There is much demonizing of the ego, in both modern psychology and ancient teachings, as the elusive evil behind many of the bad things we do, and how it ultimately blocks our happiness, progress and enlightenment.
Accordingly, much advice is given about denying, ignoring, disowning or outright killing of the ego as the most worthwhile undertaking if we want to master ourselves and lead truly happy lives.
Let’s explore the notion of the ego from a different perspective.
The word ego is often used as a broad term which leads to confusion. And advice regarding its destruction usually involves complex psycho-spiritual analysis that goes above most people’s heads — certainly above mine!
I would like to offer my thoughts in regard to the role of the ego and how it relates to our day-to-day lives, as well as our attempts to live a balanced life.
In his model of the psyche, Freud defined the Id, Ego and Super-ego as the three central parts of our mental lives. Each has abilities that not only support our survival but also help us function daily.
The id, connected to our survival instincts, operates on a primitive level. It is ruled by the Pleasure Principle, and combined with its primitive instincts, causes the id to demand that our bodily needs, wants and desires are fulfilled immediately or it will go into reactive mode.
For example, when a baby is born and until it reaches around the age of five, the id dominates his or her behavior to assure its highest priority: survival.
The id, if not managed properly, runs adults’ behavior due to our survival instincts.
The ego, the second part of our psyche, develops later in life and manages the id’s primitive desires and often unrealistic demands to make sure that they are appropriate in the real world, and following them will not cause us harm. For example, if my id wants to steal food from the store because I am hungry, or get totally naked in public because it’s too hot outside, the ego intervenes and helps me consider the long-term consequences of my actions before acting on them.
As we can see the ego, which is more realistic than the id, comes up with sensible strategies to help us behave in beneficial ways.
But the trouble begins when the ego loses balance since it can no longer manage the id’s demands. The id, therefore, leads us to behave in inappropriate or harmful ways to ourselves and others. For example, stealing or getting naked.
The third part of our psyche is the super-ego, which reminds us of cultural rules, what is appropriate and acceptable, and what is not. We learn most of these rules and values from significant others such as our parents, teachers and other authority figures.
The super-ego strives for perfection and wants us to become our ideal selves, and achieve our higher goals in life.
This trio — id, ego and the super-ego — interact with each other in interesting ways.
For example, the id and the super-ego often have opposing desires. The id is instinctual and immediate, while the super-ego thinks in the long-term.
The ego, therefore, takes the position of a mediator between the conflicting wishes of the id and super-ego so we can maintain balance in our daily lives.
As we can see, the ego, contrary to its portrayal as the wicked evil enemy, plays an essential role without which we cannot function properly.
The ego becomes destructive only when it loses its ability to effectively manage the id. It is therefore critical to determine how the ego loses that ability, and how to restore it.
How Does An Out of Balance Ego Behave?
The out of balance ego becomes increasingly and unreasonably demanding. It craves attention, acceptance, affection, appreciation and authority at all costs. And it becomes overactive and creates turmoil when it doesn’t get what it wants, when and how it wants them.
As we can see, the claim that the ego, in general, is inherently bad only applies when it’s out of balance.
Otherwise, the ego is crucial to mediating between the id and the super-ego. Therefore the advice that it must be destroyed neither serves any useful purpose nor actually works.
In fact, if we try to discipline or destroy the ego, we set up a fight within ourselves which sets off nothing but resistance. This is clearly counterproductive, and will only push the ego into greater imbalance and dysfunction, and push us further away from living a balanced life.
C.S Lewis perfectly expressed what is wrong with the promise that we will gain humility in exchange for “destroying” the ego: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”
In essence, our ego is neither the problem nor responsible for our mishaps and ineffectiveness. Rather, our useless thoughts that distort our emotions and behaviors are the culprits.
What can we then do to keep our egos in check and working for us? By simply noticing when we are craving attention, acceptance, affection, appreciation and authority in an unbalanced manner, and choose to consciously bypass behaviors intended to seek them.
This will quickly return the ego to its state of balance helping us to function productively and happily in our daily lives.
1.Freud, S. (1920). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 1-64
2.Freud, S. (1923). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66
3.Carducci, B. (2009). The psychology of personality: Viewpoints
4.Engler, B. (2009). Personality theories. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing