Talk of ego can seem confusing and in the realms of mysticism and psychology, but it is a very important part of our daily life and significantly impacts on how we feel and what we do.
You may have heard of someone having a big ego, or being egotistical. This means that a person is consumed with themselves and their own self-purpose, sometimes it may seem as though they have little consideration for others around them.
We all have ego, but it is not something we are born with, it is something that we learn to develop as we grow in our societies and social groups. The ego is the awareness of the self and the importance we place on ourselves in relation to others around us. It is the ‘I’ or ‘me’ perception that we use for thought, justification, and actions. These can be negative or positive.
If you think to yourself ‘I am a wonderful person’, that is the ego state of mind, if you think ‘I am a terrible person’, that is also the ego state of mind. Both states control perceptions and actions.
In many spiritual teachings, the ego is seen as something that is to be transcended if a person is to reach true reality or consciousness. In a way, being free of the ego state is seen as being true freedom and as being in the present, rather than at a particular point in time (such as when we think of things as being in the past or future rather than the here and now).
The ego can be a trap – keeping us in a particular state for a lifetime. We learn something about ourselves (the learning process can be through others constantly telling us what they think of us, or it can be through the development of our own perception based on some experience) and it stays with us, even though it may not be truly who we are. The ego will reinforce it and attempt to find justification – even when there is real evidence to the contrary – and regardless of whether the self-perception is positive or negative. The ego does not make judgements of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, it only serves to mediate and reinforce.
As with any other part of our being, once you understand what it is, what it does, and how it affects you and those around you, you can start to take conscious control of it.
The ego is part of the mind, not the brain.
Probably the most famous reference to the ego is by Sigmund Freud, who described the id, ego, and super-ego as being parts of the structural model of the psyche.
Feud described the Id as being the unconscious instinctive part of human psyche, and is the only one of the three components that is present from birth. In his model, Freud theorises that the Id instinctively seeks to avoid pain or unpleasurable experiences, and seeks gratification.
The ego according to Freud is the part of the structure that seeks to satisfy the id’s unconscious, instinctive impulses in the world in which we live. It attempts to be the mediator between the Id and the perceived real world, and helps us make sense of what is going on around us. It encompasses judgement, perceived reality testing, tolerance, and control etc.
The last of the three components of Freud’s model is the superego. The superego is proposed as being the opposite to the impulsiveness of the id. It attempts to maintain a balance of right and wrong, controls sense of guilt and attempts to act in a socially acceptable manner so that we fit in to which ever society we exist in.
The ego is not selective and will justify positive and negative beliefs regardless of fact or truth. The ego will influence how we act and react and mediates between the basic instincts generated by the id, and the moralistic and idealistic principles of the superego. The mediation attempts to put all of this in a context that we are able to use in order to function in a perceived real world.
The problem with existing in the ego state, is that a person is continually in a state that is concentrated on the self, whether that is positive or negative. There are times when the ego will over-mediate, which can result in extremes of self-perception.
A person who is boastful, talks about themselves constantly, and appears to be a ‘know-it-all’ even though there may be very little evidence to justify their perceptions is very firmly in the ego state.
This shows that the person is primarily occupied with their self, rather than with their place in the wider context of humanity. It may be that the ego is attempting to affirm something which the person is incapable of, or has very little experience of or knowledge about, but which they would like the world to see them as.
When in such an ego state, challenges become difficult for the person to process or accept because the ego is effectively in overdrive. People in this state can appear offensive to others and fail to comprehend the impact of their behaviour on others feelings. This is often characterised by the person initiating a conversation with strangers and talking about themselves, exhibiting little empathy for the other person’s input. Although they may be tolerated by others, they tend to be considered self-centred (which is literally correct) and rarely show humility.
