What’s So Bad About an “Ego Trip”?

What does it mean to accuse someone of being on an “ego trip”?

Let’s start with the concept of “ego.” In the original Greek definition of the term, “ego” basically refers to the self, or “I.”

In the Freudian version of the term, “ego” was part of a triad of ego, superego and “id.” Id referred to the mental realm of untamed emotions, urges and instincts; superego referred to the conscience; and ego referred to the mind’s connection with reality.

I’m not trying to promote Freud’s theory, but simply to point out the two contexts in which this term has generally been used: reality orientation, and self.

So basically, to be on an “ego” trip is to be concerned with self and reality. What, exactly, is wrong with that?

It’s interesting how the person who objects to somebody’s “ego trip” has little problem with the concept of a self. Such people are more than happy to concern themselves with their own interests, desires, selves and egos. In fact, to assert one’s own ego in the condemnation of another’s actions is itself an act of egoism, or an ego trip. By what standard of moral purity do you attack something while exercising that very thing yourself?

Instead of being honest and saying, “I object to you spending your mind’s energy and your time doing such-and-such,” they try to “make” you feel guilty by condemning you for having an ego at all. Instead of making a rational case for what’s mistaken in your actions, they go right for emotion: the emotion of guilt.

This is precisely the same tactic people use when attempting to intimidate you by calling you “selfish.” The person who feels shame over being called “selfish” never stops to consider that the person condemning him or her as selfish is, by that very act, advancing some set of interests, values or options the accuser personally and selfishly holds dear.

In other words, if I call you “selfish” and therefore bad for spending your time doing what you want to do instead of spending your time on me – on or something else important to me (world poverty, the good of the community, the family, whatever)– then I’m contradicting myself in my very act of moral condemnation and intimidation.

In effect, I’m telling you, “Shame, shame” for being concerned with your own interests while in the process using that condemnation to advance my own values, interests and opinions. How does that make any sense?

It’s precisely the same game when somebody accuses you of being on an “ego trip.”

The falsehood here is that it’s always and automatically bad whenever you’re doing something that you wish to do, by your own standards and for your own sake.

People think of “ego trip” and they immediately think of a person looking in the mirror, obsessing on him- or herself. They confuse this image with the proper definition of ego, which is a rational orientation towards oneself and reality.

Anti ego-trip moralists take it for granted that any attempt to advance the self is by definition always wrong — other than, interestingly, their own attempts to advance their own selves and interests.

It’s entirely possible that what you’re doing is wrong, irrational and not even in your own objective interests, as well as harming other innocent people. But in such a case, it’s not your “ego” that’s to blame. It’s not your orientation to self or reality that’s to blame. It’s just the opposite: Your refusal to look at reality, at your own objective interests as well as the impact on other innocent parties, that’s the problem here.

Of course, the person accusing you of the “ego trip” is bypassing any rational or objective argument against what you’re doing. Instead, the person making this accusation is going right to a hoped for response of guilt on your part.

The end result is one of two things. One, you stop doing something perfectly legitimate – yes, in your self-interest, but perfectly legitimate – for no reason other than someone else doesn’t want you to continue.

Or two, you stop doing what you indeed should stop doing, but for the wrong reason. Instead of stopping it because it’s against your interest (something self-destructive, as in drug abuse), you’re stopping it solely for the sake of others.

So the next time somebody accuses you of being on an “ego trip,” reply by saying: “And what exactly is wrong with that? My ego is myself, and my orientation to reality. How am I violating either of those things by doing what I’m doing?”

The burden of proof must be on the person making the accusation – and not on you.


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