We all have a part of our behaviour concerned with protecting our own sense of dignity. Like many social animals, we manage our reputation by ensuring that we stand out as reasonably good, and by avoiding standing out as unreasonably bad, in the eyes of others.
We find it uncomfortable to be labelled as inadequate, and are extremely sensitive to those who do try to pin those labels on us. Hence, we are behaviourally triggered by communications which position us as having failed in some way.
Some protection of our own reputation is quite a functional thing. If we didn’t manage how we were seen through the eyes of others, we would not have so much social influence. However, when we get too sensitive, that self-protectiveness can lead to relationship difficulties.
For example, Peter has to attend company meetings. But, instead of attending to what needs to be achieved by the team, he spends all his energy protecting his own ego from any slights. When a colleague asks for a correction, he sees it as personal criticism, and instinctively attacks back.
In a way, Peter is showing a healthy protection of his own self-esteem. But, because he takes self-defence to such an extreme, he is seen by his colleagues as hypersensitive and difficult to deal with. Ultimately, he may lose his job, because others do not want to have to work so hard to avoid offending him.
Think of a football team when a goal is scored against them. If they have overactive egos, then they will react by trying desperately and angrily to push the blame onto others. This takes energy away from the important thing, which is to function as a team and to play well.
TAMING THE EGO REACTION
In order to tame our ego reaction, we need to reduce our sensitivity to threatening stimuli. We have two parts to our response. Firstly, we have an automatic response, which can only be trained using habitual practice. Secondly, we have a conscious response, which is more amenable to conscious thought-training.
For some, the automatic training happened when we were children. Parents rewarded us when we behaved sociably, and punished us when we behaved antisocially. This means we have grown up with an automatic ability to limit our ego-responses to manageable levels.
For those who need further automatic training, we can seek friends and peers who can act as replacement parents. Joining an orderly organisation such as a church or a club provides good automatic training, rewarding us for sociable behaviour, and distancing us for unsociable behaviour.
We can also use pictures, notice boards, and habitual practices to train our automatic responses. But human contact is a quicker route to social training.
For those who need conscious thought-training, we can seek out teachers who can help us to process our ego response. This is how many religions work: they offer a formal structure of prayer and contemplation, through which we can see our own selfish responses, and challenge them.
We can also use books, films and other art and literature. These can help us to develop our thought-responses through our intellect. But, as with automatic social training, human contact is a quicker route.
COMBINING AUTOMATIC AND CONSCIOUS TRAINING
These are the two most effective ways to train the mind to manage its own excessive ego responses. It is a double success if we can find an organisation with good teachers in it. This will feed our automatic learning, as well as our conscious learning.
When we find a good friend or mentor, we learn both automatically and consciously. We are geared up to learn from other humans, and can access social learning much faster by this route. We can be profoundly influenced by good teachers, whether they come from educational institutions, or from our daily life.
TRAINING THE MIND
Buddhist retreats are designed for this kind of training. We enter into an environment which rewards peaceful, non-confrontational behaviour. And we have the opportunity to be taught philosophies which help us to relax our ego response. In particular, we are taught compassion (concern for others rather than ourselves), and wisdom (the calming perspective that our ‘self’ is not the centre of the universe).
Several other religions promote the same perspectives, although some fall into their own ego-reactions, becoming hyper-sensitive to criticism, and cult-like in their behaviour.
Protection of our social reputation is a natural animal response. But, taken to excess, it leads to relationship difficulties.
There are two ways to train ourselves to reduce this excessive ego response.
- The first is to join social groups which promote kindness, and encourage considerate behaviour.
- The second is to find teachers who can offer reasonable thought processes around compassion and wisdom. When applied, these conscious thought processes can weaken our belligerent ego.
Spiritual retreats are ideal environments to develop the self in this way, as long as we make sure that the organisations are themselves suitably free of ego.
Ego is used here in the sense of pride, or egocentricity, not in the quasi-technical psychoanalytic sense.