Another problematic effect of the ego could be where a person appears to remain aloof, uncommunicative, and generally withdrawn, lacking confidence, or appearing shy. Again, the ego is effectively in overdrive, reinforcing negative perspectives that the person has of themselves. In particular, the ego is refusing to allow ‘reality’ to over-ride the persons negative perceptions – especially from the superego’s perception of guilt, perhaps derived from a perceived failure to meet idealistic or moral standards – which results in feelings of unworthiness or fear when engaging with other members of humanity.
People who remain in this state of ego can experience problems in their personal interactions through being in a constant state of some level of fear – fear to talk, fear to express opinions, fear to take chances, and fear to engage in new experiences. This can often lead to others finding it difficult to engage the person in social interaction, or they may become disillusioned with the continued resistance to their offers of inclusion.
This kind of withdrawal/fear ego state can make most kinds of human relationships very difficult to develop, even though the person may want to engage, the ego’s intervention prevents them from doing so, or may result in an inappropriate response to others which the ego initiates as a kind of protective mechanism to maintain a status quo.
In both extremes of the ego state, the person may also be inhibited from exploring new opportunities or experiencing different aspects of life that would expand their knowledge and understanding.
Most people will be somewhere in between the extremes most of the time, and nearer the extremes some of the time.
People rarely realise when they are in an ego state because it has become such a seemingly natural part of day-to-day living, and has been promoted through a culture of individualism and selfishness, where the centre (for the most part) is the self.
Selfless and seemingly philanthropic actions can equally be induced to satisfy the ego when needed. The ego needs justification and is fed through completing tasks out of a need to be recognised, praised, a sense of self-satisfaction, or to maintain a perception of the self.
Taking a step back and observing the world around you will give you plenty of examples of when people are acting in an ego state. You may notice that some people seem to go into and out of an ego state quite rapidly.
A hypothetical example could be someone who is in a caring profession, such as working in an emergency department. They may go in and out of their ego state very rapidly. One minute they are intense and performing a totally selfless action to ease a patients distress, and the next they could be seeking some kind of acknowledgement for their actions from colleagues, the patient, or another person or group of people. This is nothing to do with empathy or sympathy (sympathy is a selfish reaction), but to do with the person’s perception of their reality at a specific point in time which is influenced or generated by the ego.
During the course of a day, many people will experience different levels of ego states depending on their interactions and circumstances.
Releasing oneself from the ego state has very real benefits in daily life, whether you consider the approach to be a spiritual experience or not, it makes no difference.
The ego is restrictive. It keeps us focused on what it processes as immediate reality. As such, it restricts the possibilities that we can perceive, and promotes our judgemental self when encountering others and situations. Releasing the ego is a major factor in helping us to comprehend the world around us from a different perspective – from one of openness and non-judgement.
In being restrictive, the ego rejects information around us that could (in reality) be useful. The ego focuses energy on the maintenance of its own mediation and rejects information that it perceives as being neither useful or supporting of its perceptions, or in-line with its reality testing.
The ego focuses inwards. The purpose of the ego is to concentrate on the self. Through inward concentration, the ego takes notice of feelings – positive or negative. It has immense power in concentrating the self on problems without providing solutions, in concentrating on illness and pain without offering relief or a cure.
We become what we focus on, which may not be what we want, and will not be who we really are. Such intense focus into the self is not self-discovery, because there is nothing to discover. The ego concentrates on what is already there rather than discovering something new or providing real answers.
The ego maintains an illusion. The reality the ego attempts to mediate is the person’s perceived world, and the ego’s reality testing is within the confines of that perception. The ego does not generate reality; it does not attempt to establish if something is right or wrong outside of the perceived world. It only serves to operate with the information it is given though the id and superego.
We tend to think of everyone as having their own version of the world which includes some common experiences. The ego is at the root of this perception. Everyone’s processing of the world is different, based on their own experiences and the way they process information. This is an illusion that is maintained by the ego.
The ego is primitive and has developed based on the demands of societal conditioning and the need for humans to survive in their perceived world.
