The ego seems to be experiencing a revival of interest with the advance of research showing certain psychedelics, when appropriately administered by an expert, might be useful in easing symptoms of mental illness. But what is the ego, where does it come from, what purpose does it serve, and since we’re stuck with it, how can we work with it wisely?
The ego is a concept, most widely attributed to Freud, referring to the mediator between our drives/instincts and our morals/inner critic. In today’s culture, we tend to think of the ego as the “self” or that which distinguishes “me” from everyone and everything else. We might also call it our identity, which is made up of values, beliefs, cultural messages, preferences, assumptions, ideas and theories that can be positive, negative or neutral, learned or imagined. Our identity develops through the process of differentiating ourselves from the outside world, including experiences within the womb, our growing awareness of our physical bodies, our needs being met by our caregivers, and so on. Researchers speculate we begin to have an entirely separate sense of self around 3-4 years of age.
How can we recognize ego in our everyday lives? The ego is at play when we feel self-conscious emotions such as pride, embarrassment or guilt. Pride is the profound feeling tone of pleasure attached to perceived personal qualities, actions, possessions, or accomplishments that we think reflect upon us in a positive way – such as receiving an award or promotion. Embarrassment is the suffering we experience when we receive unwanted attention from others – such as when we are publicly lavished with praise. Guilt involves self-blame or a sense of responsibility for a regretted thought or action that is dissonant with our preferred sense of self – such as when we hurt someone. Envy is when we compare what we see as “I”, “me” or “mine” with what is “other” and find ourselves wanting – such as when a friend moves into a nicer home than we have.
Though it can cause ourselves and others pain, most experts believe the ego is important for functioning adaptively in the world. It can help reinforce prosocial behaviors, motivate us to work hard and persevere, and dissuade us from harming ourselves and others. It can also help us learn from our mistakes and make a change when warranted.
An unexamined or unbalanced ego can lead us to the misguided belief that we are completely separate, independent, eternal, unchanging and unique. If we don’t know any better, we might mistake our ego for who we really are and this is where problems can occur. Excessive self-focused attention or being overly self-absorbed plays a role in a number of mental health disorders. We can also get overly focused on protecting our preferred sense of self, which can cause us to behave in all kinds of harmful ways. When we serve the ego blindly and completely, we often wind up placing our own desires and needs above others, thinking this will bring us happiness.
When we see the ego for what it is, merely phenomena of the mind, we can acknowledge it and make choices that are in alignment with our highest values. Cultivating more accurate self-awareness can help us operate in the world in a balanced and compassionate way.
Among those interested in spirituality, there is talk of “killing the ego”. Most experts agree that losing one’s sense of self is a very disorienting experience. When we lose our longstanding, carefully constructed identity, perhaps through a traumatic event or the use of psychedelic drugs, it feels like the ground is crumbling beneath our feet, obliterating all the buoys and signposts that helped us navigate the world, gave us a sense of meaning or purpose, and defined the boundaries of our relationships with others and the world. If one becomes very keen on achieving “ego death”, that is probably the ego talking. Striving to destroy the ego becomes yet another way to reify one’s preferred self-image. Those who say they have had this experience and survived it, indicate that it’s a temporary experience. If we resume life as usual without nurturing our newfound groundlessness, the ego quickly works to re-establish itself, perhaps in new ways.
Mindfulness, when practiced in a trauma sensitive manner, can be enormously helpful in recognizing and understanding our sense of self and it’s impact on our embodiment, thoughts, feelings and behavior. Through a dedicated practice, we are increasingly able to notice the ego at work, reduce our reactivity to ego threats, and make choices about how to respond in a way that is skillful – not just for ourselves, but for the benefit of all.