I don’t quite agree to Einstein’s opinion, as illustrated in this picture (I’m not even sure he actually said this, but I find it interesting anyway). I know incredibly intelligent, knowledgeable people who are driven by their egos to behave in incredibly unthoughtful, un-empathic and sometimes even downright stupid ways. I know normal, common sense, good people who sometimes get so caught up in the delusions of their own egos that they behave in outrageous ways, normally completely foreign to who they really are.
I myself was swept off my feat by the “charm” of my ego countless times, and I’m likely to find myself in that situation again in the future – hopefully less and less often as time goes by and I get wiser, or at least try to.
I decided to write this post because I found myself in several ego-driven situations lately. Sometimes my own ego took centre-stage, sometimes I just witnessed another’s ego going wild, but whenever patterns like this emerge in my life, it’s clearly a sign that I need to pay attention and learn something.
So what is the ego?
In Freud’s view the ego was the organised, rational part of us, the one keeping things together and balancing the irrational impulses of the “id” (the hidden, the subconscious) with the demands of real life – all in our best interest. It gives us our regular sense of self, it helps us function properly in the world and use our cognitive faculties to their best, pursue and reach goals, make plans, find our place in society, achieve success by society’s standards.
If we didn’t have egos we’d probably be unable to function in daily life. But the blessings of the ego stop here. Because we have the ego, and because we tend to identify with it, we become blinded towards other, deeper parts of us which are struggling for our attention.
The loud, sometimes hysterical voice of the ego muffles the cries of our own souls. It is the ego which makes us have a hard time being truly honest with ourselves and others, embracing our vulnerability, accepting that we always have something to learn and being humble in relation to others, being open about our feelings even when it’s hard, acknowledging our mistakes and apologising for them, offering forgiveness when it’s required, living in accordance with our own deepest values and being authentic every single day of our lives.
Although people throughout the world struggle with ego issues, we, Romanians, seem to have an added challenge. Our culture is, as sociologists call it, hyper competitive – that is, from very young ages, children are encouraged to compete instead of collaborate, we reward and admire those who have/gain/show more than others, and, anywhere we look, we seem to be driven to prove at any cost that we are smarter/richer/better/more successful than others. There is no environment more favourable to excesses of the ego than this one. We are practically encouraged to use our egos as our only compass through life and, sadly, no amount of knowledge spares us from the trap of the ego.
I learnt an amazing lesson about ego from one of the children from “Gifted Education Foundation”, to whom I taught Emotional Intelligence last year. He, asked me:
“Is it true that the smarter a person is, the less they think they know?”
I found this to be a brilliant question. And my answer was:
“No. We call a very smart person “intelligent” and a smart person who thinks he/she knows very little “wise”. Do you know the difference between intelligence and wisdom?”
Of course they knew. A girl quickly answered:
“Intelligence is something you are born with. Wisdom is something you acquire”
I was completely blown away at the wisdom of these very intelligent 12 year olds, who had not yet had the time to bend under the tyranny of their own egos.
Wisdom, to me, is the state we reach when we have become friends with our egos. Perhaps we are not completely rid of them (I don’t even know if that’s possible for a human being, except a few exceptional, saintly people) but we are surely aware of where they begin and where they end. Wisdom means driving our egos instead of being driven by them.
Sadly I know people who believe themselves to be wise, but are still at the mercy of their egos. Many have chosen helping professions – trainers, coaches, counsellors, therapists, because they have a genuine desire and need to be of service. But somehow, along the way, their egos trick them into thinking they are special, they are somehow superior, they are better than those they are trying to help. When someone who has freely chosen to dedicate their career to supporting others on their path of development starts pretending they are some sort of guru who has all the answers and feels this gives them the right to boss people around and point out what’s best for them, then I believe this person is caught in the ego trap.
A good friend described this idea wonderfully: “I know you are authentically helping others when you make them feel special, when you make sure the light falls on them, not on you. When you take centre – stage and bask in people’s attention, you are not really serving them, but your own ego”.
I found myself caught in the ego trap a few days ago, when I judged too quickly, harshly and unwisely a girl who came to me with the humbleness of one willing to ask for and openly receive advice. I realised that I behaved rigidly and arrogantly, although I was very quick to rationalise my own behaviour and even glimpsed the lesson in humbleness I had just been given and wrote an article about it. Fortunately that story has a happy end, as you will soon find out in a new post.
I am likely to fall in the ego trap again. And it’s not easy to get out of it, observe your own behaviour, acknowledge your own ego gone astray and remember you are more than its limitations. I make this conscious effort every day. And I am learning that it takes courage to expose your vulnerabilities and imperfections and admit you were wrong. But I am also discovering how deeply rewarding this can be on a soul level.
I wish we all did this exercise once in a while. I invite you to do it too: step out of the mirage of your own egos, observe your own behaviours, practice being truly, painfully honest with yourselves. You might be surprised by the wisdom, inner peace and genuine tolerance, willingness to learn and openness towards others that you are gaining every time you step away from your egos and into your authentic selves.