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I’ve been thinking about Ego a lot, especially because it is a word that’s constantly thrown around in the self-help world. Shed your ego, let go of your ego, your ego is holding you back.
But what exactly is Ego? Certain concepts in the self-help/spiritual world are a bit muddy at best, and in my opinion, can sometimes be downright detrimental. I have seen the ways in which my language in certain areas of life has held me (and my clients and the people around me) back when doing the inner work to grow out of old habits and towards a new, more evolved self.
Isn’t that what growth is – identifying areas in which you are holding yourself back? We all have so many invisible scripts and stories that we are working through when it comes to personal development, that we may not even realise we are getting in our own way.
How many times has this happened to you?
Ego has become yet another way we have learned to vilify ourselves. Kill the ego. Ego’s been cancelled. Your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash.
The power of a word lies in its definition. We need to clarify what “Ego” really means and also play devil’s advocate to the widespread belief that “ego is the enemy.” After all, Ryan Holiday wrote a bestselling book with that title.
Defining Big Concepts
One of the greatest features of the human mind is the ability to think in unique ways. We can ponder our own existence. We can make plans and execute them. We can also establish our own nuanced definitions of complicated concepts in ways that are helpful. We don’t have to accept someone else’s definition. We don’t have to create false dichotomies. It doesn’t have to be “black or white”. We can weave together a definition with our own nuances and use them as reference points in our patchwork quilt that is life.
How do you begin defining a term like Ego? I’d start by turning to the collective observational knowledge base of humans: science & language.
But even scientists have trouble coming to a consensus sometimes. For example norepinephrine and noradrenaline are the exact same neurochemical – discovered in different labs – so the scientists had a bit of a tiff on what it should be named. They both mean the same thing!
So when trying to define complex concepts such as Ego, once you have a basic definition, you can play with it and define it for yourself in a way that is useful to your personal journey.
Defining the Ego
Merriam-Webster definition of ego: the self especially as contrasted with another self or the world
Freud’s psychological definition: the ego is the organized, realistic agent that mediates, between the instinctual desires of the id and the critical super-ego
The way I see it, EGO is impressed, impressionable. It’s what distinguishes us from others. It’s why one thing inspires you and another inspires me.
I’ve noticed that Ego comes up when dealing with uncertainty. “I just wanted things to come together but it’s not happening” It comes up when we are impatient. “I just put myself out there and was so vulnerable! How is he going to respond?” — but it’s the same centers in the brain as “Out of all the outcomes, something bad COULD happen”
I have been trying to remain wary of times when I vilify my ego. The more I learn about the ego, the more it sounds like “our sense of self, separate from the universal consciousness“
By that definition, isn’t our ego a very useful thing? Having a separate sense of self keeps us safe, alive, and functioning within the “real world.”
It helps you get through your day. It helps you understand when you run into a wall, feel physical pain, and know not to run into it again. It helps you know your place. It develops patterns to protect you. We’ve developed our sense of self through our personal experiences with society, family, friends, etc, and we have developed our patterns i.e. ideals, beliefs, desires…. and that can elicit feelings in us (pride, anger, greed, etc) which don’t serve us. We see these emotions as “negative”.
But wait, aren’t all emotions supposed to be data? Isn’t it possible for us to actually remain neutral while we experience these “negative” emotions? Shouldn’t we try to listen to what they are trying to tell us?
Rather than trying to resist my ego, I’ve found it really helpful to hold some space for it and ask it “What are you trying to protect me from?” “How are you trying to help me?” And the answer may not be a soul-aligned reason from your highest, most dignified graceful self, but the ego doesn’t care about grace. It cares about your safety. There are many times my ego has brought out my claws to protect me from something. So I can understand it, acknowledge it, and say “thank you for trying to protect me, I will keep an eye out for that, and I’ve got this!”
Let me add some cuteness to this concept.
Who’s A Good Boy?
You’ve got two dogs. One is super friendly, a Labrador who will wag his tail and give love to everyone, whether it’s you, your caregiver, or a thief trying to break into your house.
He sees everyone as amazing beautiful creatures deserving of love – this is our Soul or Highest Self.
The other dog is a majestic German Shepherd, a trained guard dog. Naturally, his personality is entirely different, because he was deliberately trained to function in an environment where danger is prevalent.
He is always alert. He’s smart and REALLY great at protecting you. But he might bark at your guests until you tell him to heel. That’s our Ego. I wouldn’t want to reprimand him for barking at someone to alert me to a passerby – that’s just his job. In fact, I’d pet him and tell him “good job buddy, but I don’t need protection right now, this is safe, thank you, good boy! (“Who’s a good boy?! That’s right, it’s YOU!”)
Each of us have both these dogs. Our German Shepherd, if he isn’t trained correctly, can overpower your labrador, and hurt you too. He is labelled as a dog with behaviour problems. But is he the problem or is it the owner?
If you’ve ever watched Cesar Milan, the dog whisperer, his famous tagline is “I rehabilitate dogs, and I train the owner”. Can you see where I’m going with this?
You’re the Alpha of the pack. You are the owner of your dogs. Your Ego needs rehab, and it needs a loving, trustworthy and magnanimous leader. It’s not meant to be kicked out of your life.
To extend the metaphor:
If you really want to live from your highest, labrador, soul-self, then you need to do what the labrador would do. The lab would, of course, do its best to befriend the german shepherd. How do you befriend someone? By trying to understand them and play with them!
After all, your ego can be useful in spotting danger, and it means well. If I have a guest over, and know they are safe, I would command Ego to heel. But if he barked every time he saw that guest, I’d stop and consider why. Is the guest wearing a certain perfume or colour that triggers him? Does Ego need to be retrained? OR is there really something fishy about the guest? And be open to both possibilities. Sometimes what you may label as your ego may, in fact, be your intuition. Know when to listen to it.
One evening, Buddha sat down under the Bodhi Tree and vowed to stay put until he attained enlightenment. As the story goes, Mara, the demon God, began to entice Buddha away from his highest self by bombarding him with all the sinful emotions – he sent beautiful women to entice him, offered him bountiful riches to sway him, and ordered his minions to attack him. And how did Buddha respond?
He said – “I see you, Mara.” and then invited him in, poured two cups of tea, and sat down together. By acknowledging Mara, and holding space for him, he softened Mara’s power.
The importance of correct definitions
When you see a word being thrown around in the blogs, podcasts and other media that you consume, try to get to the bottom of its meaning. If a word starts to feel negative and overused, or you have heard it so much that it has lost its meaning, you can always redeem it, if only for yourself. If you feel that there is too much grey area associated with a word, you can either add your own nuance to the word in a way that’s helpful, or ditch it from your vernacular altogether. What’s the point of language if you’re not able to use it to communicate concepts clearly, or gain a better understanding of your world?