Society

Embracing your ego — Part II: When ego spirals out of control

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Featured image: Colombian drug lord and narcoterrorist Pablo Escobar.

 

By James Clark Ross

This is the second article of a three-part series on human ego (Part I can be found here), in which I have expounded how too much self-belief can lead to ugly consequences.

Ego intrinsically operates out of self-interest. It seeks approval, accolades, and validation. Some people, those we deem egotistical, pander to their egos a lot. They want to feel really important. Their desire to demonstrate self-worth is obsessive, almost pathological. In the mirror they see greatness; through the glass we see hubris and pretentiousness.

But we all feel ego’s influence, even if we don’t acknowledge it. We’re all capable of overestimating ourselves, of being self-absorbed, and of overindulging our own views.

Most people relish the opportunity to feel more important. Few, however, wilfully welcome the slippery slope towards egotism, a profoundly-ugly state of mind.

But there’s a scale: while we might not be egotistical now, if we continue to act with too much confidence and not enough scrutiny, we are always at risk of succumbing to egotism. The first step toward preventing this—and to ensure our desires to feel important are utilised to ‘do good’—is recognising the characteristics of a bloated ego.

Fortunately, multitudes of people throughout history can exemplify them for us.

The Deadly Sins

Egotism manifests in a number of recognisable ways—ways that most people don’t want to acknowledge as traits in themselves. But we should take notice if we care to avoid them.

 

Pride

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Negative attitudes towards ego are reinforced by overly-proud individuals in society whose inward concerns flatter themselves whilst dismissing others. Donald Trump, an egotistical person, clearly sees importance in himself. But does everybody else?

The caricatural figure of ego is someone who holds lofty perceptions of themselves in contrast to their actual qualities. Such excessive pride is, by definition, arrogant, especially if it’s present alongside contempt for others who they consider to be of less importance—which it usually is.

People who possess this vice are obnoxious and conceited, unpleasant to be around. Mirrors are magnetic. They flaunt and they boast. They defend their honour and treasure victory at all costs. Pride must be maintained, for they are the vainglorious!

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‘I prefer to be in the grave in Colombia than in a jail cell in the United States.’ — Pablo Escobar, whose arrogance ultimately led to his death.

The flush of pleasure associated with a sense of pride is not abnormal, though, nor should it be discouraged: it’s right to feel good about our achievements. But vanity, the result of superlative self-assessments, is a vulgarity which isn’t even conductive to success as it fails to guide us objectively to achievable goals. Frequently it leads to feelings of frustration and unfairness and a tendency to blame others for our failures.

 

Validation

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Patrick Bateman, the American Psycho: The man who, superficially, possessed everything an ambitious 26-year-old professional should possess. He received so much external validation. This gave him an inflated sense of self. But none of this was ever fulfilling because none of it was rooted in true understanding. He played a role he didn’t choose so he pushed every boundary he could to try to find respite. But it never came because none of those people saw him the way he saw himself. None were willing to believe him to be the heinous monster he felt he was capable of being.

A sign of egotism is constantly craving validation. Burdened by a really-favourable opinion of oneself, an egotistical individual must constantly prove to other people—and, by extension, themselves—that they’re important. Those who betray the greatest levels of egotism yearn for popularity over all else; their egos pine for it. By demonstrating their notional worth to others, who in turn praise them, their self-importance is validated, delivering peace of mind because their importance then feels genuine.

Egotistical individuals incessantly disseminate the details of their lives. We recognise such tendencies in public figures, who revel in global audiences of all; but we also see them in our friends. Regardless of how they find success—social media popularity, house and family, free-spirited travelling, wealth accumulation—our seeing or hearing about their lives at a machine-gun frequency delivers their daily dose of validation.

Adoration feeds self-importance.

The most egotistical people strive to accomplish widespread traction between themselves and society. This form of ego-pandering has been widely facilitated during the Social Media Age. Increasingly, it’s encouraged and celebrated as outlets for expression continue to grow in number. But human nature didn’t begin at the advent of Myspace: such longing for recognition has always accompanied humans. Throughout the ages, however, only few have been able to succeed in not fading from history’s pages.

Commander James Clark Ross, 1800-62 BHC2981

My ancestor and namesake, Sir James Clark Ross. Ego’s remit even transcends mortal life. History illustrates that we’re lured by recognition not just now but also beyond the grave because we want to be remembered positively. Endeavours are rewarded with tales of courage, statues, roads, months of the year, buildings, paintings, and monuments. It might be irrational and futile to care about events subsequent to our passing but we can’t help but be concerned with the immaterial survival of our identities. Perishing with a marred reputation is painful.

