StressStop Blog

Ego Stress

Jim Porter, M.A.L.S., President, StressStop.comWednesday, March 10th, 2010

Ego is one of those words I use all the time, but if you asked me to define it I'm not sure I'd be able to give you a good answer. Webster's Dictionary defines ego as:

the self: the individual as aware of himself.
And Webster's defines egoism as: The tendency to be self-centered or to consider only oneself and one's own interests: selfishness.

In his best-selling book, The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle tells a story about a high-level government official who goes to see a Zen monk and asks him the question "What is ego?"

The monk responds: "Why do you ask such a stupid question?"

And the government official angrily shouts back: "Do you realize who you're talking too? How dare you talk to me like that!"

"That's ego," the monk mildly explains. And that's ego-induced stress.

The ego is a powerful part of your personality and it's always there, lurking in the background, ready to trip you up or help you navigate through life's challenges. The ego demands that we be treated with respect and in a healthy individual, this can be an important function of the ego. If you feel you are being abused or taken advantage of, your ego says: this is wrong, I'm out of here.

The ego also drives us to do more, want more and accomplish more. And in a person with a healthy ego (AKA high self-esteem), this can also be a good thing. I think it's safe to say that there wouldn't be quite so many wonderful works of art, sky scrapers or monuments to the artists and leaders who have inspired these accomplishments, if it were not for the existence of ego.

Still it's pretty easy to find examples of ego gone awry. The world's tallest building in Dubai seems to fit this description to a tee. It's twice as big as the Empire State Building but may bankrupt its owners. From the book, Into Thin Air, comes a story of a group of climbers so hungry to "summit" Mt. Everest that they simply ignored a pair of dying climbers they passed along the way. And the world is full of business and political leaders like Senator John Edwards who ruined their careers by pursing at any cost.

The ego is the voice in our heads that not only wants things but wants them a certain way. Some of us deal with this voice by simply giving into it (even if it drives us into debt or requires us to work around the clock). And as long its legal, we feel like we are better off for the pursuit of material wealth (as of course are the people who sell us the products that appeal to our egos like sports cars, fur coats, and high tech gadgets).

On the other hand, some of say enough is enough! We try to subdue or ignore this inner voice by driving an old car, wearing old clothes, or living in an old house or apartment. And there would be nothing wrong with this strategy either if it was not for the feelings that often accompany it of: I don't have enough or I don't measure up or I'm not good enough.

And there's another subtler version of this voice that causes even more havoc. This voice in the head causes us to put off happiness until we reach some impossible or hard-to-obtain goal. It says: "When I get the new promotion I've been wanting, then I'll be happy." When buy that new car I've been dreaming of, then I'll be happy." When I find the perfect relatioship someday, then I'll be happy."

Here the ego is saying, you cannot be happy now. You must wait until some point in the future to enjoy yourself. But when you finally get there and you finally do get what you want, you feel happy for a short period of time and then there's something else standing in the way of you and happiness. Boat owners know this feeling well. They're famous for always getting what they want and then wanting the next size up. At first, this wish fulfillment cycle seems like a reasonable way to keep yourself motivated and alive. But eventually you see the folly in it when the same old "hungry ghost" just keeps following you around asking for more and more even after you've fed it again and again and again.

And there's one more unhealthy manifestation of this voice in the head that we need to be aware of: when we constantly complain, whine or gripe that things aren't good enough, the ego is having its way again! Those whiney complaints like, "My boss is so unfair...My spouse is such a pain...My children are just so rude...My neighbors are so inconsiderate..."are more examples of how the ego causes us to feel unhappy, cheated or taken advantage of. When these thoughts repeat over and over again to the degree that we're almost powerless to stop them, that's when you know your brain is working in service of the ego.

And this is how the ego creates so much stress: By wanting things you don't need, by encouraging you to go into debt, by putting off happiness to a future date, by complaining that what you do have isn't good enough and by hijacking your own brain with incessant thoughts about what it is you don't like.

So how do we get this hungry ghost off of our backs? How do we get this voice out of our heads? The first thing you need to do is simply realize that the voice exists. This is a major step forward for most people who go through their whole lives completely unaware of it. You also need to recognize the voice for what it is: A part of you that you may or may not agree with. Listen carefully though (like an outside observer) when it speaks, and watch how it treats you. (Remind yourself that this voice is not necessarily YOU.) Spend at least a week observing this voice and we'll focus on what you can do to silence (or at least turn down the volume of) this voice in my next blog.

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