Updated: Dec 27, 2019
If I were to pick one personal challenge I return to daily it would be containing the ego.
As a yoga teacher I often caution my students to not let their egos shape their practice. It doesn’t matter what the posture looks like. Instead, let curiosity take the lead observing the breath and the movement. Yet when training with other teachers I can forget. Am I doing it right? How do I look? My competitive impulse can tweak my body and my ego.
As a volunteer I find my ego needs stroking. Was I heard in a committee meeting? Am I motivated to serve largely for the feedback that I’m making a difference?
As a friend cultivating new relationships I can find myself wondering…How am I perceived? What do I have to offer?
As a mother I catch myself (sometimes) from giving advice to my adult daughters. I still have so much wisdom to share (!) until I remember they’ve probably heard it before.
As a wife I rely on feedback from my husband of 36 years. Am I disciplined? Have I amounted to much? Did I overstep? Revealing questions like this you can only ask someone who knows you intimately and has endured, witnessed and supported you for many, many years. Would I not self-reflect if I didn’t have such a patient partner? With maturity I at least recognize the folly of this second guessing. Or acknowledge that we all ask these questions.
Ego is Latin for “I”. Psychologist Sigmund Freud used the word ego with specificity in his psychoanalytic framework. The Freudian ego holds particular meaning. Most of us understand the word as self-worth. Too much becomes conceit. Too little becomes insecurity. Often, we vacillate between the two.
No doubt you’ve noticed how some people begin every sentence with “I.” It always stands out when politicians use “we”. I noticed at a recent luncheon that Senator Doug Jones includes his wife Louise in this enterprise of seeking and holding office. It acknowledges that he couldn’t do it alone. I’ve heard him speak several times directly including Louise and endearing me to them both in the process. Is this a political calculation? Some would say so but I hold fast that it reveals something good about the man
So many writers and thinkers speak to this question of ego.
My current favorite thought comes from Miyamoto Musashi, “think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world”. It speaks directly to containing the ego and making a difference. Here’s how I take these simple words.
Do not take yourself so seriously.
Do think long and hard about the world - big and small. Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg bravely does this.
Listen deeply to the perspective of others.
Guard against personalizing words and actions that may have nothing to do with you.
Recognize we have important work to do, much of which will receive little affirmation or approval.
The ego relentlessly craves recognition but rarely is satisfied. Our sense of wholeness cannot depend on it.