Poor old ego: it gets such a bad rap. We call it out when people have self-serving attitudes and behaviours. We read articles about how to overcome it. We remain humble and quiet in success, too afraid to own our wins – to be seen as too loud or too smart – in case we’re accused of having an inflated sense of importance.
The perception of ego differs culture to culture. In Australia we have tall poppy syndrome, where people are attacked or cut down because of their talent or success. In the US, on the other hand, the culture supports the individual and celebrates achievement.
Given that we all have one, ego is hardly a dirty word. The literal translation of the Latin word for ‘I’, ego simply refers to our core sense of self. Yet it often carries negative connotations – think egoism, egocentricity, egotism – and is used to describe the ways in which our thoughts, emotions and behaviours are driven by our personal interests. But psychologists and coaches understand how important ego is in determining who we are. It’s the part of us that breeds self-confidence, manages our identity and motivates us to work hard and achieve our goals.
We often label people as having a ‘healthy’ (balanced) or ‘unhealthy’ (narcissistic) ego. While someone with the latter makes everything about themselves, never believes they’re wrong and refuses to try new things, the former has a more stable sense of self. They are able to demonstrate strength without arrogance, pride without boastfulness and welcome opinions from others. Taking this a step further, one line of research suggests that having a ‘quiet ego’ can strengthen our sense of self; that by turning the volume down on our ego, we’re better equipped to listen to others and approach life with humanity and compassion. It’s not a matter of quashing our ego, but rather pulling it back into line, so we place less emphasis on self-promotion and more on pushing ourselves (and others) to flourish.
Provided you keep it in check, here are five ways ego can serve you well.
- It will support you in reaching your potential. When you think of some of the world’s most successful people, it’s not often their humble attitudes that spring to mind. Serena Williams, Usain Bolt and Muhammad Ali are three champions who have (quite rightly) acknowledged their dominance in their fields, with the latter once declaring: “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.” It’s this unwavering self-belief (thrown in with a few other factors, like talent and perseverance) that has helped them reach the pinnacle of success.
- It will boost your resilience. People with a healthy ego (or high levels of ego strength) tend to be confident dealing with challenges, and are good at coming up with solutions to problems. They also tend to bounce back faster, simply moving on to the next opportunity.
- It can make you more positive. If you have a healthy ego, you tend to feel good about yourself, and have high self-esteem and self-worth.
- It allows you to accept criticism. Just as someone with an unhealthy ego won’t take negative feedback well – potentially lashing out at others and refusing to hear difficult truths – someone with a healthy sense of self will take the information on board and do with it as they see fit. They’re also more likely to admit when they’re wrong and learn from the experience.
- It makes you a better communicator. According to Transactional Analysis, communication breakdowns occur when we communicate from different ‘ego states’ (parent, adult or child). But when we identify which ego states are present in our transactions, we can learn to shift our thoughts and behaviours – responding to situations more like adults, rather than petulant children.
The next time you find yourself acting superior to someone else, blaming others for your mistakes, or shutting yourself off from feedback, take a moment to ponder whether it could be an unhealthy ego at play. Remember: you don’t need to be right all the time. Mistakes are ok, especially when you learn from them. Not everything is about you and there are often multiple sides to a story. When it comes to building your ego, go for strength over size. Bigger isn’t better!
Written by Lisa Stephenson.
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