Recognizing When Your Ego is in Control
Our ego’s job is to either prevent or justify social defeat. That is to say, its job is to prevent our beliefs about ourself from being disproved or disrupted by the outside world. For example, I believe that I know a lot about The Lord of The Rings until I meet someone who knows more than I do. This is (at least for me) a pretty low-stakes belief, so my response to the disruption is similarly low-stakes. I might do some more research, might justify the difference by saying that I know more about the books, and the other person knows more about the movies, or I might just update my own belief about myself.
I also believe that I’m really good at my job, but then maybe I get passed over for a promotion. This is a more high-stakes disconnect between my internal belief and the external world, so my ego is going to step up and help me manage this social defeat. I may decide the process was unfair, may decide to work harder, or may decide to seek another position or another company. All of those responses are positive actions (compared with taking no action and just feeling bad) which give me and my ego a sense that we have some control.
In an article in Psychology Today called “8 Ways to Overcome a Blow to Your Ego” (2016) the author writes about levels of stress experienced by smaller mice that are bested by a larger, more aggressive mouse.
Of Mice and Men
“One key finding in the mouse study is that prior to puberty, no mice seem susceptible to the stresses of social defeat. It’s only in adulthood that it becomes apparent. Young mice can handle defeat seemingly well, but the experience takes its toll on the more vulnerable ones.” Vulnerable mice in this study were the post-puberty - which is to say - adult mice.
Obviously, mice are not people. Obviously, a small mouse getting beaten up by a larger mouse isn’t the same as me getting passed over for a promotion that I thought I deserved. However, the research does suggest that we are more susceptible to stress when belief about ourself is disproved or disrupted as adults than we were as children. And that increased susceptibility suggests that this is a learned response which means it can also be unlearned.
The good news is that your ego isn’t bad! And a little bit of self-knowledge on your part can prevent it from taking control in interactions where you would rather take a more measured approach.
Our ego gets activated when external evidence doesn't match our internal beliefs
You’re likely to have an ego-driven response when presented with external circumstances that don’t match your internal belief system.
In all these examples, your ego impulse will be to protect your existing belief. If your direct report went to your manager for advice, they are in the wrong. If your manager thinks they’re going to teach you something you’re an expert in, they’re definitely in the wrong. And if someone (who you believe is) less qualified gets a promotion instead of me, then the entire organization is corrupt. This has happened to everyone, right? No? Just me, then? Good times.
And of course, when our ego defends our existing belief in this way, it doesn’t leave room for new or updated information. These are the moments we react with defensiveness or anger.
Recognize Your Reactions
OK, so what do you do to prevent this? First, recognize the signs of an ego-driven response in your body. Those include:
All of these responses, and others as well, are your body’s preparation for fight, flight, or freeze. And the great news is that once you recognize that you’re having that reaction, you get to make a different choice.
Fight, Flight, or Freeze
The first necessary steps are know where your buttons are, and admit when you’ve taken a hit. You don’t have to admit it to anyone but yourself, although talking to someone you trust can be a great way to build your reaction skill.
For example, if I have a dose of imposter syndrome (many of us do), being passed over for promotion is going to hit the “I’m qualified, I deserve it” button, and will also hit the “I’m not good enough” button that lurks beneath the first one. This double-whammy is tough to over come in the moment.
So when I know that I have some imposter syndrome reactions, I can recognize those when they come up and choose a different reaction. The key here is to avoid getting surprised by your reaction.
Lean Into Curiosity
Leaning into curiosity is simple, although simple doesn’t mean easy.
Ask a Question
Feel your pulse speed up, or feel your teeth clench? Ask a question.
E. Greaves, C., Zacher, H., McKenna, B. and Rooney, D. (2014), "Wisdom and narcissism as predictors of transformational leadership", Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Vol. 35 No. 4, pp. 335-358. https://doi.org/10.1108/LODJ-07-2012-0092
Henriques, Gregg. (2018). What Is The Ego? The ego is the part of you that is engaged in self-justification. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/theory-knowledge/202105/what-is-the-ego
Humensky, J. L., Guerrero, C. D., Park, H. L., & Loewenstein, G. (2010). Brief report: physician narcissism, ego threats, and confidence in the face of uncertainty. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 40(4), 947-955. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1559-1816.2010.00605.x