“Whenever I climb, I am followed by a dog called Ego.” — Nietzsche.
“No, I don’t think that’s what happened,” I said.
“Yes, it is. It can’t be anything else,” my friend responded.
The conversation was getting quite heated now. I was shaking my head and telling my friend that he was utterly wrong. We’d been arguing for a few minutes about the ending of Games of Thrones (GOT) Season Two until he finally got the scene on YouTube and proved I was wrong.
I knew he was a GOT buff. So, why did I continue arguing to prove I was right?
That’s how our ego can get in the way.
Another time, I criticized a young employee at work for the lack of preparation for a meeting we were just about to start. I was right in being angry but wrong in berating her in front of others. For the rest of the meeting, she kept to herself and didn’t dare open her mouth.
Criticism is sometimes essential to motivate and correct. However, it becomes devastating in its effect when it’s done solely to condemn.
Again, that was ego in play.
What is the ego?
I will not offer the psychological definition (developed by Freud and Jung) here but will instead look at its pragmatic meaning.
Deepak Chopra says, “The ego…is not who you really are. The ego is your self-image; it is your social mask; it is the role you are playing. Your social mask thrives on approval. It wants control, and it is sustained by power because it lives in fear.”
Eckhart Tolle defines it in another way, writing, “All you need to know and observe is this: Whenever you feel superior or inferior to anyone, that’s the ego in you.”
The ego is our false self. It’s an illusion that we carry. It’s invisible, formless, and boundaryless — an idea we have of who we think we are.
This idea of self has been developed rigorously over our developmental years between childhood and adulthood. Unfortunately, it’s characterized by masks, labels, images, and judgments handed down to us by parents, teachers, media, friends, and society.
When we don’t scrutinize them, all those paradigms calcify into limiting and self-defeating beliefs. And so, we create the masks that we will wear throughout our lives.
Because we are unaware of this false self, this mask, we become comfortable in it. We build our entire lives around it. The ego then creates ways and means to remain relevant, dominant, and fully nourished, as it needs constant validation and identification with a form.
However, its growth directly opposes any inner peace and harmony we might feel because it actively conceals our truths. Manipulative, it often creates false and fickle self-worth.
The ego represents the sum of all our fears, worries, and negative thoughts. It provides the incessant inner voice of doubts holding us back from any opportunity for wonder, intuition, or awe that might come our way.
Do we need the ego?
The ego is a necessary tool along our self-discovery journeys. How can we be authentic when we have no basis for comparison? How can we be good if we can’t measure against bad? How can we shed light when we have no practical understanding of darkness?
Ego is the yang to authenticity’s yin. It allows us to compare. It defines our sense of self, clarifies our boundaries, and develops our personalities. It pushes us to do, be, and see. It protects us from being used or abused by stronger, darker egos, and it shields us from harm caused by our social environments.
Do we need to totally eliminate ego? Not at all.
We need to learn to tame the ego and begin our journeys to authenticity. We should accept and honor the ego as a gift; it pushes us to go out and play, explore, experience, and test our limits. Of course, it leads us to mistakes, failure, and pain, but that’s where the most important lessons of life lie.
We need to be in darkness before we can recognize and shed light.
Transcending the ego
If we wish to step into our unique power and authenticity, we must transcend the ego and find where our truths reside.
I observed the most significant changes in my behavior when I recognized that the ego was another part of my whole self. Only when I understood how this little devil showed up in my life did I genuinely become self-aware.
The ego has been with us since childhood, and it doesn’t want us to change. Instead, as we saw earlier, it gets its validation externally through our self-images, achievements, and possessions.
It never seeks validation within: “Am I satisfied? Have I become a better person? How am I serving humanity?” The more I asked those questions and dug into my answers, the more clearly I saw how my ego was playing out. And, as I questioned my every action and reaction, I started to see how my ego was bossing me around and suppressing my real essence.
A Course in Miracles, written and edited by Helen Schucman, explains, “Your mission is very simple. You are asked to live so as to demonstrate that you are not an ego.” If you do not possess a deep, rich sense of yourself and your purpose in the now, it is probably because you believe you are only your ego.
At first, I would reflect on my day’s behavior and clearly see my ego at work. Later, I became aware enough to stop myself from reacting in such selfish and egotistic ways.
Why did I need to win the argument with my friend?
Following my evolutionary instinct, I had to validate my ego and its behavior. The ego needs to win every battle. No matter its usefulness. It was built to make us survive this life and make sure our species, group, and family stay and propagate throughout life.
It is up to us to regulate and direct the ego towards the battles that truly matter.
As you continue your day, observe your ego at play. Don’t let it take control of you.