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Ego: Ten Myths You’ll Be Relieved to Debunk

"Get over yourself" is an idea whose time has gone.

1. Ego is one thing: Our culture inherits the concept of ego from Eastern philosophy and Freud, which have two different things in mind.

Ego means “I.” In Eastern philosophy, Ego refers to the named self, the self of self-consciousness of self-recognition, as when you say, “I am.” These days, through popular interpretations of Eastern traditions like A Course In Miracles or Eckhart Tolle’s approach, we tend to associate ego with unhealthy and troublesome self-consciousness and self-infatuation—ego as egomania or being egotistical.

In contrast, Freud thought of the ego as forming to negotiate between human impulse and social standards, the voice in us that attempts to maintain a sense of being of one mind while negotiating between impulse (id) and shame (super-ego). The Freudian ego can be self-rationalizing and sneaky, but it’s not inherently unhealthy. Freud’s goal was creating healthy egos that negotiate effectively so that we get on with the business of life—love and work.

To Jung and many other later critics, Freud was overly focused on particular conflicts, particularly our Oedipal id urges vs. Victorian sexual mores. By now, we can think of the Freudian ego as negotiating many conflicting impulses and standards. The self, by Freud’s definition, becomes the arbitrator of such negotiations, the overarching voice in what could be thought of as endoeconomics, your inner economy, the conflict between the various demands you feel and your decisions about how to allocate your supply of effort to meet them.

2. Ego starts with self-consciousness: Life, not self-consciousness, is the origin of the self. All life forms have self-ness. Life is distinguishable by the internal work organisms do to keep regenerating themselves faster than they would otherwise degenerate, work that stops with death, revealing just how fast they would otherwise degenerate. While humans are especially, if not uniquely, capable of self-reference, all organisms work on their own behalf.

3. Only humans have ego: All organisms work "self-ishly," expanding their populations, size, and consumption unbridled by any moral constraints. What they don’t have is the ability to tell self-affirming stories to justify their expansion, but then they also don’t have any moral constraint either.

Hence, we think of animals as “moral patients” not “moral agents.” We wonder what’s moral to do with animals, the patients upon which we perform all sorts of surgery from animal testing to destroying their habits to eating them, but we don’t condemn chimps, our nearest relatives, for tearing live monkeys limb from limb, because we don’t generally see them having the self-awareness to negotiate guilt over hurting each other.

4. Either you are or you aren’t selfish: Selfishness in humans is real, but really hard to define by a standard we could all agree on. For example, with many people starving, how much amassing of wealth should be allowed? We might agree that selfishness is hoarding too much power and wealth to oneself, but we don’t agree on how much is too much. We agree that it’s fair and reasonable to save for a rainy day, but since we don’t know how rainy tomorrow will be we can’t agree on how much is fair and reasonable to save.

Selfishness is best thought of as a qualitative adjective, like bluish, which means, “blue to some degree.” All organisms are "self-ish," or self-oriented, to one degree or another. We debate how "self-ish" each of us should be, and different cultures will have different standards for how much is acceptable. Living in a wealthy country, I might think a 6,000-square-foot home is excessive. To someone poor living in Sierra Leone where the poverty rate is 64 percent, my 1,500-square-foot home will seem excessive. In other words, selfishness, like all measures of unfairness, is defined subjectively and locally.

5. Ego is bad: While no one says it outright, the general impression these days is that ego does at least more harm than good. Tell someone “that’s your ego talking” and they’re bound to interpret it as a criticism, as though any sign of looking out for number one is bad for you and bad for us.

This idea originates perhaps in our need to get along with each other, especially as societies become more dense and diversified, and so we have to engage in more give and take. But if give and take is the point, then we must all decide where to give and where to take, and any rule like “never take” stunts growth on addressing fair and squarely our decisions about where to take.

These days we treat egotism as a rare pathology, easily diagnosed, as simple as calling a spade a spade. It’s anything but. Egotism is universal, not rare, and debates about whether someone is or isn’t self-serving in excess are inevitable.

Indeed telling someone he’s being egotistical is a very practical way to take more. It translates as, “I deserve more than you think I do.”

