​​​Personality and Essential Self

Our ‘self’ -our sense of identity- is the combination of several aggregates (body, sensory signals, perceptions…) that generates us the certainty that we exist and that manifests as continuity and consistency in our behavior. Redundant ego is the sum of the mental conditionings that result from cravings, aversions and biased views. The essential self is what is left of the ‘enlarged self’ after those conditionings are silenced (if we were able to do so). In other words, the essential self is the remnant of the inflated ‘self’ when we remove the redundant ego.

In our behavior, the redundant ego is what makes us very different from one another; each individual distorts his or her mind with the conditionings imposed by his or her upbringing, education, friends, culture… If by some magic we could cut the redundant ego to a group of people, would each of them behave in the same ‘decontaminated’ way as if they were now pure metal to which the slag has been removed?

Although the conditionings that drive us are real (if we look inwards carefully we will find them) and their elimination is feasible (we all have eradicated at least one addiction), the notions of essential self and redundant ego are hypothesis that science is not yet able to verify or deny. Neurologists have not identified the brain circuits or the areas of the prefrontal cortex where the essential self and the redundant ego are encoded. While the instructions of the former originate in our genes, those of the latter come from the outside world (family circle, friends, teachers, advertising, media…). Our essential self is our personality, authentic and ‘hypothetically’ pure. Needless to say, ‘decontaminated’ individuals, free from harmful influences, are rare and they do not boast of their mind development.

​There are numerous questionnaires to identify our personality type. The model of the five large factors is one of the most recognized by the scholars of human behavior. On the other hand, there is no categorization approach of any kind for types of essential selves.

The big five model proposes the definition of personality based on five factors, each of them estimated between two extremes: (1) sociability (extraversion versus introversion), (2) openness to experience (recklessness versus caution), (3) level of responsibility (conscientious versus negligence), (4) interest in social harmony (friendliness versus suspicion), and (5) emotional level (stability vs ‘neuroticism’).

Several studies of identical twins have found that genetic and environmental influences in our personality are roughly equivalent for each of the five factors. The factor where genes have strongest influence is in openness to experience (57-61% is the range of the three studies reviewed for this note) while the dimension with the largest impact of the cultural environment is in the emotional level (52-59%).

​When we remove our redundant ego, the essential self takes over our lives. Then, effortlessly, without any kind of struggle to complete specific goals or reach any particular destination, we will flow spontaneously with our existence, in the direction that our genetic preferences suggest to our personality. “The Natural Order does nothing and yet leaves nothing undone. When life is simple, the affectations disappear and our essential self shines. When there are no cravings, everything is in harmony”, wrote the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu twenty-five centuries ago.

The essential self influences our personality to the extent that opens the doors for us to move in an adequate direction, which is not standard or universal, and does not imply or need qualifying labels. The essential self results from the removal of acquired conditionings; the genetic remnant is different for each person. Consequently, the answer to the question at the beginning of this note is negative, and the behavior of our essential self is unique and different for each individual.

And when our actions are free from unnecessary conditionings, the ‘best’ of us is expressed and the likelihood of marching in the ‘right path’ is optimal. On the other hand, when our pilot is the redundant ego, our personality is distorted, and external factors and the media are the rulers of our existence.​

Gothenburg, July 3, 2015


Comment on the above note received from

Dr. Luis H. Ripoll, Doctor in psychiatry, New York​​

This perspective has a lot of merit. Once again, I thought I was reading about a psychoanalytic model of the mind (and the self), but cast into somewhat different terminology. Then, towards the end, I realized that the author’s background seems to be in Buddhism and Eastern philosophy. There is a lot of overlap between these theoretical discourses, it turns out. This is because they both point out how desire can both define a sense of self and lead to a sense of alienation. Mainly, I disagree with the ethic he is suggesting people pursue…as usual, it’s not that simple.

I don’t see the situation in as pointed or extreme of terms as him. For example, early on he makes a distinction between an ‘essential’ self and a ‘redundant’ self. ‘Redundant’ implies a degree of uselessness, or at least that the same function or purpose is encompassed by some other part of the self (in this case, the ‘essential’ self is the only other part of the self mentioned). However, I don’t believe this is the case. In fact, I believe it is both impossible and not even desirable to rid oneself of this so-called ‘redundant’ self and to exist purely as one’s ‘essential’ self. He is quite certain that this is the way forward.

What he calls ‘redundant’ self is absolutely critical to living in an environment (i.e. especially in an environment where there is either a real or even an imagined interpersonal component–and that to my knowledge includes all environments). The alternative is some brand of solipsism. As humans, we are interpersonal, forever conditioning and conditioned beings.

By definition the functions of the ‘redundant’ self cannot be taken over by the ‘essential’ self, which he defines as a genetically derived self isolated from any outside influence. So why call this other self, ‘redundant’, if its functioning is so entirely separate from the ‘essential’ self? It is doing something entirely separate–that is the opposite of redundant. I think the idea is that whatever self gets conditioned by one’s external environment is inherently less useful or less valuable than the self one is born into. Why should that be? Why is conditioning intrinsically bad?

Put simply, it is good for one’s sense of self to be influenced by external factors from one’s environment. I would concede that there is an aspect of the self that is interpersonal, exists due to outside influences, and is culturally, parentally, and environmentally conditioned. We know, after all, that, by contrast to many other animals, primates (and especially humans) spend a lot of time and energy with their young, ‘conditioning’ them in a process we also call attachment. Humans and other primates evolved that way, because there is a clear selective, survival advantage to attachment–if we are left to our own ‘essential’ selves we die more often than not, and the species devolves to disorder and killing one another unnecessarily (in other words, this conditioned, ‘redundant’ self is the basis for the evolutionary fitness of human society). Society has its problems, but I’m not ready to give up on it entirely! I think there is sufficient proof of the evolutionary necessity of attachment in the primate research done by Harry Harlow and (more recently) Stephen Suomi. The monkeys who had less conditioning were very disturbed and became mentally and physically ill–I am not eager to follow them into a life with only my ‘essential’ self!

There is value in the distinction of two (and perhaps even more) aspects or versions of self. These selves surely come into conflict and lead to compromises between them, not all of which are successful and some of which generate a ‘struggle,’ as he noted. Also, everything he has written about the five-factor model of personality, and the mixture of genetic and environmental contributions to personality, is true.

There needs to be greater precision in terminology, though. From my point of view, if one writes about the ego (esp. after 1923, publication of ‘The ego and the id’) one is referring to a structure in the mind with particular functions. Ego is not the same as what is meant by ‘the self,’ which is more of a superordinate concept defined not by a set of mental functions but as a representation (e.g. in this case a representation of oneself that is either rudimentary and bodily, or a representation that exists as a conditioned response to relationships with others). It is helpful to speak about both the ego and the self, but it is confusing to mix and match these terms.

If we think about functions in the mind, some are visceral and relate to the satisfaction of instinctual tensions (for food, for sex, to fight to compete with rivals or garner attention, etc.). Others relate to moral values, adaptation to life in culture and society, assessing reality and exhibiting restraint in the face of it, etc. These functions of the mind come into conflict with one another and cause problems, but it is an over-simplification to claim that the solution is pursuing one’s desires exactly as they were genetically hard-wired. I would say it is more important to harmonize the two selves than to eliminate one as though it were redundant. In my terminology, that amounts to finding more satisfying compromises between the various functions of the mind or even selves.​

New York, NY, July, 2015


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