Having An Ego Is A Good Thing, If You Know How To Use It

The ego gets a bad rap these days.

It’s common to hear complaints about how this or that person has a “huge ego.” Even Eckhart Tolle (whose writings I have been totally inspired by) talks a lot about how to free yourself from your ego.

But what is the ego, anyway–and is it really all that bad? Well, there are actually 2 very different ways it can show up: as the negative ego or the positive ego.

The Negative Ego

The one I refer to above is often called the “negative ego.” It is the part of us that creates a sense of separation between ourselves and others, that labels people and things as “better than” or “worse than.” It’s the part of us that clings to things outside of ourselves, making them a part of our identity.

Unfortunately, this clinging is the source of all suffering. Whether it’s your pride, your car, your looks, your job, even personality traits you identify with (like generosity or goofiness)–when you begin to define yourself through things or concepts, it becomes painful when you inevitably must part with them.

To protect itself, your negative ego will hang onto these things at all costs, even if it means judging or harming yourself or others, or otherwise twisting the facts.

Last I checked, I haven’t reached enlightenment, and therefore my negative ego still sneaks up on me at times. Here’s an example:

While visiting family last month, I couldn’t resist eating some non-Paleo food that I used to eat with my family growing up. Unfortunately, after a few days, the food I ate wreaked havoc on my sensitive digestive system, which doesn’t respond well to things like gluten, dairy, sugar, tomatoes, and even citrus. I felt bloated, nauseous, and cranky.

And that was a perfect recipe for my negative ego to come in, telling me stories like the following:

  • “No real CrossFit trainer would have so little self-control!”
  • “Everyone else can eat these things and feel just fine. I’m clearly a freak.”
  • “Everyone else can eat these things and feel just fine. No friggin’ fair!!”
  • “Look, I got myself sick AGAIN. What the heck was I thinking? Have I still not learned this lesson? I’m such an idiot!”

Ouch, right? Well that, my friends, is how the negative ego causes suffering. Can you sense the fear underneath?

The Positive Ego

The negative ego is really just a tool gone rogue–like a lawnmower that somehow animates itself and tears apart the flowerbed. (The ex-software-engineer part of me is tempted to go off on some creative tangent about artificial intelligence and sentient appliances…but I’ll spare you.)

But if you know how to use it, it can be a really useful ally.

So what’s the ego’s intended function, anyway? The Freudian definition of “ego” is simply, according to Wiktionary, “the most central part of the mind, which mediates with one’s surroundings.”

That’s all! The ego is meant to be our window to the world around us–a neutral and extremely useful source of information about what’s happening.

Let’s imagine my sad food story again. What if, instead of allowing my negative ego to spin stories and create drama around what was happening, I simply approached the situation with my positive ego?

  • “I notice my stomach is bloated. I think it was the food I just ate.”
  • “Hm, I notice a craving feeling for this food that I know makes me feel nauseous.”
  • “Oh look, I just ate something that tasted pleasant, and now I feel tired and low energy.”

Kind of bland compared with the negative ego. But by thinking of the situation this way, I could have spared myself the unneeded self-flagellation and instead made a conscious choice.

Whether I chose to enjoy the food and face the consequences, or find other foods to satisfy my cravings, or avoid them for the sake of being more present and joyful with my loved ones–it doesn’t really matter. The point is that when you strip away the fear, the stories, and the judgements away from what’s happening in this moment, and simply notice it, you become free to choose your response.

Using the Positive Ego to Set You Free

Here are some techniques you can use to get your ego working for you:

  1. Notice the negative ego. Knowing is half the battle. Start trying to catch your negative ego in the act of spinning tales around what’s happening.
  2. Focus on the facts. Ask yourself, “What’s actually happening right now?” Then ask, “What if I let go of right/wrong and good/bad?”
  3. Use your positive ego on your negative ego. You can actually use the tactic of non-judging observation on your negative ego itself. If you’re agitated, simply notice, “What’s happening?” Whatever you observe in yourself–whether it’s judgement, irritation, despair, guilt–the key is not to make it right or wrong.
  4. Break out your inner nurturing parent. Imagine your negative ego is a young child that is frightened, insecure, or panicked. Give it some unconditional love and compassion.
  5. When does your negative ego tend to get you down?

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12 Comments

  1. Izzy

    Hi Cindy 🙂
    I think dealing with the negative ego can be challenging at times because he often disguises himself as “logical”. But in reality I think he is more of an “a-hole”.

    “when you begin to define yourself through things or concepts, it becomes painful when you inevitably must part with them”

    I really liked this quote. I think that it is very true. when we reach a point where we define ourselves by physical items, or general concepts it can run us into big trouble. When I was in middle school, I blew out my knee. At the time, I had always defined myself as an athlete.

