By Jeremy Godwin
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple things that you can do every single day to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing, based on quality research.
This is Episode 68 and this week I’m talking about ego. I’ll be discussing what ego is, why understanding what your ego is doing matters for your wellbeing, and how to work with your ego to improve your mental health. So, let’s talk about mental health!
Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the article/transcript version.
Watch Episode 6 of Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV, the latest episode which is focused on 10 things you can do every day to improve your mental health:
This podcast episode was originally released on 28 February, 2021.
Hello and welcome to Episode 68, and thanks so much for joining me! I’m continuing to focus on ‘The Year of Wellbeing’ throughout 2021 here on the Let’s Talk About Mental Health podcast, so each week I’ll be exploring lots of different things you can do every day to make a positive difference in your life.
This week is all about ego. A lot of our identity can be tied up in our ego in terms of our sense of self-worth and value, and it can play a big part in how we get our energy from our ourselves internally plus from external factors like work, status and other people. Understanding what’s going on with your ego at any given time and being able to manage it in a positive way can have a huge effect on your overall wellbeing, and so that’s what I’m going to be talking about this week.
Before I get into that, Episode 6 of Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV is out now on YouTube where I’m talking about ten simple things you can build into your daily routine that will improve your overall mental health and wellbeing if you stick to them every day — plus I share a bonus tip which is the thing that had the biggest positive impact on my own depression and anxiety a few years ago! The content I post over on YouTube is different to the episode you hear on the podcast, so if you’d like some more Let’s Talk About Mental Health goodness each week then find it on YouTube or watch it at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/YouTube, and while you’re there please take a moment to subscribe to the channel.
So, now, on with this week’s episode about ego…
It was the 20th century writer and artist Carly Simon who sang, “You’re so vain… you probably think this song is about you” and even though she has never completely revealed who the song was about (apparently it was about several different men she knew), I think we’ve all known someone with an ego that is big enough to fill up an entire room.
Ego isn’t such a bad thing; when our ego is well-managed, it can serve to find ways to help you achieve the best possible outcomes for your own happiness, which is an important part of wellbeing… but if it gets out of control, it can make you selfish, narcissistic, judgemental or even paranoid.
So let’s start with some discussion around what ego is…
What is ‘ego’?
The term ‘ego’ refers to a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance (and that definition comes from the Oxford Dictionary). Broadly speaking, it’s about how you think about yourself internally plus externally — in other words, how you see your place in the world. There’s a whole thing about ego, id and superego in the field of psychoanalysis made famous by Sigmund Freud and I’m not going to really go into that in this episode, as the focus here is more about how your ego affects your mental health.
There’s a great definition by a psychologist called Dr. Nicole LePera who has an Instagram account called ‘The Holistic Psychologist’ with over 3.4 million followers, and I’ll link to it in the transcript (find it here: https://www.instagram.com/the.holistic.psychologist/) and funnily enough while I was writing this week’s episode she did a post on ego which included a few things I’ll be sharing today, including this definition:
“The ego is a mental construct of who we believe we are based on our past lived experience. Ego is self identity.”Dr. Nicole LePera (source: https://www.instagram.com/p/CLqUq7OgZif/?igshid=vr7fb1qsd8ky)
Often we talk about ‘ego’ as a term to describe someone who is self-absorbed or behaving in an entitled way, which is called egotism. Now I’m not going to be focusing on that so much in this episode because instead I’ll be talking more about your own ego and how to manage it in healthy versus unhealthy ways, but there will be a little bit covered. ‘Egotism’ shouldn’t be confused with ‘egoism’, which is a philosophical and ethical theory that states our sense of morals (and what’s wrong or right) are actually tied up in whether or not things serve our own interests… that’s a whole other conversation that’s too deep to get into here, but I bring it up because it’s worth noting that the only real difference between a healthy ego or an unhealthy one is whether or not you put your own needs above everyone and everything else; think about people who might happily sell their own grandmother to get what they want, and you can probably see what I’m talking about — I’ll be coming back to this idea in a few minutes.
