Published by Gary van Warmerdam February 26th, 2013
The ego is an identity of our own construction, an identity which is false. If we take all the beliefs of what we are – beliefs about our personality, talents, and abilities – we have the structure of our ego. These talents, abilities and aspects of our personality will be attributes of our skills, but the mental construct of our “self” is artificial. And while this description might make the ego seem like a static thing, it is not. Rather, it is an active and dynamic part of our personalities, playing an immense role in creating emotional drama in our lives.
When we have thoughts about our self that we agree with we construct a self-image. The kinds of thoughts that contribute to the ego structure are:
“I’m not good at math.”
“I am smart.”
“My freckles make me ugly.”
“Nobody likes me.”
“I am better than you.”
“That was stupid of me.”
The ego hides behind the “I” and “me” in those declarative thoughts and statements about our identity.
When we have such thoughts and agree with even the slightest conviction that these ideas define us, then we are building, or reinforcing, an ego. We first have these thoughts when we are kids, perhaps when we were teased on the playground, or when reprimanded or praised by a teacher or parent. In all cultures, developing a self-image is a normal part of socialization. Problems arise, however, when that self-image is negative, inaccurate, or even overly positive. Considering that we develop our concept of “self” as children, it is inevitable that our self-image doesn’t map to reality as adults.
The Ego Unmasked
Why is the ego so hard to explain or describe? The ego is difficult to define because the ego isn’t one specific thing. It is actually made up of many different beliefs that a person acquires over their life. Those beliefs can be diverse and even contradictory. To further complicate it, each person’s ego is different. If someone were to clearly identify and describe all the parts of their ego and what it drives them to do, you might not get a good description of what yours looked like. The challenge of becoming aware of what your personal ego looks like becomes more difficult because our culture doesn’t reward us for directing our attention inward and noticing such things.
How to Spot the Ego
The ego is difficult to see, because it hides behind opinions that appear true – our attachment to descriptions of our identity – and because we haven’t practiced looking. You can get a glimpse by noticing certain thoughts, similar to those listed above. The easier way to spot the ego is by the trail of emotional reactions it leaves behind: Anger at a loved one, a need to be right, a feeling of insecurity in certain situations, feelings of jealousy that are unexplained, the need to impress someone, and so on. These emotions can be attributed to the false beliefs that comprise the ego. In the beginning it is easier to see the symptoms of resulting emotions and drama, rather than the ego that caused it.
One of the most deceptive aspects of the ego is that it generates powerful emotional reactions, and then blames us for how it made us feel. The anger we react with comes from ego based beliefs of being right and “knowing better’ than someone else. Perhaps there is also a victim interpretation of betrayal or injustice underneath. After we overreact with anger we might feel badly for what we expressed. The ego shifts to a “righteous self” that “knows better” and berates us for overreacting with anger. At the same time, it assumes the identity of being the “stupid idiot” that didn’t know any better and takes the blame for overreacting. All these attitudes, thoughts, and beliefs take place in the mind, and even though they are completely different, we assume all of them come from us. If they really were expressions coming from our genuine self, they wouldn’t contradict, and we would be able to stop them.
To the unaware person, it is difficult to discern the difference between what is ego and what is really them. They are left to wonder, “What came over me that I reacted that way?” Even their post-emotional analysis lacks the consideration to see the different parts of their belief system at work as separate from themselves. As a result, everything they express is blamed on “themselves” by one of the condemning voices in their head. In effect, the ego hijacks the analysis and turns it into a self-criticism/blame process. When the ego controls the self-reflection process you have no chance of seeing the root cause of your emotional dramas, as the ego reaffirms itself and hides in the self-criticism.
Is the ego arrogant or insecure?
“Having an ego” is usually associated with arrogance and is a term used to describe someone who thinks they are better than others. Yet this is only one part of the ego. In fact, it is possible to have some positive self-esteem and some negative self-esteem – we are aware of these different beliefs at different times. The negative beliefs about our self make up our negative self-esteem, while our positive thoughts comprise our positive self-esteem. Together, the negative and positive esteem forms our ego.
Quite often, these two aspects of our personality are nearly equal in magnitude and offset each other emotionally. A person who is very hard on themselves with their inner critic may have feelings of worthlessness. This is a painful emotion to live with, and in order to mask the pain, they might cover it up with bravado, projecting an image of security and confidence, all the while struggling with feelings of insecurity, worthlessness and inadequacy.
Arrogance is markedly different from the confidence that doesn’t come from ego. A person can be completely confident in their ability, skill, or self-acceptance, without letting it “go to their head” and impacting their interactions with others. And while humility may often be mistaken for shyness and insecurity, a person of true humility is fully present and at peace with themselves and their surroundings. Confidence without arrogance, humility without insecurity, these are manners of personality that are without the self-image dynamics of the ego.
Letting Go of the Ego
Because the ego has multiple aspects, it is not practical or effective to dissolve all of it at once, nor is it likely that you could do so. Much like a tree or large bush that is overgrown in the yard, you don’t just lift it out and throw it away – you cut off manageable pieces instead. The same approach is effective with letting go of the false beliefs that make up the ego. You begin by detaching from individual thoughts that reinforce the ego, then let go of beliefs, separating yourself from the false identity of your ego.
We have spent years building our ego self-images, living inside of them, and reinforcing them. Extracting our genuine self out of this matrix of false beliefs will take more than a few days. Yes, it will take a while… so what. It also took a while to learn to read, do math, walk, and develop proficiency at any valuable skill. Things worth doing take time and practice. What better thing do you have to do than let go of what is causing you unhappiness?