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Raw Concepts: Ego Trap

Ego is a chameleon.

The two most important things to realize about it is that it hates being exposed and it hates any effort to eradicate it.

This is where the ego trap comes in. Ego traps occur when you learn to recognize and try to combat one form of ego-driven superiority, only to have the ego reassert itself using sneaky, subtle disguised ways to take over your mind from new angles. The ego allows you to think you’re eradicating it; meanwhile it’s simply just hidden within your new insight like the warriors inside the Trojan horse, waiting to lay siege to your mind again the moment your defenses are down. This is why I say ego is chameleonlike.

Before proceeding, I recommend you refresh yourselves on the laws of ego-driven or enlightened superiority. Or to recap more succinctly, ego-driven superiority is about striving to appear better than other people, regardless of whether or not you truly are better. Enlightened superiority is about striving to be better than the you you were yesterday, regardless of whether or not you get applause for it or not.

For example, say you educate yourself on narcissism, social interest, and the ways in which people use compensation to deal with their inferiority and superiority complexes. You learn the difference between the laws of ego-driven superiority and enlightened superiority.

You then start sitting around with other people who have made similar discoveries and start discussing how ego-driven and unenlightened so many “sheeple” are and how badly they need to “swallow the red pill.” Not as a useful illustration to teach each other something, but as a way to subtly congratulate yourself for being so above the masses. That’s an ego trap. It’s ego-driven behavior disguised as enlightened behavior.

Or say you don’t want to watch TV anymore because you feel it rots your brain or whatever. You feel there is something ego-driven about spending hours watching commercial TV. Now suddenly you find yourself silently, or worse vocally, judging others for watching TV. You constantly find ways to work into a conversation that you don’t own or watch a TV. You go on lengthy lamentations about how sad it is that the unwashed masses spend so much time watching television and not appreciating what’s important in life, like personal relationships.

The worst narcissist I ever knew was like this. She would go on and on pompously windbagging about how she didn’t understand how people could spend hours and hours watching TV when they should be pursuing meaningful interactions with loved ones and friends and actually engaging people fully, and how she never watched TV because the people in her life and the real world were more important to her.

Meanwhile, being a raging narcissist and total snob, her idea of engaging people full was to treat them like shit, make them jump through hoops to feed her ego, be hypercritical, be hypersensitive to all perceived (and often imagined) slights, be a compulsive liar, and manipulate people in order to get cheap applause. She was a solipsistic narcissist whose only engagement to the real world was to constantly fish for applause from it and be a drama queen and an attention whore.

In her case, she actually would have been doing the world a better service if she parked herself in front of a TV more instead of engaging people so often, since she usually left them worse off through forming close relationships to them. She took something with the potential to lead to enlightened superiority like giving up TV, and used it as a superficial form of ego-driven superiority instead, a way to superficially seem better than others. It wasn’t like she was using the time gained from not watching TV to write the great American novel, pursue spiritual hobbies, find a meaningful calling with social interest, change the world for the better, feed starving orphans or volunteer at a soup kitchen. She just filled the extra time with more judgmental, snobby, self-absorbed drama queen antics.

But that’s the ego trap. You start off with an ostensibly noble intention that seems enlightened, and the ego hijacks it and uses it to further its own agenda of useless goals and superficial superiority over others.

I myself just fell into an ego trap in those last few paragraphs by passing so much harsh judgment of my own on her judgmental narcissistic ways, thereby feeding my own sense of superiority. By recognizing that hypocrisy and self-aggrandizement were the only principles by which she lived her life and judging her harshly for it, I admittedly get a little rush of superiority.

Hey, I’m human.

Another example are people who take pride in not reading petty gossip magazines. I know people who pride themselves on not knowing who celebrities are and never knowing gossip. There was a guy for example who didn’t know who Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were. To not live vicariously through petty gossip on the surface is the very opposite of being ego-driven.

However, he always made sure to respond that the only thing he read was The Economist. Boom. Ego trap. He just replaced one banal form of ego-driven superiority with another, less obviously banal form of ego-driven superiority. The problem is not in that he read The Economist or The NY Times or The Wall Street Journal but that he used it as a prop to display superiority over others.

He could have just said he didn’t know who those celebrities were. But the ego took his attempt to act more enlightened and used it to chase ego-driven superiority another way that was more palatable to him and the circles he wanted to impress.

Another example is the p0litical moderate. This is the guy who laments how polarized politics in this country has become, and says that we need moderation rather than people being biased and extreme. This starts off as an ostensibly noble and enlightened notion, but the ego often hijacks this sentiment as well.

