Ego has become a bit of a dirty word but the reality is, you’d be nothing without it.
Your ego is just your personality, identity and beliefs by a different name. So I think you’ll agree with me that it is a good thing. You do not want to destroy your ego!
However, there is more to you than your ego. Admittedly it may have been a long time since you were aware of that, if ever. But there definitely is, and the sooner you can perceive that, the more powerful you’re going to be in your life.
This post is about how exactly to develop an awareness of your ego, and to manage its more negative aspects.
As painlessly as possible…let’s do this.
How the ego was formed
Our egos/self-constructs first begin to take shape in childhood. It is here that we all develop ‘winning ways’, a set of strategies we use to survive and thrive within the family unit.
Typically, the strengths you have now are in some shape or form those same traits you relied upon then. You do it unconsciously, but they are how you secure love and approval, and they are what you use to meet the challenges of your life.
Maybe you do that primarily through achieving, or by helping out others. I do it through being optimistic and upbeat, etc. These are the key characteristics of my ego.
So what about the less successful or underused traits from childhood; those parts that were not useful at the time or brought shame upon us?
These aspects of us wind being a part of our Hidden Self. Coming to know this Hidden self (or Shadow self as it is also sometimes called) requires an additional set of observation skills, which I wrote about here.
What are the ego’s negative aspects?
Let’s define the problem with our identifying solely with our ego natures.
Ego-led agendas tend not to produce lasting happiness and contentment. In addition, filtering life through the ego (which we do, because our perception and judgment functions are aspects of our egos) undermines day-to-day contentment. It is effectively a threat oriented focus.
Reflect for a moment on why the ego was formed to begin with, and you’ll hopefully see why that is. The ego was built on a lie: that you are imperfect and incomplete at your fullest self-expression. Therefore the whole M.O. of the ego is to compare you with others and compete with them. You never fully relax.An ego-led life is one of constant striving, never relaxing Click To Tweet
When we are fully identified with the image of ourselves that we created, we unconsciously defend that image. The primary way we defend is through psychological defense mechanisms, which I won’t discuss too much in this post but you can read about here.
When your ego is at the helm, which just means having little or no awareness of it, your actions are motivated by fear and insecurity. That translates as a feeling of inauthenticity in our lives: it takes courage and love to stop caring about how we are perceived, and build a life around our core values instead.
In a really hostile ego takeover, we are delusional, self absorbed and disconnected.
There is an alternative to this, which available once you are able to distinguish your ego in your daily life, which is what I am going to talk about below.
Who are you apart from your ego?
Who we are apart from our limited repertoire of things is a big question, and one that has been answered in various ways across philosophy, psychology and spirituality. It is also a question for each person’s own exploration.
In highly general terms, the true or essential nature is the part of you that hasn’t changed. You tap into this egolessness whenever you meditate or are engaged in something that produces a flow state in you. In that state, you aren’t thinking, or striving, or plotting, or contriving; you’re simply there, being. In learning to master the negative aspects of our egos, we cultivate more egolessness in our lives.
The ‘goal’ of ego awareness
The goal of ego awareness is to come to know what part of you is conditioned responses, and how to develop choice about whether to use those strategies. With that choice comes our liberation into the higher states that we all prefer. States like fulfillment and happiness, courage and selflessness.
Developing knowledge of your character is already very challenging for numerous reasons. The major challenge with developing ego awareness is reminiscent of the dieter’s challenge; we cannot avoid or discard our egos in the same way that dieters cannot just renounce food. Our egos are in a large sense what we use to accumulate the trappings of a ‘well adjusted’ individual – jobs, relationships, and friends. We rely on our strengths to get our needs met.
However, it is perfectly achievable to relax that feeling like you need to do or be a certain way at all, and to let the truer, purer traits become more of your self-expression. That’s the goal.
Types of ego
Theorists have suggested that all egos/coping mechanisms follow a set pattern – one of nine in fact. There are variations within those nine styles, due to a person’s nurture and other environmental factors.
For a complete guide to the types of ego, I really urge you to read this article.
How to manage the negative aspects of your ego
Here is how I suggest we start to manage the negative aspects of our egos.
Develop freedom from attachments
Attachment, or identification at it is sometimes known, is an important concept to understand, because it is through being attached that we are snagged by our egos in our daily lives. The idea originates in Buddhist philosophy.
Attachments tend to fall into two categories: attractions and aversions. Attractions are those things that fit in with the ego’s desires for recognition or comfort, or whatever it is. Aversions are the things that our egos cannot accept. We all are attracted and averted to slightly different things and the pendulum swing between our attractions and aversions lasts all day.Practicing detachment helps you to develop egolessness Click To Tweet
The only way to observe your attachments is to practice mindfulness, so that is the starting place. Once you are aware in the moment of your attractions and aversions, you can begin to not feel so caught up in them.
Doing this cultivates your ability to choose how you will respond in life, instead of reacting.
Develop a clearer sense of your values as distinct from your drives
It is essential as early as possible in your adult life to seek to understand what it is you truly value. Our values are the guideposts paving the way out of an ego-led life. I wrote a full guide to this here.
