Deconstructing the Ego

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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

https://i1.wp.com/www.simplypsychology.org/tripartite-personality.jpg

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.

How fun!

Think that’s bad? Here’s another little discomforting truth.

Your ego is likely an illusion

Sitting.Calm.Buddha2.jpg

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.


For additional commentary to this article, click here. 

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11 thoughts on “Deconstructing the Ego

    1. calebepley93

      I agree.

      I simplified an interpretation of the Libet experiment for the sake of the argument, but it’s still a topic that’s up for debate. Personally, I think the free will argument just boils down to definitions.

      Regardless, I do believe we’d all benefit from understanding that we don’t control our actions nearly as much as we think.

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  1. Here is the pushback to this line of reasoning that I will offer. And as you know my statements are not at all intended to attack you as a person, but rather the ideas you are proposing, as I find them to be grossly lacking in any real and meaningful substance. My hope and prayer is that as you continue to think and explore our purpose for living you will find these various atheistic worldviews to be not only wrong and illogical but also potentially harmful to the world around us. First to Freud. Sigmund Freud is credited with having developed this notion that the human mind is governed by this constant battle between our Id, Ego, and Superego as you pointed out in your piece. However, what few take the time to think through is what led him to pursue a deeper understanding of the human psyche in the first place. Freud, as an avowed Atheist, HAD to come to some sort of reasoning as to why there seemed to be something within us that told us we ought not do that, or we ought to do that (the priniciples of ommission “I should not punch that old lady” and commission “I should instead help that old lady”). And since Freud was deeply committed to finding that reasoning outside of the notion that our transcendent Creator instilled us with those principles, he instead proposed that this Id, Ego, and Superego were simply the outcroppings of our unguided evolution. He says we originally developed the ID, which is essentially our primal cravings to eat whatever tastes best, sleep with whoever catches our eye at the moment, etc. (essentially to embrace whatever feels right at the moment) to simply survive as a species. Then, and this is why I say to embrace this philosophy is the height of willful ignorance, Freud claims mankind somehow came to the realization that embracing these purely carnal desires was not good for them as a species in the long run and developed a Ego to find the balance between what one ought to do and what one ought not to do. Freud can offer no reasoning as to how this unguided process of evolution brought mankind to the point of realizing that he should pause and give thought to whether this decision would be good for the overall advancement of their species. That would require abstract thought, and again there is not one ounce of proof, scientific or otherwise, to suggest how mankind came to have a conscience that would have him deny his most primitive desires for the benefit of his species. Of course you know that I believe when God created us, as His image bearers, He imprinted His moral law on our hearts as is outlined in many verses but I’ll point to Romans 2:15 for the sake of brevity: v.15 “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts. Their consciences testify in support of this, and their competing thoughts either accuse or excuse them…” and Paul previously mentions in Romans 1 that people are in a constant process of suppressing the truth that they know in their heart and instead embrace whatever line of reasoning they can to justify their behavior, ‘their thinking became nonsense, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools…” v.22. So Caleb, you said that most of your adult life (which you are just now 22 right? Not particularly long in the tooth yet) you lacked confidence and felt shame about the things you were doing. Can I be so bold as to suggest, as it is now very clearly out in the open that you are not a follower of Christ, that you felt that shame because you were consciously rebelling and rejecting the God that fearfully and wonderfully created you? You heard the truth of scripture taught and knew that you stood in opposition to it, yet rather than repenting and believing in Christ to have atoned for your sins you embraced the shame that always accompanies sins. And now, out on your own and free to embrace all the carnal desires of your flesh, you are desperately seeking to find a way to extinguish that same shame and feeling of condemnation; so you look to Buddhism and secular psychology to justify your behavior. But I’ve gotta tell ya bro, Buddhism has the same basic questions to answer that any worldview does, and I can tell you it too falls egregiously short of any coherent notion of #1 why we exist, #2 how we came to exist, and #3 what is the purpose of our existence. Of course I am operating on the assumption that you are embracing the Madhyamika tradition of Buddhism rather than the Yogacara tradition since you mentioned returning to the void or nothingness from which we all came. So to put your newly held philosophy of ‘just love others and have as much fun as possible’ to the test, let me propose a scenario and you tell me if I would be wrong to live it out. Lets say I encounter a person who is suffering (as I daily do working for Hospice) and that person clearly has no quality of life as I define “quality”. It also happens that I enjoy shooting guns. That is fun for me. One day I determine that the most loving thing to do would be to shoot my gun (fun) at people who are suffering so as to aliviate their suffering which in my mind would be loving. (See you and I may have a different definition of what is ‘loving’ and what isn’t, but since your worldview offers no objective idea of what loving is, yours is no better or more right than mine). After my loving and fun shooting spree I then decide, ‘why stop now?’ and I begin to consider people with mental and physical handicaps. I reason that while many of them may ‘think’ they are happy, they really aren’t, so I decide to release them from this tortuous life with my fun-gun. Tell me Caleb, without there being a basis for objective moral truths of right and wrong, should and should not, handed down or imprinted on us by our Creator, how do you appeal to my sense of discernment and discretion that I shouldn’t send a large portion back into the eternal void from which they supposedly came?

