The Developing Self: Joy and Grief in Ego Evolution

bipolar depressionIn Bruce Springsteen’s book, “Born to Run,” the author provides a poignant image of the many selves we “occupy” in our maturation.
No one you have been and no place you have gone ever leaves you. The new parts of you simply jump in the car and go along for the rest of the ride. The success of your journey and your destination all depend on who’s driving.

People may experience these many selves in different ways, but the coherence of our story depends upon how we make sense of the stages and transitions along the path.

Some of these selves may seem more important at different times, but they are all significant to our ability to be present in the here and now. Some of these past selves can appear at inopportune times and remind us of a crisis or when our life did not seem to be working.

Spheres of Development

Challenges, failures, missed opportunities, broken hearts, and loss often seem to take up more emotional space in our memories. But they are a part of a story of development, one that uses the raw material of living to weave the fabric of a life.

On the other hand, we are often humble in success, grateful in reciprocity, and relieved in overcoming challenges, but these joyful moments are as vital to the process of learning and developing as the demands and challenges that hammer at the boundaries of our ego.

Sometimes it is hard to look back, to acknowledge our ineptitude in the important spheres of development. Perhaps we were selfish in relationships or ineffective in our work environment. We consider who were with the understanding of who we are and may feel less than proud. But the experience mattered. It was part of the process. Here we find the joy and grief of self-awareness and the evolution of ego.

Forgiveness is the key capacity in these reflective moments for without this quality we will bring the substance of these former selves into the present moment. Without forgiveness, who we have been takes the wheel while you are distracted, unaware, or off track and makes you an unsuspecting passenger. The past is present again.

These themes that intrude in the moment are reminders of incoherence in our narrative. Developmentally, the forward movement of growth is halted in order to make sense of what remains emotionally charged, a puzzle in original form. Making space is vital to making sense. We see who we were in the moment and while it is a part of our story, it is not who we are.

Learning and developing is as much a letting go as it is an increase in capacity or knowledge. A Gaelic proverb offers: If the best man’s faults were written on his forehead, it would make him pull his hat over his eyes. And sometimes we may feel this way about past faults and transgressions. But the lesson, the situation, the mistake, the lingering habit matters and offers us an opportunity for perspective and to develop our sense of self in a wider frame.

These developmental perspectives of looking back and comparing are of the same order as when, as a young child, I could not comprehend why I could not see the huge Apollo spacecraft approaching the moon. I could not, as Piaget pointed out, hold in mind the two perspectives at the same time. Developmentally I could not make sense of it. How could such a big rocket ship also be small?

We don’t lambaste our youthful selves for such situations because we come to understand the developing mind. Maturity can be a painful process but the ego loves to judge, to be right, and to make excuses.

In truth, if we knew better we would be able to do better. And once we come to know, the ego can loosen its reins. We can forgive self, and make amends if and when it is required. Just as a photo album reveals the many selves we have been, it is awareness in the present that offers a balanced perspective that those many selves were part of an important developmental process.

While they may be along for the ride, they have long since served their purpose. No need for them to take the wheel.

The Developing Self: Joy and Grief in Ego Evolution

John C. Panepinto, PsyD, LPCS, NCC


APA Reference
Panepinto, J. (2018). The Developing Self: Joy and Grief in Ego Evolution. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 23 Jul 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 23 Jul 2018
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