Ego

Have you heard of James Arthur Ray? He’s one of the experts featured on “The Secret,” the film (and later book) released several years back that brought the Law of Attraction into the popular mainstream—and generated love-hate debates about it. Ray is currently serving—and appealing—a two-year imprisonment for the negligent deaths of 3 participants in a retreat he led in Sedona in 2009. This tragedy fueled even more criticism of the Law of Attraction and how dangerously irresponsible it is for anyone to advocate it.

candle in stoneUnless I missed those discussions, it seems that no one talked about where Ray really went wrong, which ultimately had nothing to do with the Law of Attraction. He said that the ego unfairly gets a bad reputation. While every teacher of spirituality and consciousness advocates not following the lead of our ego, he encouraged us to listen to our ego and let it kick us into action. He was very proud of the fact that he was known as “the action guy” in the personal development arena.

In the Sedona tragedy, he was reportedly acting as if he was God in some of the rituals he led–not in a good way. It sounded like his ego really got the better of his judgment, including ignoring the complaints of the 3 victims who were getting physically sick from the intense heat of the sweat lodge, in addition to extended physical exertion without proper health and safety precautions and safeguards.

Ego = False Self

Regardless of what your specific spiritual orientation may be, you’ve probably heard that ego is not our true self. Instead, it’s a fear-based part of our personality developed since a young age out of a defensive need to protect ourselves from harm. It lacks sophistication in deciphering between real threats and situations that stretch us out of our comfort but are ultimately not harmful. Ego’s sole mission is to keep us safe and to avoid discomfort at all costs.

Ego manifests itself in different ways. Most of us readily recognize ego as inflated self-perceptions, such as the arrogance of someone who thinks s/he’s the big cheese, and no one is as amazing as s/he is. Arrogance is just a mask for hiding deep insecurities. Ego also tries to protect us by getting us to avoid taking risks. However, its warnings often come across as negative self-judgments, including ones that deflate our enthusiasm, criticize our performance, challenge our aptitude, and scare us into retreating and playing small.

TruthNo matter how you recognize ego, the same truth applies: It isn’t the real you, and it doesn’t serve your highest good to let it run your life.

Managing Ego

Unless you happen to agree with Ray about ego, there’s pretty much universal agreement about the above statement. Beyond not letting ego run our lives, what do we do about it? That’s where I see differences in opinion. At the risk of over-simplifying things, the opinions fall into these 3 camps:

1. Ego is a villain to be suppressed, if not destroyed.
2. Since ego is a false, developed identity, we can just ignore it.
3. Acknowledge this part of us, false notwithstanding, but we don’t listen to its counsel.

To me, #1 is automatically out, as that’d be waging war against ourselves. No inner peace could come from that. As for #2, while it seems to make sense to not pay attention to something that’s false, ignoring something doesn’t automatically make it go away. Since ego warnings are often accompanied by fear of imminent threat to our safety, ignoring ego means shoving down fear, which only festers underneath the surface. I’ve learned that, if I face fear head on without judgment, its power over me dissipates—unless, of course, the fear is associated with real threat, not just ego’s clumsy tactic to get me to back off from heading into unfamiliar experiences.

zen stoneThat’s why #3 is my ego-management strategy of choice, if you will. In fact, just the other day, a friend of mine reminded me of the effectiveness of this strategy. I was facing a situation with some unpleasant new developments. The latter quickly induced escalating fear within me about one possible scenario and how to proceed overall (ego’s job). At the same time, however, I knew that I could shift my focus to the inner resources I could tap to see other potential scenarios and do well in that situation.

I reached out to several trusted friends to ask for prayer support. One of them promptly wrote back with an affirmative prayer, helping me hold my intention to focus on my inner strength and power. She included a note of seeing me thanking my ego for doing its job in trying to protect me. That made me smile and gave me relief. I didn’t have to expend energy in fighting my ego and making it wrong. I just needed to recognize what it was trying to do, however clumsily and inappropriately, before redirecting all my energy to grounding myself in my truth.

Ego isn’t the real us. However, instead of fighting it, we just need to remember its reason for having been constructed in our human experience, i.e., to keep us safe. Beyond that, it’s always, always our conscious choice not to let ego run our lives.

Now, over to you, what’s your understanding of ego? How do you manage it in your life? Would love for you to share your opinions below in the comment box.

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About Alice Chan, Ph.D.