In our modern world, more members of humanity are discovering that the ego state prevents us from experiencing the world and possibilities, effectively trapping us in a never ending cycle of self.
There are still many who appear to operate solely in an ego state and maintain (and resort to) primitive drives for power. Perhaps the most prolific example of this is those in government. Although there may be exceptions, many of those in government have gained their positions though a thirst for power for themselves, and continue this mind-set into the political arena.
We often see politicians making decisions that seem to have little logic behind them, and which will result in immense suffering for (or the ability to control) millions of people – even though there may be other routes open to them which will benefit humanity. Their constant drive is their self and the acquisition of power. You may also see this behaviour exhibited in other areas of your world, even within your own peer or social group.
At this extreme, the ego state becomes destructive both to the person in the ego state and those under their power.
Members of society are constantly bombarded with information that promotes the seeking of power and centring on the self as how they must be in order to survive or become ‘successful’ as defined by society (which in fact means by those in power over them who remain in a toxic ego state).
An example of this is an employee who will comply with the behaviour of a dominant force (such as their boss) even though they know they are being manipulated, and will continue to accept this manipulation (even though they may feel it is wrong for some reason) in the hope of gaining power to become accepted by those they perceive as having power, and in an attempt to mitigate the effects of the perceived power of their boss. ‘Competitive’ businesses such as finance or sales focused businesses are good examples.
Recognising when one is in an ego state, and moving away from it, has significant benefits.
Moving away from the ego state enables you to become less affected by the ego state of others. The emotional power you give to the ego of others diminishes and they are unable to operate effectively within their own ego state. You no longer become complicit in the emotional involvement (yours and theirs) of the situation. Moving away from the ego generated emotional state enables you to present your views and consider their views without prejudice. In effect you get to the truth of the matter without unnecessary fear or unfounded perceptions.
Your view of yourself, others around you, and the world are generated by you. As you progress through life you form opinions, and process information through your experiences and learning. Not least, you generate an image of yourself which is based in ego and which contains positive and negative aspects, some or all of which may be true or not.
Our ego generates standards for us, others, and how we think the world should be. The ego seeks to enforce these standards in our lives, even though there may be real evidence to the contrary. The ego can also give power to standards that are inappropriate, or nothing more than our own prejudice or compliance with the inappropriate or unrealistic standards of others.
Illusionary standards are problematic when we apply them to ourselves. They are an indication that we are either not confident, or not comfortable, with who we are, and we seek to ‘live up to’ or aspire to something which only exists in our mind to reinforce the perceptions and mediation of the perceived reality generated by ego – a fabrication of who we think we should be, often influenced by the ego of others in powerful positions within our society.
If the illusionary standards we set for ourselves cannot be attained (which is often the case – no matter how much we justify them) the outcome is guilt and self-punishment of some description, or confusion about why we are unable to attain them. This may result in the externalisation of blame, where we seek to find some external reason for why we are unable to reach the standard we set for ourselves, or the standards set for us by others. This can then turn into more fuel for the ego as we try to deny all responsibility for perceived failure.
In either case, the failure to meet illusionary standards will cause conflict and unhappiness through the feeling of guilt and by playing the ‘blame game’.
The negative feelings we experience in most areas of our lives are a result of the emotional mediation of the ego. The ego is very good at reinforcing ‘we are bad’, ‘they are bad’, and ‘I am bad’ type of responses during our thought processing. Negative feelings are more powerful to the ego than positive feelings, and this is the weapon of choice when the ego demands that the person take notice of the ego’s mediation.
Many negative responses are generated by fear – fear of what may happen, fear of the unknown, fear of being challenged, and fear of being rejected, and so on. When in a state of fear we become defensive, which in turn means that the ego has control so that we are seemingly protected from challenge and having to engage in the fearful situation. This kind of fear is when our ideals or principles are challenged, rather than fear of physical harm.
