“Ego” is the Greek word for “I”.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines ego as: “the idea or opinion that you have of yourself, esp. the level of your ability and intelligence, and your importance as a person.”
Why are we so unwilling to accept criticism, even of the constructive kind, and so loathe to change our opinions in the face of evidence that contravenes our opinions?
Our ego, of course.
We all have some kind of inflated opinion of our ability, intelligence, and importance, and when we admit that maybe we are wrong about something we often feel attacked or unworthy.
Our ego is always present, and always protecting its turf, which is our own perceived self-worth. If we question our own importance, abilities, and intelligence, we question our very core.
Thus, we will cling to our opinions and fight to the death to preserve the identities we have constructed for ourselves.
We begin to identify with our beliefs about the world and about ourselves. These beliefs become “us”.
But, have they really served us well or do they inhibit our growth?
Crushing Our Own Ego
I am well aware of the need to crush my own ego, so I can live more freely and continue to grow, and it has been a process I have been undergoing for months.
It is not easy.
Sometimes it is painful.
I understand that I have made myself the center of my own universe for my entire life, and it has not served me well.
This needs to die.
I am not the center of the universe and no one owes me a damn thing.
I am not special and need to get over myself.
I now understand that, paradoxically, when I complete this process I will be able to truly live without preconceived, and often erroneous, notions of how the world should work and my place in it.
At some point in the past year, I became tired of living in “bad faith.” My simple understanding of this existentialist concept (and I know it’s much more complex), is it refers to how we act inauthentically to fit in to social expectations and norms. We don’t act in ways true to ourselves, and thus are not truly free because freedom implies the ability to be our true selves and act accordingly.
We become slaves to others and their expectations because we want and desire their approval more than anything else. Our ego, thus, gets intertwined with this inauthentic edifice around ourselves we have painstakingly constructed and jealously guarded.
Knocking that structure down becomes exceedingly difficult because it has been with us for our entire lives. It is, in effect, our security blanket, and we fear the process of creating ourselves anew.
For about a year I’ve known I needed to do this work on myself because I’ve been living in bad faith.
This realization was necessitated by a crisis, but not an acute one. Instead, it is one that has built up for more than a decade and cuts to the core of how I understand myself and the people closest to me.
The Work On Myself
While the work of crushing my own ego and remaking myself is not yet complete, I have made great progress.
Below are the steps I have been taking.
I am the first to admit, that I am not always successful and, at times, backslide into old ways of acting and thinking. The process is not a linear one; it has peaks and valleys.
No one said that undoing decades of constructing and defending my ego would be easy.
Remove unnecessary hobbies or actions from life
When you think about the things you do reflexively, consider how many you do because you truly want to, and how many you do because it is a societal expectation or just something you’ve always done without considering the reason why.
I realize I’ve wasted time, effort, and energy on trifles. I have settled for mindless pursuits and, in the process, missed numerous opportunities to live, learn, and love.
One small example is I no longer watch professional sports. I am not suggesting that everyone has to do this, but for me it’s something I never truly enjoyed, which made it an unnecessary part of my life.
It is something I did because it is what is expected of men in America, and because it gave me something to talk about with other people. To not feel left out, and to fit in I watched sports.
At the beginning of the football season, I made it my mission to not watch a single down of a single game, and I succeeded. I didn’t even watch a moment of the Super Bowl.
Remove people from my life
We are taught the subtle and sometimes not so subtle message that having a bigger social circle makes us more valuable. We strive for popularity.
I’ve come to the realization that life is too short, and time is too precious to waste it worrying about and especially trying to please anyone who brings negativity or provides no value to my life.
And, oh have I expended much energy and time in this pursuit.
Time I can never get back.
Lest you think I am all negative, I am trying to double down on those people and relationships that are positive and do bring value to me.
I now know it’s not the number of friends that are important, but the quality of those relationships.
I would rather have one or two close friends who bring positivity than one hundred people who claim to be friends but are actually fair-weathered acquaintances.
Learn to Say “No”
The word “no” is now a regular part of my vocabulary. The fewer commitments and promises I make, the more time I will have to improve myself and spend with those who deserve my attention.
I simply don’t have to say “yes” to everyone and anyone who asks something of me.
I know this may sound like a lack of empathy or an anti-social attitude, but it’s not that at all because I expect others to treat me the same way.
Just because I receive a text message, an email or phone call, it doesn’t mean I have to drop what I’m doing to handle it.
No one else owns my time and energy, nor has a right to it whenever they want it, and I owe no one explanations for my unavailability.
Experience the Created World
I need to get out into nature much more often. Living in the city, I am not surrounded by magnificent mountain vistas or abundant forests, so this can be a challenge. Even when I hike in the woods near my house, the cacophony of vrooming vehicles is still omnipresent, making it difficult to truly melt into it.
There’s a certain sense of freedom that comes over me when I’m out in nature. I’m sure it is evolutionarily programed into all of us. Unconstrained by the four walls of a man-made structure, we are free to ponder creation and our place in it, and truly experience life.
I know this has been missing from my life, and I know some of the greatest freedom I have felt has been experiencing – truly experiencing – creation.
Although the word “passion” is, in popular parlance most often used in the context of sexual or romantic love, the definition is deeper than that. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, it is “a powerful emotion or its expression, esp. the emotion of love, anger, or hate.”
Living with passion means that we allow ourselves to experience the power of our emotions. One of those is love.
I have been working on this intensely in my own marriage. I want my wife to ignite in me the highest highs, and she does. I want to feel the deep bond and connection, the desire to bring out the very best in each other.
