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Why an Inferiority Complex Can Still Mean a Big Ego

People who feel inferior can still be obsessed with their own importance.

If a person is said to have a big ego, it implies that they are perceived to be full of their own importance and think they are better than others. Having a big ego is also often associated with narcissistic tendencies, a superiority complex, and being self-absorbed. In other words, if a person has a big ego, it means that they are very caught up in “me,” “mine,” and “I.”

These popular connotations of the term “big ego” are largely consistent with current models of egotism within psychology. For example, studies have shown that the more egotistical a person is, the higher they are likely to rate their ability in terms of (for example) driving, intelligence, or athleticism. Similarly, research shows that people with a big ego are more likely to have memories that are biased in favor of their perceived self-importance or ability—a condition known as memory egotism.

However, in a psychological theory that I developed with Dr. Edo Shonin a few years ago, called Ontological Addiction Theory, we introduced a different perspective on the ego and argued that even people who might be thought of as having an inferiority complex can still be highly egotistical. On the surface, this might seem paradoxical, but the following hypothetical example outlining the thought processes of a person giving a public talk should hopefully help to clarify.

Imagine there is a person about to give a presentation to hundreds of people at a conference. They are sitting in the audience and will go on stage as soon as the current speaker concludes. Feeling a bit nervous is normal for people who are about to give a public talk, but let’s imagine the person in our example has a particularly low opinion of themselves and often feels inferior to others. They might be having thoughts such as: “All of the other speakers here are really confident, and I will be nowhere near as good”; “People won’t like me or what I have to say”; and “What happens if I make a fool of myself?”

Hopefully, you can see from these example thought processes that the individual is still somewhat focused on “me,” “I,” and “myself.” Although our imaginary speaker feels inferior to others, their thought processes are still indicative of being self-absorbed and having a big ego. The speaker’s focus on me, myself, and I, in terms of how others might view them, implies that they still assign quite a degree of importance to themselves.

Deluded by the Ego

The term “ontological addiction” in ontological addiction theory refers to a person becoming addicted to their beliefs relating to how important they think they are. This includes the extent to which they think they exist at the center of the world, separate from everything and everyone else around them. Ontological addiction theory invites a fresh perspective in terms of how modern science relates to the ego because it implies that people who might not appear to be egotistical on the surface can still have a big ego.

A key premise of ontological addiction theory is that regardless of how the ego manifests or how visible a person’s egotism might be, having a big ego is invariably not in the interests of fostering health and well-being. This applies to the health and well-being of the individual as well as to that of everyone they encounter. The reason for this is because the more we relate to ourselves as being separate from or more important than others, the more we are deluding ourselves as to how reality functions.

Everything that exists in this universe is deeply reliant on the existence of everything else. We only need to reflect on our own body to see that it depends on trees, animals, water, wind, and other people around us, etc. For example, we each breathe in parts of everybody else’s out-breath, and each time we go to the toilet, our contribution is processed by nature in a manner that enables it to create and sustain new life.

Because “this” exists, “that” exists. And without “this,” there can be no “that.” This is a fundamental law of existence or co-existence, but if we fail to embrace the fact that we are profoundly interconnected with everything else, our world becomes small and insular. Having a big ego is not conducive to fostering wisdom or personal growth, nor is it conducive to being compassionate or accepting of others.

The Ego Onion

I sometimes like to think of the ego as an onion with many different layers. We might think we have eliminated our egotistic tendencies, but there is invariably always another layer of ego that underlies our behaviors and perspective. In fact, I have even come across people who appear to be aloof and egotistical due to believing they have managed to overcome egotism!

Similarly, there are some people who do so-called kind or altruistic acts but whose primary intention is to feel better about themselves or promote their own agenda. I’m only giving examples here, and I know that some people are genuinely selfless when they help others. Nevertheless, it’s always worth considering how egotistical intentions might be influencing our or another person’s behavior.

In a previous blog post, I provided a test that a person can use to gauge their level of egotism and self-addiction. Self-reflecting on just how much our ego governs our choices, thoughts, and behaviors is definitely worthwhile and can help us understand more about how the mind works and how we construct beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. Such self-reflection should also help us avoid the trap of getting absorbed with our own importance or of making short-sighted choices that appear to advance our own agenda but are ultimately detrimental to the well-being of this planet.

References

Ducasse, D., Van Gordon, W., Brand-Arpon, V., Courtet, P., & Olié, E. (2019). Borderline personality Disorder: From understanding ontological addiction to psychotherapeutic revolution. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, Advance Online Publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00406-019-01029-6.

Ducasse, D., Van Gordon, W., & Courtet, P. (2020). If ‘me’ is not as it seems, what about all its perceptions? The need of constant virtuous doubts. Explore, Advance Online Edition, DOI: 10.1016/j.explore.2020.02.010

Dunning D., Heath C., & Suls J.M. (2004). Flawed self-assessment: Implications for health, education, and the workplace. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5, 69–106.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2016). Ontological addiction: Classification, etiology, and treatment. Mindfulness, 7, 660-671.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Diouri, S., Garcia-Campayo, J., Kotera, Y., & Griffiths, M. D. (2018). Ontological Addiction Theory: Attachment to Me, Mine, and I. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 7, 892-896.

Willard, G., & Gramzow, R. H. (2009). Beyond oversights, lies, and pies in the sky: Exaggeration as goal projection. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 477-492

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