By Rob Alvarez
Our ego exists to help us protect our status in a social group. This was very valuable and necessary in the early days of human existence when our status in the tribe determined our survival. We could not survive on our own and there were no other tribes we could easily join. So our ego evolved from our lizard brain, or amygdala, as an early tool driving us to do what is required to maintain our position in the pack.
Even now, status still plays a major role in our society. Although, it no longer means literal life or death, our lizard brains can still interpret it as such. When we sense our self status threatened, we react to protect it. Unfortunately, this often backfires and only hurts our relationships and undermines our well-being – yet another example of fear getting in the way of happiness.
One example is our strong desire to always be right. Ever find yourself in an argument where you slowly realize you are wrong? Usually, you will also start to feel something clawing at you in the back of your head, like a cat trying to get out of a chalkboard cage. That cat is your ego conscripting you to fight on. The battle is not lost. Find a way to turn the tables – get the upper hand. WIN this argument. And you do. And you celebrate!
The problem is, even though you think you’ve won the debate, you actually lost a bit of your status with that person – your spouse, family member, or friend. Each time you do this you chisel away at one of the pillars of that relationship, which is empathy. Eventually that pillar will break.
This is something I’ve recently realized I need to overcome if I want to maintain healthy relationships. It is not easy. When your spouse asks why do you always have to be right, you know your ego has a bit too much control over you. I’m still a work in progress.
Another way our ego subverts our happiness is when it influences the choices we make – whether or not to take part in something, associate with certain people, even purchase certain things.
If you’ve ever said, “I can’t do that. What would people think?” and missed out on something good, that’s your ego thwarting your fun.
If you’ve ever avoided people who you thought were not in the “right status”, you listened to your ego.
If you’ve ever bought anything for yourself, because it represented a certain status symbol, you did it because of your ego.
These actions only lead to a hollow feeling in the end, because you’ve maintained or raised your status to people who do not mean anything to you. The important people in your life do not care what you do or how well you do something. They do not care who you spend time with. And they do not care whether you wear a Rolex™ or a Seiko™. They care about how you are doing and how well you treat other people.
Marketers take advantage of our status-seeking egos and play to it in how they advertise products for us to buy, using celebrities with high social stations to promote some luxury product or another.
If you’ve chosen one career over another for its prestige, even though you know the other would make you happier, that’s your ego winning over your heart.
One of the most damaging ways your ego can lead you to the wrong choice is when you need help, especially when you are facing a health crisis. At times of greatest need we tend to fight the hardest to do it on our own and not ask for support. Why is that? It’s likely due to our fear of losing status. We do not want people to see our vulnerability. And being the one requesting aid automatically places us at a lower status in that relationship. Social positions aside, these are the situations where we can build the strongest connections with our friends and family. Being vulnerable opens us up to forming closer relationships. Also, we have to realize that allowing others to help is an act of generosity. People want to help, especially those close to you. Helping others actually improves a person’s sense of well-being.
And let’s face it, we cannot face our most challenging obstacles or demons alone.
Being aware of the influence our ego has on our decisions and behavior, and status has in our society, will greatly aid in how we navigate through this journey called life – with all its windy roads, ups and downs, and obstacles big and small. Sensing when our egos are starting to lead us astray can help us make better choices. It is not easy. Our ego has evolved with us to provide us with a survival tool. It is built-in and ingrained deep in our brains, but knowing it’s there gives us a fighting chance. This is an internal battle worth engaging, so we make the choices that will make us happier in the long run.
Rob is editor-in-chief of WeRunWithYou. He is also an operations manager at the Chemours Company, and coaches the Newark Charter middle school track and field team. His current interests include exploring leadership, organizational development, and personal well-being.