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1000 words On the Ego

It is a very human activity to ponder the question “What makes me… me?”.

Western theory on Ego

In ancient Greece, Socrates divided “the self” into 2 parts, the body and the soul, the former being our bodily presence on the earth and the latter a “thinking and willing subject“.

And so began the study and categorisation of the incredibly complex aspects of human consciousness. Socratic study of the human condition, including the topics of ethics and virtue continued long after his death, his questioning methodology and interest in what it is to be a person leading us to Freud and his enduring theory around human psyche.

Freud’s definition of psyche, divided the mind into three, the Id, the Superego and the Ego, which functions as the mediator between the Id and the Superego and is the filter through which we understand the world and process it’s input.

He uses the analogy of a horse and chariot to explain his theory, with the horse representing the Id, the unevolved instinctual brain, the Ego being the driver, doing his best but not always able to control the horse and the superego he described as the Father of the driver, pointing out his mistakes, criticising and moralising. See footnote for Freuds influence on neuroscience

Both Modern Western and Socratic views support the idea that the Ego is an entity separate from but within a person, something to be listened to and respected as a representation of our true selves.

Eastern beliefs around Ego

Conversely the philosophies of the East, Hinduism and Buddhism, believe that the ego is something to release or transcend, so as to attain oneness with the universe and become your true self.

The Hindu belief is that the Ego is the recognition of ones separateness from other things, including Brahma/God. This gives rise to what is described as the duality of existence. There are 2 realities; the reality of truth, God’s reality, and the separate one that is experienced by the human individual.

While we live necessarily, in the separate human reality, it is believed to be possible for a person to remove that sense of importance or Ego and regain oneness with the truth, or the reality of God.

According to Bhaktiyoga or the path of devotion this is achieved by reducing our sense of self-importance and recognising that we are part of God’s reality through meditation, prayer and gratitude, practices that have since been embraced by the wellbeing/wellness industries; meditation, mantra and journalling.

The Ego in Coaching

From a coaching point of view, I feel to understand the impact of the Ego we must combine both the western definitions and eastern practices.

The Ego performs an important function in regulating our behaviour and keeping actions related to our urges and impulses mostly within socially accepted bounds.

Throw a brick at a car window? – No.
Hold the door for someone in a hurry? – Yes.

But it’s my feeling that the Ego not only controls the “horse” (the Id), but is an animal of it’s own, one that left unchecked can develop an overinflated sense of importance.

Any reflection work undertaken relating to Ego is necessarily about realigning our self-view with that of our impact on the world beyond our own mind, and striking a balance between the actions we take, our intent for those actions and the rewards we reap from those actions.

This reflection begins with finding what our motivational state is within the moment, because it’s only by knowing where we are that we can take steps towards something else.

The Karpman Drama Triangle

In 1968, Stephen B. Karpman proposed a transactional theory (how we interact with others) that I will adapt to help us understand when the Ego is out of balance.

The Karpman Drama Triangle is a theory that, when challenged, we take on one of three roles, the Persecutor, the Rescuer or the Victim.

If we find ourselves angry, agressive or demanding, we are the Persecutor and have lost sight of the value of other peoples views, the Ego is unchecked and we think we are better than others.

If we are overly helpful, appear self-sacrificing, or find comfort in being needed we are acting out the Rescuer role and we don’t think others are capable or have capacity to help themselves, again the Ego is inflated, “Only I can save the day!”.

The Victim role differs from the other 2 in that our Ego is deflated and we’ve lost trust in ourselves or our abilities, this can lead to manipulative behavior, complaining or blaming.

The Ego in Balance

The perfect state of being is in the centre of this triangle; you have confidence in your ability to navigate the world, but you also understand you are part of a complex society, however small, and that each person involved in that society has a value in their views and their own capacity to move forward with their lives. For me, this is the Ego in equillibrium.

The question then is, when we start to drift, how do we regain that centre position, the powerful yet humble Ego?

At this point I believe we should take a lesson from Hindu practice.

Take a moment and get present, remove yourself mentally from the situation and reassess; meditate (even if for a couple of seconds) by taking a deep breath, pray/recite a mantra that connects, “I am valued and I value others” and show gratitude by recognising others for their worth.

The Ego (as a specific mental entity) is a powerful force within the human psyche, but it is self-governing. There is no oversight board, therefore it’s up to us to move outside of our Ego and, by conciously noticing the feedback we receive from the world and other people we can re-align our self-worth or Ego to a healthy balanced position.

If you want to talk more about Ego, coaching, wellbeing or anything at all, you can find me on Threads or Tiktok, or if you would like to discuss a coaching session or series of session with me, fill out the “About You Quiz” and I’ll get back to you.

Footnote: Such is the influence of Freuds theory that neuroscience believes it has found each of these areas within the structure of the brain, Id = the limbic system which governs “behaviours we need for survival: feeding, reproduction and caring for our young, and fight or flight responses“, Ego = the fore brain used for “thinking, planning, reasoning, language processing, and interpreting and processing inputs from our senses“, the seat of higher thinking and the Superego: the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain just behind the right ear. (link goes to an interesting study on moral judgement and magnetic interference with this area of the brain).