Like Xerox, Kleenex and Post-Its, “ego” has been genericized to mean a variety of things — not many of them flattering but also none of them really capturing the essence of ego. So I prefer Ryan Holiday’s definition: the toxicity of self-absorption.
An inflated ego presses up against your soul’s optic nerve and makes you see the world differently. This world-view is presented through the lens of self-absorption — a toxic blend of intrinsic insecurity and extrinsic distraction. An inflated ego has a debilitating impact on the few areas where we have 100% dominion over: perspective, language and actions.
An inflated ego poisons the water supply of reason.
An inflated ego converts sadness to resentment.
An inflated ego makes you think, say and do stupid things.
In short, your ego is trying to kill you.
I am my own case study on ego. I battle it every day. Not to defeat ego, but to master it. Over the past year or so, I created a sort of mental dashboard on monitoring my ego. Below are the three gauges that I check frequently — in an ironic twist, my ego often hides this dashboard from view 🙂
Didn’t Do vs Did Do. Our ego loves to torment us about what we didn’t do. This is the whoulda/shoulda/coulda recipe of regret that leaves us twisting between our past and our present. It also provides a fertile ground for shame and guilt — two key chemicals in ego’s mad scientist lab. So I focus on what I DID do. This is all that matters. Even if some of the decisions I made were ego-based. But reconciling with what I did do, I can improve and use this data for moving forward. Focusing on what I did do also holds me accountable to commitments and goals. Finally, it also allows me to see the value in the actions and celebrate the victories.
Happening vs Unfolding. “Why is this happening to me?” is the lament of ego. Our ego loves to convince us that, to paraphrase Willie Nelson, we have our own special brand of misery. Ego makes us see things as happenings — as occurrences outside our control. This is a distinctly human condition. As the gazelle is being eaten by the lion, it does not think “Why me!?” Another trait of the ego is what I call in my bookHuman Bacon, “Uncle Rico Syndrome”. Inspired by the dysfunctionally nostalgic uncle in Napoleon Dynamite, “Uncle Rico Syndrome” is resent-based attachment to what did not happen in the past. When our ego is mastered, we understand that most things simply unfold. We then understand that we are not really the author of our story, but more the main character. While certainly our actions, conditions and world-views influence this unfolding, it removes the fear of change and the excuse of a lack of control over circumstances.
Comparison vs Standards. I don’t know who said, but boy is it true: “Comparison kills.” It kills your vision, self-worth, relationships, potential and more. And it’s all the result of an inflated ego that sells you a ponzi scheme of trying to be like someone else. Or worse, buying in to the resent-based mythology that your life sucks because someone else is successful. The ego also loves to pit you against an internal comparison between the past and the future. It takes the #1 ingredient of the DID NOT DO list and compares it to your today. It takes the #2 ingredient of HAPPENING and tells you that your current story doesn’t match the story you told yourself about your future. Similar to getting rid of a bad habit by replacing it with a good habit, the only solution to comparison is the establishment of a set of standards. A set of standards becomes a benchmark for your perspective, language and actions in the NOW. We can have a big-picture set of standards for our life or simply jot down a set of standards for a particular decision or situation. Personal example from my list of life standards: Be Around People Who Give Energy. This standard drives relationships. Example of smaller standard: Keurig is not coffee (not a joke!)
Final thought: One of the best ways to master our ego is to remind it that does have a purpose and a role. It is not something to kill off. That would be like losing the ability to feel physical pain. When mastered, the ego is a high functioning, highly important tool for making decisions in the now from a database of experiences, information and knowledge. It’s only when the monster turns on its maker that we have a problem.