Another blogger at a blog called Casual Kitchen recently linked to one of my posts. The post in question was one from 2011 titled The Ego Trap, which I advise you to read before proceeding if you haven’t already. The added context will help when reading the rest of this post.
A commenter over at Casual Kitchen named chacha1 responded with the following comment:
Ego: “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”
Couldn’t make it through that whole piece; I read it as confusion of a strong ego with narcissism, judgypantsness, and/or being a jerk.
It is possible to have a strong ego without being a solipsistic, judgy twit or having a superiority delusion.
Similar objections come up often whenever I discuss ego, so I decided to address it in a comment over there, then decided to reproduce the comment here as a separate blog post. Below is an expanded version of my response to her:
Author of the piece here. First things first, I never used the term “strong ego.” Strong can imply healthy, and it’s not a term I used. I used “ego driven.” To illustrate the difference, say I said you had “strong looks” and I meant it in a positive way and was saying I thought you were attractive. Now say I instead said you were “looks-driven.”
Does that mean the same thing? After all, you can actually be unattractive and be looks-driven or looks-obsessed. Alternatively, you can be incredibly attractive and have strong looks but not be looks-driven, as in you don’t arrange your whole life around your looks and you don’t obsess over them and judge everyone by those standards. Just like looks-driven isn’t the same as good looks, ego-driven isn’t the same as strong or healthy ego. Some of the people who are the most look-obsessed and looks-driven are the same people who are the most insecure and have the shakiest, most neurotic of confidence in their appearance, and similarly many ego-driven and ego-obsessed people are often the people with the with the shakiest, most toxic sense of self.
Furthermore, I was mostly using ego in the colloquial, everyday conversational sense that the word is used. For example, when someone says to you in casual conversation, “You have a huge ego,” do you take it as intended to say something positive about you, or do you take it to mean that the person is accusing you of, to use your own words, judgypantsness, and/or being a jerk or being a solipsistic, judgy twit or having a superiority delusion? I’m willing to bet the case is more likely the former.
Furthermore, even if you’re going by the psychoanalytic, more Freudian definition of ego as the mediator and peacemaker between the superego and the id, one can still argue that being ego-driven is a bad thing, because it encourages separation from other people and a sense of dishonesty with one’s self by keeping different aspects of yourself segregated from each other and largely in the dark about each other. Ego (the Freudian kind) can become obsessed with self-preservation and thriving, and to do that it has to defend itself against threats, which is where the psychoanalytic term “ego defense mechanisms”, usually shortened to “defense mechanisms,” comes in. When people discuss defense mechanisms, what those mechanisms are defending is the ego.
Not all defense mechanisms are bad. George Eman Vaillant classifies defense mechanisms into 4 categories, from worst to best: Pathological, Immature, Neurotic and Mature. Mature defense mechanisms can be considered “good” ego defenses while the other three are the bad ones. <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defence_mechanisms#Vaillant.27s_categorization_of_defence_mechanisms”>You can read more here.</a> If you go to the link I sent, you can see examples of unhealthy and healthy ego defenses.
If one has what I imagine you mean when you describe a strong, healthy ego, which is just a healthy self-esteem, he or she will use mostly healthy, mature ego defenses. If one is ego-driven, which means his or her primary motivation in everything is protecting the short-term interests of the ego, he or she will primarily use the more toxic ego defenses, because the healthier ones often require a person to be willing to tolerate short term pain to the ego in exchange for long-term emotional and mental health benefits. Ego-driven people often lack the maturity and emotional future time-orientation to use healthy ego defenses.
Then on another level there are spiritual teachings that advocate ego death, anatta (no-self), or integration (merging the superego, id, and ego into a new whole such that you no longer need to play peacemaker or mediator between the three). Advocates of such techniques believe that by either eradicating the ego or merging it with the superego and id in such a way that the three no longer are “keeping secrets” from each other, you no longer need even the healthy ego defenses. The person who achieves ego death no longer needs ego defenses, healthy or unhealthy, because he no longer has any ego to defend. The person who achieves integration no longer needs ego defenses, healthy or unhealthy, because now that his ego, superego, and id are merged into one entity the ego no longer has to protect itself from the other two or exert creative strategies to enable them to coexist. A similar, related approach, and one that I think is much more achievable for your average Western-raised mind, is that of training yourself to recognize and understand your ego and how it works but not actually identify with your ego and believe that you are your ego.
Admittedly, I’m not very acquainted with any of the spiritual concepts presented in the previous paragraph. I’m still wrapping my head around much of it, and may have even gotten some of the ideas wrong to a degree. When I went to the Buddhist center for a spell, the teacher there even held back on teaching the concept of getting rid of one’s conception of self/ego because she stated that going into that too early in beginner classes tended to scare too many novices to death and drive them off. I’ve been reading a book called Stepping Out of Self-Deception by Rodney Smith that touches on this, but I’m only halfway through it, and it’s not easy to wrap my head around yet. Similar books that I’ve bought but not yet read include Psychotherapy without the Self: A Buddhist Perspective by Mark Epstein, The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity by Bruce Hood, The Ego Tunnel by Thomas Metzinger (a neuroscientific approach to the topic), and I Am That by Nisargadatta Maharaj. I can’t speak to the quality of these books except to say that the first half of Stepping Out of Self-Deception is quite good and thought-provoking. I suggested all the books anyway, even though I can’t vouch for them personally. I’ve heard great things about all of them and they were recommended to me by the various buddhist teachers I met when I was taking classes.