Being Erica, Being the Ego: The Role of Psychotherapy in Relation to The Spiritual Path

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Being Erica is an award winning and hugely popular show in Canada (watchable via various TV stations in other countries).

Being Erica chronicles the life of our heroine Erica Strange. Erica begins Season 1 as an underemployed college graduate failing to meet the expectations of herself, her peers, and her parents. She’s in what is sometimes called a quarter-life crisis (though really it’s more like a third-life crisis).

Erica meets Dr. Tom a somewhat eccentric but intriguing man who invites her to therapy. Dr. Tom’s form of therapy is rather unique insofar as clients get to time travel back into their lives and literally re-live regrets they hold from their past. Erica is prevented from being able to change the past in terms of what happened but she can change how she relates to the experience and understands it in her present life. 

While the plot line of time traveling is rather interesting, I find it quite intriguing that the path Erica has walked in the show (now beginning its Third Season) mirrors in many ways the path of psychotherapy. Her life offers a kind of roadmap quite ingeniously portrayed through the medium of television.

 

But before we go there….the subtitle of this piece is the role of therapy in the spiritual path, so I should say a quick word about that context. My (very basic) understanding of the spiritual life is that the human being has (or is the expression of) three identities. These three identities go by various names in various religious and spiritual traditions. I use the terms: Spirit, Soul, and Ego. Each identity has its own strengths and limitations—things it “sees” and things it does not see. Different spiritual traditions and different forms of practice are generally geared to different identities. The post-postmodern path (as I understand it) is about (at minimum) the integration and proper expression of these three identities. We are all always all three and therefore any that are ignored or not brought into alignment will start to “live us” out in often negative ways.

Being Erica is a profound journey into the Ego. It’s only the TV show I’ve ever seen to so explicitly bring in psychotherapy and the journey of the self as the core generator of the show.* 

Psychotherapy is the path of the Ego. By ego I mean the frontal personality. In my case, Chris. He or I (Chris) was born at a certain time, in a certain place, has certain characteristic personality patterns, is of a certain age, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, career, bank account, on and on. The ego is the typical answer to the famous dinner party question, “Who are you?” People respond with their jobs, their relationships (e.g. father, mother, husband, wife), where they were born, where they live.

This is the ego. The ego will also die. It is a created phenomenon that arrives on the scene and a certain point in the play and eventually is going to exit stage left. There is no life after death for the ego. This is why the egoic identity, however healthy and well integrated, will always be full of fear because it knows not only that it is going to die but that it doesn’t know when that death will come.**

By placing therapy in the context of the spiritual path and the three identities, I am starting with an assumption that most therapies do not themselves hold. The show Being Erica only focuses on the path of therapy and the egoic identity—which to my mind is the greatest weakness of the show. But set within this framework, I believe it can be freed by being limited to a brilliant exploration of the path of maturation of the ego. [Maturing the ego does not lead to the development of the Soul or Spirit identities].

Erica's path is emblematic of the path of the ego.  She is in this sense the every(wo)man--inasmuch as this is possible given Erica's education level, nationality, ethnicity, age, urban existence and so forth.  

I see Erica's path as a metaphor for the path of egoic maturity.  

Season 1/Stage 1: Behavioral and Emotional Patterning


In Season 1, at the beginning of her therapy, Erica is able to relive certain regrets she holds. Erica faces and sees how events in her life have in various ways traumatized her or set in place habitual patterns of behavior that continue to affect her in the present. Erica comes to see (through her time traveling re-living of past life moments) how these habitual patterns have become so ingrained in her they are now reactive responses to life. Erica’s patterns not Erica herself are the ones largely responding to life. Since they are habitual patterns, they continue to respond in a rather mechanical fashion. She begins to realize that this is why her life keeps repeating itself.

Erica doesn’t know about these emotional patterns going in.   Dr. Tom has only asked her for a list of regrets and what she would like to do differently if she could relive the moment in which the regret took place.

