What is “ego”?

Dear Stan,

I’m working with someone who is deeply concerned about their public reputation. If they are not allowed to lead a project, and it includes the opportunity for public notice, they will object to our strategies and tactics citing thinly constructed business reasons.  But the underlying motive is really about how much attention they receive in the business community.  Why do people have such big egos?  What can a co-worker or even a boss do about it?


Trying to Pop Their Bubble

Dear Pop,

You don’t ask easy questions.

And I’m not going to claim expert status on the subject.  I’m still figuring it out.  But there are a few things that have helped me over the years to understand the phenomenon of “ego”, and a few tools I’ve used to comprehend my own.  Maybe these will help you.  However, don’t expect that anyone truly has this subject nailed down just yet.  Even big name psychologists.

First of all, there’s the problem of definition.  To Freud, “ego” meant the conscious mind, that which we could talk about, the part that is engaged in voluntary thought and action.  To Dr. Eric Berne, “ego” translated to the “adult” in us.  Both Freud and Berne saw the purpose of the ego to be the conduit and translator through which the expressions of the “superego” (unconscious) and the “id” (subconscious) flowed.   Theorists in human behavior consider the unconscious as containing that which has been learned and now requires no conscious thought to create action.  For example, we once learned consciously how to type.  But after years of training and practice, we no longer have to think about where to put our fingers as we create words.  The word itself is thought of, but the fingers just do their thing in response.  The same transfer from conscious to unconscious occurs as we receive the rules of life through childhood, usually delivered by our parents, our teachers, even our peers.  All these messages of what we should or shouldn’t be doing, when repeated and reinforced with pain and pleasure, become unconscious guidelines for our decisions.  “I shouldn’t eat that second piece of cake”, we say to ourselves, having encapsulated our mom in our own head.

The subconscious is theorized to be that which has never been conscious.  It is the realm of instinct (although humans have relatively few of these when compared to other animals), archetypal symbology (according to Freud, Jung and Campbell), and the basic motivations of all life (survival, procreation, sensory stimulus and gratification, etc.).  Thus the subconscious, or id, is considered the “child” of the mind; the unconscious, or superego, is considered the “parent”; the conscious mind, or ego, is considered the “adult”.

What you are referring to as “ego” is really the expression of the “child”, the subconscious appetites that want to be satisfied, and satisfied now.  The child in us is not able to wait for satisfaction.  The child in us, like our own children, has a hard time conceiving of self-sacrifice, patience, delayed gratification, considering what others need, etc.  The subconscious motivations are self-centered, literally.  So when a person exhibits self-centeredness, and appears to be acting in ways that draw attention, bring pleasures, achieves more autonomy, etc., it can be said that their “id” is strong and their childish desires are driving their behavior.

Most people don’t know that their “id” is dominating their behavior choices.  Remember that to reside in the subconscious, these drivers of behavior cannot have been conscious.  So the person who is driven by their “id” or inner child does not consciously know that this is the case.  Their “adult” mind forms quite cogent arguments and logic to rationalize the desires of the “child”.  The more intellectually gifted the person, the more adept they are at this process of rationalization.

To the outside observer, who might be aware of this triple-mind phenomenon, it becomes relatively straightforward to identify people who have strong internal “children”.  Their actions and decisions result in a disproportionate amount of gratification coming their way, at the expense of others.  But the “child” himself is ignorant of this.  And if we try to point it out to the “adult”, it will be rejected, and often with aggressive, truly hostile responses.  There is no organism more instantly angry than a child when you try to take a favorite toy out of their hands.  There is also a personal threat in that the “adult” mind who is confronted with the truth of their dominant “child” will resist the truth because it is too painful to admit that one’s self-image isn’t matched by reality.  It’s like walking confidently down a crowded street for blocks, then discovering your fly is wide open.

Therefore, if you must confront someone with their self-centeredness, their dominant “child”, you must be prepared for their self-defense, because you are going to be a scary threat to them.  You can lessen the chances for destructive confrontations by addressing their “adult” as another “adult”, rather than trying to teach them how to be an adult.  That would simply be placing you in the role of judgmental “parent”, which as we know from personal experience, isn’t often welcome.

Buddhists understand the problem and have endeavored to dissolve the separations between mind states through asceticism, meditation, and the pursuit of “no mind”.  With hard work and devotion to a monkish life, it is possible to achieve.  It’s hard to make a living and put the kids through college following that path, so most of us don’t subscribe.  We use other means.  Like a loving spouse who is willing to risk censure if they point out that our “kid” is acting out.

Since it is a low-return effort for the outside observer, I would recommend, Pop, that you take pains to associate with people who have dominant “adult” minds, and who have taken the time to try to understand and integrate their other two mind states.  Working with “children” who walk around in adult bodies can be both frustrating and dangerous.

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