In reality, our actions contain a mixture of both egoic and deeper concerns, and there is nothing wrong with that. For instance, I practice yoga a lot. Partly, that fulfills on my ego desires to have an a strong healthy body, as well as variety in my day.A values-led life is the antidote to a life driven by fears and insecurity Click To Tweet
But it goes deeper than that too. Something about the practice speaks to the essential part of me that values truth, self-awareness, freedom, and learning. When you know what you value, you can draw on your ego strengths to serve your higher aspirations and desires for your life.
It is essential to recognise that fulfilling primal drives, such as the drive to be desirable and desired, can only bring us limited satisfaction. The greater fulfillment is found in basing our actions on our inner values.
Further ways to manage the negative aspects of your ego
Someone who has clearly managed to temper the negative aspects of their ego is author Ryan Holiday. Ryan’s book, Ego is the Enemy is about what things to adopt in your mindset to overcome the negative aspects of your ego. I recommend that you read it, but in lieu of that, here are some key lessons from the book.
Focus on learning over validation
Being learning focused, rather than success/achievement focused, is a case of changing your mindset, which we can all do.
Although it is less instantly gratifying to pursue self-development over approval, the rewards over the long haul far outweigh any instant rewards. We are much more likely to actually achieve our goals when learning is the emphasis, for example.
Learn to keep yourself out of the conversation
This one is a lot harder for some of us than others. But people with narcissistic personality traits are often misunderstood; narcissism is a sign of a wounded self-esteem. And being quiet and self-deprecating doesn’t make a person any less egotistical; self-deprecation can be a strategy just like more obvious personality traits.
Ryan says that “Silence is the respite of the confident and strong. Talk depletes us. Talking and doing fight for the same resources.’ ‘Plug that hole’ he adds. ‘The one, right in the middle of your face – that can drain you of your vital life force. Watch what happens. Watch how much better you get.”
Develop your humility and appetite for looking at your shortcomings
From a personal growth perspective, it is important to seek out the negative in ourselves. “An amateur is defensive” says Ryan. “The professional finds learning (and even occasionally being shown up) to be enjoyable; they like being challenged and humbled, and engage in education as an ongoing and endless process”.
Be like Eleanor Roosevelt (i.e. be above passion)
Passion is overrated. I know for me that when I am writing about a topic I feel especially passionate about, it is when I produce some of my most worst work. Our passions tend to blind us. Ryan calls this the ‘drunkenness of passion’.
Apparently this is a lesson that Eleanor Roosevelt knew well. “Roosevelt was above passion. She had purpose. She had direction. She wasn’t driven by passion, but by reason. Those who are passionate are often unprepared and incapable of grasping the objections and real concerns of those around them.”
In place of passion, we want to pursue purpose. According to Ryan, “purpose is passion, but with boundaries. Purpose deemphasises the I. Purpose is about pursuing something outside of yourself as opposed to pleasuring yourself. Passion is form over function. Purpose is function, function, function.”
Leave passion for the amateurs, Ryan suggests.
Avoid ‘feasting on your own thoughts’
This tip will make a lot more sense to you if you start to consider that your mind and your thinking is the voice of your ego. We all think in ego.
Ryan quotes Alan Watts to illustrate the drawbacks of living in the world of your thoughts and your head: “A person who thinks all the time has nothing to think about except thoughts, so he loses touch with reality and lives in a world of illusions.”
Work your arse off
(Excuse me my American friends: I do still prefer the British version of the word.)
Ryan says whilst the idea of hard work for success is not as sexy as having raw talent, it should be an encouraging one. It means success is within reach for all of us, “provided we have the constitution and humbleness to be patient and the fortitude to put in the work.”
He says “Every time you sit down to work, remind yourself: I am delaying gratification by doing this. I am passing the marshmallow test.”
Figure out what’s important to you
According to Seneca, the Greek word euthymia is one we should think of often: it is the sense of our own path and how to stay on it without getting distracted by all the others that intersect it.
Why do you do what you do? That is the question we all need to answer.
“Stare at it until you can. Only then will you understand what matters and what doesn’t. Only then can you say no, can you opt out of stupid races that don’t matter, or even exist. Find out why you’re after what you’re after. Ignore those who mess with your pace. Let them covet what you have, not the other way around. Because that’s independence.”
Tie your wellbeing to your actions
In one of my favorite chapters (‘the effort is enough’), Ryan discusses how we manage the task of not being attached to the results of the work we do.
“In life, there will be times when we do everything right, perhaps even perfectly. Yet the results will somehow be negative: failure, disrespect, jealousy, or even a resounding yawn from the world. Depending on what motivates us, this response can be crushing.” Anyone that is creative is faced with this exact challenge.
“Ambition – Marcus Aurelius reminded himself – means tying your wellbeing to what other people say or do…sanity means tying it to your own actions. Do your work. Do it well. Then ‘let go and let God'”.
Managing the negative aspects of our egos is extremely important as without that, we never self realize or achieve our full potential.
Finally, I have to recommend using the Enneagram and Myers Briggs as each (and especially the Enneagram) shed light light on important aspects of your ego, which will help you to observe yourself with greater precision.