Also it’s just worth pointing out here that the most extreme version of an unhealthy ego is narcissism, which is when someone is excessively vain, self-centred and overly interested in themselves — I’m sure we all know one or two examples of that type of behaviour, and I try not to judge but some of these people tend to treat everyone else as being in the way of them getting everything they want and more, which at its most extreme can be very damaging, so it’s worthwhile being mindful of.
Why does understanding what your ego is doing matter for your mental health?
It matters because it’s a huge part of self-awareness, which I covered in Episode 62. If it’s being ignored then we can feel scared or triggered, and if it’s allowed to be overly dominant then we can sometimes make everything and anything about us (and news flash — not everything is about you… sorry to break it to you, but it’s true!). To quote from Dr. Nicole LePera again:
“When we feel afraid, have feelings of unworthiness, or are triggered, the ego steps in to protect us from our pain. This keeps us unconsciously living our past and keeps us stuck in patterns that no longer serve us.”Dr. Nicole LePera
Now, that’s not a bad thing if it’s healthy ego (as in being reasonably self-confident and self-aware) — but it’s what happens when our ego gets out of hand that matters the most. When our ego is neglected we can start to feel like everyone is out to get us, because we don’t feel valued or seen. On the other side of that, when our ego is out of control, we can find ourselves making everything about us, and saying and doing things that piss other people off because we can come across as acting in a self-important way.
We have to remember that each one of us in this world is focused on doing what we each need to do to get through the day and we’re all trying to have the best life we possibly can, so when someone else comes across as egotistical, arrogant and self-centred it can very often be confronting to other people, because we tend to gravitate more towards people who will take a fair and balanced approach to relationships. There is a very fine line between self-confidence and arrogance, and it’s important to be aware of the difference in order to grow and maintain healthy relationships with other people (because if you’re overly egotistical, it will likely alienate some people — even if they would never tell you to your face).
Let me give you a recent example from Australian politics. Last week we had a federal politician who decided to switch from his party to become an independent, something that seems to happen at least once or twice a year here if not more. Now, I can only speak for our country here but the thing is that most Australians don’t vote for a person, they vote for the party that person represents and its policies. We tend to have a bit of a ‘who the hell are you?’ attitude towards politicians who spend a lot of their time in the media (and there are quite a few of them). I’m using this example because, in Australia at least, there’s a real sense of hubris (or excessive self-confidence) in a decision like leaving your party so that you can pursue your own values and agenda (which was almost word-for-word what his statement said — this is someone who has been spreading COVID disinformation and generally being a bit of a dickhead) — the point is that as a politician your role isn’t about you; actually, you were voted in to represent the people of your electorate, so it’s not really about you and your opinions, buddy! But time and time again, especially in politics, we see individuals driving their own agenda for the sake of their ego instead of being mindful of their position and what (and who) they are representing.
This is something I have to be conscious of in my work — I share stories about my experiences as part of helping to show this stuff in practice, but I always have to remember that this show isn’t about me; it’s about you and what you want to get out of it in terms of improving your mental health and wellbeing. While I share stuff so that you can get to know me and connect with me, if I spent every episode talking about myself for the whole 25 minutes I think you’d be pretty bored since it’s called Let’s Talk About Mental Health not Let’s Talk About Jeremy!
My point here is about recognising that there are times where we have to consider the needs of the many balanced with our own individual needs, and I do think that life and good mental health is all about ‘balance’ — if either our own needs or the needs of others (especially our immediate circle) takes priority over the other, that’s when we get thrown out of alignment (either because our egos are out of control if it’s all about us, or our egos are undernourished if it isn’t about us enough!). There has to be that balance, where there’s enough attention that you feel seen and you feel validated.. but not where the entire world becomes about you.
So how do you find that healthy balance? Well, let’s get into the how-to part of this week’s topic…
How can you work with your ego to improve your mental health and wellbeing?
