Rethinking the Ego

Pop-psychology has banished the Ego and its accompanying traits to the wasteland of human behaviour. But what if this move is doing us more harm than good?

I cannot tell you how many times during my early 20s older and wiser adults told me I needed to believe in myself more. I would nod along awkwardly and appreciatively, all the while thinking to myself how foolish they are; self-belief was useless for a budding psychoanalyst like me. Back then, trying to believe in myself felt like coming in last and still accepting an award for showing up. Not me, no sir; I am perfectly content sitting alone at home on my high horse as my hard-earned self-doubt, low self-esteem and ever-growing agoraphobia kept me locked inside.

But there is something amiss here that goes beyond my own brand of mental anguish. How is it that my psyche – and that of many others I know – managed to convince ourselves that this kind of maddingly egotistic behaviour was, in fact, egoless?

What is the Ego?
Ego is a Latin word meaning ‘I’ derived from the Greek world Εγώ (Ego), which also means ‘I’. The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “your idea or opinion of yourself, especially your feeling of your own importance and ability”. We generally understand the Ego as existing on a spectrum; you might say someone needs an ego boost because they feel insecure or are on an ‘ego trip’ when their self-confidence could do with deflating. However, the Ego takes on a new form when we move into the self-help genre of psychology.

In that context, the Ego is usually depicted as an obstacle to happiness. Influenced by Buddhist teachings, the Ego is often seen as an attachment we hold to a concept of ourselves. Attachments bring suffering, and in the case of the Ego, it shackles us to cruel narratives about ourselves, unhealthy beliefs and ultimately resentments.

All of this is well and good. However, we are using the word Ego as a placeholder for a much more complex process.

The Ego as a mediator
Sigmund Freud popularised the term Ego in his famous text The Ego and the Id (1923). Freud outlined his structural model of the mind that can metaphorically be understood as existing of three competing agents: the Ego (I), the Id (It) and the Superego (the over-I). The Id refers to our primitive and unconscious urges. These are self-centred, pleasure-seeking, and primal. The Superego refers to our self-observational and often critical capacity.

The Ego, then, is the conscious thought process we have as a mediator between these two unconscious forces. A textbook example would be when you are sitting at a bar around 10 pm, and you know you need to work in the morning. There’s a battle in your mind between the pleasure-seeking Id that wants to stay and the sensible Superego that is already punishing you for not leaving at 8 pm; the Ego could be seen as the voice between those forces.

So, when we speak of our Ego as how we perceive ourselves, a Freudian could argue we are really speaking about how peaceful or turbulent the relationship is between our sense of enjoyment and our sense of obligation.

For example, if the Id and Superego are at war (e.g., you are trapped in a self-destructive -perfectionist cycle), your Ego can struggle to mediate and employs defence mechanisms as backup. In these moments, you might enter an ‘ego trip’ and becomeoverly confident in your abilities. Arrogance can then function as a compromise; you defend yourself against the Superego’s harsh punishment and, as it is pleasurable to think highly of yourself, you can also satisfy the Id.

The Ego as a paradox
Of course, this is only one school of thought and a highly contested one at that. For example, Lacanian psychoanalysis elaborates upon the Freudian to argue that the Ego is not an agency-less mediator. Rather, due to various developmental factors, it is always striving for an illusionary sense of perfection or wholeness. For some, that will manifest as a job, a salary or a relationship status. For others, it shows itself as a paradox – our Egos lead us to search for an ‘Egoless’ state born of meditation and yoga. For others still, the Ego is the idea of being so self-aware and ‘tuned in’ that self-belief becomes something to scoff at.

But, in any case, demonising the notion of Ego does more harm than good. Instead, when we speak of Ego, let’s try to remember we are speaking about defence mechanisms we employ to navigate inner conflicts. The Ego’s function is to mediate (albeit biasedly) that relationship. By focusing on it, we shoot the messenger, so to speak.

Written by Molly Fitz