Ego is a dirty word

Ego IS a dirty word, fellas.

Skyhooks sang “ego is not a dirty word” but they were wrong.  For the young whipper-snappers out there, Skyhooks were a glam rock band in the seventies, pictured. Do they look like they know anything?

Talking to Michael Pollan about his new book on the therapeutic potential of psychedelics in mental health care, Stephen Colbert said “ego should be a controlled substance”.

Ego gets in the way a lot at work, and it’s something  people talk about without clear understanding of what it is. One definition is that aspect of the self that has the incessant need to see itself in a positive light (Scott Barry Kaufman).  Katie Spero says “The ego lives life through you by making you believe you are the ego.  That you are not safe, that your existence is precarious.  It makes you believe others’ perceptions of you, along with objects and thoughts, validate your being”.

Brené Brown calls it her ‘hustler’: “My ego says to me, ‘You have no inherent worth. You’ve got to hustle for it, baby. How fast you gonna run? How high you gonna jump? How many likes do you have on Facebook?”.  Both Brown and Eckhart Tolle talk about the ego being used as a shield: it’s the voice in our head telling us we are better than other people because we fear the opposite is true.

The ego likes to emphasize the “otherness” of others. This sense of separation is an intrinsic part of the ego. The ego loves to strengthen itself by complaining—either in thoughts or words—about other people, the situation you find yourself in, something that is happening right now but “shouldn’t be,” and even about yourself. For example, when you’re in a long line at the supermarket, your mind might start complaining how slow the checkout person is, how he should be doing this or doing that, or he failed to do anything at all—including packing the bag of the person ahead of you correctly.

When this happens, the ego has you in its grip. You don’t have thoughts; the thoughts have you—and if you want to be free, you have to understand that the voice in your head has created them and irritation and upset you feel is the emotional response to that voice. (Eckhart Tolle)

If there’s a voice in your head telling you this can’t be true, that’s probably your ego talking. We generally believe our emotions to be objective reactions to what’s going on around us, but neuroscience knows better: emotions are created in our brain in response to the stories we make up about what’s happening.

The good news is that means we have more control than we think. Michael Pollan talks about experiencing total ego dissolution under the influence of psychedelic drugs: we don’t have to go that far. But we can QUIET the ego: turn the volume of the ego down “so that it might listen to others as well as the self in an effort to approach life more humanely and compassionately.”

Mindfulness can help us recognise when we are in the grip of ego, and give us the tools to release its grip. Simple techniques like compassionate enquiry into your emotional reactions help us to get out of our fear brain, and put our cognition to work.

We often forgive arrogant or prideful people who have accomplished something for their ego, as though an inflated ego is part and parcel of success. This is not true: indeed, ego attachment prevents us achieving goals. We need to make ego a dirty word in the workplace, and expect people to learn to regulate their emotions and be constructive. Letting over-sized egos toxify the culture is bad for everyone.

Read more:

The pressing need for everyone to quiet their egos (Scientific American)

You aren’t at the mercy of your emotions, your brain creates them (Neuroscience and News Research)

Free yourself from your ego armor (


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