The term is delightfully banal and most of us use it without understanding its full implications. A trip down ego lane…

One of the most common reasons for couples finding it hard to resolve conflicts is what is generally referred to as an ‘ego clash'. These clashes happen in a variety of other situations as well, and it is not uncommon for boardroom battles, national policy decisions and even international affairs to be either stymied by ego clashes or be decided on the ‘ego' of the leader or leadership group. Spiritual and religious leaders often exhort us to ‘control' or ‘drop' our ‘egos' on our paths to personal fulfilment, although motivational speakers enjoin us to use our ‘egos' constructively if we want to develop as human beings. And most of us liberally use the term ‘ego' in our day to day conversations, whether or not we fully understand what it means. What then is this ‘ego' business all about?

The sense of the self

The word ego, derived from Latin, literally means ‘I' or the ‘self'. It refers to the sense of self that each of us develops from infancy when we realise that we are individual entities, distinct from the environment around us. Over the years, we develop our sense of self or ego, based on the experiences we go through and the relationships we engage in. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, is the one to be credited with the broad use of the term in the field as well as in popular parlance. However, he used the term very specifically — to describe a part of the human mind that relates with external reality.

He theorised that the human mind is made up of three parts — the id, the ego and the superego. The id is the storehouse of all our instinctive and irrational responses, and we are usually not conscious of what happens in our id, which is why, sometimes, even the best of us behave in unpredictable and irrational ways. The ego is that part of our mind that relates consciously to what happens in the world around us — the rational part of our self, as it were. And the superego, which is partly conscious, is the rough equivalent of our conscience, where our values and belief systems are stored and which impact on the way we conduct our lives. He postulated that the dynamic interaction between these three parts of the mind would determine the way we behaved and the kind of neuroses we would develop in our lives.

In spiritual terms, the term ego usually refers to a part of our mind that drives us in the pursuit of personal power and material gains. It puts us into an acquisitive mode, thereby increasing our stress levels, and takes us further away from self-actualisation. As a result, spiritual interventions, regardless of the religion you subscribe to, operate on the maxim that although the ego may play a useful role in the more basic stages of human development, higher order growth mandates that we let go of it, for, its continued presence will hamper the development of a perspective that emphasises oneness of the Universe.

In daily use

When you think more of the subject of the ego, you'll realise that the term itself is delightfully banal and refers only to the sense of self. However when we use the term, ego, in daily life, we seem to refer to an ‘exalted sense of the self': an ‘ inflated ego'. For, it's only when bloated egos engage with each other that clashes take place. As it does when leaders, whether of business corporations or nations or world bodies, vaingloriously aggrandise themselves. Or when a chauvinist believes in personal superiority, whether based on gender, language, caste or rank. Or when one spouse expects the other to toe the line merely because of a perceived superiority over the other. It's only when we think of ourselves as more important or lofty than others think we are that we end up making unnecessary demands on people in our environment. And if the latter turn out to be crafty, we make ourselves vulnerable to sycophantic manipulation, and who among us can claim to have been immune to this, except, of course, constitutional sycophants?

Critical balance

If we are to function effectively and happily in the environment we live in, there has to be some measure of concordance between the way we see ourselves (our egos, if you will) and the way others see us. Your ego, as Freud defined it, is very useful in ensuring that you avoid snakes and find ladders to move up, by helping you deal with the demands of external reality using rational processes. However when your ego starts bloating and you become ‘egoistic', what it really means is that your irrational id has kicked in and will have an adverse impact on your ego. As a result, you may well end up finding more snakes than ladders.

The way I see it, whether you choose to conquer your ego or work with it will depend on whether you are seeking to fulfil your self-actualisation needs or your need for self-esteem. However, if you permit your ego to bloat, then you will paradoxically end up experiencing lower self-esteem, and worse, you may also end up damaging your eventual quest for self-actualisation. Taking your ego out for a walk every now and again is fine. But only every now and again.

Email the writer at vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com