You might but your reasons for thinking so have to be more substantive than your diagnosing your competitor is egotistical. The greediest people you know see anyone in their way as a pathological obstacle, in a word, an egotist.

6. It’s not hypocritical to call someone egotistical: Declaring others egotistical means you think pretty highly of your opinion, which is itself a form of egotism. For the same reason, it’s fairly arrogant to assume you’re the last word on who’s arrogant.

7. Ego is delusion: Buddhist friends try to correct me when I say the Buddha argued that the ego is an illusion. Maybe I’ve missed something but I sure do find sources that say otherwise. For example, Nepalese Rinpoche Chokyi Nyima, a revered Buddhist teacher, says that the Buddha said that, “everything…is impermanent, all phenomena are essentially empty, nothing actually exists, or has solid form, and even the ego does not exist. There is no I!” (From Jeff Greenwald's beautiful book, Snake Lake.)

The idea that selves aren’t real finds its home not just in Buddhism but in cognitive science where we all suffer a “user illusion” the sense that we’re real when really we’re just elaborate banks of physiochemical switches, more elaborate but fundamentally no different from any other physical phenomena. We are like computers, which aren’t any more selves than we are.

But computers don’t want anything, and we do — as is evident from the very active and particular work we do to get what we want. Nothing is permanent, it’s true, but if you’re going deny the existence of everything because it’s impermanent, what are you doing using nouns at all?

We use nouns to identify impermanent things all the time, identified by the work they do — for example, rocks for the work they do on our shins if we bump into them. The interesting question is how systems of impermanent interaction produce things and what distinguishes "self-ish" things from non-selfish things.

One answer is that "self-ish" things do work on their own behalf, work that has consequences for whether they stay in their self-ish game, a game their work shows they have skin in, in ways rocks and computers don’t.

8. There’s a way to escape ego: You and your ego are married for life – 'til death do you part. There’s toning it down or re-tuning it so you do less work on your own behalf, but as long as you’re alive, you’re working for yourself and it does no good to pretend otherwise.

9. Egotistical means having a strong ego: It depends on what you mean by ego. If you’re saying you work extra hard on your own behalf, then maybe, but if you’re talking about a strong Freudian internal negotiator between your multiple impulses, probably not. A strong negotiator can hold the id back when necessary. It can make us very balanced in our negotiation between what’s good for oneself and good others.

Even self-awareness isn’t just one thing. Elsewhere, I describe four I’s that make up a mind: the just-behaving, un-self-knowing “I” like any other organism’s; the “I” that is confidently self-knowing, as when you say, “I know that I’m a good person,” the second-guessing “I’ that watches oneself telling stories about oneself, as when you say, “I tend to believe that I’m a good person, whether it’s true or not;" and finally one’s awareness of a potential for third, fourth and infinite-guessing, the awareness that for every self-aware story you tell about who you are, another could be told about that source of self-awareness.

In practice, we live our lives mostly in the first three of these, just being, just confident we know ourselves, and just second-guessing ourselves. We could distinguish between strong ego as meaning confidence that we know ourselves (perhaps closest to what is meant by being egotistical), and strong ego as strong second-guessing, the ability to see ourselves negotiating.

10. “The ego is bad. I’m working on eliminating mine. I’m not that far along but it’s a worthy goal”: Trying to eliminate your ego is worse than a worthless goal. It’s a distraction from the real business of living, which is figuring out where to be "yang"-ly self-assertive and where to be "yin"-ly receptive and accommodating. Holding the goal of attaining egolessness is likely evidence that you’re willing to pursue goals that don’t make sense, evidence that you don’t like yourself and want to get away, or evidence that you like yourself a lot and are willing to posture as having high-minded sounding goals you give lip service to without really thinking about whether they’re achievable or worth achieving.

When I describe these 10 as myths, obviously I’m not the last word on what’s true and what isn’t. That would be egotistical. ;-) But this is my ego’s opinion about ego after thinking about it a long while and in collaboration with others who think about it with peculiar attention to the consequences of believing what we believe.

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D., MPP
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More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D., MPP
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