Longing for validation can be observed in many forms of behaviour, all of which seek to obtain reassurances from others. These behaviours are apparent in people with low self-esteem; but for egotistical individuals validation always acts to ostensibly satisfy sizeable senses of self-importance. In fact, they overly rely on these interactions.

Seeking validation through sex, for instance, is common: I like that someone else wants me. Attracting people instils a sense of self-worth; sleeping with them consummates it. Those who relish the chase and covet the subsequent success in voluminous proportions demonstrate egotism to the utmost degree—that is, unless they’re willing participants of purely-physical transactions. But such events only lead to fulfilment if it’s the essence of someone that’s being validated, not an idea of them.

 

Delusion

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‘I want you to document this right here, what I’m saying right now. I am the number one human being in music. That means any person that’s living or breathing is number two. Because I’m number one now … You are in the presence of the champion. Bow in the presence of greatness…’ — Kanye West

Egotistical people lend their fidelity to lies. They have to be because they rate themselves so highly. The fantasies they’ve created, featuring themselves, are easier to deal with than life’s harsh realities. Divorced from the real world, falsehoods serve the purpose of reassuring them that they are exceptional.

Delusion is commonly recognisable in the form of people wildly lying about their achievements to people they meet. In extreme cases the symptoms of egotism might not be too dissimilar to those of psychiatric disorders—for example, if they’re prone to believing that people are infatuated with them or if their claims are grossly exaggerated.

Is delusion stemming from egotism pathological? It’s true that some happiness can be found in the art of fabrication. But whose glory do egotists bask in? Not their own. Every day they face a lie.

 

Stubbornness

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The protagonists in the film Inception (2010) understood that all humans, to a degree, are fundamentally stubborn in nature. Cobb et al, therefore, developed a method of tricking individuals into thinking ideas are their own. In real life, too, we sometimes have to implant ideas into people’s heads for common gain. In the workplace, for example, appraisals are orchestrated to facilitate guided introspection: to increase their productivity workers are encouraged constructively to criticise themselves. Empowerment to enact genuine change must come from within.

The only way the egotistical believe in is their way. Any attempt at convincing them otherwise is futile.

They have dogged determination to prove that they are right, for they are never wrong. Mistakes are never theirs: the faults belong to others. External voices, particularly instructions that challenge power and leadership, are shunned: they don’t need our help. Criticisms are taken badly. They weren’t bested: they just didn’t try. There is no unconscious: they consciously make all of their decisions. Everything is of their own accord.

We can’t just tell these people that they’re wrong: it achieves nothing. This point is captured by the fact that fruitful debate only begins at understanding where your opponent is coming from. Our input is otherwise rejected and we’re waved away.

The critical problem with such resistance is that human beings, especially the egotistical, reveal time and time again that they’re capable of being magnificently wrong.

 

Self-indulgence

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Narcissus by Caravaggio: Narcissus, from Thespiae, Boeotia, was drawn to a pool in the woods, in which he saw and fell in love with his own reflection. He became so obsessed with his own beauty that he ended his own live: in narcissism his love for himself could not be reciprocated.

The pool of self-indulgence is something we all dabble in. Just witness Twitter. It’s also evident from the jobs and hobbies we find appealing. Creators—artists, musicians, filmmakers, writers—indulge themselves. Why have I written this article? My desire for my views—my agenda—to be shared with you and understood, not hidden, is a sign that I value their dispersion; I want them to be regarded, not swept away with the sands of time.

Excessive self-indulgence is typical of personality complexes—complexes, like narcissism, which are characterised by rampant selfishness, beliefs of being special, and actions that lead to praise.

It’s also a main feature of archetypal egotism.

The affected frequently indulge their internal monologues to the points where they completely disregard everyone else’s. According to themselves, their views should trump all others and their perspective should be completely prioritised. Quite expectedly—they are outwardly self-centred—they become prone to listening to themselves and serving solely their own interest.

Eventually, with positive encouragement from what they perceive to be success, unfettered self-indulgence begins to know no bounds. Estranged from reality, the shackles of consensus are released and the individuals only rise to the challenges of their own internal monologues. They are resistant to feedback and create motives where there weren’t any before. They begin to ooze sky-high confidence and become visionaries beyond their true capabilities. They seek only to gratify their egos.