First, let’s start with knowing the difference between a healthy ego and an unhealthy ego — and I’m going to flip those around and first talk about the unhealthy ego. An unhealthy ego is where we think that our needs and wants are more important than anyone else’s. It’s the person at the restaurant acting in an entitled way because their meal took slightly too long, and so they demand to speak to the manager because they believe the customer is right (and let me just say that sometimes the customer is right, but sometimes the customer is wrong — and sometimes the customer is unreasonable! Just because you’re exchanging money for goods or services, that doesn’t give you the right to be an arsehole to someone…). When our ego is out of control we tell ourselves that we’re entitled to have, be, do and say absolutely anything we want in this world, and quite frankly that’s where the majority of our troubles stem from — and that is how discrimination happens. Racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. — these are all things that happen when one person (or group of people) convinces themselves that they are better than another person or group of people, and it’s egotism at its absolute worst. Nobody is better than anybody else, and the sooner we just let one another be the better off we will all be. If we could all make an effort to stop trying to scramble to the top of the pile and push other people down, this world would be a MUCH better place. OK, so now that rant is over (for the time being, at least!), let me continue on… A healthy ego is one where you’re considerate of others and yourself, and where you seek to find the middle ground between your needs and wants as well as what other people need and want. Instead of take, take, take, it’s about finding a balance between give and take.
When you focus on having a healthy ego, you know that you’re worthy of having a good life and that it doesn’t matter what other people are or are not doing; another person’s happiness, success or even basic dignity doesn’t take away from yours. A healthy ego means choosing to be the best version of yourself possible and finding ways to grow a little every day — that means doing no harm, being kind and giving more than you take. When you do that, you’re able to be more objective and thoughtful in your words and actions; I mean, after all, you’re not the centre of the universe and the world does not revolve around you!
Remember that very few people, if any, are actually paying as much attention to you as you might think they are — this one is a real slap in the face for our ego, because we often want to think everything in our world is about us but it’s really not. There’s a theory called the spotlight effect that basically says most of us think we walk around with this giant spotlight on us and that everyone else is paying attention to what we’re doing and saying… whereas the reality is that we all are so hung up on ourselves and being worried about what we’re doing (and what other people might think of us) that we’re just not paying that much attention to what others are doing, especially outside of our immediate circle of family and close friends. It’s like when you stumble over your words in a meeting then later you mention it to the person you were talking to and they didn’t even notice, even though you couldn’t stop thinking about it. Most people just really aren’t thinking about you that often, because we’re all mostly thinking about ourselves… so as long as you’re not a total arsehole to people, you’re pretty much good to go! Which leads me to…
Remember that most things other people say or do have absolutely nothing to do with you — have you ever found yourself obsessing over the words chosen in a message or email from someone, or a throwaway comment in a conversation? I guarantee you that 99% of the time, whatever it is had nothing at all to do with you. Dr. LePera, who I quoted earlier, had a great example in her post about ego where she talked about how we might find ourselves feeling betrayed by someone we love and it triggers our ego to think, “I’m worthless!” or “Everyone hurts me… I’m never getting close to anyone again!”, whereas if we stop and push past the emotional reaction then we realise that someone else’s behaviour is 100% about them and the choices they make, rather than being about you. And then continuing on from there…
If it is about you, there’s only so much you can control — sometimes it is about you; you might get into an argument with a loved one or do something to hurt another person, and often what happens is that our ego kicks in and tries to convince us that we can fix everything… but all that’s happening there is that our ego is trying to convince us we’re in control of everything in our world, which we’re not. I talked about control extensively back in Episode 48 and I encourage you to check that out if you haven’t already, but my main point here is that all you actually have direct control over is yourself — your words, your actions, and your feelings (and more specifically, what you do with your feelings). So if the situation is about you and your relationship with someone else, remember that outside of those three things (your words, actions and feelings), everything else is outside of your direct control, no matter how much your ego tries to tell you otherwise.
