SCENARIO 1: Imagine you are walking down a street and you pass the window of a store that sells the most beautiful lamp you have ever seen. You look at it for a while. Just when you make the decision to go in to buy the lamp, a salesperson bumps into the lamp, it falls down and breaks.
What is your reaction? It’s probably something like „Oh well, that’s too bad. It was a nice lamp.“ and you keep walking. Forgetting about it within the next 5 minutes.
SCENARIO 2: Now imagine the employee didn’t bump into the lamp. You went into the store and bought the lamp. On your way out though the salesperson bumps into you. You drop the lamp and it breaks.
What is your reaction? This time it’s probably something like „Oh no, my lamp! Damit! I am so mad the lamp broke.“ and while you keep walking you remain mad for the next couple hours. Maybe even the day after.
What’s the difference?
In both scenarios the lamp broke. Why don’t you care in scenario 1 and why are you mad in scenario 2? Because in scenario 2 the lamp was yours? Because you payed for it? Because you owned it?
The reason you are acting different is your label to the lamp. Which is called ego. But what exactly does the ego do to you?
First let’s look at two perspectives of the ego.
#1 THE EGO IN BUDDHISM
From a buddhism point of view the ego is your self-image, not your true self. It is characterized by labels, masks, images, and judgments. It hides behind the “I” and “me” in thoughts and statements about your identity. For example: „I am a cook, I am good in power point, Nobody likes me, I am a better speaker than you, …“. Buddhism distinguishes between an innate „I“ and a conceptual „self“.
The innate „I“ is when we think e.g. „I am hungry, I am hot, I am tired“
The conceptual „self“ is formed by habit.
Early in life you notice that the self is vulnerable. So you do everything to protect it. You label everything that either threatens the self or pleases the self. Feelings of attraction and repulsion come into play, which leads to two things:
1. You fear that the self might be attacked.
So you blow up your ego like a bubble. You believe that inside the bubble – inside your ego – you are protected.
But the opposite is true. You create the illusion that you are separate from the rest of the world. Because you believe that when you are separate from the world you can avoid suffering. But according to Buddhism the opposite is true. The ego attracts suffering, because it evolves out of fear. The fear that your ego is being destroyed.
We become so accustomed to labeling „my body, my name, my job, my possessions, my friends“ that we identify with it and fear the disappearance.
2. When you are fearful you don’t trust yourself.
Genuine fearlessness arises with the confidence that you can handle any situation.
The feelings of attraction and repulsion lead to duality, differentiating between the „self“ and „other“, which is the origin of frustration and suffering like desire, jealousy, hatred, or selfishness.
In scenario 2 your ego persuades you that your own fate is of greater value than that of the salesperson.
#2 FREUD’S EGO
According to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of personality the ego is one part of the personality. The two other parts that compose the personality are id and superego.
id (or it):
The id is the primitive and instinctive component of our personality. It consists of all the inherited components of personality, including the sex instinct (life) and the aggressive instinct (death). It is the impulsive and unconscious part of our psyche which responds directly and immediately to the instincts.
The id seeks pleasure and avoids pain.
As a child your personality was all id and only later did you develop an ego and a super-ego.
ego (or I):
Initially the ego is ‘that part of the id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world’ (Freud 1923).
From Freud’s perspective the ego is a mediator between the id and the real world. The id is unreasonable whereas the ego is reasonable. It’ the decision maker of your personality.
If the id wants something the ego works out realistic ways to satisfy the id’s demands. It considers social standards and rules.
Like the id the ego seeks pleasure and avoids pain. But unlike the id, the ego seeks a realistic strategy. Often though, the ego is a lot weaker than the id.
The ego has no concept of right and wrong. It just does whatever is realistic to solve the problem.
superego (or above I):
The superego incorporates the values and morals of society. It develops around the age of 3-5.
It’s job is to
- control the impulsive id, especially regarding sex and aggression
- persuade the ego to turn to moralistic goals instead of simply realistic ones
The superego follows two ideas: conscience and ideal self. The conscience punishes the ego through guilt, if it gives in to the demands of the id. Or rewards it by making it feel proud if it behaved properly. The ideal self is the picture of how you ought to be by societies standards. If those standards are too high, you will always feel like failure.
In Buddhism you can work on your ego. From Freud’s perspective it’s the superego. But that exactly is it you can do to improve yourself? What does it mean in your everyday life, what does it mean for your personal development?
5 ways to overcome your ego for your personal development
#1 The ego keeps you stuck.
It prevents you from getting to know your true self. If you hide inside the bubble, you keep focusing on the outside instead of the inside. It prevents you from noticing any habitual ways in which you react emotionally. See if you can pinpoint the identity you hold about yourself.
#2 The ego maintains your fear of not being in control.
You are so scared that the ego will be destroyed, so that anything that might harm your ego seems scary. If you are free of your ego you are confident. If you have to give a presentation for example and you are free of ego, you are not scared. Because if you fail you know you are you. Try to befriend the unknown and receive things as they happen.
#3 Your ego is attached to what others should say or do.
This often leads to problems in the relationship. Your expectations are up and the other person will never be able to meet them. If you think about it, most relationships, if with friends, family, your partner or at work, fail because expectations are not fulfilled. When was the last time you were mad at somebody? What was the reason? Because your coworker didn’t do the job like you expected, because your friend didn’t call you? Those are all expectations. It’s your ego working hard. Try to recognize when someone is attached to how you should be. Rather than resisting and creating conflict, notice what happens and show compassion for the other person. Also, next time you are mad at someone pay attention to the real reason. Is it really them or did they just not meet your expectations.
#4 Your ego attaches you to possessions.
Like the lamp. It’s no problem to have as many possessions as you want to, but as soon as your ego is in place you define yourself by your possessions. You tie your happiness to those possessions. To overcome that feeling it helps a lot to think about the moment when you will be dying. Will it matter at all in your life if the lamp broke, if you loose 100$, if your dress ripped. Imagine losing everything, you’ll realize you don’t really own anything.
#5 The ego always tells you to long for something you don’t have.
Maybe possessions. Or status. Or a new partner. This always leads to a feeling of deficiency, which makes you unhappy. Focus on the abundance in your life, to what is already there. Even the little things, like a cup of coffee in the morning, walking in the rain, your bed. A great exercise to focus on the abundance is to write down three aspects in your life you are thankful for. Do it first thing in the morning for a week. See if you notice a difference.
How does a lack of your ego lead to personal development?
When you control your ego or your superego what remains is confidence in yourself. You start to act spontaneous and free of fear. If you are self-confident you can enjoy life to the fullest.
Aaron Beck, the founder of cognitive therapy, observed that Psychopaths are extremely egocentric. „They are totally self-serving, feel that they are superior to others, and, above all, think that they have innate rights and prerogatives that transcend or preempt those of others.“*
So what do you do to not become a psychopath?
*(Aaron Beck. Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility and Violence, New York: HarperCollins. 1999)