By James Clark Ross
This is the first article of a two-part series on human ego. Part I focuses on the unwavering truth of ego’s existence in every individual.
‘Ego’, Latin for ‘I’, is our sense of self-importance. Those who possess it in abundance are described as ‘egotistical’.
We might be closely acquainted with such people. They are recognisable from their radiant self-assurance. They are not afraid to flaunt their self-obsession. They betray a belief that the world should be thankful for their presence.
Predictably, then, the whole concept of ego is loaded with negative connotations. But, by treating ego as an ugly human trait particular to a disagreeable kind of people, we miss the opportunity to see importance in ourselves. This saddens me. Here’s why you should choose to embrace it without shame.
Who doesn’t have one?
Curbing one’s ego is widely considered a virtue by society: we are taught to deride arrogance and praise modesty accordingly. Although we may attempt to conceive a notion of ego that disassociates our virtuous selves from it, we would do so in vain. We all possess egos. We all self-assign some worth to ourselves, big or small, in the context of everyone and everything around us.
It’s easy to conflate ego with some kind of big-headed obnoxiousness. Take Piers Morgan and the 14th Dalai Lama. With self-entitlement which is characteristic of egotism, one preaches to the public in a manner that suggests he believes his voice is vastly more important than anyone else’s, often despite a lack of credentials. The other, while in a position of great power, exudes humility and values virtue highly. But the difference between the two isn’t the presence and absence of ego: it’s how they choose to answer to it.
I don’t expect Piers Morgan’s bloated ego to be contested by anyone reading this. But, further, it’s a necessary truth that the Dalai Lama holds onto a high sense of self-importance: speaking for an entire religion requires a belief, much like Morgan’s, that his words carry importance—that’s unless he’s completely unaware of the power he possesses (which seems wildly unlikely). Both are hugely-successful, influential public figures. Their egos are their justifications for exerting great influence over people.
Where did it come from?
While it’s easy to accept the presence of ego in human beings, it’s substantially more difficult to explain why it exists.
Evolution usually provides an answer to such questions. For example, maybe ego’s purpose was to raise self-esteem (self-worth), a state of mind which is dynamic and interactive, in response to success (i.e. to reward decisions that were conducive to our survival). Hardwired with such a feedback mechanism, we’d be motivated to make similar decisions that we thought increased the likelihood of achieving more positive outcomes.
However, such a postulation is inadequate at explaining our behaviour: high self-confidence is frequently self-defeating to success across a wide range of objectives. In other words, it doesn’t always pay to be armed with the levels of confidence (or pretence of it) associated with big egos.
Perhaps, then, ego is simply an evolutionary by-product of being intelligent, rational agents—that is, a ‘spandrel’, a non-adaptive consequence, like male nipples or, more debatably, the female orgasm.
Other species, less-intricately built in their neurological makeup, are fundamentally driven by their primitive desires to survive. A high-level-thinking human’s foremost concern, on the other hand, is a notion of self.
We value the advancement of the self in a manner unobserved in any other species. In stark contrast to ants, for example, which are immune egoism, we’re not incentivised by benefits to the collective; we won’t compromise our own motivations solely for others’ gain without benefit to ourselves, for we’ve outgrown instinct.
The force that compelled us to prioritise survival over all else now shares the reigns with our endeavours to project the images we’ve conceived of ourselves onto the world. Ego reflects the importance we attach to them.
We define the impact we want to be felt by the world. We mediate between our hedonistic desires and critical faculties to figure out how to achieve it. We set benchmarks and keep a register of our fellows for comparisons. And we study memories of our past actions to adjust ourselves accordingly.
While you might only see negativity emerging from terms like ‘self’ and ‘importance’ in my descriptions of ego, I would argue that, not only is ego a compulsory component of human existence, it’s something that can be pandered to to increase collective happiness, rendering it a widely-beneficial trait.
Ego can be recognised as a tool that allows us to feel important; that enables us to strive for what we think we’re entitled to.
It facilitates a pursuit of happiness. If empowered by circumstance, ego encourages us to proactively aim to achieve the importance we’ve mentally assigned ourselves—for example, by aspiring to be a rocket scientist, a surgeon, an entrepreneur, an athlete, a visionary, an author, or a just and moral person. Once achieved our sense of worth is promoted through validation and recognition.
The issue is that ego also carries the inevitability of low self-esteem when our goals are not achieved or if the expected increase in worth is not received.
We are victims of our own success. As lamented by Fyodor Dostoevsky:
‘Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on Earth.’
Take depression, existential crises, and contemplation of suicide as instances of heavy, burdensome thoughts that stem from highly-evolved, human brains, when individuals perceive themselves to be of relatively little importance. What other species suffers like this?
Yet, I’d argue, our complex minds can lead us to richer, more-objective truths, granting us a sense of greater importance, if we allow them to (and if we’re fortunate not to suffer from mental illnesses).
The trick is not to fight ego but to manage it to attain the level of importance you reasonably sense within yourself.
Now embrace it
As human beings—beings who are supremely intelligent—we are quick to contrive notions of how we ought to be. But that’s moralistic since we, of course, possess weaknesses. Irrationality, for example, is a trait which betrays notions of sophistication and intellect and which cannot be helped, only accepted and understood.
Ego is a property that we’ve all, somehow, acquired. Thus it’s an unavoidable truth that we see some relative importance in ourselves, no matter the context.
Denying the existence of ego would be dishonest. For our sins, starved or swollen, that sense of self-importance innately sits there at our cores. This is the hand we’ve been dealt; and we must deal with it with each of our thought processes, willingly or not.
Understanding and pandering to it is a better alternative to coercing yourself to behave with idealistic rationality and virtue. Although encouraging society to be more humble and modest is commendable, it’s unnecessarily prohibitive to the happiness of the individual.
Instead of suppressing ego, as is so often instructed by society, we must regain control of this inherent mechanism of self-assigning worth. The result? We’d likely elevate our self-esteem, psychological jargon for saying we’d be happier—happier with how we evaluate ourselves.
As a species, we rightly see something deeper in us beyond the survival of our genes. This distinguishes us. All I’m suggesting is that we don’t fight ourselves; that we don’t futilely chase away what it is to be human. Accept its presence, understand it, and use it as a step toward actually enhancing the quality of our lives through personal development.
The idea that ego is a corruptive force, entirely negative in nature, I find, is gloomy. When we deny its existence we restrict our aspirations. Conversely, belief in ourselves propels us forward in our journey to betterment, where ego is a necessary ingredient for the kind of fulfilling happiness that can be derived from accomplishment. It’s the reason you can stand up and be proud.
Don’t be saddled with regret. Your ego defines the potential to achieve you see in yourself. Now prove it.
In Part II I’ll explore the balance between self-belief and arrogance and how we can mediate our egos to achieve greater happiness.