Develop your self-awareness so you can observe the ego when it’s acting in an unhealthy way — consciously catching yourself when the unhealthy ego is taking over isn’t easy; it takes daily work and yes it’s tough, but like all things to do with improving your mental health and wellbeing it’s about choice; you can either choose to do nothing or choose to do something (and yes, doing nothing IS a choice, because you are choosing to continue with things the way they are — if nothing changes, then nothing changes). If you’re prone to having challenges with your ego (such as being self-absorbed or overly self-critical, both examples of an unhealthy ego) then you owe it to yourself to be more self-aware so you can catch it when it happens and then work on improving it little by little, because that’s what helps you to take those steps towards being the best version of yourself possible.
How do you do that? I like to focus on three steps to stop the ego from taking over, which are: awareness, acceptance and alternative thought — when you are working to become more self-aware, you’ll find yourself noticing the times where your sense of self might be a bit skewed in an unhealthy direction (or you might realise that sometimes you can behave like a bit of a bastard if you’re not getting your own way, something I know I have to be mindful of if I’m feeling frustrated or annoyed!). The first step there is to be aware of it in an objective way (so, in other words, don’t judge or criticise yourself, but instead just notice what’s happening and seek to understand why). Next is acceptance, which is accepting what is happening and why so that you can then deal with things as they are instead of pretending they’re something that they’re not. Once you know why it’s happening and have accepted it as it is, then it’s time for the last step: alternative thought. That means consciously choosing to replace the thought with a more positive one.
For a different way of thinking about all this, I want to share a final piece from Dr. LePera’s post about ego which is about how some people can react on social media (something I explored back in Episode 3 of the Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV show on YouTube). In the example she gave, she noted that sometimes we can read something that another person has posted online and immediately feel anger. We have a strong emotional reaction and our ego can kick in, causing us to think something like, “This person is SO wrong and I cannot believe they had the nerve to make this post! I’m going to let them know how wrong they are.” When we become more conscious of our ego and the role it’s playing in our thought processes, we can approach things much more rationally, which in that example might look like, “Something about this post is creating a deeper emotional reaction and I am not sure why.” When we are curious about our thought processes and reactions, we can begin to explore them and understand why they might be happening, which in turn allows us to decide if those reactions are really representative of the type of person we want to be — and if they’re not, then we realise that we’re able to change them so that we can respond in a more thoughtful and considered way; in a way that is more aligned to being the best version of ourselves that we can possibly be.
Summary and Close-Out
Because when it comes to ego and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: knowing who you are and why you think the way you do takes a lot of work, however by putting in the effort every day to catch your thoughts and ego at play and consider why they might be reacting a certain way in any given situation allows you the opportunity to think about who you want to be, both internally and in terms of how you interact with the wider world. Good mental health and wellbeing means having a healthy level of self-confidence and believing in our abilities, but if that self-belief and self-worth is too high or too low, we can find ourselves making life much for difficult than it needs to be. Having a healthy self-identity and focusing on growing as a human being helps you to make life choices that do no harm, are kind and give more than you take.
The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today?
Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by the writer Eckhart Tolle, and it is:
“All you need to know and observe in yourself is this: Whenever you feel superior or inferior to anyone, that’s the ego in you.”Eckhart Tolle
Next week I’ll be talking about distractions. We can often find ourselves using external stuff to distract us from our challenges — like alcohol, social media, etc. — and while some distractions from our troubles can be good for us, some actually leave us feeling worse than before. So why does that matter? And how do you know the difference? Well, next week I’ll be talking about what distractions are, why it’s important to know the difference between healthy and unhealthy distractions, and how to effectively manage distractions so you can look after yourself without having to become a monk or lock yourself away from the world entirely!
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday 7th March. And join me for Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV on YouTube, with new episodes released every Wednesday.
Head over to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au for links and past episodes (including audio links and full transcripts) and while you’re there join the Let’s Talk About Mental Health mailing list to have exclusive updates land in your inbox — those of you on my email list receive the full transcript for each episode every week and you also find out about new stuff related to the show and my work at least a week before anybody else, so if you like this show then sign up at the website: letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au.
You can also find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamentalhealth, where I post extra content throughout the week, and if you follow me on Instagram then you’ll notice that I make a point of interacting with as many people as possible there so it’s a great way to continue the conversation!
Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
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