The Braggart, the Victim, the Innocent
It is not difficult to spot someone with a big ego. Aside from the fact that they are often hiding their insecurities, they tend to let you know, up front, that they are authorities about everything—-kids, relationships, mortgages, the best deals, doctors, schools, books, current events, relatives, religion, social media, even sex.
As an adult, however, I found that egotists come in many, many shades. Or they express their egos in different ways.
The more obvious ones are the braggarts, the boasters, and the fact-driven characters who love to soliloquize. Or they love being in the spotlight of a conversation.
Egotists have been known to internalize the death of someone they love as a personal loss to themselves, exclusively. A mother, a child, or a wife or husband dies, and the ego-dominant person grieves about how they are cruelly victimized by their deaths, how that person was snatched out of their lives, or how they were cheated by the vacuums in their lives. Someone else’s death is always about them.
Or still another variation—a friend gets an award or a promotion, and the egotist starts gathering resentments. This egotist has a hard time accepting the reality that someone else just may be more qualified, more talented, more intelligent, or more worthy.
Another kind of egotist is one who chooses to live inside a bubble of innocence or perfection. This type of egotist often claims to be above the fray of mere mortals. Extreme innocence, in this case, can become a kind of moral superiority.
We’ve all observed this type—the person who thinks anybody else’s passion is out of control, that drunks suffer from a moral weakness, that anyone in debt is irresponsible, that a pregnant teenager is reckless, that an overly emotional response to loss shows a lack of character.
Dressing Up the Ego and Playing it Safe
And then there is the ego-driven personality who is overly self-conscious about their appearance. If a hair is out of place, a shoe smudged, or a pant leg has a double crease, the fastidious have been known to run to the bathroom or to make a fast get-a-way to change. And it is not unusual for those preoccupied with their looks to be addicted to wearing only clothes with a fashion label.
Obsessing about looking good, however, falls into the trap of believing that one can just exteriorize oneself into being accepted or admired with all kinds of accessories—clothes, a face-lift, a tummy-tuck, eye-shadow, a fashionable hair style, an Armani suit.
“Dressing-up-the-ego,” I call it. It has been known to have many other variations: a high-paying job, an expensive car, a fashionable neighborhood, a “trophy” partner, a successful adult child.
Another overly self-conscious ego type can steer a path right down the middle on any issue in order to avoid being criticized or to give any appearance of being out of control, or even wrong. This ego type is also afraid to take a leap into the unknown because they would have to surrender to too many ambiguities. It is also very easy for this type of person to morph into the wise, moderate facilitator, not because they are, but because the appearance of wisdom is far safer than being real.
To be honest, here, I have played out all these forms of unhealthy egos. And I know I have lots more.
The Ego and Time, Recalcitrance, Guilt
I know, for example, that I can get into my time-bound ego. I procrastinate, and then I rush to get work done. I wait to fill out a form, and then I get angry when a phone call interrupts me. I let an article slide, and then I start resenting someone asking me to go for coffee or to take them to a doctor’s appointment.
And then there’s the I’ve-made-up-my-mind ego. “I’m going to Montreal” (whether I can afford it or not). “I need a trip to New York City” (even though I’m a couple of months behind on a doctor’s bill). “I’m going out for dinner” (after I’m late with a credit-card bill). “I need to lease a new car” (when my car only has 85,000 miles on it and is paid for).
On the flip side is my self-lacerating ego. There are days when I overly self-monitor my behavior. When I accidentally offend someone, for example, I can hold on to that guilt for days. Even though I’m getting better at instant apologies, sometimes I don’t realize I may have hurt someone’s feelings or been condescending to them until well after the fact.
Holding on to that guilt, I have discovered, is just another game of self-centeredness. I’m still in the spotlight, but I’m on a cross of my own guilt. And then I begin to fell less-than. I torture myself into feeling worthless. I can’t let go of the “bad John.”
So, what do I do with what some might call the psychological state of the ego. I know that if my ego is dominant, there is little room for someone else. I know that when my ego is in control, I don’t have much capacity for compassion. And I definitely know that when my ego is large, I am not a good listener.
The Healthy Ego
I also know that there is such a thing has a “healthy” ego. It is an ego that truly knows itself. It is secure. It is open. It is vulnerable. It is confident, without being over-bearing. It listens. It pulls back when it has to. It can be thoughtful and compassionate in a crisis. It can like itself, without being self-centered.
A healthy ego can also set boundaries. It can tell a friend, “this is my budget; this is all I can lend you.” It can tell a child, “no, Eric, this is mommy and daddy’s time to talk.” It can lovingly say to an adult child, “Mary, I think it’s time for you to be on your own.”
On my journey, I have discovered much about my own ego. I have inhabited or have been inhabited by all the forms of unhealthy egos. But I have also learned through experience, practice, and support what it is to have a healthy ego.
In my golden years, it has come to me that, in the end, it is never too late to learn.