Spend enough time in the 12-step recovery rooms and you’re likely to hear the pejorative term “edging God out” — or “EGO.” The word “ego,” which comes from Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical theories identifying the interactive components of the personality, has taken on a different meaning from its original definition.
Freud saw the ego as the part of the personality responsible for moderating the pleasure-seeking id; it connects a person to reality and delays gratification, as well as identifying that person as a distinct individual. But in everyday usage, “ego” often carries the connotation of being full of yourself, arrogant, self-absorbed, dismissive of other people and selfish.
HOW EGO CAN COME BEFORE THE FALL
Ego can also suggest unwarranted certainty. To get an idea of the danger of this kind of false assurance, imagine two people on a wrestling mat. Just when the one on top feels he has the upper hand and lets his guard down, the one on the bottom can flip him over — and he’s at the mercy of his opponent.
That kind of ego-centricity creates fertile ground for the growth of addictive patterns. Some spiritual practices suggest that an unchecked ego can stir up thoughts of fear, lacking and limitation. That’s where the concept of “edging God out” comes into play. Allowing the “God of your understanding” to support you can help you regain healthy control.
WHEN EGO EMPOWERS
On the other hand, a strong ego might indicate a sense of resilience and an ability to overcome challenges with vitality and fortitude. Healthy confidence is an important component of one’s recoverytoolkit. It comes from success, not bravado.
One therapist who’s in recovery herself received a powerful bit of wisdom from her mother on approaching challenges: “Walk in as if you own the joint.” The advice encouraged confidence, rather than arrogance, and it enabled the therapist to quiet the voice of fear that made her doubt her abilities. It taught her to lead with her strengths, as well as modeling that ability for others.
The advice also promotes personal responsibility. When you own the joint, you’re responsible for its upkeep. Ongoing awareness of the areas in your life that need improvement is part of that maintenance.
IS YOUR EGO PROMOTING OR SLOWING YOUR PROGRESS?
There are signs of healthy ego strength that can help you be confident you’re on the right track. These include:
- The ability to examine your values, rather than only being guided by the values of the people around you
- A willingness to live in integrity according to those values
- A desire to communicate needs and feelings in constructive ways
- The confidence to take responsibility for your actions and credit for your successes
- An openness to learning from life experiences
Likewise, some tendencies point to an unhealthy relationship with ego, one that can hinder self-improvement. Examples of these include:
- A habit of making grandiose statements
- A refusal to consider the legitimacy of other peoples’ values
- Possessing a “King Baby” mentality that makes you see yourself as the center of the universe
- A tendency to blame others for your unhappiness
- Unleashing verbal or physical aggression when you perceive yourself as being treated poorly
- Denying that substance use is problematic, especially if you see yourself as high-functioning
Low ego strength can be as damaging as an out-of-control ego. An underinflated ego might make you feel unable to reach your potential, which in turn can make you afraid to set goals.
This state might stem from early messages from adults who had their own struggles with self-doubt. Over time, these thoughts can lead you to adopt or continue self-harming behaviors because you accept lies about your limitations as truth.
The following symptoms indicate low ego strength:
- A tendency to avoid challenges and healthy risks
- Reclusive behaviors
- Negative self-talk
- Self-medicating with substances
EMBRACING YOUR LIGHT
Spiritual teacher and author Marianne Williamson speaks to this struggle in her iconic poem “Our Deepest Fear.” It begins with these words:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness
That most frightens us.”
Williamson goes on to explain that we often diminish ourselves, dimming our light so we don’t appear ego-driven. She says this tendency limits our potential.
Williamson says that by embracing our gifts instead, we can become a greater force for good. Self-respect rather than self-disparagement or self-aggrandizement is a key to unlocking the door behind which a strong — and healthy — ego may lie.
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