man, and its life does not represent his total life. As everything strives for wholeness, the one-sidedness of our conscious life is continually being compensated by the collective human being in us, whose goal is the ultimate integration of conscious and unconscious (Jung, 1948/1969). According to Jungian Analyst Edward Whitmont (1991), the balance between psychic health and psychopathology is affected by the strength, capacity and willingness of the ego to allow access of the contents of the unconscious, managing both external reality and the inner world of images and affects. When contents of the objective psyche are repressed by the conscious mind, they become an unconscious compulsive force with primitive and destructive characteristics, invading consciousness in an uncontrolled manner. Conversely, when consciousness works toward uniting with the Self, it is a state of life dynamism which Jung termed as ‘the individuation process’.

I recognized within myself that the ego I had developed was based on finding a safe space of external and self-acceptance. Safety has always felt like a stable ground that I can stand on. In contrast, when I felt insecure, in my body it felt like I was balancing at the top of a skyscraper’s edge, risking the fall to my demise. Thus, I worked hard to feel safe, including finding ways to please others and performing well in the various roles I play. I chose to hold back my truth so that I could build rapport with others, bend over backward at the expense of my wellbeing, and was always a stellar student so as to gain my parents’ approval. Jungian Analyst Marion Woodman (1993) put forth that the development process during childhood becomes an exercise in trying to figure out who and how to please others, for acceptance and security. “Children who are not loved in their very beingness do not know how to love themselves. As adults, they have to learn to nourish, to mother their own lost child” (p. 45). In other words, as we grow, we learn who not to be instead of learning and exploring our self-expression. This resonated deeply, and as I worked together with my therapist to strengthen my ego, I discovered that my ‘I’ – the ego – was weak because when ‘I’ had tried to come out or express itself, it had often been shut down, ignored, or scoffed at. Instead, I learned to mute my authentic expressions so that I would remain safe, standing securely on stable ground.

However, Woodman (1993) explained that as adults these conditioned standards of right and wrong are challenged in order to work with the unconscious. The opposing forces of Self and ego both pulls us toward wholeness and holds us back simultaneously. The unconscious, when suppressed, will turn against us manifesting as symptoms and neurosis (Jung, 1980). I experienced how the traits that used to serve me by bringing me safety in my earlier years paradoxically started to bring me discomfort. For instance, declining requests was a struggle I often met with, and I would end up exhausted or anxious when I committed to something that I did not want to. It eventually led to a point where I developed claustrophobia, which I learned was a result of not making room for the Self, so it made its message clear with needing more physical space around me, threatening with an imminent panic attack if I do not remove myself from a crowded situation and establish spatial boundaries.

In an interview with Jungian Analyst Tina Stromsted (2005), Woodman described a ‘shimmering’ sensation that resonated through her body when she reads a poem that she loves aloud. There was an integration of emotion, imagination, intellect, and there is an inner marriage where body and psyche are whole. This resonated deeply with my first conscious encounter with the Self, as I felt a similar bodily sensation. The image was of the soul dancing in gold glitter, during my yoga teacher training, when I was deeply engaged with the material on practicing yoga beyond the mat, as a way of living. It was both exciting and refreshing having what I already understood on a bodily level being articulated. I felt a sense of elation, home and wholeness that I had not experienced before.

Years after this experience, I found myself missing this sense of wholeness increasingly as I witnessed a gap in alignment between my values and the shift in the company’s directions. The longer I held the tension of the conflict between the internal and external lives, the more disembodied I was feeling until I could no longer do so. I was met with illness often and was miserable having lost my purpose in my role. I left before experiencing what felt like an imminent psychic death. I recognized that what I felt was homesickness, which eventually led me to this program, where I found the familiar shimmering sensation through the body again. There was ignition, inspiration and immense, deep-seated joy.

