One of the more confusing aspects of psychological and spiritual literature is the terms used to describe the various aspects of the self. We hear about the inner child, the ego, and higher self, and the lower self. Some of the terms used have more than one meaning. In addition, some of these concepts may have more than one term that is used to describe them. And even though we may know that there is a shadow self, lower self, and an ego, we may not be clear as to how these aspects relate to each other.
In this article I have compiled a list of over a dozen aspects of the self, with a short explanation as to what each one is, followed by a summary to explain how they all fit together.
The Higher Self and the Lower Self
The higher self is that aspect of self that understands its true nature. (Note: the higher self is sometimes referred to as the “oversoul”, but is more commonly referred to as one’s soul or conscience, especially by religious people.)
The higher self understands that it is connected with everything. Therefore, there can be no selfishness in the higher self as it understands that any action against “another” is the same as acting against oneself. Because of this perspective, the higher self has no fear. Instead, the higher self comprises of only positive qualities such as love, patience, and joy.
In contrast, the lower self comprises of the negative character traits that are in opposition to those of the higher self. The negative traits only exist in a dualistic environment; they were created by positive traits that split apart from themselves. For example, fear is actually love that has separated from itself. (Therefore, it is technically not correct to say that fear is the opposite of love. Instead, fear is the temporary, distorted version of unconditional, eternal love.)
The separation aspect of the negative traits causes the lower self to be selfish by nature. The lower self falsely believes that it is separate from everything else. As a result, the lower self always desires to act in it’s own self-interests.
The lower self acts like a curtain, or a “cloud cover” that hides the higher self from consciousness. But it does not hide the higher self completely. In general, everyone has both good and bad characteristics. The good characteristics are a result of places where the lower self has been vanquished and the higher self is able to “shine through”.
The Mask Self
Nearly everyone learns early in life that being selfish is frowned upon. But the fact remains that people by nature are selfish (at least to the extent that they identify with their lower selves). To avoid being disliked for who they think they are, people will outwardly act unselfishly for the express purpose of gaining the approval of others. For instance, a person will do something nice for the purpose of making himself look good. When someone acts in a way that is counter to his lower self nature, it creates a mask self.
The mask self isn’t just about “doing good deeds”. The mask self is also used anytime a person acts a certain way in order to win over approval. For example, a woman might pretend to have a great time at a party because she wants other people to think she is a fun person to be around. Or a person might outwardly appear cheerful when greeting someone to appear nice, but drop the smile as soon as the person walks away.
After awhile, the mask self becomes habitual and the individual becomes terribly afraid to drop the mask, as he believes he will not be accepted if he does. But until the mask self is dropped, self-improvement is extremely difficult, if not impossible.
The superego is the term for that voice in our heads that judges us. Anytime we have a thought that we “should” have or “shouldn’t have” done something, this is the superego at work. The superego is constantly criticizing our every move. It is like having a critical parent follow you around 24 hours a day.
Examples of the superego include: “You should have studied harder. That is why you failed the test.” “You should have called him yesterday. How could you be so inconsiderate?.” “You shouldn’t have slept with that guy. Just think how that makes you look!” Notice that even though the voice is inside of your head, the superego typically uses the “2nd person (you) instead of the 1st person.
The Inner Child
The inner child is a composite of the unconscious aspects of the psyche that have split away from the conscious self, generally as a result of traumatic experiences. For those that are familiar with shamanic healing, the inner child is another term for the “soul fragment” that is rescued during a healing technique known as a “soul retrieval”.
When a person has a frightening, traumatic, or otherwise disturbing experience, a conscious aspect of the psyche can potentially “blank out” or escape in some way in order to not have to fully experience the situation. This aspect of the psyche then becomes stuck at the age at which the experience occurs and does not develop alongside the rest of the self. For example, a child who is sexually assaulted at age six will likely have an inner child aspect stuck at age six.
An inner child is likely to cause psychological issues later in life. To illustrate this idea, let’s return to the example of the victim of sexual assault. Until the trauma of the sexual assault is adequately healed, it is possible that – as an adult – the inner child of this person could “freak out” any time she attempts to become intimate during a mature, adult relationship.
The Child Self
Once inner child fragments are re-integrated with the lower self, they now have the capability of development. The integrated and non-integrated fragments of the lower self that have yet to catch up in development are the components of the child self.
Think of a time that you have been scared to do something, even though you told yourself over and over again that there is logically nothing to be afraid of. The potential reason for this block is that you are dealing with the child self. In such cases, it is necessary to consider how you would communicate with this aspect of self as if it were an actual child. Yelling at child self won’t work. Neither will logic. Instead, the child self must be gently coerced into action using plenty of positive reinforcement and self-love.
