Beware of The Ego Trap: How to harness a healthy ego and sense of self by Steven D’Souza and Khuyen Bui
By Guest Contributor Steven D’Souza and Khuyen Bui
We look at the book Not Being, by Steven D’Souza and Khuyen Bui, where they explain how the ego can get in the way and how to avoid falling in the ego trap.
“When we are stuck in ego, we never stop to contemplate and to ask ourselves if we really have seen and noticed all that there is to see in our field of vision. Our ego can act as blinkers on a horse. this is particularly true when we look at how we see other people. Have we really seen the people around us as they truly are?” – Simon Robinson & Maria Moraes Robinson, Holonomics
In 1961, the world witnessed the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi responsible for the logistics of the Holocaust, whereby millions of Jews were removed from their homes and trans- ported to ghettos and extermination camps. In her 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt, who reported on the trial for The New Yorker, introduced the phrase “the banality of evil.” While the Israeli prosecutors insisted on describing Eichmann as “a monster,” what Arendt found before her was an ordinary bureaucrat who was “neither perverted nor sadistic” but “terrifyingly normal.” She described him as a thoughtless person, motivated only to please his superiors.
What he said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.
While this is an extreme example of separation of the self from other people, it remains highly relevant today, especially with the global rise of right-wing populism. Arendt’s description of Eichmann’s character traits finds eerie echoes in several contemporary political leaders. It is little surprise, then, that there was a huge upsurge of interest in Arendt’s book on the trial and her 1951 publication, The Origins of Totalitarianism, in the wake of the 2016 US presidential election.
Arendt identified major social problems and dysfunctions that resonate with our notion of the separate self. These included rootlessness, loneliness and homelessness, in the sense of lacking a place or community where people felt that they belonged. With economic uncertainty and widespread unemployment, these conditions gave rise to totalitarianism, with populist leaders exploiting people’s sense of disconnection, often uniting them around a simple message founded upon fear of otherness. By mobilizing people en masse through a singular ideology, the populists constructed political systems that granted the state absolute power, separating the believers from the non-believers and establishing deep societal divisions. It is a pattern that we see repeating itself with Brexit in the United Kingdom and the two US election cycles of 2016 and 2020, as well as in recent protest demonstrations and their often-violent policing in Hong Kong, Poland, Brazil, Thailand, Belarus and Nigeria.
The ‘othering’ of people who are unlike us is hardly a new phenomenon. As journalist Ryszard Kapuściński notes in The Other, “Conquer, colonise, master, make dependent — this reaction to Others recurs constantly throughout the history of the world.” It is a position often adopted to justify monstrous acts of government supposedly carried out on behalf of the people who have given political leaders a mandate to exercise power. But the polarizing effects, the divisiveness, the associated rhetoric, then tend to permeate society and culture, poisoning public discourse, visible in parliament, public fora, the boardroom, even at the family dinner table. The question remains as pertinent as ever: what causes populism and division? From our perspective, this returns us to matters relating to identity, to the sense of self, to how the experience of either inflated ego or deflated ego can result in perceived separation from the people and world around us.
In Fear Less, sports psychologist and psychotherapist Pippa Grange argues that behind all of our struggles to achieve our best, there is a deep fear of not being good enough, of being found out, of being rejected and abandoned. This is underpinned by the belief that we are separate from others and disconnected. Having worked with many elite athletes and business executives, Granger has discovered that, to overcome this fear, we devise compensatory behaviors that we believe will keep us safe, including hiding from others information that would reveal who we really are. She cites the example of a sportsman who withheld the fact that he was gay from both family and teammates, at immense personal emotional cost. When he did finally reveal this aspect of his identity, he was surprised to find himself accepted, to learn that it was his own fears that had separated him from others, prompting him to lead a double life for so long.
One of the symptoms of separation is the constant need to compare and base our sense of self-worth on others. The foundations for this tendency are laid in childhood, where we repeatedly find ourselves in competitive environments, in the classroom and on the sports field, with rewards granted to high achievers, and the desire to stand out fomented by both parents and teachers. It is a situation poignantly highlighted in the 1999 film American Beauty, when Angela (Mena Suvari) exclaims, “I don’t think that there’s anything worse than being ordinary.” Such a mindset encourages constant status anxiety, with our own sense of identity warped by how we compare ourselves to others and by how we believe we are perceived by others. Indeed, as the organizational psychologist Adam Grant observed in a tweet posted in October 2020:
The root of insecurity is craving the approval of others. It gives them the power to inflate or deflate our self-esteem. A stable sense of self-worth stems from putting identity above image: worrying less about what others think of us than what we think of ourselves.
Narcissism is one means by which an inflated ego is made visible. It can involve an individual always putting themselves ahead of others, belittling other people, or imposing their will on them, denying them any possibility of two-way communication. The narcissist is convinced of their own stance, always believing that they are right and that anyone who holds a contrary view is wrong. They show a reluctance to change their opinion, to view things from another’s perspective, or to receive feedback from other people. They demand constant attention, showing off in ways both subtle and overt.
