Is Ego Really The Enemy?
Updated: Feb 20, 2021
The vilified ego from a more human perspective
In 2016 the American author and marketer Ryan Holiday published a book called "Ego Is The Enemy" - a great book, in my own opinion. In it, Mr. Holiday discusses the negative implications heightened ego could have on all aspects of life. While he makes an excellent case, and I largely agree with many of his ideas, it made me think about ego and if it was really all that bad. Surely, in an extreme case, it is, but in this article I would argue that, while vilified, it is not all that bad, that it is perfectly natural for many of us to have a bit of it, and that it also serves an important purpose for our mental health.
The word 'ego' usually conveys a negative feeling, because we tend to use it with a negative connotation in the sense of egotistical i.e. having too much of it. But it doesn't need to be a bad word. For the purpose of this article, I will use the common definition of ego as one's sense of self-esteem or self-importance. As a matter of fact, the word itself comes from Latin and means 'I', and this is probably the best way in which we can understand the word. Just like a person, the ego itself is neither intrinsically good nor bad. It is a tool, which we can wield and use in one way or another, not unlike a hammer or anything else. Used for malicious purposes, it has the potential to kill a person, but if used correctly, it could build a roof above your head.
The Commonplace, Ugly Sense Of The Word
It is undeniable that, in the grotesque, ugly sense of the word, ego can indeed be detrimental to our happiness and success. It can make us lose touch with reality, being self-absorbed in our illusory little bubble, where we are the single most important thing in the world and superior to everybody else. We become the Sun in our own solar system of self-importance, with everything and everyone else revolving around us. It is easy to fall into this trap, because ego likes being stroked. It only takes a few successes to start feeling special, deserving, destined for greatness. One thing leads to another and more people want to get closer to us, ask for our opinion and flatter us. Who doesn't like the popularity and attention? It doesn't even need to be a big success in reality, because our minds will take care of the rest and turn this into the most amazing achievement ever. We start talking more than listening; we start dismissing others' opinions, because who are they to know better than us, hence foregoing opportunities to learn; we explain failures with mistakes by others in our heads, because we are too great to have gotten it wrong in the first place. As a result, inflated ego could often impede our professional progression, destroy personal relationships and prevent us from learning from past mistakes. In extreme cases, if we look at history, it could cause the downfall of whole empires.
We have all seen this ugly side around us, so it is not that difficult to imagine any of the above. 'Around us' is the important part here, because most of us have a massive blind spot for our own weaknesses, which makes it a lot harder to objectively evaluate our own worth. We are a lot better at assessing others, or that's what we think from a third party perspective, but this is a topic for another article.
I don't want to spend too much time talking about 'bad ego' , there are enough books and articles on the topic, so this is not my intention here. Rather, true to my philosophy, I would like to look at the human side of things. Because, first, ego can also be good and pivotal to our success in any aspect of life and second, yes, it could be bad and harmful at times, but after all, we are just humans.
Ego As Part Of Life
Let's go back to the etymology of the word, meaning 'I', as this holds the key to understanding ego. From the first moment we are born and for the first few years of our lives, it is all about 'I'; we are the only thing that matters in our own heads. We are the sole and brightest star in the universe and everything revolves around us. When we are hungry, we need to be fed. When we are dirty, we need to be showered and changed. When we decide to wake up at 3 a.m., we want attention and will cry our eyes out until we get it. We have our every need attended to. Everything happens to serve the sole needs of its majesty - the baby. We have no regard to the needs and wants of anyone else. Then we start growing up, but not much changes initially. In early childhood - it is all the same, we have our parents cook for us, provide for us, tidy up after us and attend to our every need. And in my case, if I wouldn't get what I wanted first time, I would kneel down in the street and start banging by head against the pavement, until my parents felt sorry for me and gave in (yes, I was a special kid). Roll on a few years, and if we are lucky to grow up in a supportive and caring environment, we get regular appraise and encouragement, for helping with the chores, for getting good grades at school, for tidying up our room, etc. Throw a few academic, personal or professional successes throughout the years and it all starts getting to our heads little by little. It is easy to see how we can start developing some sense of heightened self-importance.
