The much maligned ‘ego’ – common qualities of arrogant executives, religious zealots and suicidal terrorists

A few months ago, I was prompted to write a few words by way of introduction to the subject of Psychodynamics. In it, I explained the three different components of our model of the psyche which was proposed originally by Freud.

Broadly speaking, the three parts are:

  • The ID – which is responsible for the instinctual drives – hunger, sex and so on
  • The SUPEREGO – which tries to keep a cap on the ID, by means of critical thoughts and controlling behaviour
  • The EGO – which tries to make sense of all of this!

In another thread, earlier today, I was reading a very typical comment;
“Why would you want to do this? It’s only to satisfy your own EGO.”

It’s typical, because it reflects a popular misperception of the role of the ego in our lives. A healthy ego is actually very important to normal living. Someone who has a weak, poorly developed, and certainly ineffective ego is prone to either letting their instinctual drives get out of hand or excessively controlling these aspects of their psyche.

The unconstrained id might be spoken of in terms of unbridled lust, binge behaviours, and addictive lifestyles.

The over-zealous super-ego may depend on ritualised patterns of behaviour, and have great difficulty coping with the rich tapestry of human experience and beliefs – considering their own perspective to be the only true way. It is this latter conviction that leads to apparent arrogance and insensitivity.

The behaviour that is popularly associated with polishing the ego is actually that which we would associate with a poor superego and an over-active id. This individual has very limited self-confidence leading them to constantly seek positive reassurance from all kinds of sources.

The drive to feel good about oneself, which taken to extremes is narcissism, manifests itself as an over-interest in one’s own life and achievements, not usually to the detriment of others, but rather to their exclusion.

At a dinner party the other night, I merely asked two questions and they were enough for one individual with a strong narcissistic tendency to feel sufficiently licensed to fill the air for nearly two hours with his own successes. The more socially intelligent would have replied and then reflected back to the others in the group.

The narcissistic personality is receiving a lot of attention these days. It has always figured quite highly in studies of the ‘religious’, but it has lately featured predominantly in most psychological profiles of terrorists. There are three or four meta-types of terrorist recognised, but one in particular is quite common. Associated with the absence of effective parental care in the period 3-7yrs of age, the child lacks sufficient strength of belief in its own abilities and so is constantly looking for ways to bolster itself. While it appears to be quite independent and self-sufficient, it is actually constantly on the look-out for an institution with which to associate itself. Through that institution it seeks to prove itself and to make a mark, create a legacy, and find a higher purpose. Those seeking to groom such individuals are adept at recognizing the fragile super-ego and need for an identity, they prey on the apparent failure of previous institutions to deliver the higher purpose that the individual was expecting (often unrealistically), and substitute their own cause.

So, the next time you feel inclined to suggest that someone is doing something to polish their own ego, think twice. It is more likely that they are low in self-esteem, mildly narcissistic, would actually like someone to show them how to align themselves with a higher cause, and probably highly self-critical to boot.

Best wishes

Graham Wilson – 07785 222380
PS My Business Book of the Week is “Connected: The Amazing Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives” by Nicolas Christakis (05/12/10) – Helping leaders see situations, organisations, themselves and others, differently – Motivation and advice for senior executives exploring new opportunities – Supporting former staff now; building a network of advocates and recruits for the future

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