I’ve noticed the observer effect has a large influence on my life. My favorite phrase as a strong-willed toddler was “don’t watch me.” There have been times in my life when I’ve focused more on how others see me than on just being myself; this tends to result in social anxiety and/or me making more mistakes. I also am strongly influenced by the vibrations in my environment and readily take on others’ emotions, even through media. These are just a few of many signs of a highly sensitive person (HSP).
Humans absorb the energy of their environments. Ego emerges in infancy, with mental self-representations evolving through experience with attachment figures, and later with peers, friends, and significant others. We learn who we are by seeing our own reflection in others, how others perceive us. We have as many social selves as we have significant relationships, and how people treat us influences our self-concept. Experiences with betrayal or abandonment can trick us into thinking we’re unworthy (see how to reprogram your subconscious).
The ego has been developing for many years. Ego is a person’s self-esteem, self-importance, self-respect, self-image. It’s your beliefs about yourself, your abilities, your dynamic in social settings. It’s what divides us from others. The ego isn’t concerned with moving us up in life; it’s committed to immediate self-preservation, keeping us comfortable, and maintaining our status quo. The ego wants to stay safely confined within the reality it’s created for itself, and it keeps itself intact through repeated patterns of behavior. Egocentric people tend to be stuck in identity diffusion or identity foreclosure.
Identity achievement: worked through the questioning/crisis and made decisions about who you are
Identity diffusion: acceptance of the lack of a fully-formed, strong identity (common in youth)
Identity moratorium: continuing to experiment through trial and error without gaining any clarity
Identity foreclosure: selling your soul for external validation e.g. family approval, income, prestige, respect
Oftentimes, we’re either our own harshest critic or have an over-inflated sense of importance. Even if we tell ourselves we don’t care what others think, negative comments can still cut deep. Someone else’s unresolved ego conflicts can cause our own ego to get louder. We can learn to listen to the inner voice that naturally seeks truth, rather than the competing voices of cognitive dissonance, e.g. I’m not smart enough, beautiful enough, I don’t deserve this, I have no power, the universe owes me something, my life is meaningless, etc. A fragile ego leads to more distress, neuroticism, fear, comparison, reactivity, and a fixed mindset.
Ego helps us survive, but it doesn’t help us thrive in life, career, and love. (Survival is a big motivator, though.) Ego conflicts can cause social anxiety, inhibition, relationship problems, or learned helplessness. In relationships, ego shows itself in the form of insecure attachment, power dynamics, defensiveness, projection, or mistrust. Persistent identification with and dependence on the ego holds us back from living our best life.
Freeing yourself from ego takes willpower and courage. You can acknowledge when others are projecting their dissatisfaction or fear onto you and let it bounce off you instead of taking it on. At the same time, we’re not immune to our environments—we need to guard our energy and cut away toxic ties. People can be reasoned with, but first we must be able to reason with ourselves, take criticism constructively instead of personally, and strive for self-improvement.
Your best self is connected to source energy—the fabric of the universe which gave rise to us. The essence of “self” is cosmic, unlike ego, and it sees no boundary between itself and the rest of the universe. It gets validation from within (intuition, purpose, self-love), is proactive, and is dedicated to creating a reality based on limitless potential for growth. As a result, it’s calmer, less neurotic, and more comfortable with itself. The soul is awake to how truly powerful it is and to how vibrant and massively abundant the universe is. Enlightenment is an awakening of consciousness, the realization that the cosmos are interwoven into every single one of us. We are made of the same “stuff” and are far more similar than the ego likes to acknowledge.
Animation by Anthony Schepperd
You deserve to be unconstrained by your ego, the most authentic version of yourself. Once I realized I had everything within me that I needed to be happy, I started leveraging my own power to create my own destiny. I started pursuing my lifelong passions and picking up new hobbies unrelentingly. I gained back control of my time. I stopped settling for relationships that held me back. I started not just setting but actively pursuing goals that would get me closer to where I want to be.
Ego takes residence in our minds in childhood and adolescence; by adulthood, we hold onto its remnants but can learn to listen to our inner wisdom because it knows what we actually want and need to be happy. Many people don’t achieve this discovery while they’re young or even in a lifetime. They get caught up in the bustle and countless distractions that abound our external reality—news, social media, temporary comfort—things that distort reality and make it seem either more calamitous or perfect than it really is. The natural self seeks simpler things, like enjoying the present moment, exploring the natural world, moving around, spending time with loved ones, and nourishing itself so it can do its best work.
Complete and permanent ego dissolution is impractical—the ego does importantly protect us. Pursuing your soul purpose may lead others to label you as irresponsible, selfish, or insane, because authentic happiness can be upsetting for people who have spent their lives in their comfort zone. People will always judge. Remember when you get negative comments what’s really at stake: a life-well lived. You have everything to gain by being your truest self.
How to practice mastery over ego:
Practice authenticity. Allow yourself to feel; connect with yourself and listen to your intuition.
Surrender your need for control and practice letting go. We are not our minds, jobs, material possessions, or achievements. Forgive yourself for the past, learn, and move on.
Don't "should" yourself in the foot. Give yourself a break. Perform self-love rituals and do what calls you. Enjoy silent moments with yourself. Let yourself enjoy things.
Gratitude: Take a minute to write down all the people, experiences, lessons, and mistakes you are thankful for.
What about ego conflicts with others?
An ego conflict is an emotionally charged situation between people in which one person giving in would affect their self-esteem, so both are hell-bent on “winning” the argument. They usually start when one person feels invalidated, disrespected, or less important, e.g. your partner is always picking activities, movies, songs, or food. Some tips for addressing and deescalating these conflicts:
Framing is key. Focus on the conflict itself, framing it as "us vs. the problem" rather than a me vs. them mentality. Confront the underlying issue as soon as it possible, as it arises and try to get to a resolution.
Use "I" statements: "When you [action], I feel [response]" instead of saying "you make me this" or "you're so that." Focus on the action, not the person's character.
Avoid superlatives. Don't "always" or "never" someone.
Get the facts on what another is feeling or thinking without making assumptions. Find common ground and decide on what areas you agree on.
Practice selflessness and moral relativism. Seek to understand others’ perspectives without judging/evaluating them on a personal level.
Take constructive criticism and discard the destructive aspects. The person was probably well-intentioned, while the execution was poor. Forgiving without forgetting helps build accountability in the future.