Jung put forth that there must be equal opportunities for consciousness and unconsciousness as both sides are aspects of life. While consciousness should maintain its responsibilities and protect itself, the unconscious should have opportunities to come forth and be witnessed too. The Self and ego should be in open conflict and open collaboration at the same time (Jung, 1980). In my experience, this relationship of the ego and the Self often feels like an inner war. Sometimes the conflict is manageable where I contemplate a decision and hold the opposing forces of both desires, and make a conscious decision whereby I find a compromise between the two. At times, I feel backed up against the wall by the material demands of the ego and the Soul resists the pressure by fighting back. For example, when I teach as many classes as possible in order to afford school tuition, the body rebels, breaking down in illness or pain. I have learned to accept these conflicts as growth in my individuation process, and consciously make room for both the Self and ego to each have their way occasionally.

Persona and shadow

A persona serves as a mask that we wear to adapt to external reality and collectivity (Whitmont, 1991). It is necessary to distinguish between ego and persona. Apart from the external demands made upon us, the external collective expectations and standards, it is important for us to recognize ourselves as individuals and develop a capacity for judgement that may not necessarily be aligned with the collective. Without this differentiation, a pseudoego is formed, which is “the personality pattern is based on stereotyped imitation or on a merely dutiful performance of one’s collectively assigned part in life” (Whitmont, 1991, p. 156). The psychic energy necessary for the pseudoego is in conflict with consciousness, as it is split off from the objective of the Self. This results in psychosis, as the pseudoego suffers from constant pressure from within and has no capacity to adjust its balance.

When individuality is confused with the social role, it may result in a state of inflation from the over-reliance upon the persona, lacking genuine responsiveness without first knowing the self as an individual. Similarly, Woodman (1993) believed that as a result of operating from the persona, most people are simply performing and masquerading without being in touch with their real feelings. As collectivity and individuality are opposing forces; there is an oppositional and compensatory relationship between persona and shadow. According to Whitmont (1991), the brighter the persona, the darker the shadow, as when one is increasingly identified with their glorified social role, it gradually becomes less recognized as merely a role that they are playing, and thus the genuine individuality gets darker and increasingly negative as a result of being neglected.

In contrast to the persona, the shadow refers to the repressed parts of the personality that does not fit into the ego ideal. The development of the ego takes place as a result of the encounter between the Self and external reality. Woodman (1993) explained that when parents have a concept of what the perfect child would be, the child then adopts an idealized vision of what they should be. Whatever is experienced as not part of this ideal eventually gets blocked, as it threatens their basis of external acceptance. Their natural being is repressed and elements of individuality which are too much at a variance with accepted persona values cannot be consciously incorporated into the image which the ego has of itself. They therefore become repressed qualities of an alter-ego – the shadow.

In order to protect its authority, the ego automatically resists any confrontation with the shadow; and most often attempts to eliminate it. When shadow qualities are repressed, it does not eliminate their functioning; instead, they continue as complexes, removed from ego awareness, in an unsupervised and disruptive way. To discipline and manage shadow qualities, it is important to know that one cannot resist all drives, as they have to be kept in consciousness and let out to a certain degree in a controlled manner. It is crucial for the shadow to have its place for expression through confrontation, and direct its tendencies toward a constructive context, as they serve as a source of renewal (Whitmont, 1991).


Jung (1951/1959) put forth that archetypes, or mythological images, belong to the unconscious and are an impersonal possession. These images rise from the unconscious under certain conditions to corresponding disturbances and symptoms. Archetypes are “systems of readiness for action and at the same time images and emotions” (Whitmont, 1991, p. 104). It is an unknown or unknowable void, that is of pure shape but without material substratum. As the objective psyche tends to compensate for the one-sidedness of our personal histories, anything repressed or lacking in the individual will make itself felt sooner or later if it is vital to his development. The archetypes can show us the areas which need further actualization and also bring forth the pressure which forces us to some kind of reassessment, by understanding how these impulses can be integrated with the conscious personality. This may force us into a neurotic state when the energy of the rising images and emotional forces overwhelm the conscious, rational frame of reference. The more we deny or rationalize the complex, the greater the risk that it may disrupt consciousness with its compulsive power.

