What does it mean to have a healthy ego? And is that even possible or desirable?
There’s a problem with ego. And it’s not (necessarily) that we have too much of it. It’s that we use the same word to mean several very different things.
It’s like the word sanction, which means either to approve or penalize, depending on the context (Wikipedia tells me those are called auto-antonyms, for my fellow word-nerds).
However, I think ego’s different connotations are less well-known - we tend to only associate it with one meaning or the other, depending on our background.
What I think of as “narcissistic ego" is externally-focused. This is what people are referring to when they say someone has a “big ego.”
This is the part of us that's concerned with appearance and how others view us. It wants to look important and be admired. It tends to be unconcerned with other people’s needs.
It’s right all the time (what are the odds?!) and nothing is ever its fault.
This kind of ego is extremely sensitive to criticism and will lash out or become defensive when questioned. We’ve all got at least a little piece of this (some of us more than others!) and we definitely know it when we see it.
What I think of as “healthy ego” or “healthy self-regard” is internally-focused. It means that you have a stable sense of self that can’t be imploded by a request for self-examination.
When therapists say someone doesn’t have the “ego strength” to hear something about themselves, they mean that the person is incapable of integrating that information into their self-concept without completely blowing it apart.
When someone doesn’t have ego strength, they either go into a shame spiral or have a narcissistic ego reaction when confronted with criticism or a difficult truth about themselves.
In contrast, someone with healthy self-regard will take in this information, weigh it against their own internal experience, and either reject it as false or make adjustments if necessary. It might not feel good, but it’s not going to destroy their sense of identity.
So what does that look like?
If a friend accuses me of always being late, I have a choice in how I respond.
I could deflect and accuse them of being too uptight;
I could tell them why what I was doing was so important;
I could bring up all the times they weren’t perfect as a defense;
I could go into a shame spiral and decide I’m a terrible person;
I could reflect on our past encounters and see whether it’s true that I’m late more often than not and either:
1) apologize and make an effort to do better because I want to show my commitment to the friendship
2) realize that I’m not actually late that often and assume that they’re upset about something else that doesn’t have anything to do with me.
All of these responses have to do with ego and my sense of self. If that sense is precarious, I need to constantly take defensive action to avoid discomfort. If it’s secure, I can accept criticism and engage in self-reflection without an identity crisis.
Why am I talking about this?
I see a lot of discussion in self-development and spiritual circles about the necessity of dissolving the ego, and I think that can be dangerous.
Do you want me to live without an inflated sense of self-importance? Cool. Do you want me to give up my boundaries and sense of self? Hoo boy. Now we have a problem.
I don’t think the people who encourage you to give up ego generally mean it that way, but the potential for miscommunication is there.
And sometimes (as in the extreme example of a cult) the person does want you to give up your sense of identity so that you’re easier to control. Ew. So discernment is important here.
Exclusively conflating ego with negative traits can cause other issues as well. I had a client share that he was upset after getting a “strong ego” result on a personality assessment. He was only aware of the negative connotation and was afraid he was secretly an overbearing narcissist. (He wasn’t.)
When I explained that it just meant that he was comfortable with himself and had a strong sense of internal integrity, he was pleased and relieved. “I was worried there was something big I needed to fix!” he said.
Words matter, people.
Career change brings up a lot of ego stuff.
In industrialized societies, work is conflated with identity and thus with ego. Being aware of the emotional “stuff” that comes up when you’re in the middle of a transition can make you more compassionate and understanding towards yourself (and others) during the process.
If your inner narcissist starts acting up (and out), it’s most likely out of a fear of losing authority, prestige, or relevance.
At the same time that you’re moving away from an old career, you’re being evaluated for a new one (e.g. job applications, interviews, etc.). Hello, rejection fears!
This is a vulnerable time when lots of identity stuff is being called into question. Practice finding ways of valuing yourself that aren’t directly tied to your career. A therapist or counselor can be a big help if this isn’t work you’re used to doing.
Finally: take a breath before collapsing in shame or lashing out in response to perceived criticism. Remember that because your sense of self is being challenged, you might be feeling more sensitive and insecure right now.
As always, it’s a matter of degree.
We all like to feel valued, and none of us enjoys being criticized (even when we can see the other person’s point). These feelings are part of being human.
It’s when we start believing that a part of us is worthless and needs to be excised (whether it’s perceived weakness or grandiosity) that we get into trouble.
What are your connotations with ego, and how do you see it playing out in your life? How has your relationship with work bolstered or challenged your ego? I’d love to hear your thoughts.