The moderate feels smug and superior to the liberal and the conservative because he does not play for any “team” in his mind. He takes pride in the idea that he is less biased. However, always choosing the middle ground is as stubborn and ego-driven a bias as always choosing the left or the right viewpoint. Just as the liberal solution or conservative solution can never be the correct solution 100% of the time, the middle ground can’t always be the right choice either. In some scenarios, the liberal solution may be preferable and in some solutions the conservative option is preferable. Always going the moderate route can become as dogmatic and knee-jerk a reaction as anything liberals and conservatives do. Making the title of moderate into an identity automatically denoting superiority over other viewpoints is just as ego-driven and closeminded as being a rabid conservative or liberal. Thus the moderate has started off in a process that could have led to enlightened superiority and instead fell into an ego trap.

I’m no angel. I fall into this trap all the time, although I try to be conscious of when I do it and try to be honest with myself about it so that I don’t convince myself I’m being more enlightened than I actually am. Of course it doesn’t always work, but self-awareness and self-criticism is always an important first step.

For example, after reading Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek, I embarked on something called a low information diet. I ingested a lot less email and news and sports. I severely limited my TV intake. And I watched and read no news at all. I still follow to this day. I started feeling much more psychologically healthy as a result, and much less ego-driven. I never realized how much of a constant sense of outrage and materialism was being fueled in me by media until I detached myself from it.

However, the ego sensed it was losing some power over me and sneakily reasserted itself via an ego trap. I gradually found myself judging people whenever they debated news items or I saw them devouring newspapers. Whenever people told me about the latest media-manufactured controversy of the day, I found myself feeling this superficial sense of superiority for not knowing about it, as if it indicated I was somehow above the unenlightened masses. There was this perverse sense of pride I started getting from saying “I’m sorry, I don’t watch the news,” similar to those people who love when the conversation veers toward television so that they can announce “Sorry, I don’t own a TV.”

It took some hard self-examination before I realized I was falling into the ego trap. There were many other ways I noticed myself falling into ego traps and probably far more ways that I fall into it that I don’t notice. Another way was when I went on a low-carb, paleo diet, I found myself constantly judging, even if it was silently, what other people were eating, and using disparaging buzzwords for other people’s lifestyle choices like SAD (Standard American Diet).

I don’t totally have an answer to this dilemma to be honest. I do think however that to expect to totally eradicate ego is not only almost impossible, but also impractical. As long as we’re immersed in civilized society we’re going to have to have some ego just to survive in it. It’s easier to give up your ego totally when you manage to create a bubblelike existence for yourself where you can shelter yourself from the dog-eat-dog civilized world to some degree. But not all of us can join monasteries or move to secluded log cabins or private islands.

But an important first step, I think, is awareness. Be aware of the difference between ego-driven and enlightened superiority, and be aware of when you are engaging in either. If you’re going to engage in ego-driven behavior, at least do so knowingly and don’t buy into the superficial sense of superiority that tries to wash over you in the process. Recognize that you’re pursuing useless goals, that that superficial sense of superiority the ego is trying to make you feel is illusory, and be a good sport when the tables are turned and people respond back to you the same way. The most obnoxious type of narcissistic ego-driven person is the type who can dish it out and be hypercritical but is hypersensitive and can’t take criticism in return.

But I think the most important step to enlightenment is, can you do something to improve yourself, something that you think makes you better than you were last night, last week or last year, and not feel the need to announce it and seek reactions to it from others? Can you keep it to yourself and trust that you’ll receive the benefit from it just by doing it? Can you enjoy excellence for its own sake and not as a way to fish for compliments, get cheap applause or form a superior identity to become attached to? Can I enjoy something I believe improves my life without trying to force it on others?

Eckhart Tolle says in A New Earth:

An essential part of the awakening is the recognition of the unawakened you, the ego as it thinks, speaks, and acts, as well as the recognition of the collectively conditioned mental processes that perpetuate the unawakened state.

Honestly, I’m not good at any of those things yet. To paraphrase (rather, butcher) Socrates, though: I know very little, but I know that I know very little, and that at least puts me ahead of everyone who thinks they know it all.

