The ‘Ego’ is a word that has evolved considerably through the decades but its current meaning remains hazy, up there with other vague ideas like ‘surrendering’ and ‘being in the present moment’ . In fact, the term has become so saturated that it is regularly used not as a word with a specific meaning but as a way of describing an entire constellation of derogatory cognitive-behavioural states of an individual.
In my line of work, during handovers and clinical case discussions, therapists often refer to a client’s 'Ego' as the reason for a multitude of predicaments. It’s not uncommon to hear disapproving summaries like ‘he’s got to do something about his Ego’ or ‘that’s her Ego talking’.
So, what on earth is this thing we call Ego-and who is it talking to??
Ego in Latin (Ego) and Greek (Εγώ) literally means I or me and is nothing more than a personal pronoun.
The psychological term ‘Ego’ is a lot more complicated and it is a considerably vague, man-made concept. it cannot be measured and has several connotations. The term became popular by the psychoanalytic movement at the beginning of the 20th century- with Sigmund Freud being the original ‘mastermind’ behind its construction.
Freud developed what is known as the structural model of personality (see diagram). The Ego, which develops during the first 3 years of life, is the part of the personality responsible for keeping the balance between the Id (our most primal drive mostly interested in instant gratification) and the Superego (our conscience and internalised moral standards).
It therefore makes sure that we do not act upon our most basic urges but at the same time mitigates the strict demands of the Superego. In other words, it’s the conductor of the rather insane orchestra called Personality and it helps lead a relatively sane life.
So, why all the hate?
So if the ego is a structure that developed to help us navigate life, why is there so much negative press around it?
Enter Modern Ego
In recent decades, the term Ego has become even more nebulous in nature and tends to leave a rather bitter aftertaste each time it is uttered. Someone’s Ego is now synonymous with the selfish, more narcissistic parts of oneself. Latching on to one’s identity (and the thoughts and behaviours that identity consists of) can also be said to lead to inflated Ego.
In modern spiritual circles, Ego is something to be exorcised and its sheer presence is frowned upon and often denotes a lack of ‘awakening’ (whatever that means). It is often thought of as a mental construct and therefore located somewhere in the mind; Ego is essentially identification with thought. The Ego loves attention and it seems it will go to great lengths to get it to ensure its survival.
Put simply, modern Ego has very little in common with the original psychoanalytic theory. It is a collection of concepts and ideas that we have developed about who we think we are, what we are meant to be doing and how we are meant to go on about it. Too much identification with it can lead to behaviours that are unhelpful and even self-sabotaging: acting selfish, pushing people away being but a few.
I am even more confused now- what should I do about my Ego??
Sit back and relax. Without some sort of identity it would be impossible to function or even exist in this world. Modern Ego becomes problematic when there is over-identification with thoughts and the associated emotions. Self-Development therefore, often consists of practices that keep the Ego in check so that it doesn’t take over. The Ego can be VERY sneaky so training oneself to bring awareness to it is a good starting point for taming it.
‘’Ego is no more than this: identification with form, which primarily means thought forms’.