Is a powerful ego a good thing? Or does it just describe someone who thinks too much of themselves?
Ego is Latin for ‘I’. It is the self as a thinking, feeling and self-determining being, distinguished from the selves of others. Fair enough, but in everyday use, it is often considered rather distasteful. When we say someone has a big ego, we mean they think too much of themselves. It is associated with selfishness, arrogance, insensitivity and conceit.
But this is much too narrow a use of the term. While many spiritual traditions think of the ego as a source of restless discontent, psychotherapists of the Western tradition regard a strong ego as highly desirable. It brings confidence, inner strength and charisma. Without a strong ego, the argument goes, the conscious mind is incapable of controlling destructive unconscious urges, causing dysfunctional behaviours which lead to failure and frustration. Or worse.
The functioning ego
So which is it? Is a powerful ego a good thing? Well, of course, it depends on how the term is used. In Freud’s structural model of the psyche, the ‘ego’ is one of the three parts of the psychic apparatus whose activity and interactions describe our mental life. It is the conscious, thinking, organized part, like a responsible adult countering the ‘id’s’ irrational, childish impulses. It helps us make sense of the world around us, enabling us to make sound judgements, reason and apply common sense. It also enables us to fend off the critical ‘super-ego’, the wagging finger or conscience which, if unchecked, punishes us with feelings of guilt, anxiety and inferiority.
Clearly a strong ego is essential for dealing with the world. We need high self-esteem and a robust sense of self to pursue our goals and where necessary fight our corner. We need to be conscious of our self-talk and beliefs, develop emotional intelligence and cultivate interpersonal skills. We need to let go of self-doubt, embrace delayed gratification (the id hates this) and deal with destructive self-criticism (the super-ego resists any attempt at this).
Consequently there are thousands of self-help books (I’ve written a few myself), courses and support groups, and for those judged to have a clinical need, counsellors, therapists, medication and so on. But ultimately it’s a do it yourself job – seeking help from others and gathering know-how is fine, but it only works if we apply it.
The ‘spiritual’ ego
In spiritual parlance, the ego is a state of consciousness in which we view ourselves as separate from everything and everybody else. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Lower Self’ (contrasting with a higher state of consciousness in which we are all are part of the same Oneness), the obliteration of the ego is said to lead to absorption in a larger, ineffable reality.
Of course we are not really separate. Not only are we linked psychically, but also at a quantum level. The waves and particles that form our bodies are intimately linked at an energy and information level, but we can imagine and believe we are separate. Then all kinds of ‘unspiritual’ behaviours ensue:
- We believe we have to compete for status, attention, success and respect.
- We make comparisons between ourselves and others, what is ours and what is not.
- We have a need to be right and take pleasure in proving others wrong.
- We jealously safeguard our reputation, because we think this is who we are.
- We can be jealous, judgemental, boastful, mean, hateful – and, at the extreme, narcissistic.
Even thinking of ourselves as spiritual can be an ego trap if we think this makes us better than anyone else!
Consequently many spiritual traditions teach that egolessness is the key to happiness and inner peace. They offer tools for dissolving the ego, disputing its ‘false’ ideas and letting them go. Prayer, meditation, chanting, therapy and encounter groups often feature. Evenso in all of history probably only a handful of spiritual masters have achieved it. But we can move in that direction by making some radical adjustments to our thinking:
- Drop the idea that we are separate from the rest of existence. We’re not.
- Nor are we any better or worse, more important or less, than anyone else.
- Give up the need to be right, whether or not we are actually right (which is often a moot point). In the greater scheme of things, we are all one, so does it really matter who is right, or who ‘wins’?
- Stop judging. Of course, some judgements are necessary, for instance judging speed, distance and direction when driving. But there are other less helpful kinds of judgements: judging what is good or bad, better, worse, right, wrong, and so on.
- Get away from ‘what’s in it for me’ – the mantra of the ego.
- Drop the need for approval. Ego-dominated people feed off others’ approval and, being preoccupied with their reputation, easily take offence.
- Let go of jealousy, that most destructive of emotions. Jealousy is born of the ego’s fear that others’ achievements somehow diminish us. It fails to recognise that one person’s success can benefit all.
Again, making these changes is a do it yourself job – only one person can change your thinking, the person that looks back at you from your bathroom mirror every morning!
Is ego good or bad?
To return to the question, is a strong ego helpful or unhelpful in navigating our way through life?
Ironically, while a strong functioning ego brings many benefits in the material world, many have found it does not necessarily bring lasting happiness and inner peace. This is because outward confidence and ‘success’ are not necessarily reflected in our private thoughts and feelings during those quiet, contemplative moments.
Moreover, all the great spiritual masters past and present had (or have) ego qualities such as charisma, persuasiveness and determination in abundance, while also exhibiting humility, selflessness, forgiveness and simplicity. And here’s the first secret of marrying the two strands – detachment. Set your goal. Give it your best shot. Enjoy the journey. Then detach from the outcome (ego loves attachments).
We attach ourselves to things which appear solid, but this is illusory since in time everything material deteriorates or loses its appeal. We also attach to dysfunctional mental and emotional states – hurts, grudges, anger, anxieties and jealousy etc. Detach from these and they no longer have any control over us, and we find peace. This is the first secret.
The second secret isn’t really a secret at all – love. When we’re thinking, feeling, speaking and acting from a consciousness of pure love, the selfish ego retreats, fear and greed dissolve and we become a channel for all the good that flows through the universe. That’s the true fulfillment of our purpose.
Copyright David Lawrence Preston, 8.8.2016
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How to Books, 2007