The Paradox of Ego Development in Growth & Healing


“When you perceive a truth, look for the balancing truth.

― John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton

While writing books on recovery from the undue influence of high-control groups, I was often aware of the puzzling fact that the opposite of what I was saying was also true. The paradox being, as Niels Bohr says, “…the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” For example:

  • while healing from high-control group exploitation requires that we dig up the past and work through the lingering emotions due to all the undue influence, true healing can only take place in the present.
  • while we work to strengthen and heal the self — true freedom, according to the great eastern philosophies, is ultimately found in finally recognizing that there is no separate self.
  • while implicit in the “hero’s journey” is that in the future we will arrive at a better place, in truth there is no future. There is only the present moment – there is always and only what we are experiencing in the now. “Life is a preparation for the future; and the best preparation for the future is to live as if there were none.” ― Albert Einstein
  • while healing from mind-control, exploitation and abuse requires that we apply ourselves to actively learn how to grieve, how to trust, how to reclaim our agency in the world – healing also requires that we learn how to accept what is and how to surrender to life as it unfolds.
  • while, after abuse, we must work to strengthen the ego caged or crushed by the high-control group – once strengthened – the next developmental piece of work is to transcend and dissolve the very ego we have just worked so hard to strengthen.

In order to expand on the last paradox (strengthening the ego, only to turn around and dissolve it) in the above list, let’s take a moment to look at the mental construct called “the ego”. Often when we speak of the ego, it is in a derogatory fashion – suggesting that there is self-centeredness afoot. However, the Freudian template of the mind, highlights the ego as a necessary component of the self, not just a narcissistic one. The ego helps us to define ourselves, defend ourselves and function in the world.

The school of psychology known as psychodynamics posits that babies have yet to develop an ego and that a healthy ego is built throughout childhood within the crèche of a supportive, loving family. As we grow and move out into the world, we use the ego strength developed in the heart of the family to help forge a life for ourselves, define ourselves, protect ourselves, work, and build a home and family.

Of course, some people are not afforded the luxury of growing up in a supportive family and do not build a strong, healthy ego. With that essential component missing in their development, they then spend their energies trying to get the mirroring, attention, recognition and affirmation that was missing from their childhood. People who are always seeking attention are labelled narcissistic and egotists, and while that may be true, they are, in effect, desperately trying to get unmet ego development needs met.

As said, if our ego needs were met as a child, we use that ego strength to build a life. A strong, healthy ego is necessary to claim personal agency in the world, help us withstand the vicissitudes of life and repair any injuries due to the inevitable losses encountered in any life. The paradox is, that once we have built a good life and competently handled life’s unpredictable changes, higher levels of human needs emerge and our challenge is then to transcend (move beyond) the very ego that we built, the very ego that helped us construct and live our life.

If we were raised in a cult, or lured into any manipulative group or relationship, many healthy ego functions may have been stunted or crushed. In fact, many of our attempts to fulfill basic human needs will have been interfered with – interrupted by their undue controls. Perhaps, due to unwanted and undue interference our ability to fulfill our basic human needs has been stalled. Our work then, once out of the restrictive environment, is to re-establish our fundamental needs for safety, belonging and self-esteem, etc.

A closer look at Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” pyramid might help us understand the further level of growth available to us after we have met the challenge to heal from undue interference and meet our basic human needs.

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs

The first four levels of needs at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid hierarchy (1 through 4) are called “deficit needs” – needs that make humans distinctly uncomfortable if not met (our physiological needs, the need for safety, the need for love and acceptance, and the need for self-esteem and respect). The four levels of needs at the top of the pyramid (5 through 8) Maslow identified as “growth needs”, higher level needs that take a back seat to the previous four needs until those four are met.

The four higher level growth needs are:

  • Level 5) the cognitive need to explore and understand;
  • Level 6) the aesthetic need to enjoy nature, beauty and the arts;
  • Level 7) the self-actualization need to make the most of our abilities;
  • Level 8) the self-transcendence need to move toward a more spiritual self.

Maslow says that once we have achieved or met our basic needs (1 through 4) for Physiological, Safety, Belonging and Esteem needs, the higher level needs (5 through 8) to meet Cognitive, Aesthetic, Self-Actualization and Self-Transcendence needs, kick in.

While working to heal the wounds resulting from undue influence – we are often doing the work required to meet the unmet or partially met needs at the bottom of the hierarchy (1 through 4). We feel satisfied once able to exercise our agency so that we can experience safety, belonging and self-esteem. Sometimes then, therapy or the healing journey stop at that point leaving the top four higher-level growth needs (5 through 8) unattended.

The paradox here is that just when we imagine our heroic healing journey is complete, we discover that we have the option (need?) to embark on another heroic journey – the journey to self-actualization and self-transcendence (ego-transcendence).

