WHAT IS THE EGO?
The ego refers to the extent one thinks highly of one’s self, having something to do with being self-centered or egotistical. Another common thought pattern regarding the ego relates to the “I” that is capable of referencing the self and making decisions.
Mostly from the work of Sigmund Freud the concept of “ego” crept into the psychological world. In his tripartite model of the mind (id, ego, superego), the ego served as a psychological apparatus that regulated the animalistic desires or impulses of the “id” and the moral and social standards of the “superego”. In other words, the ego serves to ease the tension between the two for one to be a socially accepted functional person in society.
However, a more modern concept of the ego (but still related to Freud’s theory) considers it as a self-consciousness system involving two interrelated parts (reflective self and motivating self) that overall affect one’s ego functioning. As the name suggests the reflective self part, enables self-reflective awareness and the capacity to justify one’s actions to self and others. In other words, it relates to the concept of a person as an entity that can self-reflect and give accounts for their actions. This ability is closely connected to the cognitive portion of the ego. The other part, the motivating self, plays a central role in our lives (as argued by Elliot Aronson) as it serves to self-justify ourselves wherein the ego tries to maintain a consistent, justifiable place in the world. Furthermore, the unified theory indicates that the motivating self acts as the interpreter system (or a mental organ of justification) that functions and makes sure that you are in a justified state of being by developing explanations for your actions in the context of justification. Putting the two parts together makes up the self-consciousness system that reflects on one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions (reflective self) and inhibits or legitimises them to one’s self and others (motivating self).
The ego is similar to what is meant by the term identity, and ego functioning refers to the components of the self-consciousness system that directly relate to mental health. Furthermore, ego functioning is one of the important elements to consider in understanding an individual’s personality and the ways they operate in the world.
Gregg Henriques, a clinician and professor, demonstrates six basic elements that go into ego functioning. These are:
- Degree of insight — This is similar to the reflective self as it includes one’s awareness of the processes that influence the individual. Having high levels of insight relates to one being more in tune with oneself (how they feel about themselves, understanding what makes them happy or sad, why they have conflicts, what makes them feel fulfilled, etc.). In contrast, having low levels of insight relates to one engaging in more primitive psychological defences (like denial), and either being clueless about who they are or convincing themselves they are something they are not.
- Degree of agency and self-directedness — Individuals with high agency see themselves as able to control aspects of their environment, guide their behaviour with purpose across time, manage their impulses, and maintain resilience in the face of setbacks. In contrast, individuals with low agency essentially experience life as happening to them rather than the other way around as they have no direction, feel dependent on the environment, and are impulsive and react to the needs of the moment rather than inhibiting immediate gratification for longer-term goals.
- Degree of self-esteem, acceptance, and compassion — This includes the extent to which an individual respects and values themselves and is compassionate to themselves as a complicated being having faults and limitations. In contrast, those who lack acceptance and compassion for themself struggle with being overly self-critical.
- Degree of empathy with others — Our sense of “self” emerges in close relationship to our sense of others (and how they treat us). In contrast to insight (which refers to the capacity to understand one’s self), empathy refers to the capacity to understand others in a complex manner.
- Degree of integration, purpose, and thematic coherence — We all have different parts, alternating self-states and various social roles that we fill. So, this refers to the extent to whether or not the ego has the meta-narrative position that could link those parts together into a coherent story, resulting in a being essentially capable of handling the cognitive dissonance of the self-experienced day-to-day.
- Degree of philosophical and moral development — Another crucial component of ego functioning, involves the assessment of the extent to which an individual has developed a philosophical point of view of the self in the context of a worldview. This then develops a complicated narrative of the self that provides the individual with a sense of direction toward what is good and virtuous (or not).
LIMITATIONS OF THE EGO
However, the ego is much more complex and consists of other areas. As can be noted from the previous section, limitations exist of the ego-mind that stops an individual from fulfilling their life. An instance of this would be when a change in one’s life is desired. When shown the opportunity for this, many fear it or even resist it. As Ronald Alexander explains, there are five basic payoffs when one resists. These are: avoiding the unknown, avoiding judgment, avoiding failure, avoiding success, and avoiding feelings of guilt. There is a fear that venturing into the unknown will bring about painful secrets of the self or the world that we have kept hidden from ourselves. Avoiding judgement, sensing disapproval and fearing abandonment causes us to essentially conform to a mould that may not be for us. Furthermore, avoiding failure and avoiding success is where we tend to overestimate the risk we’re taking and imagine the worst possible case scenario. Lastly, avoiding feelings of guilt arise because we’re contradicting what others think we should or shouldn’t be doing with our lives.
