Ego is our tricky friend. On the one hand, it’s an essential part of us to survive, thrive and relate to others in a competitive world. On the other, it’s always hungry for more and never happy with what its got. Whatever your take on the ego, it’s a fascinating and innate part of our being. I want to explore why we have it, how to get the best out of it and help you see: is your ego the master or slave?
What is the ego?
Put simply, it’s how we view ourselves – or our sense of ‘I’. It’s the mental chatter which defines who we think we are. I say ‘think’ because it’s not actually who we are, but a projected image we call our personality. The latin etymology for ‘persona’ is mask; the ego creates a false mask of who we are which we present to the world.
Our personality is created based on how we’ve experienced the world and perceive how it works. This impacts the way we interact with everything around us. We end up constantly living in our head with fears, judgements, ideals and expectations on who we are and how the world should be. The ego itself is not positive or negative – but through experience it labels and judges ourselves and our experiences to be positive or negative.
Why do we have an ego?
We are not born with an ego. When we are in the womb, we have no sense of separation from our mother or the universe. All our needs are met through the interconnectedness between mother and child.
After birth, we are separated and have to learn how to survive on our own. We quickly learn that to have our basic needs met, we must communicate with our carers. Gradually we form our perception of how the world works and form an individual identity. This is the birth of the ego and sense of ‘I’.
The ego grows itself by adding new identities – such as a life story, knowledge, achievements, possessions and beliefs. Since the ego is always adding to itself, it never feels complete or stable. It is constantly fluctuating between feeling important and worthless based on external circumstances. For better or worse, the ego is essential to give structure, meaning and perspective to our reality.
How does society impact our ego?
From a young age, our ego is fed by our environment. We quickly learn that if we conform to our parent’s wishes, we will be rewarded. If we disobey, we are punished. Depending on your parents own understanding of self, you will either be encouraged to find your true self or conform to a cultural identity.
Society teaches us that in order to be happy, secure and comfortable we must be ‘successful’. Success is largely defined by money, image, education, status, fame and connections. To be successful, we are taught to compete against others and be the best. We are led to believe there’s only room for a few at the top – and our ego always wants to be number one.
The better we perform according to this system, the more we are rewarded. This cycle perpetuates from our early schooling to the work environment and shapes how we interact with the world. Our ego is forever obsessed with having more – and society is obsessed with feeding it. We are continually over stimulated with images and messages to do more, be more and have more.
Taking time out to find ourselves is generally seen as a waste of time. The ego is conditioned to stay plugged into society out of an irrational fear of being left ‘behind’ other people. If we are not busy doing something to feed the ego, we are viewed as a loner or lazy. This keeps us in a repetitive cycle of busy – chasing an elusive happiness which always seems just out of reach.
Discovering my ego
My aspirations to be a lawyer were built on the expectations of my ego – I had a strong sense of social justice and wanted to help people, but was equally allured by prospects of money, power and respect. While there is nothing wrong with this pursuit in itself, the problem was that I never questioned why I wanted these things, or how much I needed.
I was constantly comparing myself against others and never felt like I was enough. The ambitions of my ego became my prison. I was constantly concerned about the judgement and expectation of others. By developing a false belief of who I was, I nurtured a strong ego which allowed others to exploit my fears and weaknesses.
It was only when I grew my awareness through spending time alone, journalling and practicing meditation did I start deconstructing the ego. I can only describe this experience as my ‘awakening’ – and I started seeing myself as an observer and recognising what behaviours were destructive to me. I realised how much value I attached to superficial things such as status, reputation and material goods and how little love I had for who I actually was. With a better understanding of my identity, I loosened my mental shackles enough to value my true identity, discover what I really wanted and took steps to pursue it.
Ego vs Inuition
As my awareness grows, I have a better idea if i’m guided by intuition or ego. Intuition is our gut instinct which has no rational or logical explanation. It will never mislead you – yet we tend to ignore it in place of our ego’s mental chatter. The Japanese point to their belly when they say ‘I know’ since they believe it’s the body which holds our higher thought.
The ego distorts our perception of the world through fears and judgement based on our past and future projections. It is constantly distracting us from our inner voice, pleading and rationalising that it knows best. By learning to be still, quietening our mind and listening to our bodies, we can start tapping into our intuition for true guidance in life.
Stay in tune for Part 2 to learn practical tips on identifying and working with the ego.