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  • Dr. Mike Brooks

Ego's Grip: Understanding and Overcoming its Tyranny

Updated: Apr 5

We have an ego for a reason, but it can create a lot of suffering, too.



KEY POINTS

  • We have an ego, or a sense of self, for a reason.

  • Our ego is rooted in our evolutionary heritage and helps us to survive and thrive in the world.

  • When our ego becomes overly attached, it can result in suffering on both the individual and societal level.

  • With a greater understanding of how the ego works and how it can cause suffering, we can work to keep it in check.

"I can't believe the news today. I can't close my eyes and make it go away." —U2, from the song, "Sunday, Bloody Sunday"


As President Vladimir Putin sends Russian troops into Ukraine to take over a sovereign, democratic nation, we are left wondering: Why? What is this all really for?


Putin may confabulate a list of reasons why this aggression is justified, including claims that Ukrainian territory rightfully belongs to Russia, that its citizens need to be liberated, that he doesn't want them to join NATO, and so on. However, it's also possible that this military action is driven less by geopolitical issues and more by his ego.


The lust for power, dominance, control, praise, glory, worship, attention, esteem, and so on are all ways in which the ego can cause harm. Such lusts have shaped history: Wars have been waged, peoples oppressed, and countless millions have suffered and died because of rulers' egos.


"Better the pride that resides in a citizen of the world than the pride that divides when a colorful rag is unfurled." —"Territories," Rush


While Putin's ego might be contributing to this unwarranted assault on a sovereign nation, we have only to look into the mirror to see that there is some egoic madness in each of us as well. Thus, it is critical that we learn more about the ego. Through a greater understanding of how it operates we can liberate ourselves from its tyranny and reduce the suffering it can cause.


I cover this topic in this podcast episode of The Reasonably Good Life.


What Is The Ego?

We can consider the ego as the "I" or our sense of self, and so we all have an ego because we all have a sense of self. The ego is not inherently bad. We need a coherent sense of self to differentiate ourselves from others and have a sense of agency. This allows us to meet our basic physiological needs, develop goals, and pursue dreamsI know that I exist, who I am, and what is important to me. I know which family, team, and political party is mine. I know who are my friends, rivals, and enemies. I know which possessions are mine. I have values and rights that I cherish dearly and will fight to protect.


Our egos emerge from our evolutionary heritage as a feature of our complex brains. In this way, egos would not have evolved if they didn't serve the evolutionary purpose to help us survive and thrive. After all, it could cause a lot of problems if I couldn't differentiate myself from you: Imagine that when I felt hungry, I tried to put food in your mouth.


Our ego also allows us to do mental time travel and perform hypothesis-testing. I need to go to the store and grab some groceries so that I can make dinner. What should I get? I should text my wife to see what she wants. She really likes it when I check with her first. I'd better hurry, or I'm going to run into traffic.


The Ego And Suffering

Unconsciously, our ego reaches out its tendrils to intertwine with countless thought-forms. As we become overly attached, our sense of self becomes enmeshed with these mental positions and various identifications. When we perceive that the object of our attachment is threatened in some way, our fight-flight-or-freeze survival mechanism is activated to protect us existentially. The over-attachment makes it so the attack on the object of our attachments is, by proxy, an attack on us that must be defended. This puts us in a vulnerable position because our ego can be threatened across many fronts. The more strongly our ego is attached to these assorted thought forms, the more vulnerable we are to suffering.


For instance, if you identify strongly as a Democrat or Republican, and your party or candidate is criticized by the other side, you may get upset, become defensive, and then go on the attack. "Oh, yeah? You say that President Biden sucks? Well, let me just tell you how Donald Trump was the worst president in American history!"


Anytime we become consumed with being viewed as the greatest, the best, or superior to others, that is our ego at work. On the flipside, when we feel "less than" or inferior to others, this is our ego as well. Some of this social comparison is normal and can even be healthy, but when it becomes obsessive or distorted, we (and others) are likely to suffer.


On a related note, our obsessive need to be "right" and prove that others are "wrong" can cause suffering in us and others. Many people would rather die than apologize for being wrong just to protect their ego. Similarly, we will often fight tooth and nail to defend our pride or honor. Our ego can blind us to what is right and good as it distorts reality to serve its needs.


"I'm so full of right, I can't see what is good." —"The Color of Right," Rush


The mere thought of losing anything with which we identify can create an existential threat to our ego. That is, we actually haven't suffered from a loss of anything, but imagining we could lose something to which our egos have attached causes us to suffer as if that feared event had happenedFor example, we suffer when we imagine that someone might take away our freedom.


Blame It On Ego

Think of an argument that you have had with your partner, parent, child, or close friend. How many times has your argument escalated over an inconsequential matter into something that could have been, in retrospect, easily avoided or resolved? We notice that we have become "defensive," but defensive of what, exactly? After all, they aren't physically assaulting us.


When we become defensive, we are defending our ego. Perhaps we might even say that our ego has hijacked our consciousness and is defending itself. It is as if we've become possessed by some entity. We want to be right and ensure that they know they are wrong. In such instances, our ego has attached itself to us being "right." This allows us to feel superior to them. It is an existential version of our mammalian instinct to establish ourselves atop the social hierarchy.


The Takeaway

While our ego serves a purpose, it can cause us and others to suffer unnecessarily when it becomes overly attached. Thus, we should strive to have flexible attachments, which include our ego, so that we can more skillfully adapt to the complexities of the world. We should notice when we become defensive and ask ourselves questions such as, What exactly am I defending? Do I really need to fight this fight? What would it be like for me to concede, To admit that I'm wrong? To apologize? What is the skillful way to handle this? When we are able to part the clouds of ego that obscure our vision, we can more clearly see a path ahead that is better for us to follow.


"Can I step back from my mind and know the answer to all things?" —Lao Tzu, The Tao Te Ching

 

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