All of these payoffs result in our resistance to change that overall make us stagnant in our lives. However, exploring and dissolving the deeply rooted resistance to change frees one from the burden of creating avoidance behaviours and repressing anxiety and fear about that change.
STRENGTHEN OR SHRINK?
So, do our egos need strengthening or shrinking? It is important to understand, there is a major difference between a strong ego and a big ego.
To expand on this distinction, Leon Seltzer explains that “people with strong egos can be generally viewed as self-confident; secure and emotionally stable; flexible, adaptive, and able to cope well with everyday stresses and frustrations; mature, independent, and resourceful; and authentic. In contrast, those with big egos lack inner stability and are more easily upset; tend to be rigid, reactive, dogmatic, and egocentric; simulate self-confidence (rather than truly possess it); display arrogance and a narcissistic sense of entitlement; show deficits in personal integrity; and, perhaps more telling than anything else, demonstrate when feeling threatened, a surprising weakness, even fragility. Although such egos may, indeed, be “oversized”, their actual bigness or stature has largely to do with ego-inflation vs. any real ego strength.”
Furthermore, the many unflattering descriptions of people with big egos signify their need to make up for a fundamental lack of true self-esteem and indirectly provide insight into their acutely felt weaknesses or shortcomings.
As stated, our egos can be essentially viewed as the image we hold of ourselves, our identity. If we have a big ego, we view ourselves self-delusively, according to an ideal going beyond our actual reality. In such cases, it’s clear that our ego is in need of significant “shrinking” before it can even begin to be developed anew. In contrast, if our ego is weak not because we’re self-aggrandising but because we’re excessively self-critical, then the best way for us to strengthen it is to view ourselves with greater kindness, understanding and compassion. As a result of correcting our habitually negative self-talk and coping more successfully with common, everyday obstacles, we would be able to experience a genuinely positive sense of self, one that is as strong and stable as it is reality-based.
OBSERVING THE EGO
In 1965, three psychologists (Arthur A. Miller, Kenneth S. Isaacs, and Ernest A. Haggard) documented awareness of “observing ego”, which is critical to our social functioning. In short, observing ego is a person’s ability to step outside of themselves to observe their actions, affect, defence and motivations, and determine the effect they’re having on whomever they’re interacting with. When effectively observing one’s own ego, the person is able to filter their statements and actions, determining what is socially appropriate behaviour, which then inherently improves their social functionality.
Practising observing one’s ego when alone is important because the brain is listening. To do so, it includes several things to do:
- Reduce the self-deprecating statements you make — Regularly using these statements eats away at our self-confidence, which negatively affects how the brain builds one’s self-concept.
- Avoid using superlatives — setting the bar high for certain activities or interactions is normal; however, it’s important to observe and monitor how what we say (when we do set the bar high) affects us and to mentally manage our expectations.
- Make promises you will keep — Failing to follow up on promises made to others or to ourselves erodes our self-respect, feelings of competence, and ability to complete tasks. So, similar to the previous one, monitor and understand the promises that were made and follow through to help improve functionality and feelings of competence.
- Resist faulty negative assumptions about the future — Everyone has a negative bias that affects their thinking about the outcomes in the future. Allowing these to consume your mind can affect your motivation and actions; however, employing focused observation, it helps us perform more effectively.
- Eliminate “giving up” statements — Such statements result in abandoning something due to frustration or fear of potential failure. Eliminating those statements is crucial for increasing your awareness that your observing ego is at work, and helps increase your self-confidence and feelings of effectiveness.
In all of these practices, by observing our ego we can significantly improve on our self-respect, self-worth, and confidence.
In our trainings we always share techniques and exercises that can be incorporated into your daily routine. Even if you don’t set a goal to become a facilitator, you can benefit from our Breathwork and Tantra methods as we will teach you how to utilize their principles to match your personal needs. Find out more here https://innercamp.com/trainings/.
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