For much of my adult life, I suffered from cripplingly low self-esteem. For much of my adult life, that confused the shit out of me.
On the surface, I knew I had no reason to be insecure. People tell me I’m handsome. People tell me I’m intelligent. I’ve lettered in three sports, gone to two of the US’s best colleges and have generally had experiences that confirm my capability of doing okay in this life.
Yet, while things seemed cool on the exterior, inside it was whole ‘nother bag of beans.
A subtle, unconscious feeling of shame permeated almost everything I did around the ages of 13 to 21. My career choices, relationships, and all around self-concept were largely shaped by an undying feeling that I wasn’t good enough. Clearly, it wasn’t a very fun place to be.
It took years of reading, some therapy and even a little drug exploration (sorry, Mom) to finally reach the conclusion that changed my life:
My problem was my ego.
Now, when one thinks of an egotistical person, this typically ain’t the image that comes to mind. Visions of people like Kanye West and Donald Trump tend to overpower the idea of a dude who’s too scared to ask a chick on a date.
However, the ego comes in all types of shapes and sizes. Some of them are big, bold and narcissistic. Some of them are fearful, ashamed and self-defeating.
In this post, I’m going to explain what the ego is, why it’s mostly bullshit and how recognizing that fact can be one of the most important things you will ever do.
First, let’s look at some psychology.
The Freudian Sense of the Ego
In 1923, Sigmund Freud formed an idea of the ego that has since shaped Western psychology. Namely, he proposed that the human psyche consisted of three systems: the ID, the Ego and the Superego.
The first part of the triad — the ID — is the primitive, child-like aspect of the brain that goes after what its wants with no fucks given. Like eating chocolate? Eat all of the chocolate. Wanna take a nap? Do it in the middle of broad daylight.
While it can be fun, the ID’s behavior isn’t necessarily conducive to the demands of adult life. To combat these child-like desires, Freud suggested that an opposing force evolves within the mind: the Superego.
The Superego can be defined as a person’s moral beliefs and ideal standards. As you age, your parents and your culture tend to give you an idea about what you should be. These beliefs get stored in the Superego, which tells you what to do throughout your life and makes you feel guilty if you don’t do it.
Where does the Ego come in? Glad you asked.
The Ego (or “you”) acts as the referee between these two competing forces. Essentially, its job is to satisfy the ID’s wants while taking the Superego’s demands into account.
Your ID still wants to eat a shit-ton of chocolate, but your Superego tells you that being fat and sloppy are bad. So, the Ego acts as the mediator between the two and decides you will only eat chocolate in small and infrequent quantities.
This seems like a useful tool, right? For the most part it is. However, it comes with a big problem:
The Superego is completely dependent on a person’s experiences.
In other words, the environment we grow up in largely shapes our moral beliefs. And unfortunately, our upbringings aren’t always the most helpful.
For instance, imagine a girl whose parents raised her to believe that sex is evil. Throughout her childhood, she was forced to shield her eyes when people kissed on TV. She couldn’t wear clothing that revealed more than her ankles and wrists and was never allowed one-on-one time with a boy.
As a result, this girl will probably feel shame and anxiety when she experiences sexual urges throughout her life. Clearly, that’s not a very helpful mindset.
Our parents, teachers and peers instill all kinds of harmful ideas like these into our subconscious, and the process is completely random! Your authority figures got their standards from their authority figures, who got their standards from their authority figures and so on and so forth.
The things that our Superegos hold dear and true originate from an environment that none of us control. We get to spend our lives feeling guilty and ashamed for reasons that are mostly arbitrary.
Think that’s bad? Here’s another little discomforting truth.
Your ego is likely an illusion
That’s right. That thing you think is “you” probably doesn’t exist; it’s just an image that your brain constructs due to the demands of the external world.
…yeah. I didn’t believe it at first either.
But it’s something Eastern Philosophers have been preaching for years, and new research in neuroscience may actually be starting to back it up.
Us Westerners tend to believe our identities are constant, stable things that exists through time. Yet, the idea of self promoted by people like Siddhartha Gautama (better know as the Buddha) rejects this notion entirely.
In particular, the Buddha taught that every single thing we perceive is merely a label assembled by the mind. Further, he thought that this process is inherently flawed because it removes objects from the causal chain of space and time and gives them a fixed, unchanging identity.
However, nothing truly exists as we know it. Everything is part of a large, continual process, and the present state of things is all that’s truly real.
Now, I know this can sound like some foo-foo hippy shit at first, but the idea is actually pretty consistent with recent discoveries in neuroscience.
In the 1980s, Benjamin Libet designed an experiment which showed that people’s choices could be accurately predicted by monitoring their neurons. What’s more, the scientists could determine which decisions the subjects would make before they were even aware that they had made them.
Since Freud defines “the ego” as the thing that makes our choices, the results of this study actually support the Buddha’s notion that our egos are merely illusions.
Moreover, aligning oneself with this idea has proven to be extremely beneficial.
Studies on meditation have revealed that a feeling of “ego-death” can dramatically increase a person’s well-being. Experienced meditators have been shown to have lower levels of stress, improved concentration, increased emotional awareness and even more grey-matter in their brains.
What gives? Many argue that meditation works because it gets us closer to what we actually are — a conscience experience without an ego.
When you clear your mind of thought, only the sensations that arise within the present moment remain. Further, regularly experiencing that state slowly causes you to realize you are not the thinker of your thoughts. You are merely the Watcher. All wants, worries, and desires are fleeting illusions that stem from the ego, and all that really exists is a peaceful, eternal emptiness in which all experience emerges.
This might sound a little silly. Hell, it is a little silly. But as the research shows, the idea can significantly increase our well-being and may not be all that far-fetched.
… so, what does all of this mean?
To recap: the external environment (which you don’t control) imposes all of your ideals and moral beliefs, and your ego — i.e. the thing you think is you — is a total illusion.
Real comforting, huh?
However, this realization proved to be one of the happiest of my life. Namely, recognizing my ego for what it is (or.. what it isn’t) allowed me to end years of unnecessary suffering and start doing the things I’d always wanted to do.
It let me speak my mind without feeling like I always had to be right. It let me chase the careers, goals and relationships I wanted without the fear that they’d end in abject failure.
Most importantly, it caused me to realize that no one is better than any one else. We don’t choose our identities; none of them are even real. Underneath everything, we’re all a part of one shared struggle. The main purpose of our lives is to love each other and have as much fun as possible until we collectively return to that great, eternal void .
There are probably some things in your life that you want to do right now. You may have thought about starting a business, or writing a book or asking out that cute girl in your physics class. Yet you don’t do them, because you feel like you’ve got something to lose.
But friend, you’ve got nothing to lose. Because “you” are nothing.
Your problem is your ego.
Behind the smoke and mirrors, our lives are really just fun little games with the objective being to create our own objectives. Essentially, we’re all our IDs. The Ego illusion should only play a role in reaching the ideals you consciously choose to hold in your Superego.
Yet, you won’t be free to choose them until you look behind the mask and recognize what you truly aren’t.
So get rid of your ego, man, and get busy living.