What is the Ego and Why does it Make us Suffer?

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The ego is the source of a lot of suffering in our society. It’s not just some egos either; all of us have problems that accompany not having our ego completely in check.

So what is our ego?

“Ego is the immediate dictate of human consciousness.” – Max Planck

For the purpose of this article, when I say ‘ego’, I mean the part of us that thinks and feels “I am Me”. It’s the beliefs that we have about ourselves. It’s all our thoughts, feelings and memories. It’s our activity which explains us as separate from everything else. Therefore, in this definition it is the combination of the rational, moral, intuitive and instinctual capacities.

This is contrary to what is usually understood about the ego. It is sometimes exclusively portrayed as the negative, self-absorbed aspect of the personality. But the ego can also be open, kind and giving; it is everything both negative and positive about whom we are.

What, then, is not our ego?

It’s our ground state; our pure self. Our individuality is a flame in the eternal fire and our ego is our flame’s heat. The non-ego part of us is our flame, or our spirit, before the ego starts to define it, as well as the entire fire, which reflects the unity of reality.

To be absolutely clear, it’s not our awareness which is our ego, but everything which defines what our individual awareness is. What we identify as characteristics and beliefs about ourselves are reflections of our ego. It is all our personality traits – both good and bad – which means it can be functional and healthy, or the opposite.

What is the role of the ego?

Our ego is obviously necessary for many reasons. It helps us to maintain a separate (albeit illusory) self and therefore survive and potentially thrive. So it’s not going anywhere, nor do we want it to. It just needs to work out how to manage itself right.

Our ego talks to itself. It says: “Hey mate, you’re being a fool.” Or, “You may want to stop and think for a moment before you do something stupid”. Our ego-voice-of-reason tells our ego-instinct that something is or isn’t the right thing to do.

Effectively, our rational ego self can train itself. It can say: “You’re being illogical, how about you be more reasonable because you’re acting poorly.” It also trains other areas: “You know being angry and sad hasn’t worked well for you in the past, so maybe it’s time to think and feel differently.” It continues: “So now that you say you want to change, I’ll monitor the situation and make sure you bloody well do, because we both know how many times you’ve said that before.”

How does our ego make us suffer?

All egos have their flaws, which is perfectly okay. However, there’s nothing wrong with developing it either. If our ego is continually angry, self-absorbed, depressed, stubborn or an array of other problematic mind and behavioural states, then there is a clear need for some self-improvement.

In addition, if it gets really upset about something not going its way or has an unjustified sense of entitlement, then it is dysfunctional and self-abusive. The same goes if it is more likely to react instantly to situations instead of accessing its executive thinking capacity to respond appropriately to the circumstances. If it pisses a lot of people off, instead of the rare few (well, we can’t please everybody), then it’s not just causing others to suffer, but also itself.

The ego treats itself in different ways, such as being ruthless or compassionate. So if it is always hurting itself over and over again then it’s probably setting itself up for failure with too many expectations and too many desires. This may be the case for some of us, although there is a path to relief; all it needs is to give itself some tough love and a little nurturing, however this is more challenging then what it sounds.

So what is a strong ego?

“A big ego isn’t problematic until it executes priorities at the cost of itself and others.”

A strong ego has a big confidence in itself and an ego problem arises when it is closed to change. It might be extremely strong-willed and have conviction in its stance, but for its own health and for the positive impact on others, it should aim for true self-empowerment.

There are many people who have super strong egos, some of which have big ego problems and others who don’t. Generally it comes down to whether they truly give a f**k about other people or not.

What does a strong ego that’s healthy look like?

A functional ego is balanced; it can be a confident, crazy and playful extrovert, but at other times it can also be a creative or vulnerable introvert. It’s a big personality, yet it’s neither self-absorbed nor insensitive to the needs of the people around it.

It is kind and loving. It genuinely cares for itself and others and will sacrifice its desires for another’s benefit. It also lives on the edge and tests boundaries, but it does so as respectfully as possible.

Ultimately, to be a healthy ego it definitely needs to be open to change, as well as crave it.

What about big ego problems?

“Let’s face it; God has a big ego problem. Why do we always have to worship him?” – Bill Maher

Generally, any ego with problems is consumed by itself or suffering from itself. It also causes pain for others. Additionally, a big ego with a problem will usually worship itself above all others too.

If we think we may have a big ego, as well as the problems, then we should ask ourselves the following questions:

•    Do we make a scene over little things that don’t go our way?
•    Are we so immersed in ourselves that we struggle to have empathy for others?
•    Are we self-absorbed and do we excessively love ourselves?
•    Is changing and evolving our ego difficult?
•    Are we always pissed off or upset in our daily lives?
•    Are we so self-centred that we always put ourselves first?
•    Is our image of ourselves and how others view us one of our top priorities?
•    Are we spiteful and generally disrespectful towards others?
•    Do we continually condemn other people to make ourselves feel better?
•    Does being overly competitive bring emotional dysfunction to our life?
•    Do we aim to tear apart perceived threats with gossip and lies?
•    When our ego is hurt, does it hurt really badly?

Answering yes to any of these questions potentially indicates problems with our ego. It may even be classified as narcissistic behaviour. That’s because an unhealthy ego wants more. It wants to want more. It doesn’t fully embrace what it has and is therefore not content.

Being unforgiving, resentful, jealous or angry is an unhealthy attachment to our ego desires. It’s unhealthy if our ego says: “I should have had something else than what I got, so I’m going to cause issues for others.” That’s because itself is suffering during that process.

How can we maintain a healthy ego?

“I own and operate a ferocious ego.” – Bill Moyers

There’s nothing wrong with a fiery ego, yet most of us think that the guy acting all ‘road raged’ should chill the f**k out. The same goes with that mother going off her nut in the shopping centre because her children are being children. But what about the person obsessed with their image? Or the people who believe they’re better than others and are always trying to prove so?

These are examples of unhealthy ego self-attachment. An ego with problems wants a particular outcome at all costs, or it may feel superior to its fellow man, so when it doesn’t get its ego fix, out comes the ego-monster to rip apart the seams of its injustice.

An ego with problems loves to blame others for how it feels. I call this blamism: “It’s my parents fault for the way they brought me up,” or “it’s the government’s fault for the policies they institute,” or “it’s my ex-partners fault because they broke my heart.” Blaming others is a cop-out; it merely justifies the ego feeling helpless and inhibits it from taking on the responsibility to change itself.

So, let me be clear: after all is said and done we think and feel the way we do because of ourselves and it’s only us that can change it. It’s also important to note that balancing out our ego and managing the aspects of ourselves that could potentially turn out unhealthy and dysfunctional will never end to the day we die, so let’s bloody own it.

Here’s a tip: the single most motivating factor to overcome ego problems is that they cause suffering for everyone involved including ourselves! Do we really want to unnecessarily hurt ourselves and others? I bloody well hope not!

The simple fact remains that we have the power to control how we think, feel and act. Living the way of the v-three; that is, virtuous thinking, feeling and action, is absolutely essential for true self-empowerment. If we operate virtuously, we do ourselves and everyone else a service. It’s that easy.

Ultimately, we should aim to have a healthy ego which has a balanced attachment to itself. This means it should be attached in ways that is functional for its existence but not attached in ways that reinforces the pain and suffering of itself and others. That’s how to maintain a healthy and a painless ego.

“An ego leads itself into the depths of disconnection whilst knowing itself as fundamentally faux.”