I encountered this statement from Deepak Chopra today:
The ego is actually our self-image. It is not our true self.
It may be arrogant for me to challenge the famous teacher, but I cannot agree with him.
There is no clear agreement on what the ego actually is, or whether it is good or bad, true or false. In the last two weeks we have been exploring the concept of the ‘self’ and that conversation would be incomplete without an attempt to address these issues.
WHAT IS THE EGO?
The idea of ego originates with Sigmund Freud. For Freud the ego is the intermediary between the id (the centre of our primal, animalistic desires and responses) and the superego (the centre which absorbs and is shaped by socially directed morals, expectations, and norms).
The word ‘ego’ is Greek for ‘I’ and has come to refer to our sense of self. Some writers refer to it as the conscious, decision-making part of the self. Others, like Chopra, refer to it as the self-image. A Google search brings up the following definition from the Oxford Dictionary:
A person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance.
The part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity.
This is all a bit fuzzy. So, let me clarify my perspective. For me, the ego is that part of us that:
- we are aware of as separate from others;
- we can reflect on, and which we can and do evaluate;
- gives us a sense of self, identity, and autonomy;
- enables us to engage and interact with the world and other people in meaningful ways.
IS THE EGO TRUE OR FALSE?
Last week we explored some of the challenges of speaking of ‘true’ and ‘false’ selves. From an evolutionary perspective, the ego must have evolved because it gave human beings an evolutionary advantage. This would mean that the ego is an integral part of our human nature and experience. This makes it hard to think of the ego as false.From an evolutionary perspective, the ego must have evolved because it gave human beings an evolutionary advantage. This would mean that the ego is an integral part of our human nature and experience. Click To Tweet
So much of human progress, relationships, and future survival relies on our ability to be self-aware and to critique and evaluate our motives and actions. None of this would be possible without the ego. And since these capacities for self-awareness and evaluation are integral to spirituality, there could be no spirituality without the human ego. In this sense the ego is an integral part of our true selves.So much of human progress, relationships, and future survival relies on our ability to be self-aware and to critique and evaluate our motives and actions. None of this would be possible without the ego. Click To Tweet
IS THE EGO GOOD OR BAD?
This evolutionary perspective may make it seem that the ego is definitely good. Yet the ego is often labelled as the cause of all the bad things we do. So which is correct? Here’s my take.
The ego is not inherently good or bad. It just is. It is more than our self-image, but it is not the totality of ourselves. It may be helpful to think of it as a kind of ‘user-interface’ that enables us to relate to our environment and other people. It is susceptible to deception, ignorance, and destruction. But it is equally capable of nobility, insight, and immense creativity.
The goal of spiritual practice, then, is not to become people with no egos, but to become people with healthy egos. Healthy egos are:
- willing to go beyond the self to connect with and care for others;
- open to bigger realities than the self;
- aware of contributions that the self can make, and of areas where the self is incomplete or immature.
And, in the end, it is the ego itself with its capacity for self-awareness, self-questioning, and self-evaluation that gives us the capacity to make our egos healthy.
What are your thoughts? Leave a comment and let me know. I’d love to hear your perspective on the ego and its place in your spirituality.
Over to you!
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Fully agree that our ego can be healthy or unhealthy. Part of the ego’s work from when we were very young is to build up defences to protect our selves. Later on some of those defences may no longer be necessary. Some defences can become toxic. Protecting our selves from ” the other” in order to remain autonomous should give way to a healthy awareness of how connected we all are. Since we are sometimes unaware of some of our ego’s defence mechanisms we need to grow in awareness so we can healthily ditch them. Spirituality is one important way to move to this healthy awareness and develop skills for new egouc strength and health. ( As is good psychological counseling when ego defences are too entrenched for us to respond healthily on our own).
Thank you for this thoughtful response, Kevin. I agree completely with everything you’ve said here. I get a sense that we’re pretty much on the same page.
Thanks for a helpful contribution to the conversation!
Richard Rhor says our ego is indeed essential – we can’t lose what we don’t have.
But there usually comes a point where all we have built ourselves up to be crashes to the ground. That’s when we can discover our true selves or who we are in God.
I am familiar with Richard Rohr’s writings in this regard. I have found him helpful, but I find I have a different perspective from him on some elements of ego work in spirituality.
One of the points where I depart from Rohr’s thinking is exactly the one you mention. That ego is about ‘building ourselves up’ and that it crashes to the ground. It implies a negative view of the ego. And I do feel sometimes that Rohr sees the ego from a mostly negative perspective. I also struggle withe idea that the ego has to crash for us to discover our true selves. This implies that the ego is not part of our true selves, and I have become increasingly uncomfortable with that view over the years.
That’s what I’m trying to say in the post. We can work with our ego in negative ways, certainly. But, equally, our ego can be a wonderfgul gift which can lead us into a deeper connection with God and others.
Perhaps it’s egotistical (!) of me to challenge such a deep and experience thinker as Richard Rohr, but I can do no other…