In short, I want to feel.
This also, conversely, includes the lowest lows since everything is not always perfect, and the you cannot experience highs without also experiencing lows.
There is nothing worse than indifference for another person because that means all passion is extinguished and, I know it sounds weird, but I would rather that she hates me than feels indifferent about me. At least with hate, I know there is passion still there, even though it is negative.
If she were indifferent it would mean I am no longer a blip in her mind.
For us, we are at the point, after twenty-five years, where we often finish each other’s sentences and thoughts.
We lift each other up.
We desire the best for each other, whatever that may be. Sure, there is an element of selfishness still; I think it is impossible to totally eliminate that, but as time goes on I know our passion continues to grow.
We all have past actions that cause us shame. We have all made poor decisions that, when we dwell on them, cause us to shake our heads and wonder what we were thinking. Some of us, who are prone to excessive self-analysis and self-criticism, have a difficult time with this, but I am now more certain than ever of the need to work exceedingly hard on this.
This may be the most important thing we can do to crush our own egos, and it is also one of the most difficult.
I now know that it is a form of arrogance when I ascribe to past versions of me the same values I now hold as a result of my life experiences and the learning I have done since then.
We need to let the past go.
It is said that the past is dead, and we have to internalize this. If we don’t we end up with a lifetime battling ghosts.
The past is the past. There is nothing we can do to change our actions, nor those of anyone else.
Failing to let go of the past imprisons us in the worst form of solitary confinement, and unless we do something about it, it ends up mutating into a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Without doing it we lose the freedom to live, to grow, to love, and to enjoy each fleeting moment.
That is profoundly sad, and a true hindrance to any growth.
Don’t dwell on the future…too much
I am one of those people who, when reading a novel, is anxious to get to the end. I want to know what happens now. There have been times I’ve read entire books and missed many of the details because I have been so focused on the conclusion and rushed through it.
I need to remove from my mind excessive thoughts of the future. While it is important to make plans for growth and improvement, an excessive focus on what is to come makes us overly attached to outcomes, instead of focusing on the journey.
This single-minded focus on the outcome sets us up for disappointment since other people don’t always act the way we want them to act, and things will never go exactly according to plan.
This causes anxiety and worry and prevents us from living and experiencing each present moment.
The funny thing is that once those future situations come that we worry about so much now, we won’t really experience them then either since we will be living even further in the future by then.
It is important to stop to smell the proverbial roses and focus on the here and now without trying to control the future.
We all must be grateful. This means we have to stop seeing the negative in situations, and more intensely and intentionally fight to see the positive.
I recognize that this is especially true when thinking of my own life. I dwell on what I perceive to be the negative aspects of myself and my situation and ignore the positives. This causes anxiety, sadness, and lack of motivation.
Very often, the person most hard on us is us. We imprison ourselves with our own second-guessing and have nightmares of our poor decisions.
We need to be less hard on ourselves and, while acknowledging our errors, accept them, transcend them, and recognize they are but a mere stop on the road to our final destination.
Forgive those close to us who have wronged us
A necessary component is having empathy for that person.
It is very likely that your loved one who hurt you is also living with the knowledge and pain of what he/she did to you and is also having trouble forgiving themselves for it.
Truly and unmistakably forgiving will set us free and eliminate bottled up tension that is eating us alive.
I know, for me, this has been a difficult process, way more difficult than I thought it would be; but necessary.
Without it, much of this other work becomes impossible to do.
Ask for help
We must not be afraid to ask for help. Very often our egos and inflated sense of self prevents us from doing this. We think we have it all figured out or have the ability to handle every situation on our own.
We can’t, and we don’t.
Whether from loved ones, friends, or even strangers who care, I can’t do things alone and need to ask for help when needed. Sometimes it’s just words in a text message that help us cut through the noise and see things in a different way.
I mention this because this happened to me. A good friend of mine helped me solve a problem that was vexing me for many months with exquisitely timed words in a text message.
We have to understand that we don’t have all the answers, and we have to be willing to accept how much we don’t know.
I understand this requires a certain humility that can be difficult, but when we accomplish it we take a big step in crushing our egos.
I know I need to accept and embrace being alone sometimes. I have never lived alone, nor been alone for extended periods of time. I think this has resulted in a situation where I am uncomfortable with myself when I am feeling alone, a sense of loneliness. This leads me to overcompensate and rely way too heavily on my wife for affirmation and validation.
This is too much pressure to put on another person. No one else is responsible for your happiness or comfort, and it’s unfair to put them in that situation.
Embrace your time alone and learn to become comfortable with yourself as a companion.
I know from experience that crushing my ego is not an easy task. It has been cultivated for 42 years and it gives me comfort. But, I also know it has not served me well.
It has led to poor decisions.
Faulty ways of thinking.
Hurting the people I love most.
I am still in the midst of annihilating my faulty ways of thinking about my own abilities, intelligence, and importance.
This process, which is not yet over, is leading me down a path that is allowing me to live a more loving and authentic life.
I am not sure where it will lead and what will be left of the me I’ve lived with my entire life at the end but, I’ll accept the uncertainty and I am embracing the process of crushing my ego.
It is important. It is necessary. It is right.
*I am thankful to the men in the Fraternity of Excellence for discussing many of these issues with me since I joined in October. If you are looking for a brotherhood of like-minded men who are all working towards becoming better versions of themselves and provide support to each other, I recommend checking it out for a month. Joining was one of the best decisions I made.