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    1. calebepley93

      Hey Caleb, thanks again for the comment. A lot to address here.

      “And since Freud was deeply committed to finding that reasoning outside of the notion that our transcendent Creator instilled us with those principles, he instead proposed that this Id, Ego, and Superego were simply the outcroppings of our unguided evolution.”

      Though I can’t speak for Freud, it doesn’t seem like his motivations would be to disprove God. I think general curiosity about the really strange presence of consciousness is a more adequate explanation. Thus, I think saying that he’s “deeply committed” to disproving a belief is an inaccurate view of the situation.

      Also, I should point out that Freud’s theories aren’t really accepted by most modern psychologists, so the rendering I proposed here isn’t completely accurate. However, I still find them to be useful representation of how our conscious operates.

      “and again there is not one ounce of proof, scientific or otherwise, to suggest how mankind came to have a conscience that would have him deny his most primitive desires for the benefit of his species.”

      From where we currently stand, consciousness is the biggest mystery in the universe. You’re right; it’s really hard to answer this question right now.

      But I find the explanation proposed by game theory pretty interesting. Matt Ridley’s book “The Red Queen” explains a lot better than I ever can, but basically, he argues that consciousness developed because it became evolutionary advantageous to outwit each other as our brains grew. Organisms that could best predict other human brains’ behavior became favored by the species, which led to the spike in conscious awareness that separates humans from other animals.

      Also, I’m very open to the idea of a God of a creator that could explain it. I just don’t think there’s enough evidence to confidently assert that consciousness came from the Christian God.

      “that you felt that shame because you were consciously rebelling and rejecting the God that fearfully and wonderfully created you”

      Nah.

      Most of my shame was lifted when I learned to be honest about my beliefs and intentions instead of repressing them to please others. The period where I felt the most shame is highly correlated with the time I spent as a Christian and strived to be perfectly sinless. That’s not to say that Christianity is inherently bad or harmful, it just didn’t work for me.

      On Buddhism, I wouldn’t identify as a Buddhist, but I do think a lot of the ideas speak to a spiritual reality that I’ve personally experienced. Yet, I can’t claim that that experience is grounded in truth or prove it empirically. It’s just something I’ve felt, and I think it meshes closely with what we’ve learned about the Self over the past century or so.

      On your example, I would deal with your preference by saying that you are free to do that. However, you must be comfortable with going to prison, being killed, and causing a tremendous amount of suffering to the families of the victims. And because my preferences are such that I want to see life preserved and prevent suffering, I would probably report you to the authorities the moment you mentioned it.

      I think 99.9% of humans are empathetic enough to never even consider such a thing. However, there isn’t enough evidence to objectively say that there is a perfect moral standard outside of what we’ve evolved to prefer, in my opinion.

      As always, these are my current beliefs, and I’m willing to change them when presented with adequate evidence.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. calebepley93

      Thank you David!

      I actually don’t know that much about Buddhism outside of the basic tenants. I began meditating due to the proven health benefits. It kind of became a “spiritual” thing on its own after a few months months of practice.

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  2. Pingback: The Two Sides to Every Coin – Hi. I'm Caleb.

  3. Dan

    hey caleb, any recommendation about podcasts-topics that talks further about the ego? i totally agree but i feel like i need read a bit more to fully grasp it! thanks alot again

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