Ego Collapse and Fracture

It’s a ride, and it’s not for the faint of heart. ~Penni Kolpin

It was some time in the summer of 1998 that a friend used the phrase “ego collapse” with reference to his understanding of my experience. For me, that was an excellent description. It certainly felt like my mind collapsed and exploded all at the same time.

There are different ways of defining the ego. I definitely don’t mean the ego in terms of haughtiness and bragging.

  • Ego can mean a “sense of self”
  • Ego can also mean that sense which holds us into our physical world and gives a sense of security and a sense of protection
  • Or in Freud’s terms, ego could mean the filter between the subconscious and conscious mind.

With any of these three descriptions of ego, the concept of an ego collapse or an ego death matches quite well with my experiences. My sense of self and separateness was gone and any sense of security or protection vanished.

The Broken Filter

I didn’t learn of Freud’s description of the ego until 2019. The idea of the ego as a filter intrigued me.

Normally, only a fraction of what the subconscious processes makes it through the filter to come into our “conscious” awareness. The subconscious mind processes so much more than what we are “conscious” or aware of. The subconscious notices and processes everything. It is a real powerhouse. Simply in scanning a room, the subconscious must process, the items in the room, colors, textures, noises and sounds, such as music or conversations, and even words and numbers on signs or labels on different objects. As I understand it, according to Freud, most of that gets filtered through the ego so that the most important elements are experienced at the conscious level.

Now imagine that there is no filter. A person becomes aware of so much more around them – even when doing basic tasks. Body language, background music, colors, advertisements, and even comments and actions made by people nearby are no longer filtered. And everything is equally important.

I have told people over the years that “Its a ride.” There is no conscious choice to go through that experience. It’s not like you wake up one morning and say, “Gee, I think I’ll let my ego collapse.” Once that collapse started, there was no going back to who I was before. It was way too intense. I would even say that it wasn’t just a collapse of the ego, but rather a severe fracturing into a million tiny fragments. There was that much pain.

Wrong Focus

Through that process, was my biochemistry out of whack? Absolutely. But unfortunately, in my case, too often the focus was on the biochemistry and not on the actual injury and fragments. The goal was to get my biochemistry under control so that I could resume the life I had been living — the life that led me to a breakdown. That was a huge problem.

As with my analogy of broken knees, focusing primarily on a person’s biochemistry does not address the full situation. Understanding a person’s trauma history and social dynamics is vital to get an appropriate understanding of what a person has been living with. With too much focus on biochemistry, it is very unlikely that the person would ever truly heal and recover from the trauma — both the trauma that led to the collapse and the trauma introduced due to the process itself.

In addition, if that injury and collapsed condition is not adequately addressed, it is very likely that the person will limp for the rest of their lives.

I have long said that my experience is not an illness. And I knew it at the time. It was much more like a shattered leg. You don’t “cure” a shattered leg, you treat it so that it can heal and then strengthen.

In my experiences, too often the mental health models focus on illness, disorder and biochemistry rather than on mental injury and trauma.

Language matters.

Hatching from the Ego

The same friend who introduced me to the phrase “ego collapse” also did a play on the words ego and egg. He likened the evolution of dealing with a fractured ego to that of hatching from an egg. That, too, was a very helpful analogy to me since the experience I endured was exceptionally transformative.

Unfortunately, too often, effort is placed on trying to force a person back into that eggshell — back into the very role that “broke” them open. To the person trying to “hatch” from their own ego, there is no going back into that eggshell and no desire to do so.

In the early 1990s, I read M. Scott Peck’s book, Further Along the Road Less Traveled. When I was still in Banff dealing with the initial break, I recalled a concept that he wrote about — that when faced with a desert, there is no going back, there is only going through.

When it comes to my type of experience, I definitely agree.