Will big egos be the death of us? Thousands of Big Egos patrol the boardrooms of corporations and the halls of Congress, guarding against infiltrators called Reason and Sanity. Sometimes one’s ego is so big it “takes possession” of the individual and creates the psychopathic character type. We’re in big trouble when these people, who often possess charming personalities, rise to positions of power.
Carl Jung once said the egocentric mind “inevitably dooms itself to calamities that must strike it dead.” Hopefully, this egotism will collapse before too much more damage is done to our planet and our progress.
Spiritual teacher and best-selling author Eckhart Tolle says the human ego is the primary cause of human dysfunction. “Unhappiness,” he writes, “is an ego-created mental-emotional disease that has reached epidemic proportions.” While I agree with much of what Tolle writes, I disagree with his contention that our ego is the main cause of our dysfunction.
I believe our ego is a symptom of a deeper issue that we need to address. The ego is a mental-emotional adaptation to our deep, repressed personal sense of having no value and being insignificant in the world. The greater our repressed sense of being hollow at the core or of being inferior, the more egotistical and narcissistic we can become in compensation.
We’re haunted by more than just an emptiness or hollowness inside. There’s an apprehension of being worthless in the negative sense. The idea from religion that we are sinners in need of salvation arises from this deep impression. This sense of unworthiness is an emotional construct, a lingering pain from the past, not the truth about our existence. The problem is complicated by the fact that, unconsciously, we can identify with this pain. We don’t know who we are or who we can become without the burden of that old, familiar disdain and sense of inferiority.
Tolle recognizes, in one sense, this deeper aspect. He writes in A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose (Plume, New York. 2006): “The underlying emotion that governs all the activity of the ego is fear: The fear of being nobody, the fear of nonexistence, the fear of death.” I see it differently, and the distinction is important. It is more precise to say, “The underlying factor that governs much of the activity of the ego is our emotional attachment to (or identification with) the repressed sense of being nobody. Fear arises as a defense to cover up our unconscious determination to hold on to that painful identification.”
This is a challenging concept, but there is much evidence for it. People resist inner growth and fiercely hold on to painful identifications rather than move toward higher consciousness. It often takes revolutions to force people to break free from their identifications with feelings of inferiority. A century ago in America, men held on to the identification that they were superior to women who were not allowed to vote. The feeling men had of superiority was a cover-up for their identification with women, meaning that, through women, they could slip into the familiar old feeling of what it was like to be seen as inferior.
The same process was acted out in the Civil Rights struggle. White racists fiercely held on to their unconscious identification with feelings of inferiority, which they covered up psychologically by projecting their unconscious inferiority complex on to blacks. Gays have also been subjected to this unconscious behavior, in the form of decrees proclaiming the inferiority of their sexual orientation.
Now we’re in another struggle, highlighted by the Occupy Wall Street movement. The movement’s true goal may be the eradication of blatant class distinction. However, we won’t win the battle of class warfare until the 99 percent shake off the psychological burden of believing ourselves to be somehow inferior to the elite. It happens all the time that Americans pander and kowtow to the elite. Our politicians do it. Real-estate agents do it. Retail clerks do it. Clubhouse attendants do it. We all do it. We allegedly do it for the money, for the trickle-down divvy of the wealth. However, we’re really pandering to them because, failing to see our unresolved attachment to feeling inferior, we relate to them through that inner weakness.
Many if not most of the one percent, meanwhile, would be overwhelmed with feelings of inferiority should they suddenly lose their wealth. They scramble among themselves for tributes and accolades, their egos exulting in their advantage over the 99 percent and fiercely resisting the spiritual call to share our common humanity. They can become as stupid as the slave-holders of yesteryear, as blind to the truth that their prized property and ego are substitutes for soul.
Yet we all hate to see ourselves objectively. All of us, rich and poor, will gladly go on being egotistical to avoid acknowledging our emotional entanglement in feeling unworthy and insignificant.
Our belittling inner critic also fosters this negative feeling, as does the self-doubt of our inner passivity. Compulsively, we chase after validation, driven by that self-validation mechanism (our ego) we have unwittingly created.
We break the spell our ego holds over us when we make conscious our emotional attachment to that negative core impression of being nobodies. As we see deeper into reality, we feel our goodness more fully. Our ego, which separates us from knowing the goodness in ourselves and others, now dissipates.