Recommended Reading:

A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality by Anthony De Mello

7 Responses to “Raw Concepts: Ego Trap”

  1. One approach I’ve found useful is to distract your ego. You need to focus it on things that are superficial but will not jeopardize your goals in the primary theater. You can allow yourself a vice, such as gambling, bodybuilding, fashion or some other type of fronting, as long as you keep it contained. For instance, as long as you can keep to strict limits when you go to the casino. Of course, this is very hard to do and people often pretend that they are in control when they are not. It takes tremendous honesty with yourself to make sure you really are in control

    In fact, I would say that the criteria for knowing that you are consistently operating in the primary theater is that you have some ego-driven vices but that they are successfully contained. This is not an excuse for ego to slip back it. It’s just the honest recognition that your ego cannot be abolished. Often, aiming to abolish it probably leads you to the ego traps on the reverse side, as you have explored in this post. Its just like the dry-drunk archetype, the person who quits alcohol or drugs but now gets the same psychological benefit by becoming a zealous teetotaler and enthusiastic AA member.

    You need to ask yourself “Am I merely fronting enlightened superiority? Am I merely chasing the superficial signals of enlightened superiority instead of actually achieving it?”

    On a related note, I wrote a series of posts on “Cooling out,” which has to do with the many complicated ways we deal with strikes against our egos. Our egos are very resilient creatures and it can take a lot of effort to keep them under control.

  2. One thing that has been percolating in my mind over these past few articles is the positive side of external validation.

    You are absolutely right concerning the ability of the pursuit of external validation to cause people to indulge in stupid and vacuous behavior. However, what about the other edge of the double-edged sword that is external validation? What about that cultural force that is more powerful in shaping human behavior than even media and written law?

    In other words, common law, or, social shame?

    External validation can cause people to buy lots of crap, follow superfluous fashion trends, focus their lives around TV shows, etc. Nevertheless, it can also motivate people to present themselves better, in terms of etiquette and dress, as well as to control and contain some of their baser instincts. A lot of the good behavior of human beings, for better or worse, begins with the thought: “What will others think of me?”

    In fact, it can inspire outright heroic behavior in the right context.

    From Tacitus’ Germania:

    “A specially powerful incitement to valor is that the squadrons and divisions are not made up at random by the mustering of chance-comers, but are each composed of men of one family or clan. Close by them, too, are their nearest and dearest, so that they can hear the shrieks of their women-folk and the wailing of their children. These are the witnesses whom each man reverences most highly, whose praise he most desires.”

    “It stands on record that armies already wavering and on the point of collapse have been rallied by the women, pleading heroically with their men, thrusting forward their bared bosoms, and making them realize the imminent prospect of enslavement — a fate which the Germans fear more desperately for their women than for themselves.”

    Sure, it is ultimately more worthy to seek to hone oneself to be motivated out of higher motivations than shame (not to mention that this behavior checker does nothing for sociopaths), but let’s be brutally honest: the vast majority of people are not “little Buddhas” waiting to be “woken up.” Thus, for the vast majority of the populace, social shame will have to suffice.

    How to properly channel external validation into something that galvanizes human behavior towards something noble rather than crass is an interesting prospect. Organized religion has traditionally filled this role, but even it can be debased as history has shown.

  3. “I ingested a lot less email and news and sports. I severely limited my TV intake. And I watched and read no news at all. I still follow to this day. I started feeling much more psychologically healthy as a result, and much less ego-driven. I never realized how much of a constant sense of outrage and materialism was being fueled in me by media until I detached myself from it.”

    I can vouch for this. There’s a feeling of relief and strength when I get away from the phone/TV/email for even a day. When I come back there’s such a backlog I end up just tossing most of it, it seemed like it was really relevant in the moment but even a day later I see it doesn’t matter anymore.

  4. Great piece. I recently went on the “low news diet” myself and have been struggling with the odd impulse of smugness. It’s a work in progress.

  5. Why is being enlightened a “superior value”?
    Just another facet of a more sophisticated ego stroking himself with “enlightened” pride.
    And, besides, the need for external validation is stronger than you think and not devoid of social value:

  6. I don’t think that running away from your ego is the answer, i do believe that placing yourself in an environment that will influence you is the best way to get ahead. If you want to be a good doctor you go to a good med school etc, so awareness is a great first step now finding ppl that will influence you to get where u wanna go is next :)
    nice butchering of Socrates lol

  7. Serious Reader on July 3rd, 2011 at 1:06 PM

    I have no issue bashing people who read gossip rags, watch TV and know little of depth/substance, are clueless about nutrition.

    Now, I don’t go around SAYING how superior my tastes are, but I damn well think they are.

    Empirically speaking, they are:

    TV requires no engagement or reflection.
    Carbs do make you fat (SAD)
    Gossip rags are 3rd grade reading and ideas.

    I work my ass off to constantly improve myself, so I have no problem passing judgement on the lazy and willfully dumb.