According to psychologists, the ego is the part of the personality that handles the external world. To put it into context, Freud separated the personality into three parts: the ego, the id, and the superego. The id is the part of our nature that displays the impulses and unconscious desires, while the superego is our morality and ethics. I have to say that I am grateful for the role that the ego plays in my everyday life, as it is the primary way that I interact with others on a daily basis. Clearly the id and the superego (or the aspects of my nature that fit within those elements) affect my interactions with others, but I see them as parts of the ego, not independent of it. That is, these three parts of my personality are displayed both internally and externally in my life.
Out of these three aspects of the personality, the ego is the most discussed in society. What I find interesting is that it is used mostly in a negative context. Most often, when a person is spoken of as having an ego, it is equated with arrogance or overconfidence. We also have words like egotism, which are tied to selfishness or narcissism. Personally, I feel that this is a mistake and that we have done ourselves and society a disservice by putting this label on the ego. Instead, we should have gratitude and appreciation for the ego.
The reason is this: We live our lives mostly in our heads. From what I’ve read, we have an average of 50,000 thoughts a day and most of those thoughts are repeats of previous thoughts. We have a playlist on repeat and it never stops. The ego is that aspect of ourselves that takes the playlist and uses it to interact with the physical environment and other people. I am grateful that my ego is able to get out of the way enough that I am able to function in the physical world and have great relationships with other people.
In addition, it seems that to operate, the ego has to act by using a set of rules that I have put in place or my thoughts and actions would be completely random. The id and the superego have important parts to play in maintaining a balanced personality. I tend to think of it like a slow or pressure cooker. The heat of the cooker is the ego – the purpose of the device. The superego is the pressure aspect that keeps everything bottled up and the id is the release valve that activates before the stress becomes too great. These two parts of the personality keep the ego from making purely logical decisions, which is a good thing. We are emotional beings and our emotions reflect our beliefs and how we interpret the world. I am going to say that the purpose of the ego is to make decisions that satisfy both the id and the superego through the application of virtue.
What this means is that the ego produces its best work – making decisions that benefit the person – when it does so in alignment with positive virtues. That is to say, when I live according to my best self, my ego makes the best decisions that it is capable of. In neuro-linguistic programming, if I remember the concept properly, they say that we always make the best choices available to us. However, those that are in a poor mindset make poorer choices because they are limited in the amount of positive outcomes available to them. On the other hand, if I have a positive mindset, the potential for positive outcomes increases as I have more emotional and intellectual resources available to me. Virtue is the habitual application of a positive mindset.
This raises the question – how do I practice and habitualize virtue? It has to be more than thinking good thoughts. It requires action and sacrifice as well. If a billionaire sees a homeless individual on the street and gives the person ten dollars out of their pocket, it is different than if someone else who gives their last ten dollars to the same person. A person can think that they are virtuous, but without concrete action (and hashtag activism doesn’t count), then they are in fact, not virtuous. James Clear in his book Atomic Habits discusses the importance of starting small. I often think that I have to make huge investments of time and action – but that’s not true. Even if I have a goal to eat better and all I do at the start is add a serving of fruits or vegetables, not go all out and make a month-long meal plan and throw out all of the food in my house. Once the serving of fruit or vegetables is in place, then I can add to it. As far as I can tell, improving virtue works the same way. I choose a small act once a day, do the act, and repeat. It may be as simple as giving someone an honest complement every day. The key is to make it consistent.
I am grateful for this because it means that the focus of my ego, and by extension, my virtue, is under my control. If I want to be a more patient person, then I can make choices that reflect a patient nature. I use my ego to focus on the benefits of being patient and the hazards of being rash. As I focus on being patient, choosing options that reflect patience, and adopting a patient mindset, then I develop a more patient ego – that is, I see the world and interact with the world in a more patient manner and I have more of a reservoir of patience when tough times arrive.
Two techniques that I feel help me direct my ego in the way that will be the most beneficial to me are as follows. The first comes from an episode of London Real with Nir Eyal. He discusses what he calls the ten minute rule. If he feels an impulse to do something that may be detrimental, he sets a timer for ten minutes and puts off the action until the timer goes off. Usually, by that time the impulse has passed or no no longer has the strength that it once did. Essentially, it is procrastinating the activities that take my from my best self. The second comes from an episode of Impact Theory, where the guest was Brendon Burchard. He talked about having ten questions when he gets up in the morning that focus his mind on what he wants to achieve during the day. He also has another ten questions that he asks himself at the end of each day to evaluate how well he did in achieving his goals. Ten may not be the optimum number for you – but ask yourself questions each morning and evening about the person you want to be – are you taking steps to be that person – even if they are small steps?
If so, congratulate yourself and stay on the path. If not, now is a great time to start. Because if it isn’t now, when will you?