The ego gets a pretty bad rap, but what is it really?
The ego is simply who you think you are. It is neither good nor bad. The word ego has come to make us think of arrogance, selfishness, and over-confidence, but it is really just our sense of self. It is this ego, this sense of self that allows us to survive and thrive in the world. Ego helps us scan for dangerous situations; it makes us ambitious; and it helps us stick to our values. When we struggle with anxiety, the ego can go into overdrive, trying to protect us by telling us scary stories about ourselves and about the future; the ego often relies on fear as a motivator. Fortunately, the ego isn’t the “real” us, and we can learn to take those scary (or funny or ridiculous or selfish) stories with a grain of salt.
Ego, or the way you see yourself, is formed through a lifetime of experiences, thoughts, and emotions. Our ego starts developing at a young age as we begin to realize that we are the person looking back at us in the mirror. Enter the terrible twos (and the angsty teens) as we begin to understand that we are an individual, not an extension of our parents, and we exert ourselves on the world around us. As we grow, so too does our ego. We start to feel more and more separate from the world; it’s us and then everyone and everything else. By the time we reach adulthood, our ego, who we think we are, is ridiculously complex. It is the biggest, most eye-popping scrapbook you’ve ever put together over years and years without even knowing it.
The ego is actually quite biased and subjective but because the ego is formed by our experiences, thoughts, and emotions (a very effective disguise), the stories it tells us can be quite compelling whether they are true or not. We tend to blindly trust judgments like “I’m a good reader” or “I need to get that promotion at work to be truly happy” or “I’m uglier than average.” We just assume that the way we see ourselves is who we actually are, when in reality our ego is shaped by random and arbitrary events from throughout our lives. Perhaps you think you are a good reader because your 1st grade teacher placed you in the advanced reading group (maybe your parents read lots of books with you). Perhaps you feel you won’t be happy until you get promoted because your parents once told you that there’s nothing more important than a successful career (when really that was just the way they lived their lives). Or perhaps you feel ugly because, let’s face it, you were an awkward looking 13-year old and some kids at school reminded you every day. The ego is complex. It tells us all manner of stories; they are very convincing, yet often biased or subjective.
So how do you know when it’s the ego talking? The ego typically sounds like a bully or a scared and insecure child. It always feels quite personal, urgent and important, even shameful. Again, the ego isn’t good or bad, but it often uses our own fears as a misdirected way to protect what we value most. Let’s say you value your career (damn parents), and you have a work presentation coming up. Your ego may tell you this insecure and urgent story: “You better make sure your presentation is perfect or you will mess up and everyone will think you’re an incompetent fool!” This thought, this story, feels true only because our ego and our anxious fear say it is, not because it is actually true. We feel fear because that ego-driven thought targets a core value – we value what other people think of us; we may value our career. Another example – maybe your house has become a bit messy and your ego chides you: “You’re so lazy, you should be cleaning the house, not sitting here reading this blog!” Your ego tells this story to protect something of value. Maybe you define yourself by your productivity and your ego is driving you to uphold that value, or maybe you are experiencing lots of change in your life, and your ego is striving to re-exert its core belief – there is us and then there is everyone and everything else.
Why shouldn’t we listen to the ego, as tempting as it is? Well, have you ever noticed how fickle it is? In the same day, no the same hour, I’ve gone from feeling like an awesome human being, a rock star at life, to a crap bag that has accomplished nothing and will never be more than a weird dog lady. So, which is it: am I a rock star or am I a crap bag? The answer is neither. Neither of those are the real me, they are my ego. The real me shines through when I’m busy being present in the moment and don’t have all that ego chatter going on in the background. The real me is when I’m cooking dinner, walking with my dogs, connecting with a friend or my personal favorite – playing a game of Ultimate Frisbee. The ego is neither good nor bad, but it can certainly cloud our lives with all manner of anxious stories. Perhaps we are most content when we shed our ego – who we think we are, and get on with being who we actually are. When are you simply you