In classic therapeutic language, Erica is learning about her shadow and emotional patterning. She comes to learn that her personality is an amalgamation of various influences: parental, school, cultural, media, as well as life experiences and her response to those experiences.

Under the pretense of returning to her past to re-live regrets, she comes to see that the past is not simply the past but is alive within her as enormously affects her present.

Erica’s Season 1 therapy consists of many of the major events and patterns a person will usually come into contact with at the beginnings of therapy. Erica faces patterns of self-defeat and self-shaming (particularly around her work life), her parents divorce, her first forays into love and sex, her swings between perfectionism and procrastination, and the death of her brother.

The shadow is the un-integrated and repressed parts of her experience. Erica will often experience (in her re-lived past moments) rushes of feeling she is not prepared for, things she has forgotten, or feelings she didn’t notice at the time of the original event.

In therapy none of us time travel to actually re-live out pasts. But we do re-enter those past experiences through imagination and through memory. We do in a sense “re-live” them.

This phase is in my experience the first real crucial insight and ground of the therapeutic path: re-entering the past and re-interpreting it. A person learns at this stage that understanding and relating to our past differently can have immense consequences in the present.

The past is (psychologically if not ontologically) malleable. Not only can we re-interpret our own past, but we can come to realize (especially through discussions with others) we may have misunderstood what was really going on in the past. Our memories might be faulty. Our experiences and judgments at the time of an experience were inevitably limited to our own perspective and maturation at the time.

This one piece is actually a major advance for her personally and in relation to many of the characters (even her loved ones) that she interacts with in the show. The majority are very reactive beings, lacking in this key self-reflective capacity gained through therapy.

Season 2/Stage 2: Can’t Change Others

It’s in Season 2 that Erica comes to learn that her experiences in therapy do not give her the right to “teach” other people, especially her friends and family. They do not (in large part) have the gift of having therapy as Erica has, and they do not therefore share the same context and capacities that Erica has gained through her time with Dr. Tom.

Erica starts the season in a state of beginner/intermediate immaturity. She has gained some deeper insights into her own patterning. She has gained clarity and facility in healing her past, letting it go from holding her in its grips. With her new knowledge comes moments of arrogance, of thinking herself better than her peers.

Not surprisingly, Season 2 shows Erica in moments of various kinds of “blowback” from relations in her life because they sense a judgmental element in her: characters like her best friend, her sister, and her boyfriend.

A little (self) knowledge is a dangerous thing.

There is a fine line to walk in this second phase between “teaching” others (and coming across as arrogant) and honestly coming to realize that if people do not undertake their own therapeutic practice, they will not gain this kind of self-knowledge. Erica and her boyfriend Ethan have a longstanding friendship that becomes a romance. He loves her very much and she loves him. But his inability to come to terms with his own patterns of denial and his lack of self-awareness eventually becomes the ruin of their relationship.

Erica learns the hard way what anyone must learn in this second phase of maturation in the psychological egoic way: no one can change another person.   People are free beings and will either be willing to face their own issues or they will not.

Season 3/Stage 3: Staying in touch with feelings

Season 3 begins with Erica joining a therapy group including other clients/students of Dr. Tom. The group begins by inviting Erica to simply share her feelings with them. Erica is unable to do so. She gives surface level responses—“I’m fine, I’m ok, I’m frustrated.”

Erica it turns out feels resentment at Dr. Tom. She felt was she unique. She somehow decided in her mind that she was his only client. But she can’t share this with the group because she finds it embarrassing, shameful, and petty. When she finally does come to confess that she has these feelings she is able to see that these feelings are in many ways unbalanced. But she can laugh about this fact.

This is the third and likely most difficult stage of the egoic path: remaining in touch with one’s feeling moment to moment in the midst of life and being able to articulate what precisely one is feeling.   We learn that Erica’s participation in this therapy group is the next step in her development that eventually will lead to her becoming her own therapist/mentor.

She will require this ability to stay connected in the midst of feeling and turmoil if she is ever to become a therapist.