As an adult, I have often been acknowledged for embracing my inner child, being in wonderment, curiosity and positivity. The child archetype felt safe to embody, and so, I consciously made room for her. At the same time, I recognized that the child wanted approval, to feel loved and nurtured, and as a result, worked hard to be liked and avoided conflict and confrontation. The child was also flighty, afraid of commitment and could not take anything it perceived as ‘hardship’. According to Whitmont (1991), when there is no need for individual striving, the ego fails to develop fully due to the lack of reality-adaptation and the child is not fully born into life and responsibility. Instead, life becomes a Peter Pan world with endless enjoyment and everything is to happen by itself. I felt that life unfolded for me with relatively smoothly, having for the most part been provided with resources that I needed and being only in roles that brought me a sense of aliveness and purpose. As a result, I am often met with guilt that having an ‘unruffled’ life would not develop the attributes that I needed to face future challenges. I was also haunted by the shadow of being unworthy to hold space for people because I cannot relate to their pain, not having experienced them before.

I realized that this guilt and shame around unworthiness were shadow contents from the dark space of the Death Mother archetype. In an interview with anthropologist Daniela Sieff (2009), Woodman explained that the Death Mother “wields a cold, fierce, violent, and corrosive power” (p. 179) that penetrates both psyche and body, draining the life-energy and and sinking us into chthonic darkness. It is in the state that we yearn for the oblivion of death. When this complex takes over, I feel unworthy of existence, and usually either freeze or collapse, suffocated by negative judgements challenging my ability to hold space, to live into my purpose. The Death Mother brings up strong feelings of shame, constantly demanded perfection and also brings forth deep terrorizing rage, which is also self-sabotaging, pushing people away from me so that I feel alone and unlovable. I traced this back to childhood memories of feeling unworthy and being punished when I did not meet perfection in the adults’ eyes. Woodman put forth that while growing up, if we sensed that we were unacceptable to our parents, the nervous system would become hyper-vigilant, as the cells will have been imprinted with a profound fear of abandonment. As soon as we realize we are not pleasing someone, the inner body autonomously retreats and freezes, engulfed by the belief that we are unworthy and unlovable. As a result, the body may develop defense mechanisms to keep the poison out, such as an armor of fat or vomiting (Sieff, 2009).

Through the work of the Body Map, I located the Death Mother in the immense pain in my knees. Working with the Body Map, I was visited with images of anorexia in my teens. I strived to attain the perfect body by going overboard with running and training, resulting in long-term pain in the knees. On the Map, I drew a heart to symbolize my commitment to taking care of them. Recently, when I was encountered with an episode of towering rage and fury, there was a piercing pain in both knees, which brought forth the image of the Death Mother, whom was the source of the rage in the first place.

Anima and Animus

One of the most basic forms in which we experience the universal conflict of opposites in ourselves and in our encounter with others is the male-female polarity (Whitmont, 1991). The anima represents the archetype of the man’s femininity within himself, and the animus represents the woman’s masculinity. For the purpose of individuation, it is necessary for them to understand this other personality, as it can be disciplined only if we give them some means of expression and if we are also prepared to learn from them. Woodman (1993) asserted that suffering and conflict is the only way to grow, as life moves from phase to phase. The death of one phase is necessary for the birth of the next. In this process, the feminine energy is the container for all conflict, psychological and physical processes.

In Dancing in the Flames (Crumley & Reid, 2009), my biggest takeaway was the power of the anima and animus, witnessing the internal and external conflict between Marion and Ross Woodman, carrying the tension until it eventually burst forth through the stroke of their dog Sammy. I learned that the conflict in an external relationship reflected an internal conflict between the anima and animus. The shadow as well as the light in our relationship with others are reflective of the feminine and masculine energies within our inner selves. We grow when we meet with each conflict, holding the tension, instead of suppressing and averting from them.

Psyche-Body Connection