    The experience was very difficult for me. Luckily my father was really skilled in understanding this area (and talking to kids). He helped me gain a strong sense of why everything was the experience was so difficult. I think that experience to this day has helped me make sure that I define myself by my values rather than some ideal.

    • Hi Izzy!

      Thanks for sharing your wisdom. Sounds like your dad was a great teacher to you! I totally know what you mean–I also suffered a lower back injury earlier in my fitness/wellness journey, and it was difficult not only to let go of being a strong athlete, but also to deal with the impact the injury had on my interactions with friends. I could no longer participate in sports and exercise with those friends I’d gotten used to seeing almost every day. I really had to find a new way of relating with myself and my identity.

      I believe that experiences like this are like little “deaths”; they really give us opportunities to wake up to the impermanence and preciousness of each moment in life. They let us step back and see with new awareness the stream of events that make up life–always changing, always full of little births and deaths. And in seeing this universal state of the human condition, we develop compassion for ourselves and for others.

      I like how you talk about defining yourself by your values rather than an ideal–because when faced with an impermanent world, we always have a choice in how we want to show up in it, and how we want to respond to the situation. And that’s all driven by what we choose to value. The ideal comes from outside; the values come from within.

  2. As for me, I have a self-destructive ‘humble’ effect ego that always denies myself of my rights and always blaming myself. Thanks for reminding me of the inner nurturing parent. I suddenly remembered I had to take care of my inner child!

    • Thanks for visiting, and for sharing, Rob!

      I have a hunch that under the extremes of self-blame that your ego creates, there’s a real generosity, gratitude and humility in you–almost like your ego is taking one of your real and sacred values, and turning it up to the Nth degree or distorting it until it becomes self-destructive, as you say.

      And I also really appreciate your vulnerability in sharing your own ego pattern. I’m constantly finding examples that reaffirm my belief that our greatest personal struggles become the source of our greatest gifts. That’s certainly true for myself; my own difficult journeys to find personal wellness, human connection, and a purposeful life have motivated me to share my learnings with others through coaching, and through HeartStepping. I’m really struck by the fact that your own journey to finding your way out from under a crushing degree of humility has given you the passion for giving the gift of confidence to your blog readers. I’m so inspired by that!

  3. sana

    wise information i like it !!

  4. Sweetypie

    Hi Cindy !!
    I wanted to ask u dat whether positive ego i understand is a good thing but is being egoist n showing ego to others all time is a good thing?
    I want to give one, u jus temme whether is ego or something else
    – a boy telling a girl that he loves her but he neva ask her to evn show her face
    nor he msg her anytime.he jus rply n talks well only wen she msgs him
    Now u tell how shud dat gal react in dat case as she loves him n dnt wanna lose him
    but she also feel insulted all d tym bcoz of his dat kind of behaviour.

  5. sadeiv prasanna

    ego is illusion or reality about superiority of own self that can be proved.ego is related with others presence and capacity, means state of mind such as, i can do better then other. ego has nothing to do withk strong or weak individual feeling of will power.

  6. Scott

    Ego is what you make it. Ego can be your amigo,… though some say ‘ego is not your amigo’. Just live, don’t even think about ego, or jealousy,… or whatever. Do what you do, do your reasonable best, respect outcomes,… no ego, but you still care about your value to yourself, and to some degree to others as well.
    Image. What’s your image,… hows your personality,… how’s your character?
    Perceptions. Outcomes.
    Have esteem,… do your reasonable best,… and don’t necessarily ‘be attached to the outcome’,.. but sometimes that may be ok,.. depends. You can still be suitably or appropriately bold and confrontational without being egotistical, if suitable or appropriate for the situation. Ego is healthy if you have a healthy relation and understanding with how things work, how relations work or don’t work….

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  8. Raul

    How do I avoid the negative one as it seems like to sustain the positive one the negative one just get in a way of things unaware.

  9. lisa

    Your definition of ‘positive ego’ is better labled as ‘awareness’, or Mindfulness. Not Ego.
    You are saying the exact same things that Ekhart Tolle says but just renaming ‘mindfulness’ and ‘Awareness’ as positive Ego. i personally believe that is a semantic bad idea because, especially based on the comments on your essay, people are completely misunderstanding and are happy that they found an essay ‘supporting ego’, which to them still means identity, hence your ‘negative ego. To avoid confusing people its best to just let ‘Ego’ be as its most widely understood –> your negative ego, and to use another word to define awareness which is like going ‘above’ the ego.

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