Most therapies, and most private initiatives at healing the wounds from cult mind-control and abuse, do not include these higher levels of growth. I mention them here so that once you feel you have recovered from your captivity in, and injuries from, the high-control abuse – you also become aware of the further levels of growth you can embrace to fulfill your life. These further levels of growth are also called transpersonal and transcendent levels of human development.

Transpersonal Psychology posits that there are three stages of human development. (Note: In the transpersonal model of human development the word “personal” is used to represent the “ego”.) The three stages are:

1) the pre-personal – the child – before the development of ego;

2) the personal – the adult – with appropriate ego strength to function in the world;

3) the trans-personal – the stage when the healthy adult transcends ego – where the sense of self extends (transcends) the individual (personal/ego level) to encompass the higher self with its enhanced maturity, awareness, consciousness or spirituality[1].

So to summarize … in taking on the challenge to heal you have been addressing unmet needs due to undue influence and interference in your life. As well, you have been repairing ways in which your ego and self-esteem may have been damaged or stunted. You may have also ventured into meeting some of your cognitive needs with the psycho-educational material provided by websites like this.

However, looking again at the image of Maslow’s hierarchy above, you will see that while you have embarked on the hero’s journey, while you have attended to the wounds and developmental delays due to being in a coercive group – you may not have dealt with, or attained, the higher levels of human needs – yet. Addressing these higher level needs is the next phase of your hero’s journey. It is now up to you to embrace the next challenge of healing and growth by making sure that your cognitive, aesthetic, self-actualization and self-transcendence needs are addressed.

The interesting paradox is that while the first phase of healing consists, to a large degree, in building the ego strength that can help you build a new life outside of the coercive group — there then appears a further phase of healing and growth where life calls upon you to dissolve the very ego you have just worked to strengthen. Self-transcendence is about dismantling the ego – its defenses and its preoccupations – in order to enjoy “being” and “pure consciousness”. In fact, it is the strong, healthy ego that participates in its own demise.

You can certainly enjoy a ‘good-enough’ life without addressing the higher level needs (5 through 8) – but it has been my experience that you will encounter your own inner push toward fulfilling the higher level needs.

The inner push may be felt as a certain level of dissatisfaction or ennui with life once you have done your healing work and attained the first four levels of human needs. Do not mistake such feelings of ennui as an indication that you have yet more work to do on your past, or on old injuries. Feelings of inner ennui usually indicate that you are now ready to embrace the journey to farther reaches of human development or as Maslow says “the farther reaches of human nature”.

The paradox is that once you attain a basic level of healing, the hero’s quest begins anew. The one caution is that one needs to complete the first quest (healing wounds, finding one’s path, strengthening the ego) before one embarks on the second phase of the journey. As said, it is the healthy, strengthened ego that works to dismantle itself. If you have not yet built a healthy ego[2], you are probably not ready for the challenges of the second heroic quest – acceptance, non-resistance, letting go, forgiveness and the experience of pure awareness.

This next phase of the hero’s journey is, therefore, one of moments of solitude, stillness, simplicity, inner spaciousness and surrender. Initiates on this higher-level heroic quest are not found on a steed forging their way through a dark forest. You are more likely to find them sitting quietly on a meditation cushion. ~

You can read more about the transpersonal level of development by reading the following books:

  • Toward a Psychology of Being, 2011, Abraham Maslow
  • The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, 1993, Abraham Maslow
  • Man’s Search for Meaning, 2006, Viktor E. Frankl
  • Going on Being, 2001, Mark Epstein
  • Toward a Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation, 2002, John Welwood
  • Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, 2014, Sam Harris

 “…moments in our lives where the unconscious crosses consciousness; where the eternal crosses the transitory; where a higher will demands the surrender of our egos.” –Marion Woodman




[1] Some Transpersonal theorists are: Wilber; Battista; Grof; Assagioli; Ferrer.

[2] Transpersonal psychologist, Ken Wilber coined the term “pre/trans fallacy” to explain the phenomenon of people who rush too soon into trying to transcend ego – before they have done the hard work to build a healthy, adult ego. Wilber suggests that while pre-empting the work at the personal (ego) level of development, such people think they are operating at a trans-personal (spiritual) level of development, when they are actually functioning from a prepersonal (child-like, pre-ego), primitive level of development with its attendant magical thinking (which can at moments mimic the trans-personal). We need to do the fundamental ego strengthening work before we move on to transcending that ego. There are, unfortunately, many people operating at a pre-personal level of development (child-like), while claiming they can help you attain higher levels of consciousness. As Ken Wilber, Ph.D. says, they are caught in the “pre/trans fallacy”, operating at a child-like, magical thinking level of ego development rather than truly operating from a level of development that has transcended the pre-personal and personal levels. We see this in cult leaders or gurus who end up abusing their followers in one way or another, in an unconscious attempt to fulfil their own unmet developmental needs. Wilber’s “pre/trans fallacy” behooves us to be very careful who we follow.