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Lesson 3.8

Understanding Ego & Minimizing Its Control Over Us

Dive into this topic by watching the video, followed by key explanations and exercises below.

Key Concepts:

WHEN IT COMES TO ego and IH, its helpful to tease apart the different ways people define ego itself:

  • Colloquial definition of ego: “a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance.” E.g. “a boost to my ego.”

  • Psychological definition of ego: “the part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity.”

  • Philosophy / metaphysics definition of ego: “a conscious thinking subject.”

  • What we mean when we talk about the “bad” kind of ego: I think psychologist Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman’s puts it well when he says ego is “that aspect of the self that has the incessant need to see itself in a positive light.”

Ego is the thing that makes you think you are you, separate from other things. It is inherently self-focused. And though your ego isn’t necessarily smarmy or counterproductive, it often is.

Separating Ego from Intellect is about not making ideas about you. It’s about not feeling threatened by disagreements, dissonance, or ambiguity. It means not making ideas personal.

One of the hardest things about this is how often other people make things personal when we disagree. Being able to recognize when this happens and not reflect the personal-ness back is a difficult but valuable skill.

Research on Moral Foundations shows that not only are we are good at finding arguments that support their existing beliefs, but we actually tend to form our beliefs first and then justify them post-hoc.

We do this for many reasons. But one of the big ones is because we tend to attach our beliefs to our identity (ego), which means it’s psychologically painful to reconsider them. Questioning something that is core to your identity is like questioning your identity yourself. And that’s the worst.

So we invent our justifications to support the things we hold close and personal. Separating Ego from Intellect is about making ideas about ideas, and not about us. Easier said than done!

Practice This:

Here are some tactics that can help with ego separation:

1. Get to know your own ego, and define your insecurities

By definition, it’s going to be difficult to intentionally separate your ego from ideas if you don’t know how to spot your ego in the first place. And in my own experience, getting to know my ego’s tendencies has been difficult, but extremely useful for my everyday life.

As former monk Hari Prasada, co-founder of Upbuild and instructor for a workshop called Excavating Your Ego, puts it, “When we confront our ego it is a rude awakening. But this necessary suffering will help us avoid a lot of unnecessary suffering.”

Upbuild uses a personality framework called the Enneagram to help people identify the components of their egos. This framework can help you understand your motivations, triggers, and the social masks you put on when your ego feels threatened—and those of the people you collaborate as well.

If you didn’t take the Ego Personality self-assessment in the previous page, I suggest you do so now. This assessment is based on the Enneagram framework.

2. Practice identifying when discussions or topics get personal

Look for the signs, in yourself and others, that a conversation has veered from the realm of ideas and into the realm of the personal. If it helps, watch some debates on CNN and look for the following:

  • Defensive body language like tenseness, sudden arm crossing, or other protective posture

  • Self-justification using “I feel” statements instead of “I think” statements

  • Getting emotional (which usually doesn’t happen if you don’t personally feel threatened)

  • Starting to fight dirty

  • Ad hominem arguments, or when someone switches to attacking a person’s character as a means of discrediting their ideas

When you notice these things, pause, identify that it’s gotten personal, and rewind.

It’s much easier said than done. But identifying when others make ideas personal is a good way to build the muscle of ego separation yourself.

3. Learn to identify your emotions at a granular level

Many meditation practices are built around the idea of noticing and identifying emotions without acting on them. Being able to do this in the course of life can help with ego separation. The ego is the part of us that feels emotional, so identifying our emotions can help flag when the ego has gotten involved in the conversation.

Further, research shows that having more words to describe our emotions helps us regulate them better. If we’re able to consciously identify competing emotions (e.g. bittersweetness), we’re likely to be able to better identify when ego is getting in the mix.

Here’s a granular list of emotions broken down by type, courtesy of PsychPoint:

4. Don’t invoke identity when arguing or exploring ideas

As we discussed in Lesson 2.7, it’s helpful to “keep our identity small” when debating and exploring ideas, and to remember that we all have multiple identities from which we can draw when thinking through problem solving.

A lot of our language reinforces the bond between identity and ideas—in English especially. We say, “I’m a Liberal” or “I’m a Republican.” That’s attaching our ego to our ideas, which means it will be painful to change our minds about them. (Instead, say “I currently tend to agree with the Republican platform on this issue.” It takes longer, but it leaves you room for nuance, or to change without much ego pain.)

Research on psychological priming indicates that people who are reminded of their association with a particular group are likely to act or argue with a bias toward that identity in mind. You’re likely to prompt a different response with the question, “What do you think?” than with the question, “As a man, what do you think?” Invoking identity this way invites people to put a subjective hat on, and makes it riskier to be wrong, because you’re now “representing” an identity group. This makes it harder to revise our viewpoint, and more likely to fight dirty.

5. Turn Down The Volume On Ego Through Mindfulness Meditation

Quieting the ego is a concept recently promoted by psychologists Heidi Wayment and Jack Bauer in their book Transcending Self Interest, and explained magnificently in this Scientific American article by the above-mentioned Dr. Kaufman.

Quieting the ego involves developing a detached awareness, which is helped by building a mindfulness meditation habit, which helps us observe things patiently and without intervening. Even a few days of mindfulness meditation is good for ego management, but studies show that after about 3 months of practicing it, our brains literally change!

Writes Dr. Kaufman, “I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the cultivation of these skills in our society would lead to greater mental health, useful reality-based information, as well as peace and unity among humans. Instead of destroying each other how about we learn from each other?”

 

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