Dr. Alice Chan is passionate about developing conscious leaders and organizations. Her path to serve her life purpose has included being an award-winning Cornell professor and a leader in the corporate world for nearly 15 years. She’s the author of the book, REACH Your Dreams: Five Steps to be a Conscious Creator in Your Life, and creator of the program, 30 Days to Living Your Best Life. All content on this blog and website is her own, not the opinions of her employer.

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16 comments
karenjolly
karenjolly

Alice - thank you so much for this powerful post. You did such a beautiful job of explaining what we all battle from time to time...the ego.

 I used to be so afraid of my ego, I think mainly because I believed so strongly in right and wrong. I was taught that the ego was bad and that bad people are full of ego. Now I've come to understand that there are many parts of me and they all are important. Without the ego, I couldn't have a human experience. I would see myself as a part of everything (which I am) but I would not be able to experience myself as an individual as well. So I've come to appreciate this part of me that has to label everything and see me as different from you. However, I never want that part of me to rule because my connection to you and every living thing is what makes life worth living! :)


So as usual I am back to balance and love. Loving my ego, listening to it when it comes to reminding me to eat, breathe, get the laundry done...and then listening to my deeper, inner self when it comes to growing to my potential and pushing myself to new heights. I know that connected part of me that see no limits appreciates the ego that reminds me to stop and rest or tells me to jump if I get too close to the fire.


Thank you Alice!

ThinDifference
ThinDifference

Fantastic article, Alice. It really puts our ego in perspective and in a role of it in our lives and dealing with uncertainty and day-to-day activities.  It is our self-attentiveness and self-awareness that gives us strength in recognizing best thoughts to move us forward in the best way. 

When we are ego-centric, we get ourselves into trouble. When we are ego-supported, we keep ourselves confidently balanced. 

This is a very important article.... gives us more to think about and also ways to work through it. Thanks! Jon

AlliPolin
AlliPolin

Wow. This post challenges me to really acknowledge my ego that is keeping me safe and sound but also recognize that i'm playing small as a result and not tapping into my true source of power and wisdom often enough.  It's my ego that thinks I know how everything will turn out and what I really need to do is acknowledge my ego and choose another path.  I'm glad you shared the example of James Arthur Ray.  Clearly he was so caught up in his ego that the lesson he wanted to teach (at all costs b/c he was so smart and knew what was best) mattered more than the reality in front of him.  I see that in life and at work play out over and over for so many people.  Sad that his example ended so tragically.  Thanks for bringing out the lesson for all. 

MirReynolds
MirReynolds

Excellent piece and so well articulated. Bravo!

I'm only 12 months into spiritual 'stuff' but here's my take on Ego:

An identity (or metaphorical prison) that separates us from who we really are and what we truly stand for.

PS Love the 'nod' to Ego in your pal's prayer.

Casey Fleming
Casey Fleming

What a terrific post, Alice.  My biggest revelation when I began my personal growth adventure was that in order to protect myself my ego wanted others to behave in a certain way - the way that would best serve how I thought they should think / act / feel.  In fact, I came to realize that I was really committed to getting others to behave in very specific ways.  Not surprisingly, that didn't work out all the time.

For me the most significant challenge became learning how to let others be themselves.  But like you, I couldn't just "stuff it" down and simply turn my ego off.  I needed to embrace the whole of myself if I were to grow, allow myself to feel what I felt, and then choose healthy behavior.  Eventually through the practice of acting this way I was able to release the desire to get everyone else to act in accordance with my laws of the universe.

My ego still has a voice, of course.  I have a long way to go in my personal growth path.  But these days I can usually see when my ego is going off the rails, and gently tell it "Thank you for sharing, that's enough."  And then I can choose healthy, loving behavior.

Thanks for an elegantly written post, Alice.

Casey

livelovework
livelovework

As this is my year of living fearlessly, or at least fear less-ly, I enjoyed reading your thoughts on ego essentially being a fear-driven manifestation of ourselves. Perhaps this means my focus this year is really about developing strategy #3 for dealing with ego, to know and understand my fears without inflating or acting on them.

Thanks for this thoughtful discussion on ego! Have a grateful day!


