Ego inspection

“Sigmund Freud is no longer a giant on the cultural landscape but some of his concepts remain unusually useful as reference points in our self-understanding.,”

Many of us draw very freely on his insights about the unconscious and conscious realms of the mind and also on his identification of the ego as a key aspect of the human psyche, a kind of interface between our inner and outer worlds.

No one, of course, has ever actually seen an ego (although many of us have felt its effects). Yet somehow we instinctively know it as something that is both palpable and powerful.

In everyday life, we often speak about ego in terms of “too much” or, less often, “too little”.  Too much ego, or being noticeably egotistical, has come to mean that someone has an inflated sense of their own importance. They may put themselves forward too eagerly. They may bring every conversation back to their needs and experiences. They may be insatiable for attention, praise or success – yet rarely experience “enough”.  This means that while being around a person who appears to be ego-driven is sometimes exciting, it is not likely to be comfortable.

In one of the lovely paradoxes typical of human nature, most of us will gain the confidence we long for by paying rather less attention to ourselves and more to how we are affecting other people. The highly egoistical person doesn’t have much room for other people, except when they are meeting his or her needs. This shouldn’t be confused with a strong ego. In fact, when someone is domineering, demanding, “never wrong”, this often masks a high degree of anxiety and inner agitation and a “”weak”” ego, or an insecure sense of self – especially when they are “”full of themselves””.

Each “I”  – and a sense of self that also includes the spiritual – comes into greater awareness through the many relationships that make up a life, and particularly through the challenges of intimacy – and often through those we feel around perceived or actual authority.

When someone’s “I” functions well it means they can take other people’s reality seriously, simultaneously recognising that each of us is a distinct being, yet interdependent. This recognition makes life not just bearable but sometimes sublime. In some spiritual circles, there is open distaste for the ego as something to surpass. But that is also to misunderstand it. We need das Ich to live securely in the world – and teach us essential boundary lessons about where we end and others begin. We also need it to check that any conception we might have of “the world” extends considerably beyond our own personal selves.