Why “Ego” — Falsely Defined — Gets Such a Bad Name

“It’s all ego.”

“He did it out of ego.”

“I don’t want this to be about ego. I want it to be about something better, or higher.”

We hear these things all the time. Many of us even say this things. But what are we really saying?

Here’s what the Oxford Dictionary defines as “ego”:

(1) a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance:
“a boost to my ego”
synonyms: self-esteem · self-importance · self-worth · self-respect ·

(2) 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.

When people attack or disparage “ego,” do they realize what they’re saying?

If we go by the Oxford Dictionary definitions (good ones, in my view), then what they’re really saying is, “I don’t want this to be for the sake of self-esteem;” or, “It’s all about his orientation to reality; it should be something higher.”

Putting down “ego” is kind of like putting down the word “I.” But think about the contradiction here. The moment that I put you down for having “too much self,” I’m implying that you should be benefitting someone other than yourself. But what about the person benefitting from that self-sacrifice I’m claiming you should endure or orchestrate on another’s behalf? Don’t they stand to gain from your gift or sacrifice? Obviously so. But then doesn’t this make them selfish?

I’m not playing a game here. I’m totally serious. How can we condemn, on principle, the notion of ego — when the moment we give up our egos for the sake of another, that other person’s ego is growing.

There has to be another solution here somewhere. And no matter what it is, it can’t be all this nonsense we’re constantly hearing that ego is bad or wrong.

I realize that some people look at ego as the equivalent of narcissism. But narcissism is not self-esteem. It’s not reality, either. A narcissist is someone who focuses on himself, but who does not recognize the right or need of others to focus on themselves. The unspoken and unadmitted ethical code and psychological style of a narcissist is: “Self-interest applies to me; but not to you.” The error here is not in self-interest or “ego.” The error here is in holding a double standard.

Psychologically, narcissists are often incredibly insecure people. Some of them are highly accomplished in their professional fields, although they often drive underlings and colleagues to anxiety. In their personal lives, they can be very demanding and self-centered, because their need for constant attention and reinforcement drains all the emotional and mental energy out of anyone unfortunate enough to be their romantic partner. Such psychological issues are not indicative of too much self-esteem, but too little; not too much reality orientation, but too little.

When you have ego, properly defined, you expect others to have ego, too. You want what you want, and within reasonable boundaries, you seek to get it.

But you also recognize that others have egos too. You’re wise and reality-oriented enough to grasp that you cannot get what you want from others by stepping on their own egos. You might sometimes bump mental heads with their egos, but you never seek to deliberately step on their egos, on principle. If you ignore others’ equally valid need for ego, then you pay the price in reduced loyalty and authentic personal connection. You might inspire fear, but you’ll never inspire genuine admiration or trust.

Don’t blame the concept “ego” for the errors or sins of a narcissist.

Others mistakenly equate the presence of ego with lack of generosity. But in someone with a strong orientation towards self-esteem and reality, you will find the most generous outpouring of love imaginable. It takes rational self-love, along with passionate love of life, to truly love another in a non-neurotic, life-affirming kind of way. Happy people with self-esteem and in contact with objective reality make the best friends, lovers and associates.

It’s a myth and a vicious prejudice that ego leads to stinginess and nastiness. People who love life and themselves, by extension and quite naturally, love the people they choose to have around them. Yes, they discriminate, rationally speaking. But we all discriminate. We all choose the kinds of people we wish to be associated with; anyone who claims otherwise is a big liar.

In the eyes of some, this makes people with genuine ego seem not generous. But it’s nothing of the sort. It’s simply the result of knowing what and who you love, and being loyal to those people and principles. Those at odds with one’s own interests are of no significance to someone with authentic ego. Nor should they be. If such people feel ignored, this is their own problem — and the result of their own lack of ego — rather than the presence of ego in another person.

Have you ever known a self-sacrificial martyr to be happy? Take it from a psychotherapist, in whom a lot of people confide their true feelings. The selfless crusaders for others are usually either the meanest to those close to them — or the most unhappy.

I find it ironic and oddly contradictory that in a society so committed to the proliferation of “self-esteem,” there is such an institutionalized and even socially/politicized antipathy to any concept of ego.

When you put down ego, remember what you’re attacking: reality and self-preservation. For both others and yourself.


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