What Is the Ego, and Why Does It Matter?
By Christa Hogan
“The Ego is an exquisite instrument. Enjoy it, use it–just don’t get lost in it.” ~ Ram Dass
I was recently pondering the changes I’ve seen in myself over the past year since I resolved to explore mindfulness, bring awareness to my thoughts, and regularly practice meditation. As I was recognizing and feeling grateful for the changes—being less reactive, becoming more aware of my thoughts, getting overwhelmed less by life and people—a thought popped into my mind.
“You know,” it went, “eventually you’re going to slip up and react to someone or something in a way that you’re not proud of. What then? It just goes to prove that this mindfulness stuff doesn’t work.”
At the same time there was an awareness that came in with a different message. “No problem,” the awareness said, completely unfazed. “That will just be an opportunity to explore where your ego is being challenged and what it means.”
It only took a second. But it was really profound for me. A thought that might have derailed me for days before was almost instantly neutralized by an inner awareness. Which was proof in and of itself that mindfulness and meditation ‘works.’
But that also started me thinking about ego. What is ego? How do I recognize it? What do I do about it? So I started researching because that’s what writers do when they have questions.
So What Is Ego?
With spiritual practices like Buddhism, eliminating suffering through conquering the ego and embracing our true self is a central goal. But what is ego?
Ego is our false self, the person we become so other people will like us, admire us, and accept us. Ego is also who we tell ourselves we are without question or who other people have told us we are.
Our true self is the “I am.” Ego is what comes after the “I am.” I am smart. I am pretty. I am a Democrat. I am American etc.
Ego is that part of us that is overly preoccupied with survival, accumulation, and success. It works to build an identity that both sets us above everyone else and helps us to fit in.
Eckhart Tolle brilliantly describes ego in his book, A New Earth:
“An ego that wants something from another — and what ego doesn’t — will usually play some kind of role to get its ‘needs’ met, be they material gain, a sense of power, superiority, or specialness, or some kind of gratification, be it physical or psychological. Usually people are completely unaware of the roles they play. They are those roles. Some roles are subtle; others are blatantly obvious, except to the person playing it. Some roles are designed simply to get attention from others. The ego thrives on others’ attention. . . such as recognition, praise, admiration, or just to be noticed in some way, to have its existence acknowledged.”
Roles We Play
So it’s worth taking a moment to look at some of the roles we might be playing that don’t fully reflect our true selves. The trouble isn’t that we play these roles, but that we aren’t aware we’re playing them, or that we become overly identified with them.
For instance, we might react badly when our children misbehave because it challenges our idea of ourselves as good parents. When instead we can choose not to take our kids’ choices personally, and recognize that they are developing into their own separate individuals.
Someone who identifies with a certain position or amount of wealth might spiral into depression when they suffer a financial setback, or lose a job. When instead they can recognize that the loss is painful, but that they are not any less valuable or worthy because of it.
Or we might find ourselves vigorously defending our political views at the cost of personal relationships because we’ve become so associated with the role of “I am a liberal” or “I am a conservative.” When instead we can recognize that we are surely both right and both wrong in some ways.
Here are some other ways ego might show up in our lives. Each behavior stems from our ego trying to satisfy its need for attention and desire for fulfillment:
- complaining, bitterness, and resentment
- people pleasing or demanding/needing respect
- materialism, accumulation, and greed
- competition, a need to dominate others
- dissatisfaction with what we have
- vanity or self-hatred
- judgments and opinions
- superiority and prejudice
- defensiveness, feeling attacked
- need for hierarchy and being in control
- dualistic, black-and-white thinking
Feeling Not Enough
We can also recognize ego from its core “I am” message: “I am not enough.” This can also show up as I can not have enough. I can not do enough.