Equipped with sizeable power they want more still. Drowned in ever-growing self-entitlement, their egos swell and recalculate what they seek. Ego is hungry once more. They won’t stop until they have assumed the role of our universe’s demiurge. Then what?

The prospect of more power: this is what they seek

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Abraham Ascher on Napoléon Bonaparte: ‘There are also indications that the French emperor was affected by fits of megalomania  … He spoke confidently of conquering Moscow and then marching on to India … [I]n 1807 he told his brother: “I can do anything now.”’ — Russia: A Short History, p89.

Positions of power, in which the egotistical can be influencers, provide opportunities to gratify the Sins.

Ideologies, systems of political ideas, for example, reflect how they see the world; and through them they can impose their ways onto others. Ideological crusades are simply recurring stories from history in which self-obsessed megalomaniacs have waged wars and committed genocides to conquer and invade and expand and spread their ideas. Why? Because people suffering from egotism carry desires to be seen as ‘right’ at all costs.

Afflicted individuals thus carry no desire to relinquish power: too often they have to be forced out. On a systemic scale no evidence suggests that this will cease to be true. Many voting systems around the globe, such as the one in the UK, strangle opposition out of existence to serve the status quo and preserve power, which standing politicians act to perpetuate. This year we’ve had a dictator of a communist regime and celebrity-turned-president insulting each other and arguing over who has the biggest and most-powerful destructive nuclear weapon in an egotistical tug of mutually-assured destruction or otherwise parading power. Meanwhile, autocrats of all political hues cling on to power worldwide, from Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua to King Salman in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Notorious criminals, cult and religious leaders, media moguls, and self-appointed prophets reveal how else humans can be drawn to power. Money is but one factor: they build empires to be followed and listened to, for they are shepherds amongst sheep; they are special and should be remembered.

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People like Simon Cowell (pictured) and Rupert Murdoch are attracted to the prospect of power in the media industry.

Pablo Escobar, the previously-mentioned drug baron of the Medellín Cartel, is a pertinent example of a person who fiercely resonated with the idea that he, as an individual, should prevail over all; that he was entitled to be extremely powerful, regardless of the consequences.

On the back of an illegal drugs empire he made Forbes’ list of international billionaires seven years in a row and spent frivolously (including on his own zoo) and on buildings decorated with his own name like Trump’s. But ultimately his pursuits weren’t material. He fought to be untouchable: no one was above him, neither the Colombian nor US governments. After his initial arrest he even built his own mansion-prison (‘La Catedral’) and operated it according to his own murderous rules and easily escaped a governmental siege.

He intimidated others into appeasing him by granting him his perceived right to power. He unleashed rage if his empire was threatened in any way, going as far as terrorising and killing civilians by ordering a commercial plane and Bogota’s security headquarters to be bombed.

His character exuded the essence of ego. There was no mask.

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Similarly, Mexican gangster Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, previously head of Sinaloa Cartel, was also on a Forbes list. But money was only one key component of an umbrella motive: power. Guzmán met Sean Penn (pictured) before his arrest because he wanted Penn to direct a movie which celebrated the glamour of his life despite the abject reality of living conditions at the time.

The people I’ve described here think they’re above the law. From Weinstein in Hollywood to Ted Bundy, who was compelled to ‘totally possess’ his victims, too, they abuse people from positions of power. In actuality, they are disgusting and are rightfully maligned.

See some of these traits in yourself? Don’t worry too much

The egotistical people I’ve described serve as extreme examples of egotism—they are proud, yearn for validation, are deluded and stubborn, and know only boundless self-indulgence. But we, too, are naturally attracted to these things. Self-importance can introduce more happiness to our lives if we let it.

But there’s a scale that must be heeded. If we choose to seek unrealistic and highly-favourable images of ourselves, we choose to let egotism override logic and compassion. Blinded by the lights of self-advancement, we might never be able to illuminate them.

In an unhinged hunt for self-importance, our thirst for more is never quenched. We destroy cooperation and virtue; we sacrifice the happiness these concepts otherwise bring to our lives.

So let us learn from these extremes to avoid these traps and find stable and fulfilling happiness. Let us reject the abandonment of introspection, objectivity, and our senses of proportion. How? By taming our egos.

In part III I will discuss in more detail how our egos can be tamed.

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