If we look back at how society has been formed over centuries of human existence, we can see that fear has been used (and still is used) to control individuals and societies. In more recent times in the western world, the threat of direct physical action has changed into psychological suggestion that is designed to influence the ego. The concept of the ‘unknown enemy’ or of a threat to our way of life if we choose not to comply with the directives of society (including losing finances, possessions, rejection by society or peers, etc.), are all used every day through mass media to reinforce the ego state. We want to be wanted and will comply with the most ridiculous of things to ensure that we are accepted and recognised.
The ego then mediates by trying to ensure the person concentrates on the self and their own survival within the society, rather than allowing themselves to become involved in ‘other people’s problems’ which would result in releasing some of the control of ego.
Concentrating on the self is highly damaging in many aspects of a person’s life, including interaction with others. It can result in withdrawal (which is also an ego survival mechanism for living in society), or at the other extreme it can result in the person imposing themselves on others without consideration or empathy for the recipient’s state or validity as a member of humanity. It can also make a person excessively introspective which can result in over-amplification of perceived difficulties, both in the person’s perception of their self , place and acceptance by society, and in physical difficulties such as health problems.
Human beings are naturally social animals, and have historically lived within an organised, generally mutually beneficial social structure to a lesser or greater extent. Despite social interaction being an essential part of human existence and evolution, in recent history the concept of ‘being individual’ has been promoted to ensure the illusion of the self is foremost within people’s minds in modern society, and has resulted in many within society (especially those who have lived most of their lives being indoctrinated with this principle) becoming extremely self-focused to an extent where selfishness is seen as an acceptable trait, even though this serves no purpose for the good of humanity. The real effect is that society becomes nothing more than a collective of individuals, each with their own egotistic agenda that inhibits the cohesion of society as a whole.
Within group dynamics, the individual ego will attempt to serve its own purpose first and look for opportunities to bond with the ego states of others who reinforce (at least) the basics of its mediation within the perceived world. The combining of ego states then becomes mutually beneficial through a process of justifying and validating each other.
This can often be seen in group dynamics, where individual ego states can become a collective ego ideal, where individuals will become a collective group under the same, or similar, illusionary banner. The group will be seen as having a common state or purpose through exhibiting group behaviour. We can see this in action in society trough groups such as political parties, sports teams, companies, religious groups, and so on.
Even within the group, the individual ego will still remain of paramount importance. The ego may attempt to adapt in order to stay bonded to the group provided the group ideal does not conflict with the individual ego to such an extent it can no longer mediate.
We have already established the role the ego plays in the way we perceive and process the world around us, and the innermost feelings, emotions, and perceptions of ourselves and others. The ego generates numerous stories of our lives, some which may be close to reality, and others that may be verging fantasy.
Our view of the world and ourselves will be an illusion if we allow the ego state to become our reality. It will dominate our lives, and restrict our possibilities to learn and will lead us to existing in an almost never-ending circle of thought and feeling with little real experience or true learning.
The ego can lead to us accepting and believing what we are told is reality, rather than experiencing and knowing what reality is. The twist and turns of the ego’s mediation can lead us along false paths of belief and will try to ensure we stay within the safe boundaries we have spent a lifetime establishing, hardly ever daring to venture beyond the ego’s false boundaries of reality to face what we consider to be the unknown, the strange, the impossible, or to face and rationalise the fear the ego wants us to exist in.
Existing in an ego state makes us dismissive of all things we do not understand, dismissive of anything that we perceive as a threat to our existence in our society. The experiences of others are things which happen to other people in strange and distant places, and the ego attempts to apply our own standards and ‘morals’ to those different times and places which we really don’t understand because we exist in our world. This often leads to unintentional and intentional prejudice and non-acceptance deep within us, even though we may express tolerance and acceptance externally within our societies.
