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12 Tips for Getting Real About Your Ego

They get in the way and won't go away. Here's what to do about that.

The Buddha was on to something. Not bad for 2,500 years ago, but we know more now. Here are some practical ideas for managing an ego, especially Western ones acculturated in a culture of individuality.

  1. There is no self? That’s nonsense on stilts! From what we now know about the origin and evolution of life, it’s obvious there are selves. True, they’re not permanent but they do exist in all organisms. It’s obvious from their struggle for existence. Every organism from the beginning on is selfish, to some extent hustling on its own behalf, using their environments against their environment. You can call it whatever you like, an agent, an organism, selfhood, a soul, a spirit – it’s a locus of control a source of motivations to make self-benefiting effort. So you might as well give up on trying to kill your ego. You’ve got one and will have it until you die. You can’t even “transcend” it.
  2. Different selves, different expectations: Some people learn early on that they don’t matter much. People born into oppression, poverty, collectivist societies, or loveless homes simply adapt to low expectations of what’s their self’s due. Some are weaned early off big expectations, others are preened toward high expectations. Temperaments make a difference too. Some of us are born bolder and hungrier than others. And then there are talents. If you’re prone to preening and you’re born with a lucky hotness of one kind or another, you might end up not just with a demand for ego affirmation but the means to get it. There are ego addicts, some abler to get their fix than others. A rich cocaine addict is going to do more cocaine than a poor one. The same goes for ego. We have different senses of ego-entitlement and different means of achieving ego satisfaction. It’s not like we’re all going to end up with equal demand for or supply of ego fulfillment. Circumstances and lucky play an unfair role in our realities.
  3. Your ego keeps food on your table: The higher your status, the higher your income. No wonder then than we encourage our egos, promoting our “brand,” often living our whole lives as though ego-promotion, status, and income are all essential, even all one thing, especially if you work in a cutthroat environment. It’s no wonder that some people have a hard time relaxing their ego-quests, even after their status and financial needs are met.
  4. Egos can get in the way: It’s not all about us, and when people act like it is, it makes them dumber. You can’t even have a conversation with them without them making bids, subtle and unsubtle for ego attention, name-dropping, tooting their horns, pretending that everything is a prop and everyone is a bit-player in their personal epic drama. It’s tedious, depleting and exhausting, especially when other people suck the air out of the room that our egos crave for our attention.
  5. Fragile egos can make us dumb: Some people feel so entitled to ego-glory that there’s just no talking to them. Raise any challenge to their fragile egos and they circle their wagons and declare war. That’s a problem. Having a fragile, bloated ego will stunt your growth.
  6. You can’t just rationally opt to become egoless: Opt all you want, and your ego will still be there. Embrace some ego-denying philosophy and your ego will find ways to use it to its advantage. There is no philosophy that the ego can’t put to its own purposes.
  7. Ego is a bigger problem for humans: Humans have language which exposes us to way too many threats to our egos and affords us way too many ways for our egos to pep-talk their way back to an elevated status. Those people far away in your past, future or elsewhere who wouldn’t think you’re all that? Non-human organisms don’t have to contend with such sources of anxiety nor would they have the pep-talk means by which to sweep them under the carpet with “Well, they’re just wrong, evil, egotists who don’t know my true exulted worth.” That’s a human thing. We can rationalize delusions of grandeur like no other critter.
  8. Your ego will die eventually: You can transcend your ego but by then there will be no “you” to do the transcending. It happens at death when our struggle for existence is gone. Our material bodies are still there of course until they decompose. The memory of us will live on for a while in other people, but admit it: Our selfhood will perish. If that’s what’s meant by Buddhism’s claim that the self is not real, fair enough, but by the same token a banana is real until it isn’t. It rightly drives us crazy that our selfhood, the thing we care about most eventually disappears. It’s easy to see why many folks just can’t get over that and make bids for eternal glory in heaven or the afterlife, some becoming incorrigible and insufferable through their insistent fantasy that they’ll live forever, their humble-brag name-dropping about having found the true way by aligning with some eternal mighty right and righteous God. That’s just what you’d expect from a chronically threatened pep-talking human. Still, in the long run, we're each and every one of us forgotten. That's OK. Enjoy being you while you can.
  9. Before your ego dies, ego-affirmation will taper off: It’s a rare elderly person who can sustain the affirmations achieved during a successful middle life. Attention turns toward younger, fresher, hotter egos. Looks fail. Skills fail. The flashy themes that fed your ego in your younger days become old hat. The world moves on, leaving you wondering what happened, scrambling to maintain the ego-affirmation to which you are accustomed. If you foresee that, you can prepare for it a little. You can remember that somehow between now and ninety, you’re going to have to wean yourself. You can remain productive but probably to less fanfare; your productivity will taper off too. Somehow between now and ninety (or, I suppose 110), your expectations of productivity will have to adjust to when having a good poop counts for a productive day. That’s hard, made a little easier by knowing you’re not exempt. It’s what we all go through if we’re lucky enough to live that long.
  10. You can upstage your ego at least a little: Flow – consuming engagement in some pursuit, whether it’s skiing, knitting, meditation, video games, playing music, athletics, working hard, helping others – can make you forget your ego while you’re experiencing it. You can’t just quit having an ego but you can get a break from it through flow and if your pursuit becomes regular enough, your ego will recede more and more from front and center attention. Have something you love to do and you’ll be able to survive affirmation-droughts with greater ease.
  11. Throw the dog a bone: You can also stroke it innocuously in free fantasy time. There are lots of ways to do it, lots of fictions that you can engage with safely, for example watching movies and identifying with the heroes, partying, getting likes on Facebook, engaging in rituals in which you posture as one of the blessed. All of these are perfectly safe so long as you don’t take them too seriously.
  12. Self-effacing humor helps: Your ego is your pet. It’s adorable and it’s a hoot. Everyone has one. We all take our pets seriously in amusing ways. Take yours seriously. You can’t help it. And make some fun of it too. It will make you more receptive, a faster learner, more adapted to reality.