What is the ego?
One of the problems we human beings have is called the ego. It is also one reason why personal change can get complicated. Understanding what it is, and how it leads to engrained thoughts and cravings will leave you better equipped for change.
Your ego is not the self, which is something more mysterious and connected to consciousness. Rather, it is your false personality; your idea of the person you ought to be, as taken over from other people and the story that came out of that. Over time, it has become your crusted-over identity as stored in the mind, filled with habitual thoughts, ego cravings, memories and fantasies. It is entirely mechanical and might be likened to your programmed self.
The origin of the ego
In the beginning the ego was created people as gazed into our eyes. Or, more precisely, how we thought people were looking at us. As children we learned early on whether we were lovable or loathsome, respected or rejected, attractive or unattractive. Both by the way we people looked into us, and by the way they treated us. And that constant attention to the gaze of others stays with us into old age.
That doesn’t mean we accepted what others thought of us. We may, instead have rebelled against their judgments. Just as a child labelled ‘weak’ or ‘stupid’ may develop an ego that is ‘strong’ and ‘superior’. But if we are loved and cared for, we develop an ego position based on the idea that we are lovable. Taken too far that ego position may even lead to ‘entitlement’. Most of us can think of people we have met who are spoilt that way: their egos are narcissistic.
But other egos are damaged by over-harsh demands on the child; by neglect and abuse. The program (or story) that develops from that is that the person is always lacking in something. They go through life searching for something to fill that lack: money, attention, success, or membership of a cult, for example. A few enter therapy or a spiritual practice seeking to become a better person, worthy of love.
Life experiences feed the ego
Another source for the ego (or false personality) are our experiences of life. For example, a person who is continually coming up against disappointment may develop a frustrated ego. Meaning they identify themselves as a person to whom life is unfair. This, in turn, leads to the habitual thought that they are doomed to fail. Similarly, a person who enjoys disproportionate success may carry the idea that they are special. The downside there is that when success dries up they may be less resilient than people who have learn that success is mostly a matter of being in the right place, at the right time, with the right product.
The ego makes up life stories
As those experiences unfold we develop a story about them. In which the ego is the main character. Stories about injustice or privilege, success or failure, rejection and acceptance, etc. Common types of ego stories include hero, victim, outcast, rebel, innocent, and seeker. Nearly all stories are concocted in order to explain the basic lack which the ego seeks to fill, and to justify its demands from life.
The ego is also our internal judge
As we identify with the false personality, and feel it’s lack we encounter the ego’s demands for us to be different, better and more praise-worthy in the eyes of others. When we cannot measure up the internal critic creates negative thoughts of various kinds: that we are stupid, worthless, unlovable, hopeless failures. These, in turn lead to anxiety, depression and other mental health problems.
The ego triggers habitual reactions
Some of the ego’s background judgments may not be fully conscious to us. Based on our experiences and ego-carvings, and related to the story in which are unmeshed, these judgments lead to automatic, habitual reactions. For example:
- Flying into a rage when setbacks occur
- Freezing when we meet aggression
- Giving up when adversity comes around
- Getting anxious when faced with something new (at which we might fail)
- Deleting information which doesn’t match our self-image
- Going into self-pity when things don’t go our way
Downsize your ego
To free ourselves of the tyranny of the ego we have to practice mindful self-observation. Neutrally observing our habitual reactions, thoughts, and self-judgments. This can be hard to do if you have spent years in unconscious obedience to the ego and its pre-programmed thoughts. However, without awareness we cannot progress. It is only when we become aware of our conditioning that we are able to defuse from it.