Our ego is always hustling for more, so many of us walk around with vague feelings that we don’t measure up no matter what we do. Our ego is never satisfied with what we already have and causes us to become anxious or even depressed when we aren’t actively working toward the next accomplishment, goal, relationship, or other object of desire. So we keep working, keep accumulating, keep striving, while our planet, relationships, and bodies pay the price.
Past and Future Tense
Likewise, our ego is uncomfortable in the present moment. In fact (spoiler alert), awareness of the present moment is the death of ego. Our ego is at play when we find ourselves wrapped up in obsessive thoughts about the past. How someone wronged us. What we wished we really said in retort. How miserably we failed at something. How much they let us down.
Ego is equally fixated on the future — the next vacation, the perfect relationship that might never happen, the dream house, or retirement.
The ego loves certainty. It loves being in control. It loves feeling special. It loves attention. It loves being right and having something to look forward to. What the ego hates? Now. This present moment right here.
Making Peace with Our Egos
So now that we know what ego is and how to spot it at play in our lives, what do we do about it? I don’t think there’s any point in talking about killing our ego or trying to conquer it. We’re already too often at war with ourselves, and there is nothing the ego loves more than a good fight. And while some monks spend decades meditating to achieve freedom from their false self, most of us don’t have that kind of time.
Instead, we can build regular practices into our lives that bring awareness to our egos, ground us in the present moment, and free us from repeating reactive egoic patterns that cause harm to us and our world.
Mindfulness meditation can reduce stress and increase happiness. Mindfulness meditation has the added benefit of making us more aware of the present moment and the thoughts that habitually cross our minds. Mindfulness meditation also helps us to slow down and pay better attention to our lives. We can then become more aware of the roles we’ve learned to play but that no longer serve us well.
Present Moment Awareness
Tolle says, “All that is required to become free of the ego is to be aware of it, since awareness and ego are incompatible. Awareness is the power that is concealed in the present moment.” Drawing our minds back to the present moment each time our thoughts threaten to slip into the past or run ahead to the future is a powerful tool. Being present in the now keeps us from becoming overwhelmed by our ego’s relentless demands.
Ego is always hungry for more and loves to tell us that we are never enough. So gratitude is another powerful tool we can use. When we begin to feel as if we’re missing out or failing to measure up, we can take a moment to express our gratitude for what already is.
Ego is given to flying off the handle, behaving reactively, and getting defensive. When we feel our ego being triggered, instead of berating ourselves for not being mindful or more mature, we can exercise curiosity.
It’s difficult at first to become curious in the moment. With practice, we can look back on our worst reactive moments. Then we can say, “Huh, my ego reacted really strongly. I wonder what that was all about?” Often, if we stay open and curious we can uncover some really important but spurious messages we’ve told ourselves about our identity and begin to work to let them go. Only when we can uncover the root of our reactions will we see real change.
Resist Defending Our Egos
Tolle warns that the ego does not respond well to criticism and will react by becoming defensive or accusatory. This only further strengthens the ego, but hampers our personal growth. Instead, as difficult as it sounds, Tolle advises that we resist the urge to jump to our own defense right away, and instead simply absorb and consider the criticism. Or as Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek.” That way when we do finally react it comes from a place of awareness, and not ego.
Ego wants us to feel superior to other people. So as we start to grow more aware of our own ego, we’ll most likely begin to recognize it at play in other people and start to feel a little smug. So we should resist the urge to force enlightenment on others. Instead, we can exercise patience and kindness, remembering that everyone else is on the same journey and that not so long ago we walked in their shoes.
The reward for all of this ego work is that we can live from the place of our truest selves. When we’re no longer being driven to distraction by our ego, we have more energy and awareness to direct that energy. We’re more creative and more at peace with ourselves and those around us. Most importantly, we can find more joy in the present moment and begin to truly enjoy our lives. What better reward is there?
Christa C. Hogan has written for a diverse audience, including adults and children, since 2002. She pairs her insatiable curiosity, love of people, and strong researching skills with her extensive writing and editing experience. To find out more about her, visit christahogan.com.
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