Through the ego we see difference, and rarely experience similarities. Seeing difference is the ego’s way of trying to keep us safe from the unknown in our own version of things. To see similarities is to allow ourselves to identify with, or become part of, situations the ego does not know how to mediate for.
The ego keeps us experiencing others at a superficial level rather than allowing us to know the deeper meaning of humanity through our interactions with every other human being on the planet. It can keep us from seeing the real human being, only seeing the superficial biological machine in which they exist.
When we start to see other humans at a deeper and meaningful level we start to see that all humans are the same at the core.
What we perceive as good, bad, mean, kind, and all other judgements of other humans exists in all societies, because society is a collective ego ideal created as an illusion for separation and control and only serves those who exist without empathy within an ego state of power.
The ego is an extremely powerful force, influencing and shaping every aspect of our society. Those in power tend to be those whose ego mediation craves power, generally though fear – a fear of being rejected by peers and the perceived hierarchy of society, and a fear of being unrecognised as a valid human being.
It can seem as though those who already have perceived power crave more power, whether this is through the amassing of more financial wealth or more control over others. In reality, someone who is financially wealthy does not need more wealth in order to exist in society. They have enough money to last several lifetimes in an economy based system, but time and again we see millionaires and billionaires wanting more.
It may seem ludicrous that someone who has billions wants more billions – more than they could possibly need. The reason they crave more is because they perceive that more financial wealth means more power and more stability and acceptance. It no longer becomes all about the numbers but more about how the person perceives their place in their version of the world. They fear being rejected because they are not ‘achieving’, or they may fear that they will cease to exist as a valid human if they fail to increase financial wealth.
This kind of behaviour is ego driven, often resulting in the person losing empathy for other members of humanity. For some, the perception of empathy is seen as a weakness or may not have been a fundamental part of their lives from the day they were born.
Their ego maintains a very focused and exclusive set of interactions that only serve to reinforce their illusionary reality, anything else is rejected, especially human interactions that their ego perceives as not being useful.
From this, there are many financially wealthy and ‘powerful’ individuals who are extremely unhappy with life. The effect of ego being so focused is that the person has not engaged in seeking other opportunities or experiences which may contribute to a more rounded and real human experience. They have been prevented from developing by the ego, especially if they remain part of others in promoting a collective ego ideal.
There are also many very happy financially wealthy and ‘powerful’ people. The major difference between the two is that those who are happy have gained financial wealth or ‘power’ as an incidental to experiencing life as a whole, and not as the main focus.
These same traits can also be seen among those who are not financially wealthy and ‘powerful’. People whose ego is extremely focused are prevented from experiencing possibilities and alternatives, again resulting in unhappiness and confusion. Their ‘expectations’ will never be satisfied because they will know that something of vital importance is missing from their lives. There will be no peace.
It may not be possible for most people to totally break free from their ego, but it is possible to recognise when the ego state is in control and to learn how to take control of it. In the daily lives of most of us, there may be times when the ego state exists and is almost impossible to let go of, and other times when we can almost totally release ourselves from the ego state – and we can experience variations of ego state throughout the day.
The first step is to recognise when we are in the ego state. If you take a minute or two to think of times when you have been in the ego state, or circumstances in which you can identify as being triggers that put you into an ego state, you are starting the journey. When you start to recognise these things it is important to think about your reactions and the effects being in an ego state has had on those situations, on yourself, others, and how it has influenced the situation. Then think about how different those things may have been had you not been controlled by your ego.
An example could be when you have said something or performed an action in the hope of gaining recognition or praise from someone else. Another could be when you have become incredibly stubborn over something because the alternative offered by another person did not fit the way you think or fit in with your ‘values’ or view of the world.
If you automatically react to something someone has said without really thinking about their perspective or giving any thought to a challenge to your beliefs, you are in an ego state. Your ego takes control and excludes all other explanations or possibilities which may conflict with the attempted mediation of your ego.
If you perform an action because you are concerned about what someone else will think of you, then you are in an ego state. For example, tidying up your home before someone visits.