The workplace narcissist is in thrall to the frantic drive for high performance, seeking recognition and even taking credit for the work of others. In fact, in The Psychopath Test, journalist Jon Ronson identifies the extreme of narcissism as sociopathy; that is, as a total lack of empathy for other people. Ronson’s research suggests that CEOs are four times more likely to be sociopaths than the population in general, which speaks volumes about the unfortunate effects of a culture that values exceptionalism, competition, celebrity and quantified wealth over collectivism and collaboration. This is how someone like Donald Trump can end up as the temporary occupant of the White House.
THE FEAR OF INSIGNIFICANCE
In The Fear of Insignificance, psychologist and philosopher Carlo Strenger highlights the modern-day tendency to glorify celebrity. We are fascinated, he argues, by the re-enactment of the mythic transformation of ordinary people to demi-god status, through either their victory on reality-television shows like the X-Factor, American Idol and The Apprentice, or their popularity on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube. Strenger cautions against this pursuit of ‘significance,’ arguing that striving after the extraordinary may lead to denigration of the ordinary, damaging our self-esteem. Professions such as teaching, nursing and accounting are intrinsically valuable, as often becomes evident during times of crises. However, they can be perceived as mundane in comparison with the sudden media celebrity of the participants on Big Brother, whose stars shine briefly and brightly, suddenly famous for being famous, but are then soon forgotten.
Steven: In 2011, I was invited to give my first TEDx Talk in Romania. I followed onto the stage a man who had parachuted down a mountain and ridden a horse with a broken hand to win a race. There were many other incredible speakers like him in the lineup. The theme of my talk, though, was ‘In Praise of the Ordinary,’ and I began by polling members of the audience to learn whether they considered the other speakers they had heard more extraordinary than themselves. Nearly every hand went up when I posed the question, a response that struck me as both positive and potentially damaging. It was an example of ‘the denigration of the ordinary.’
Several years ago, I directed a leadership program for a charity that worked with young people. I heard the persistent complaint that there was a lack of positive role models for people from Black and minority ethnic communities. Yet, I knew many inspirational people from these communities. It was just that their stories had not been widely told, that they were not considered famous.
When I gave a talk to children who had been excluded from mainstream education, I asked whom they most admired. The responses were mostly the names of well-known rappers like Snoop Dogg and Tupac. When I then enquired who had had the biggest impact on their lives, their answer shifted to the people closest to them, such as family members and friends. This, too, illuminated the chasm between the allure of the extraordinary and the reality of what truly influences and inspires us. The real ‘heroes’ are closer to home than we think.
I decided to tell the stories of the inspirational people I had met from diverse cultural communities, including a comedienne, a hatmaker, an architect, a baroness, the CEO of a beer company, the parents of a child with leukemia, the owner of a delivery company and a health service manager. I was drawn to many of these people for their ordinariness, even those of them who had achieved significant career or creative accomplishments. There was something in the way they showed up that I could relate to, a degree of egalitarianism that appealed to me, especially how they revealed themselves more fully, ‘warts and all.’
What I gradually realized, though, was that I found it much easier to share the stories and success of others than to talk about myself. In effect, I had made myself disappear because I did not believe that I had achieved anything extraordinary, that I did not have anything to say of value. I, too, had been blinkered by the culture of exceptionalism. Acknowledging this has enabled me to be more deliberate in honoring what is important and close to me in my life, recognizing that there is much that is special and remarkable in the apparently ‘ordinary.’
When comparing ourselves with other people, in what subtle ways do we diminish ourselves? What is your story? Do you tell it and honor it? Who has had the greatest impact on your life? The celebrities, or the ordinary heroes that many other people may never have heard of? While the need for differentiation is universal, it carries the danger that we end up hiding behind our accomplishments, encouraging others to relate to us either through what we have already achieved, or what we say we are going to do, or the selected highlights we choose to share on social media. Such grandiosity is usually a form of performance, a cloak for mediocrity and self-hatred. We obscure who we really are. In most cases, that is a perfectly imperfect, complex human being, who is worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their foibles. Each of us is a biological miracle of inherent value, and to be ourselves we do not need to imitate the accomplishments of celebrities, nor become devotees of self-help literature, nor cult-like disciples of the latest business leader to tell all in a ghostwritten hagiography.
“You’re one in a million,” announced some graffiti Steven saw in Germany. “Just like everyone else,” it concluded, getting to the heart of the matter. We are individuals who are part of a collective. As the network analyst Valdis Krebs puts it, we connect on our similarities but benefit from our differences. We are simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary, navigating the spectrum between the extremes and the excesses of the self-inflated narcissist, superhero and celebrity, through the pride-infected manipulations of the humble bragger, to the self-deflation of the follower and victim. If the former weave a fiction of their successes to bedazzle others, presenting themselves as modern-day superheroes, then the latter betray their fear of taking responsibility for their own lives and actions. Eichmann exemplified this trait when he stated at his trial:
I sensed I would have to live a leaderless and difficult individual life, I would receive no directives from anybody, no orders and commands would any longer be issued to me, no pertinent ordinances would be there to consult — in brief, a life never known before lay ahead of me.
