‘The Wisdom of the Ego’ by George E Vaillant

This is not a recently published book – in fact it was published in 1993 (Vaillant has more recently published a book about old age called ‘The Triumphs of Experience’). Nevertheless, it is new to me. I find it an extremely useful resource for understanding the psychological dimensions of the Middle Way, and highly recommend it. It is not only full of useful psychological analysis, but also full of highly engaging examples – some of them famous, such as the poet Sylvia Plath and playwright Eugene O’Neill. For the most part it is a highly readable and engaging book in which theory is closely related to stories from human lives.

The theme of the book is the maturation of human beings – a theme that largely corresponds to what I would call the process of integration. Its task is to consider the evidence of how this maturation happens. Vaillant draws on three different lifetime studies of the psychological development of groups of people, including both men and women, both with college education and without it. Following individuals over their lifetimes, he is able to show why it is that some individuals from economically, educationally and emotionally deprived backgrounds still manage to mature and flourish, whilst others, who might seem to have started lives with many advantages, remain stuck in immature responses and neurotic relationships.The Wisdom of the Ego

The theory that supports Vaillant’s approach draws considerably on psychoanalysis, but applies it to empirical studies of maturation without being encumbered by the more dogmatic aspects of Freudian or any other type of psychoanalysis. As the title ‘The Wisdom of the Ego’ suggests, Vaillant, like Freud, has a positive view of the role of the ego in achieving maturation or integration. Like me, Vaillant sees the development of human life towards its mature fulfilment as continuous, and the very egoistic desires that cause immature conflicting states, if more integrated, can overcome those conflicts and provide the basis of a more fulfilled life. We cannot destroy the desires and beliefs of the ego, because they are us: to do so would be like sitting on a branch and sawing it off. Instead, the very energies that create the most evil also need to be seen as the source of good.

Vaillant makes a crucial distinction between immature and mature ego-defences. Ego-defences deny, distort or repress reality in relation to our desires and conscience, environment and people. However what Vaillant describes as mature ego defences “involve the synthesis, rather than the denial, of the four sources of conflict….the mature defences effect a delicate balance and allow subjects to experience themselves, their objects, their ideas, and their feelings.” In other words, whilst mature defences offer no guarantee of giving us complete reality, their much greater levels of awareness allow us to overcome delusions that stand in the way of us engaging with apparent reality.

At the most deluded, psychotic, level of defence, we merely deny or grossly distort reality, and may have delusional projections extending even to hallucination.  At the immature level we project our own emotions onto others, fantasise, develop psychosomatic illness (hypochondriasis), are passive aggressive, “act out” (for example, releasing frustration through violence), or dissociate. Vaillant also identifies an intermediate neurotic level where our defences still involve an avoidance of awareness of our whole experience, but at least the reactions affect others less – these defences include displacement, intellectualisation, repression, and reaction formation (i.e. blaming oneself). Defences at the mature level, however, are altruism, sublimation, suppression, anticipation, and humour. Altruism in his view goes beyond self-sacrificial reaction formation because it involves genuine focus on others. In sublimation we find a more subtle outlet for grosser feelings, as in the artistic sublimation of traumatic experience into creative work. Suppression involves putting what we can’t deal with immediately aside whilst remaining aware of it. Anticipation means recognising how our desires change through time, and humour allows expression of conflicting energies without conflict.

This summary of ego-defences may seem dry in the abstract, but gains a real purchase on our experience in relation to Vaillant’s many examples. One of the most moving stories is that of the playwright Eugene O’Neill, author of the harrowing ‘Long day’s journey into night’, which is based on his childhood experience. Brought up by a neglectful drug-addict mother, O’Neill spent his early youth “acting out” the void he felt within himself, wandering the world aimlessly, living on the streets, and having casual relationships with prostitutes. Yet his life turned around after he was cared for in a sanatorium, found a secure loving relationship, and sublimated his pain in writing. O’Neill was able to move into mature defences, and thus start to integrate the extreme conflicts his background had created, with basic security and developing awareness.

Vaillant’s final chapter discusses what it is that enables the ego to mature. He acknowledges both genetic and environmental conditions that seem to make the differences. Sometimes those with terrible childhoods still seem to be able to make it because of a supportive genetic inheritance, and sometimes those who are genetically favoured are felled by unhelpful environments. However, beyond this Vaillant finds the capacity to imagine, the ability to play, and the ability to link reason and emotion to all be crucial in making use of what genetics and environment have dealt us. The capacity to imagine and to play can be related to the importance of integrating meaning in Middle Way Philosophy, or of developing weak neural links of possible belief beyond our core of current beliefs. The ability to integrate reason and emotion obviously relates closely to the Middle Way. “Like riding a bicycle,” Vaillant writes, “the deployment of mature defences is an integrated, involuntary balancing act”.

Nearly all my reviews contain some element of reservation about the book under review. However, I have almost no criticisms of Vaillant. I find him a little naïve about the role of religious belief, disinclined to acknowledge its negative aspects. However, that is a very minor element in a substantial and inspiring book that manages to combine astute theory and strong engagement with people’s lives.  His theoretical basis is very practically-orientated, and can all be understood in terms compatible with the Middle Way. Though he does not explicitly acknowledge that the maturation he writes of is also a matter of moral objectivity, his approach is entirely compatible with that perspective.

Robert M Ellis 2014

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