Those of you who are aware of the theory of Transactional Analysis will recognise that many of our interactions with other people are based in the ego state. Perhaps one of the most famous books which provides a solid introduction to the theory is ‘Games People Play’ (1964) by Eric Berne.
Being in an ego state is not necessarily a bad thing, it is the recognition of being in an ego state and the impact it has on us and others that is important.
Many people who have discovered the importance of humanity and being able to release the ego started by being in an ego state in the first place, so it does have benefits. But again, it is about recognition and control, rather than letting the ego state run your life.
Releasing the ego state is about getting rid of the illusions and junk that fills our lives. It is about being able to recognise the real importance of aspects of the real world we live in, and being able to cope with them without detriment to ourselves or others. It is about developing ourselves so artificial restrictions that prevent us experiencing new possibilities of ourselves, others, and the world around us no longer apply.
In our daily interactions with other people, if we can release ourselves from our own ego state we no longer feed the ego states of others. The effect of this is that other people we come into contact with will either start to release their own ego state, which will result in a more truthful and meaningful interaction, or they will become confused and not engage with is – initially. Either way, we start to have real human interaction instead of falsified and illusionary theatre.
As we become more skilled at releasing the ego we will become less judgemental and prejudice towards others and of ourselves. Much of the guilt we experience because of our self-image will no longer apply, because these judgements are created through the ego. In effect, we are freeing ourselves of a lot of unnecessary baggage.
We become less focused on ourselves and release the negative emotions generated by being in an introspective ego state. We take power away from the negative illusions of who we are, our perceived problems and worries, and start to focus on what is real – much of which is positive. Our coping mechanisms will start to improve because we are no longer operating within the narrow perception of the ego.
As you start to learn when you are in an ego state you will also need to practice releasing it. This can seem a strange experience, after all, we spent our lifetime being influenced by the ego, and the ego has spent equally as long developing its controlling mediations. It will be like releasing something that is so familiar that it could feel like you are losing a part of you. But you are not, you are gaining control in a very positive way.
When you recognise you are in an ego state just mentally stop for a moment. Stop your thoughts and plant yourself in the here and now. Perhaps something like wiggling your toes may help. Take a breath and just let yourself ‘be’. Really see and listen to what is going on – recognise what you are doing that indicates you are in an ego state and stop it. Take a step back (mentally – and physically if necessary) and take a wider look at the situation.
Practice not letting your emotions control you and see how differently you can communicate from an honest and real perspective. Listen and don’t be in a rush to engage with the situation. Remain non-judgemental as much as you can.
Over time this kind of practice can become second nature. Don’t get involved in trying to please others or doing what you think you ‘should’. Do and say what you think is right from an informed and real perspective. Release all perceptions of disagreeing with others. In many situations there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – realise this and accept it. Again, just let yourself ‘be’ without the artificial prejudices, judgements, and illusions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
Take no notice of others attempts to control you through their own ego based tactics. If you do not give attention to their ego state it will have no power at all. Ego feeds on ego. Keep it real and keep it in the here and now.
Learn to accept. Perhaps one of the hardest and most important parts of releasing the ego state is to consciously learn to accept others. By accepting someone as a valid human being you are giving them permission to be a valid human being – permission is something may people seek from others when they interact.
Keep practising and keep learning. There is no end-point. Learning to release oneself from the ego state is a perpetual experience. You will face challenges, not least to what you consider to be reality and your core beliefs. There may be times when you become confused about life, yourself, people, and just about everything else, but this is a natural part of releasing the control of the ego and engaging in real learning.
Give time to learning about what make you the person you are, and think about how you have developed the views and perceptions of your world. You may find that much of it is not based on experience, but on what you have been told, been educated to believe, and on judgemental assumptions.
In learning to release the strangle hold of the ego you are embarking on a new phase in your life – a very positive one.