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How Observing Your Ego Can Improve Your Social Functionality

Check your ego while you're alone because your brain is listening.

Key points

  • The “ego” is the part of the human personality that defines one’s “self.”
  • In 1965, three psychologists documented awareness of “observing ego,” which is critical to our social functioning.
  • Observing our ego when we're alone is important because our brain is listening to us.
  • By observing our ego we can significantly improve on our self-respect, self-worth, and confidence.

We all have egos, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. And we assess and judge people we feel have more inflated egos than others. The “ego” is the part of the human personality that defines one’s “self.”

Psychoanalysts and psychological theory focusing on the role of the “ego” has been studied for decades. In 1934, psychologist Richard Sterba’s studies of “the fate of the ego in analytic therapy” were documented. Anna Freud researched it in 1946. In 1965, three psychologists, Arthur A. Miller, Kenneth S. Isaacs, and Ernest A. Haggard, collaborated on an article that shifted the importance of psychologists' focus to working with clients on improving their awareness and functionality of their “observing ego,” which they argued is critical to our social functioning.

The role of the observing ego

Observing ego is a person’s ability to step outside of themselves to observe their actions, affect, defenses and motivations, and determine the effect they're having on whomever they’re interacting with. When we effectively use our observing ego, we learn to filter our statements and actions. We’re able to determine what is appropriate behavior for a social audience, which inherently improves our social functionality.

What many psychologists don’t talk about is that the observing ego is not just observing our interactions with other people—it’s monitoring our actions, affect, defenses and motivations as they relate to our personal behaviors. Our brain is always listening, even when we’re alone! So, listening to what we say has a significant impact on our self-respect, self-worth, and confidence. I’ve identified five techniques for you to use while you’re alone, which can exponentially help you monitor and strengthen your observing ego skills.

Source: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock
Source: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

1. Reduce the self-deprecating statements you make.

It’s common for us to use derogatory statements, such as “I’m not good at X,” “I’m slow,” or “There’s something wrong with me.” Using these defensive statements regularly eats away at our self-confidence. Even if we’re alone and say them in our heads or even aloud, someone is still listening: your brain. Your brain takes that information and uses it to build your self-concept. So, watch what you say to yourself.

2. Avoid using superlatives.

We set ourselves up for disappointment by using unearned superlatives to describe events before they happen. This creates a rollercoaster of emotions. For example, “I’m 'really' excited to go,” “S/he seems 'very' nice,” “I’m sure it will be great!”

In each of these cases, we set the bar higher than is reasonable for certain activities or interactions. We’re dooming the situation or person and cannot meet a realistic benchmark, which inevitably results in disappointment. It’s important to observe and monitor how what we say affects us and mentally manage our expectations.

3. Make promises you will keep.

When we cannot follow up on promises we make to other people or to ourselves, it can erode our self-respect, feelings of competence, and ability to complete tasks. For example, our internal self-monitors know whether we failed to wear our Invisalign or make a doctor’s appointment. Our observing ego objectively steps outside of ourselves and criticizes our inability to follow through. By observing our ego and following through on our promises, we can improve functionality and feelings of competence.

4. Resist faulty negative assumptions about the future.

We have a negativity bias, leading us to make thinking errors about negative outcomes in the future. When we expect and allow these negative outcomes about ourselves or situations to spiral out of control, it can affect our motivation and actions. By employing focused observation, we can stop the spiral and perform more effectively.

5. Eliminate “giving up” statements.

Eliminating statements that result in abandoning something in the face of frustration or potential failure is part of increasing your awareness that your observing ego is at play. If you say, for example, “I can’t do this!” silently to yourself, or aloud, it will be demotivating. If you can stop making “giving up” statements, it will help increase your self-confidence and feelings of effectiveness in the world.

Remember, even when we’re alone, our brain is always listening.


Arthur A. Miller, Kenneth S. Isaacs, Ernest A. Haggard (1965) "On The Nature of the Observing Function of the Ego", The British Psychological Society and British Journal of Medical Psychology

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