It’s also important to note that the child self still has the negative behavior traits of a child. As a child, it is impatient and wants what it wants when it wants it (i.e. it wants everything “now”). When we are sick, the child self is impatient to get well. If we fall into hard times financially, the child self wants to become financially stable as soon as possible. We do not want to wait, even when logic dictates that our desires cannot be manifested immediately.
The Shadow Self
Earlier, we discussed that the mask self was created to hide the imperfections of the lower self. However, there are some imperfections in ourselves that we simply are not aware of. These imperfections are grouped into a category called the “shadow self”.
Regardless of whether we are aware of them or not, our imperfections will make life difficult for us. Generally speaking, it is only possible to correct a problem that we are consciously aware of, so the negative characteristics lurking in our unconscious are particularly problematic.
The Conscious, Subconscious, and Unconscious Minds
Before explaining these terms, it is beneficial to understand the two classifications of thought: directed and undirected. (Note: with these terms in particular, there are various other labels used to describe them.) Directed thoughts are the thoughts that we actively think when using our will. These are the thoughts we use for planning what we are going to do, or for considering what we think about a particular issue.
In contrast, undirected thoughts simply “appear” in our minds, seemingly from nowhere. If you have ever tried to meditate and had thoughts keep popping into your head (against your will), then you have experienced undirected thoughts. With this in mind, let’s discuss the conscious, subconscious, and unconscious minds.
The conscious mind is the part of the mind that we are consciously aware of. Our “directed” thoughts are always formed in the conscious mind. Undirected thoughts are also found in the conscious mind. But if we are not paying attention to our undirected thoughts, then they are just below our awareness in the subconscious mind. This is important to note, because we cannot deal with thoughts if we are not aware of them. And thoughts can still affect our lives whether they are conscious or not.
The subconscious mind is where we push thoughts we find inconvenient and do not want to deal with. So the subconscious mind is where we find thoughts that we have willfully pushed out of our conscious awareness.
The unconscious mind contains our thoughts and beliefs that have been placed there without our active will. In other words, we placed the thoughts there, but we did it unconsciously, and we are not even aware of their existence. (Note: sometimes people make no distinction between the subconscious mind and the unconscious mind.)
Unlike the conscious mind, which is logical and can reason, the unconscious mind doesn’t have any reasoning capabilities at all. Instead, the unconscious mind is like a computer: it will run whatever you program it to run.
So if your unconscious mind is programmed with thoughts of being worthless, this program will repeat itself over and over again. These programs in the unconscious will potentially repeat “forever”, or until the unconscious is reprogrammed with beliefs that cancel out the old ones. In general, it takes about 3 weeks of actively programming beliefs (via affirmations) to reprogram the unconscious mind.
The ego is the personality that we consciously identify as being ourselves. It includes our thoughts, emotions, and experiences.
The term ego also has a stricter definition. Just as the term “egotistical” means selfish, the term “ego” is often used to describe just the negative aspects of our personality. To avoid confusion, the term “negative ego” is sometimes used to clarify. Anytime it is used in this manner, the term (negative) ego can be thought of as another word for the lower self.
The different definitions of the term ego have led to some confusion. For example, some people on the spiritual path have become afraid that transcending the ego leads to “losing one’s identity”. But what the transcendence of the ego means in this case is the transcendence of the lower self only.
The Soul and the Spirit
The soul and the spirit are two terms that are often used interchangeably, but in esoteric literature they are two distinct entities. The spirit (also referred to as the “monad” or “mighty I am presence”) is the aspect of the self that is connected to God. At this level, there is no polarity: male and female are joined into one.
As a consequence of “the fall of man”, the spirit has been divided into pieces called souls, and the soul in this context is another name for the higher self. It is at the soul level that duality exists. As a person progresses along the spiritual path, he or she will become increasingly connected to the soul. At a later stage on the path, the individual merges with the soul and the spirit takes the place of the soul as the individual’s main “spiritual guide”.
Putting it all together
The lower self is a composite of all the pieces of self that have split off from the higher self. In turn, the inner child is a composite of the parts that have split off from the lower self (typically as a result of traumatic experiences) and have become stuck in the unconscious. The child self is the non-developed aspects of self that have yet to catch up in development with the rest of the self due to being temporarily split off from it.
The ego is the personality that a person identifies as being his or herself. The negative characteristics of the ego hide the positive, true nature of the higher self. The superego is the voice in our heads that judges everything we do as being a mistake.
The conscious mind is everything the ego is aware of consciously. The subconscious contains what the ego is in denial about. And the unconscious mind contains the beliefs programmed into the mind that the conscious mind is not aware of, but which not only affect the individual but also block it from achieving its desires.
The shadow self is a composite of the imperfect character traits that the ego is not consciously aware of.
The soul (or higher self) is the dualistic spiritual aspect of the self and is a unit of the spirit. The spirit is the non-dualistic spiritual aspect of the self, and is directly connected to God/Source.