HOW MANY OF US DO NOT OCCASIONALLY WISH THAT LIFE COULD BE SIMPLER?
That someone could tell us what to do? That they would show us how to live, tell us who we are? Those with a deflated ego want answers rather than questions. They believe themselves to be wronged, persecuted, disadvantaged, powerless. They are too ready to blame others or their circumstances for their misfortune, yet they remain unwilling to acknowledge the consequences of their own actions.
The research of Michael Hogg on uncertainty and Gianpiero Petriglieri on organizational behavior highlights how we often look to our leaders and ‘heroes’ for clarity and certainty, for answers that will help us understand who we are, where we belong, what we believe, even more so in times of heightened uncertainty. Unfortunately, however, our eagerness for answers can have an adverse effect. We become too easily led, susceptible to untruths, blinkered by ideological constraint.
Where the inflated ego feels entitled to exercise control, to be at the center of everything, and to command love and respect, the deflated ego insists on its own helplessness, while still demanding special treatment and attention. In his study of adulthood, the psychologist David Richo refers to these two interconnected aspects of the dysfunctional ego as the “King Baby.” In elaborating his ideas in Human Becoming, Richo argues that “the ego was never meant to be annihilated, only dismantled and rebuilt to make it more constructive.” A healthy ego, a more developed sense of self, is essential to navigate these uncertain times.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s actions in March 2019, following an attack on a mosque and the Muslim community in Christchurch, epitomize Richo’s thesis. In a Guardian article, journalist Nesrine Malik reflects on how Ardern’s non-divisive response was comforting because of its humanity, sincerity and lack of self-consciousness. Ardern visited and engaged with the affected community, demonstrating both compassion and respect, wearing the hijab and refusing to utter the culprit by name. Her government was also quick to act, implementing new gun legislation. Ardern’s ease and human warmth when interacting with the Muslim community contrasted sharply with the anti-Islamic sentiment and xenophobia that has been so prevalent in Western public discourse so far this century. The leadership she role modeled demonstrates what a healthy ego sense of self can accomplish.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
STEVEN D’SOUZA is an executive educator, coach, and keynote speaker. He has authored or co-authored five books: Made in Britain, Brilliant Networking, Not Knowing, Not Doing and Not Being. Steven has been recognized by Thinkers50 on its RADAR list and was included in HR Magazine’s ‘Most Influential’ list. His work has been featured in national and international media, including Harvard Business Review, the BBC, The Independent, The Guardian, and The Sunday Times.
KHUYEN BUI is an author, speaker and sought-after facilitator who guides individuals and organizations to uncover the goodness that is already here. Graduated cum laude from Tufts University, where he studied Computer Science and Philosophy, he thrives on bringing analytical rigor into his inquiries of human messiness. Khuyen enjoys writing and storytelling and has won several awards, notably the Peter Drucker Challenge Essay Award and The Moth Boston StorySLAM Award. He can be contacted at www.khuyenbui.com.
For too long, we have bought into the myth of separation; the story that we each win or lose through the relentless purist of self-improvement, achieving personal and organizational goals and increasing consumerism. This has led us to being more lonely, exhausted, and disconnected than ever, with a devastating impact on our personal lives, families, communities, organizations, and the planet.
Not Being invites us to be curious about a different way of life, where we are interconnected, interdependent with each other and our environment; no longer fragmented but whole. It invites us to transition from a selfie culture to a selfless one that is radically inclusive of the other. We need to relinquish narrow ideas about who we are, to discover and embrace a wider identity. We are part of something much bigger than any of us.
So many people today are struggling with the increasing pace of change and the constant and excessive busyness that comes with it. Many feel stretched, overwhelmed and exhausted, besieged by the demands of complex projects and workplaces. They are engaged in a kind of “doing” that is more effort and struggle, rather than a “doing” that comes from a place of presence, openness and aliveness. This is not only ineffective and unsustainable, but ultimately ends in stress, anxiety and burnout.
This book, by the authors of the award-winning Not Knowing (Best Management Book of the Year), explores the limits and dangers of “doing”; how do they play out in our lives and workplaces; what is driving, or contributing, to our excessive activity; and what would a different kind of “doing” look like, that is less about control and struggle and more about well-being, harmony and creativity.
Knowledge and expertise are highly valued in today’s business world. These values are introduced at an early age by our education system, and at work, we are assessed based on what we know, on having the answers and solutions. Our need for certainty, to know what’s going on, to have all the answers, exerts strong pressure in our lives. This award-winning book offers an alternative, contrarian approach to dealing with such pressures – and to embrace “not knowing” rather than fearing it. The authors argue it is by “not knowing” that we in fact develop an exploratory mindset, and we discover, engage and create new ways to deal with business and management problems and issues. The book is supported by stories of individuals and the positive change they made in their lives through “not knowing”. Solving new problems with old ways of thinking are no longer useful in the new world.