We talk of someone having an 'ego'. When we say it we are not just stating a fact and we're certainly not offering them a compliment! The truth is, however, we all have an ego. But what do we mean by the word ego and why can it cause such great problems in our own lives and the lives of others? Is there such a thing as a healthy amount of ego?
William Law back in the 18th century put it well when he said:
"Every good thought that we have, and every good action that we perform, lays us open to pride and thus exposes us to the various assaults of vanity and self-satisfaction."
Those words are just as true today as they were then. To further illustrate this reflect on the following 10 contrasting statements. Do you see any of the following tendencies in yourself:
- You parade in public what should be kept private.
- You are far too self-referencing.
- You talk when you should shut up.
- You are quiet when you should speak.
- You care too much about what people think about you.
- You care too little about what people think about you.
- You resist facing and admitting your sins/weaknesses/ failures.
- You struggle with the success of others.
- You are more position orientated than submission orientated.
- You believe you are in control of your life.
All of us, if we are honest with ourselves, are guilty of falling into any of these extremes at one time or another. We can find ourselves so self-preoccupied that even the good we do leads to a sense of superiority or aloofness to others. It can be incredibly subtle, but those seeds and roots are there in all of us. And if they are allowed to germinate and grow in our hearts, can cause incredible damage to our lives and the lives of those around us.
There is a connection between ego and pride, and it is helpful to tease that out.
The word ego comes from the Latin, where it means "I, myself." Psychologists talk of the ego as the conscious part of the mind that sits between the id (the primitive part of the mind preoccupied with immediate gratification) and the super-ego (our internal moral policeman telling us what is right and wrong). So ego is an inflated sense of self-importance, but it is also closely linked to self-confidence. That implies ego can also have a positive meaning. While often being a deep liability it can also be a valuable asset. Jim Collins, who has been described as one of the most prolific business authors of the last 60 years, talks about this in his book Good To Great with the concept of Level 5 Leadership.
From his research Collins found that 2/3 of the companies that don't make the leap from good to great were weighed down by "the presence of gargantuan personal ego that contributed to the demise or continued mediocrity of the company." For the 11 companies that made the leap from good to great, Collins described 2 unique traits of their leaders:
- Intense professional will.
- Extreme personal humility.
There is something intensely powerful abut combining these two apparently contrasting qualities of fierce determination and a distinct lack of self-absorption. In other words, humility in the true sense of the word as not thinking less of oneself, but simply thinking of oneself less. (You may need to read that sentence a couple of time to grasp the radical nature of this).
(For more on this see Growing In Service And Level 5 Leadership).
So when we talk about someone having an ego we mean that person is so self-absorbed that they can't see anything else. But it does get more complicated than that! A dictionary definition of ego talks about "a person's sense of self-esteem or self-importance". We attempted to unravel the confusion around the word 'self esteem' in the posts How Is Your Self-Esteem? and Do You Need A Self-Esteem Boost?
In terms of what pride is, the dictionary definition talks of "a feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one's own achievements, the achievements of one's close associates, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired". So as with ego there is both a negative and a positive side to pride.
I love how Isak Dinesan teases this out in such a positive way:
"(Healthy) Pride is faith in the idea that God had, when he made us. A proud man is conscious of the idea, and aspires to realize it. He does not strive towards a happiness, or comfort, which may be irrelevant to God's idea of him. His success is the idea of God, successfully carried through, and he is in love with his destiny. As the good citizen finds his happiness in the fulfilment of his duty to the community, so does the proud man find his happiness in the fulfilment of his fate."
So we can say a healthy level of pride and ego is rather like thinking about your toes! Tim Keller talks of this in terms of a 'gospel-humble person' (For more on Gospel see here):
"The truly gospel-humble person is a self-forgetful person whose ego is just like his or her toes. It just works. It does not draw attention to itself. The toes just work; the ego just works. Neither draws attention to itself."
I close with the following prayer that I think illustrates this beautifully:
"I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
Put me to doing; put me to suffering:
Let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you, exalted for you or brought low for you;
Let me be full, let me be empty
Let me have all things, let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.
And now glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
You are mine and I am yours."
What questions, comments and thoughts does this exploration of pride and ego raise for you?