Understanding the Purpose of Ego
The ego is not master in its own house
– Sigmund Feud
Ego: A persons’ sense of self- esteem or self-importance Oxford Languages
Ego – Psychoanalysis: The part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity Oxford Languages
Ego – Philosophy: (in metaphysics) a conscious, thinking subject Oxford Languages
Much is written talked about Ego in the world of ‘self-help’ and ‘psychotherapy.’ It is often portrayed as an unattractive part of the Self which, when allowed to run things, presents as an obstacle to moving forward in any situation. When we remark that we see Ego in others, we are seldom paying them a compliment.
The therapeutic approach of Gestalt encourages us to view each of the many distinct functional parts of the psyche separately for the purpose of therapy. We have talked many times about stepping into the shoes of the Observer. This is the part of the Self that collects the information; the one who witnesses that you are experiencing an emotion, but not the one who feels it. The Ego is a part of the psyche which can be considered separately from other parts in the same way.
When undertaking to research the latest trends in ‘self-help’ for the Ego we found so many websites and courses that suggest that it should be ‘deflated,’ ’squashed’ and even ‘killed,‘ so that we can recover our true nature and become better people. We even saw it described as ‘the enemy of the Self.’
Is this really true? What did our poor Ego ever do to us?
The vast majority of human beings on this planet have a fully present and working Ego that springs into action when it is unconsciously prompted.
Before crushing it and casting it into oblivion, wouldn’t it be better to ask what purpose it is serving for us?
In his book ‘The Power of Now’ Eckhart Tolle explains that the Ego comes into play when we fear that we are about to lose something. This might be possessions, power, reputation, relationships, health, time or energy. In these situations, where fear is present, Ego steps in to protect us and to prevent us from making those losses.
Unfortunately we can only see Ego operating in others when it is allowed to run the show; that is, it is allowed to drive a person’s behaviour leading to negative outcomes. When we see this in our peers, we are experiencing the Law of Reflection at work. We are seeing our own Ego reflected back at us and we are unpleasantly provoked. We notice Ego in others when it is unchecked, and so we usually think of Ego in a negative light.
What then if we do seek to destroy Ego?
If we choose to direct our energy towards practices which uncompromisingly deflate the Ego, we will most certainly leave ourselves unprotected and vulnerable to anyone who is not doing the same.
Without Ego, we look like a meal to a predator. It is our armour in a world where not everyone is on a path towards spiritual evolution and we should be very careful not to dismiss it entirely unless we are prepared to be stripped of things that are important to us.
Ego protects our relationships. When we do something nice for someone we love, we are usually keen to take credit for our actions because we want them to see us in a favourable light.
Ego protects our work. When we write, we are protected by copywrite law. If we did not put our name on our work, anyone wishing to use and claim it as their own would be able to do so and, more to the point, could be paid for the privilege.
Ego protects our reputation. If we have been fairly elected to a position of responsibility to do good because of our talents, Ego will strive to maintain our level of standing so that we might remain in that position and continue to do the work required of us.
Ego protects our health. Most people with a good level of physical fitness take pride in their efforts. Often this is what drives them forwards to continue their healthy regime.
Ego protects our energy. Ego is the part of the psyche that responds with “How dare you?” when an inappropriate request is made of us or when someone is prying into our private business.
We do not recognise these examples as the work of Ego because we are conditioned to believe that Ego is a negative thing.
The fact is that we need Ego to survive on modern-day Earth. This concept is echoed in the teachings of modern Shamanism.
Ego is our armour, and armour can be shed only if the environment is safe.
The emergence of Ego only becomes negative when it is allowed to run on, unchecked. We have all experienced situations where we recognised this in others. We personally recall being taught a certain method of therapy but being told that we could not pass the knowledge on to our students because it ‘belonged’ to those who taught it to us. We also recall a colleague refusing to attend a session where one of us was sharing some knowledge from a course she had attended because he ‘already knew everything there was to know on the subject.’
We have no doubt that you can think of similar experiences where you have witnessed the Ego of another person powering on, fully displayed.
We recognise it in those who habitually ‘show off’ about their own achievements. We see it when someone constantly criticises or puts other people down refusing to acknowledge their successes so that they can maintain their own position at the top. We see it when someone claims ownership of an idea to such a degree that its wisdom cannot be shared for the good of all.
Ego usually comes into play when a fear response has been provoked but it can also be utilised to affect a behavioural strategy which keeps a person permanently protected. We believe that this is what was happening in our examples.
These strategies may well be employed because of the deep-rooted fear that we all share, of not being good enough or being broken in some way. It jars with us because we are all capable of falling into this trap.
This is where Ego can certainly use some work.
Whenever you find yourself in a situation where a response of fear has been provoked press pause:
This might manifest as feelings of anger, jealousy, frustration, resentment or disappointment.
You may then feel your Ego begin to step in as you automatically select a tried and tested behaviour, in response to the discomfort. This may present as a cutting comment, an outburst, sulking, sarcasm, boasting, passive aggression or withdrawal of goodwill.
Before allowing this behaviour to run, as usual, we would encourage you to step into the shoes of your Observer. This is the part of the psyche which is able to observe emotion without taking part in it. By doing this, you can witness what is going on for you in the situation without being clouded by emotion. You will witness the situation that has provoked the response and you will know that this is showing you where you can work on the Self to become more resilient; to prevent yourself from becoming triggered in this way in the future. Knowing this is grounds for gratitude. You can be grateful for this opportunity for growth, and a grateful mindset is a prerequisite for abundance!
As we have said before, having observed the process within you, you are then able to choose which way to go next. You can either allow that behaviour to run and accept and learn from the consequences or you can choose another path. Repeat or evolve. The power lies with you.
A more in-depth article about invoking the Observer is here:
During our daily lives, when we cultivate the habit of regularly stepping into the shoes of our Observer, we can begin to recognise our regular or habitual behavioural strategies. These are patterns of behaviour which we have employed since childhood and which fulfil our basic needs. The most pressing of these is the need to feel safe. Maintaining a feeling of safety equates to maintaining protection and since this is its function, we may find some of those strategies being driven by Ego. This may manifest, amongst other things, as boasting, constantly recalling successes, refusing to acknowledge the achievements of others, putting others down, criticising, claiming to know everything about a subject and claiming to own certain concepts and ideas. This is perfectly understandable and yet, because of the Law of Reflection, quite unattractive to others. The good news is that the presence of Ego in these circumstances is also unattractive to us when we recognise it in ourselves and so is often dissolved immediately upon making the realisation. This means that we only need to work on our self-awareness, acceptance and accountability and Ego usually falls in line.
Remember that, although unattractive at times, Ego is your protector in a world where not everyone is embarking upon a journey towards self-awareness and enlightenment. When we notice Ego coming into play, we must remember that is a valuable part of our psyche. We must thank it for being there and for keeping us safe up to now and we must continue along our path with humility and humour. Every experience is a learning experience. Even the ones that make us cringe!