Chrysta

Hiten Vyas
Hiten Vyas

Hi Alice,

Wow, what a wonderful post and it was like this post was written just in time, as I experienced my ego in full force today. I was in a dating situation and my date was very much ego driven. I could tell this just by the way she was talking about her career, social life, etc. There was strong attachment to all such things. I'm the opposite way. I'm trying to relinquish as much as it can! Anyhow, I felt my date was wasting my time and I strongly suggested that this was the case. In this case, I know it was my ego which lead this suggestion and probably to protect me in some way. For the first time in a long time, it was like my ego was right! Does this make sense? Normally I just observe the ego and allow its need to manifest pass away, because it usually causes trouble. However, today I really saw that the ego can also be force to acknowledge (in small bits of course!), especially when we believe we may have been wronged.

Thank you.

DrAliceChan
DrAliceChan moderator

@karenjolly Thank you so much, Karen, for your detailed explanation of how you see ego, which is so right on! Ego is an integral part of the human experience for sure, and it does serve its purpose in getting us to do some things that we don't want to do but are necessary--as well as issuing legitimate warnings sometimes. And, as you said, we just need to be clear about making big decisions and growing from our deeper, inner true self. Deep gratitude for your insights again, Karen!

DrAliceChan
DrAliceChan moderator

@ThinDifference Love the way you talk about "ego-centric" vs. "ego-supported," Jon. We have a mind because it's meant to support us in our life purpose and mission. When we let ego take over and sit in the driver seat, that's a whole different scenario. Thank you for adding your insights, Jon, much appreciated!

DrAliceChan
DrAliceChan moderator

@AlliPolin Thank you, Alli, for joining this discussion with your very candid and insightful remarks. Indeed, it's sad that we see lots of examples of people who get so caught up in their ego directives and attachment to how things must play out that they don't see the need to take a different course. I'm certainly not immune to that myself, but am getting better at recognizing traces of that happening before I get in too deep. It's part of being human.

DrAliceChan
DrAliceChan moderator

@MirReynolds Thank you for appreciating this article and for taking the time to share your comment! Love your choice of words about ego being a metaphorical prison, because it really is in many ways. Also, separation is very much the hallmark of ego. When we're truly connected to who we really are, the fears that ego raise fall away. Thanks again for joining the conversation and for sharing your succinct insights!

DrAliceChan
DrAliceChan moderator

@Casey Fleming Great comment, Casey, thank you for taking the time to share! Yes, ego does have a franchise on imposing rules on how others must behave. I'm quite sure all of us have experienced that at one point or another. I like the way you acknowledge your ego and then stop its incessant chattering. That's a great way to honor being human without allowing our false self drive where we go and how we live.

DrAliceChan
DrAliceChan moderator

@livelovework Chrysta, love your distinction between "fearlessly" and "fear less-ly"! From what I could glean in your writing, I think you're doing a pretty darn good job of honoring your human fears without being paralyzed by them. I've come to appreciate that living fearlessly doesn't mean we'll never feel any fear. It means not letting fear stop us. I've also learned that fear and other not-so-pleasant feelings are signals to us that we're either about to embark on something big or genuinely dangerous, or that something in our lives really needs to change. Thanks again for joining this conversation!

DrAliceChan
DrAliceChan moderator

@Hiten Vyas What a great comment, Hiten! I really appreciate your authentic share. I can most certainly relate to your experience, as I'm sure others can, too, even if the specifics aren't identical. What I've learned is that, as we develop ourselves and become conscious of what to release, the Universe often bring people and situations into our lives to allow us to practice discerning and choosing how we want to react. Sometimes, these situations trigger rather strong ego reactions, because part of us can identify with what we're experiencing, because we're working on letting these same attitudes, behavior and tendencies go. Also, personally, as I alluded to in my last post, I have a second chance with a former significant other. I'm aware of my thoughts and fears about history possibly repeating itself, while simultaneously being open to the gift of having an opportunity to reconnect with someone I loved with whom I shared a very deep connection--after we've both independently experienced some growth in the 3 years apart. So, the warnings ego raises aren't always 100% invalid. It's our ability to recognize them and acting from love, not fear, every step of the way. While ego wants me to withdraw out of fear of getting hurt again, love wants me to be open to harvesting the treasure--part of which is discerning what's really important to me in a non-ego way.

MirReynolds
MirReynolds

And thank-you for your encouraging words! This novice really appreciates them.

DrAliceChan
DrAliceChan moderator

@MirReynolds You are more advanced in your understanding than you give yourself credit for. :-)

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