Sidenote:  The actress who portrays Erica (Erin Karplunk) is amazing at expressing the subtle nuances of being in a contracted or uncontracted state through her body, her voice (tone and rhythm), her breathing patterns, eye contact (or lack thereof), and facial gestures.  Her acting is by itself a great study in the endless shifting of egoic states.

Concluding and Re-viewing Thoughts

One word characterizes the common essence across the stages of the psychological path: acceptance.

Erica (The Ego) first learns to accept her own past. She must accept and become responsible for the fact that while she cannot change the past she can change how she relates to that in the present.   She comes to accept the consequences of actions and inactions.

Then Erica must learn the even harder lesson that she must accept others and must accept the influences of their being in her life.   Erica, like many egos, has trouble setting her own boundaries. She has real difficulty in not becoming passive aggressive (a major problem for the Canadian ego), nor in being swamped under by the raging egos of others.

Now Erica is learning to live with the emotional vulnerability and grace inherent to the ego. She will undoubtedly be called to be a leader in this season as well as to face deep fears. She has to accept that emotions and lack of control of them (by the conscious mind) are an intrinsic part of life.

Being Erica, being human, being the ego is a bodily reality and the body feels life. Here we come to what I would call Season 4—the ego in relation to the deeper wisdom of the spiritual traditions.

The ego is nothing other than the response of the bodymind, the human body-being. The ego is not an immaterial entity, a ghost that resides in the machinery of our body. It is simply the feeling of our body. Thought, we may say, is for example, the feeling of the brain. What we typically call emotions are the feelings of the heart. And instincts are the feeling of the gut.

The ego is the evolutionary defense mechanism that the human body has, that the human body is, which has (not without great suffering and violence) brought us to where we are as a species today. The egoic identity is also (through our technology) endangering our existence as a species.

The ego is as much a not-self as it is a self.*** It is the influence of many other relations and beings. It is the accumulation of events and experiences. It is always incomplete.

The ego is a knot self—a knotted feeling response that is the stress of opposing contradiction. For every time a man promises faithfulness to his wife, he will also feel the desire to have relation-less sex with many other women. Every time a person commits to a diet or exercise regime, that person will immediately feel all the inertia and the resistance within him/herself to that change.

The ego is the self-system that coordinates that stress of contradiction. The ego is simultaneously the self-contraction of that bodily being in the face of life.

The ego is the vehicle for the other identities to express themselves in this world. There is always therefore a struggle over who exactly is in charge.

Deep layers of acceptance and insight into the egoic patterns are the hallmark of the best of the psychological, psychotherapeutic way. But by itself, I would argue, it is not sufficient. The egoic identity alone can only take one so far. It has deep built-in limitations: it is always full of fear, always built around self-defense, always seeking, always desiring and (at least partially) wounded, always quite narrowly focused (in relation to the other identities), always stressed and contracted.

And yet it is one of the three components of who we are. No ego, no manifestation in this world.

Like Being Erica.

 

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* TJ suggested The Sopranos but I would say there the prime plot is life as a mafia lord & family man.  I see Tony Soprano's time with his therapist was a way of bringing mafia life into the 21st century and slowing down the pace of the action while humanizing Tony.  But I see it as more an important but secondary element to the movement of The Sopranos.  

** The other spiritual identities—The Soul and Spirit—in their unique ways do not feel fear. One of the seductive dangers of the spiritual traditions historically has been to argue that the spiritual life is about completely abandoning or transcending the ego so as to not feel this fear.

*** The advantage of this framework for the ego is that it can include the wisdom of both Buddhism (no self) and the traditions like Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity which do argue for a self.

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2 comments

  • Comment Link Kate Tuesday, 28 September 2010 17:39 posted by Kate

    Thanks Chris, this is a great write-up

  • Comment Link Magali Tuesday, 28 September 2010 18:07 posted by Magali

    Makes me wonder long the integral view will reach the movie industry, whrere the other identities of humans will be addressed. It would be such a wonderfulexistential treat to see in images (a plot) the path of the soul and spirit!
    Thank you.

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