Taming the ego

Freud's diagrams from 'The Ego and the Id' (1923)

Freud’s diagrams from ‘The Ego and the Id’ (1923) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even before mum died I wondered how the experience would change me. Life would be different, I knew that, and already I have some sense of that reaching for the phone to call a mother I remember finally is gone. There is a gap which in time may close some, and which as a matter of fact will make for a difference. Mum’s death though is at the centre of something greater, the full stop on a prolonged and challenging process. The trauma and sorrow, the speculative thoughts and imagined loss, the sheer physical and mental demand upon a person, all of this is true in my experience. How is one left in the wake of that?

In my case I have had much else to contend with. Over the last 12 months odd I’ve been forced to reconsider much. In many ways it has been a humbling process, though surprisingly much of who I am remains intact, even strengthened. Still, it would be a foolish man who was not given pause to reflect on things. Things come at you, and you react to them. Sometimes you step forward to act yourself. This is how you’ve always been, but now the outcomes are different. Do you continue as you have in the blind expectation that things will change back? Or do you change your ways in response?

I’m a hard-edged, competitive, ambitious man. Much of that is innate, and some learned. My natural response to challenge is to bristle, and to rouse myself to greater effort. Though it seems automatic I can call upon the words of my father over many years from when I was a boy right up to today. He is the same, driven forward, refusing to ever be conquered. I have always been glad to be this way. In truth I have often felt myself superior because I believed I had a superior will. There is something powerfully self-affirming in such a belief, a belief that adds strength to strength and often times becomes self-fulfilling.

Whilst I have happily accepted the fact of this  attribute and the fruits it has delivered to me there have been times, more frequent in recent years, when I have come to question it. It’s very easy for this philosophy to become a way of being, a subliminal mantra. You act and do without thought, without really wondering at the battle ahead (except to relish it) or if the prize, whatever it might be, is really worth it. It becomes habit then, a dumb reflex triggered by a bloodthirsty ego that seeks battle for the sake of the fight, and nothing more.

If I were less sophisticated I might accept that as the way it is now and forever. Thankfully though I’ve come to realise what I’ve been doing. It still comes naturally. Often I still relish the challenge to strive forward and to take up arms when it becomes necessary. I still let it happen mostly, though mostly I am conscious of it and what it means as I was never really before.

In my way I have come to associate this behaviour with my ego. My ego primps and preens, it gives itself airs and graces, it demands tribute and reward like an overhyped rock star.  It is a powerful engine for action, but often looks to satisfy itself ahead of me – if for for a moment you can separate ‘us’. It leads me to do things which are perhaps not in ‘my’ best interest. It seeks glory when what I really want is truth and authenticity.

This I have come to realise over these last 12 months odd. My mum’s illness, death, and my experience of it, have further cemented in me that knowledge. I don’t want to act from ego. I want to act from my self.

This is the challenge for me now, to separate one from the other. I won’t discard the ego – I may talk it down, but it’s familiar and fact is it’s me as well – just not the wisest part of me. I don’t want to be any less competitive or capable. I still want to win. I want to choose my fights though. I want to understand what my authentic self wants, what it feels, what will make it happy. I am at that stage of my life when I seek to re-discover who I really am, and what I really want from the years remaining to me, without ego or cant.

As it happens I have an immediate challenge before me. Unfortunately there is a person who obviously views my mothers death as a windfall. He has made this clear in recent weeks and even before mum died, and, I learned, long before then too. For me the death of my mother is a sad event I will take some time to properly accept; for him it’s economic opportunity. Obviously I deplore that attitude. My anger has been roused, and so to has those competitive juices I spoke of. I expect he will choose to make trouble over the will, and potentially to challenge it.

My first instinct is to break him. My natural belligerence comes to the surface. There is no mercy in me. I feel ruthless and cruel and calculating. He is a stupid, impulsive man, highly strung and unusually vulnerable. I know that if I press the right buttons I can lead him to self-destruct. It’s all he deserves I think, and it will serve our purpose.

But then I think. I have no pity for him, but I wonder if I should be the better man. It’s my ego that sniffs the whiff of battle. It’s my ego who wants to crush this person. Can I not be more sympathetic? Can I not forgive him his tacky and shallow greed, and try to understand the man? Can I not talk him down, even come to an arrangement?

I don’t know. That’s my challenge.

The tough judge

Table of predator prey interactionsImage via Wikipedia

There’s an old Skyhooks song for those who go back that far that claims that Ego is Not a Dirty Word. You won’t see me disagreeing with that. As long as it doesn’t get out of control a strong ego is necessary if you want to get any forward traction in your life. You have to imagine where you can go and you need to believe in yourself in order to get there, and that takes some balls. It varies to person to person, but you won’t find many people at the top of the tree who don’t have a healthy ego.

Now too much ego can be ugly. It’s hard to avoid the excesses of it sometimes. It’s like a powerful engine that hums all the time and does good when utilised productively, but can be boorish when not turned towards the job at hand. Most of my friends have healthy egos, which occasionally makes for some competitive rivalry and some rugged byplay. For the most case that’s okay. Sometimes less so, and I’m just as guilty of that as anyone.

The ego can often send you down the wrong path. When I speak of doing what you think you should do rather than what you want it’s not all about being sensible and responsible. In fact that’s the least of it for me. I’ll easily gamble those things on the basis of what I lose I can make up later. What suckers me in is my ego. It dares and taunts me: how can you turn your back on that? Are you a man or a mouse? Take up the challenge!

I tell you, it’s mighty testing.

This is the temptation I have to fight. Dangling before my eyes is the promise of this job, 13 people reporting to me and 20 mill to spend.  Go on mate, my ego demands, make it happen: you can do great things.

I can do great things elsewhere my id responds.

Yeah? Like to see it, my ego sneers (ironically in a New Zealand accent). When are you going to get another chance like this? Don’t kid yourself chuckles, you can’t turn your back on this if you ever figure on sitting at the grown-ups table.

Mate, I want other things and I got nothing to prove. It’s there if I want it: I don’t. There’s not much sense in doing it just because I can. I want to do what I want to do.


Anyway, you get the gist. About halfway through this exchange I feel like a man-eater turned herbivore as my ego continues to ridicule my id (“Man, can you believe we’re brothers?)”, accusing my id of sitting down to have a pee. Ego may not be a bad thing, it may even be necessary in a lot of ways, but man it’s a hard taskmaster.
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