Without wanting to sound too Freudian, the ego is, more or less, without presuming I am either a psychoanalyst or going to delve into essays worth of detail about the fascinating and complex subject, a part of you. It refers to something rather different depending on the context, but radically it means your “self.” The psychoanalysts define it more specifically than one might in normal conversation (as far as the topic arising in everyday conversation is normal), so this is more of a bare-bones, kinda-gist-thing to simply describe the part of your self to which I’m referring. When I say “ego,” I mean your sense of self. Your stubbornness, your identity to a degree, your train of conscious thought and all the things by which you refer to your self in your head. Most importantly, of all this, I want to describe that part of you that can be very unrelenting; your identity that you give yourself which seems fundamental to being the person you are.
It’s important to have an ego and a sense of identity. Who are you otherwise? How would you even answer that question? There’s nowhere to start unless you already have some notion of your self and what that means. How you speak, how you think, your characteristics, how neurotic you are or how often you think about watching your neighbour in the shower. Everything from the valliant, charitable, magnanimous person who donates all of your clothes and furniture to homeless shelters, all the way to the person with terrible thoughts and who likes the idea of kicking cats sometimes or pushing people in front of trains. You likely have some idea as to which part of the spectrum you lie, from the virtuous to the downright villainous. It’s also likely to be skewed by some bias or another, without a doubt. The way we perceive ourselves is, mostly, not true to reality. Either we try and boost our self-esteem by forgetting how terrible we are, or we despise ourselves into never being able to fully accept that, in actual fact, we’re not so bad at all. One’s opinion of oneself varies, and often is influenced one way or another by things like trauma or childhood development or several other kinds of influences. But that gets a bit too “Freudy.”
It’s commonly believed, and rightly so, that having a realistic view of yourself is important, healthy, and quite practical. It means you know where you stand – whether among peers or with regards to where you want to be. You aren’t so overconfident that you can’t see your flaws (of which I guarantee you have many), but you also aren’t so ashamed of yourself that you can never see progress and encourage yourself to live up to your potential. Being somewhere in the middle of that is realism, which tells you how far you’ve come and how far you have to go before you become what you want to be. Your ideal self. Plus, it stops you beating yourself up needlessly and stops people from disliking you for being too full of yourself (or egotistical).
Often, it’s difficult to find this realistic pathway between to extreme sides of the spectrum. And how do you really know that it’s realistic and not just as warped as what you already thought? Well, there may be a part of you which already knows. I’m sure you can feel a certain way about yourself and then ask yourself “but does that fit with reality? With what I’ve experienced?” and the answer can tell you if you’re far from the truth or not. It’s difficult to accept that we aren’t exactly who we claim to be or think we are, and that is the strong sense of ego getting in the way, whether it’s too pessimistic or optimistic (see a post on that argument
), you can still have that strong sense of identity which you are unlikely to be willing to change. It’s difficult. Changing how you perceive yourself is tantamount to undermining your entire identity. Who are you if not the person you already think you are? Obviously it’s going to be hard to call into question all that you think you are. Our ego often won’t allow it. It’s uncomfortable, it’s embarrassing; if I’m wrong about my identity, then I’ll feel like I’ve been an idiot this whole time! If I’ve been dismissive of doing something because it didn’t fit this character I see myself playing, and it’s affected me negatively, then I’ll feel foolish to have not done what I knew I should have done. My ego is saying “don’t accept that you’re wrong!” as all egos do, with varying degrees of strength. It’s the reason we can be mean when we’re angry. The first test of whether you can overcome your ego is to apologise. Be sorry for something you did or said, even thought you didn’t think it was your fault. Maybe someone overreacted to something you did and you shouldn’t have to apologise, but knowing how to say sorry despite that is a vastly underestimated skill and virtue. It means listening to your reason and compassion, trying to be kind even though you feel you didn’t have to be in the first place. It turns out that you might be wrong more often than you think, and an apology can go a long way. You might even realise later on that you were in the wrong and you damn-well should have apologised. Regardless of whose fault something really was, what do you lose by saying sorry? An argument? So what? You also lose a grudge and resentment towards someone. Surely that’s better than satisfying your ego by maintaining that you were right all along.
Once it gets easier to disregard your strong, stubborn ego (if you suffer from this like I sometimes do), then you can try other things like reevaluating your identity. Maybe you aren’t as noble as you thought. Maybe you aren’t as insufferable as you believed. Either way, your ego can obscure this level of clarity and leave you stuck in your old ways; your bad habits, your bad thoughts, your stubbornness and much more. When we allow ourselves to change and invite the possibility that our sense of self may be flawed, we can perhaps become better versions of ourselves. What’s stopping us, after all? What’s stopping you quit smoking? Your ego justifying the habit as something that’s so special to you that – despite millions of other people quitting – you just can’t because it’s “not that simple” or “it works differently for you” or whichever excuse you like. Yes, things are hard, but is it really impossible? Or is your ego good at lying to you in order to justify why you haven’t put in the effort to do it? I know where I place my bets.
As I often say, the main obstacle you will face is yourself. Not the entirety of yourself, but this awful, stubborn, justifying, lying, denying part of yourself. It’s useful if your beliefs are challenged and you don’t want to be gullible and led astray by anyone. That’s how people get led into sects and unsavory business. It’s great when you need a backbone and have to stand up for what you think is true and your values. It’s not so good when you can’t question those values and yourself. When you can’t overcome adversity because you can justify inaction to yourself so easily. The ego is important to have on your side, but you need to show it who’s boss. Your ego should be your dog, and you the master, like it’s a part of you, but not all of you. And then, when you don’t have that huge obstacle in your way anymore, when you can apologise, change yourself for the better and be more like the person you envisage yourself to be, then what’s stopping you?