It is not just our upbringing and personal experience that help to build up an ego, there are also evolutionary reasons, which have been at play ever since we lived in caves 100 000 years ago. Those were times when self-centeredness was simply a matter of survival. When our ancestors were hungry, they had to feed themselves, when they were in danger, they had to hide from the threat, when they were at the mercy of nature, they had to take shelter, everything in the name of survival. Back then, catering for your own needs first, was literally a matter of existence. Obviously, here we are not talking about ego in the sense we know it today, but at a more rudimentary level what is ego if not a primary regard for your own wellness, needs and survival above and beyond everything and everyone else?
Luckily, these days, most of us live in a world, where we do not have to constantly fight for physical survival. I appreciate there are still places, where this is a primary concern, but if we look at things on a global scale, the percentage of people living in war zones, suffering from malnutrition or in danger of life threatening diseases due to lack of access to basic necessities, is probably the lowest it has ever been historically. So, looking beyond the physical survival, today, ego plays an ever greater role for our psychological needs and wellbeing.
The Purpose Of Ego
Each one of us is a product of a small internal ecosystem, comprising the good and the bad, which needs to be in balance for us to function as normal human beings. This ecosystem maintains the inner peace with ourselves and others, and ego is fundamental to its normal functioning. It is the balancing element, which regulates how we feel about ourselves, our self-worth, our achievements and place in the world. A healthy balance requires our ego wearing rose tinted glasses, which slightly tip the balance to the positive side, where we are right, amazing at what we do, or successful. It helps to reduce the negative emotions, which could flood our minds every time we do something slightly wrong, lose or fail. It is an airbag, which softens the hit when we crash in order to keep us alive and well. We all know the negative emotions we feel when we make a mistake, or fail at something - that sense of reduced self-worth, which hurts our perception of how knowledgeable, skilful or great we are. All this creates emotional strain, guilt, remorse, which somehow need to be counter balanced to restore our inner balance. Our brains have various mechanisms to achieve that - blind spots, attributing failures to external factors or others, cognitive dissonance reduction (I will cover this in a separate post), etc. In a sense, ego helps us to get through adversity by telling us that it wasn't our fault, that we were right all along, that we are still worthy. It is really a survival mechanism, which kicks in to preserve our minds from drowning in negativity. Yes, it could be illusory; yes, it could make us look like bad in the eyes of others; yes makes us lose a little touch with reality, but it plays a vital role to ensure we do not lose touch with ourselves.
The Flip Side - Too Much Is Bad, How About Too Little?
So far we looked at the implications of inflated ego and the role it plays for our mental health, now let's look at what happens if we don't have enough of it. We probably all know people with low ego (or as most often recognised when in limited supply - low self-esteem), or maybe we are this person. It is not a great place to be. Feeling like you are never good enough, like you are less than everyone else, like you do not deserve the person next to you, or getting this better job. Everything in your head is falling apart, you live in a constant anxiety that one day your boss, your partner or your friends will realise you are not good enough for them and walk away (or fire you). Having low self-esteem could, just like having too high-self esteem inhibit opportunities for growth, success or happiness. Why would you apply for this better job, when there are so many people out there, who are better than you? Why would your partner stay with you, when there are so many younger, fitter, more accomplished people than you? Why would you reach for the stars, when you are just not the type of person who is destined for greatness? In more extreme cases, this could lead to paranoia, depression or worse.
The points I am trying to make in this article are the following:
Ego is not intrinsically bad. Like most things in life, it can be good or bad, based on how much you have. Too much of it - you can be a self-absorbed, lost-connection-with-reality egotist, who has blown up their personal relationships, marriage or career. Too little, on the other side, and you could be sitting on the verge of an abyss, questioning the point of your very existence.
Many of us would have a slightly heightened ego, because it plays an important role in preserving our inner peace, it is a mechanism our minds employ to keep us in a healthy relationship with ourselves. We need this to bounce back from failures and stay positive.
Having a healthy amount of ego is instrumental in success. It is this slightly heightened view of ourselves and our own abilities, which give us the push to take a leap of faith and look beyond the status quo, beyond what we have now and make us dream of what we can have tomorrow. Because, what are successful people, at the end of the day, if not dreamers.
Hope this post has been useful and you have enjoyed it. Please comment or drop me an e-mail if you have any thoughts, ideas or feedback. Thanks