For a long time, the two words I have chosen for the title of this piece were synonymous – they meant the same thing, to me at least. I generally used them interchangeably, but used one, pride, in a more positive sense, as in to take pride in your work. As you might assume, ego took on the negative meaning, such as “Look at the ego on that guy!” And it is true, in part – in the dictionary, they are given in part as synonyms.
1. A feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements, the achievements of one’s close associates, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired.“the faces of the children’s parents glowed with pride”synonyms: pleasure, joy, delight, gratification, fulfilment, satisfaction, sense of achievement
2. Consciousness of one’s own dignity.“he swallowed his pride and asked for help”synonyms: self-esteem, dignity, honour, self-respect, ego, self-worth, self-image, self-identity, self-regard, pride in oneself, pride in one’s abilities, belief in one’s worth, faith in oneself; amour propre; “the triumphs of war were a source of pride to them”
A person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance.“he needed a boost to his ego”synonyms: self-esteem, self-importance, self-worth, self-respect, self-conceit, self-image, self-confidence; amour propre; “he needed a boost to his ego”
The interesting thing of note in this is that both definitions are notably neutral. In defining pride, they split it into two sections, with the first point recognising the positive connotations of pride (in your own achievements or those of others) and the second point giving a haunting reminder as to why it is deemed one of the seven deadly sins.
Similarly, the definition of ego touches upon both positive and negative terms. When you think of self-esteem, for example, you think of all the conditions and environmental circumstances that render someone to have low self-esteem. You then try and think of how you can improve this person’s self-confidence, another positively-leaning synonym. Whereas self-conceit and self-image hold more negative connotations, of vain and narcissistic individuals preening in front of a mirror until the end of time.
The Dangers of Ego
The line between a meek and timid nature, humility, confidence and cockiness/arrogance/being egotistical can be considered as a continuum. To come from a place of both humility and confidence is a constant dance on a knife-edge, but there is no respite, as to fall into either pit is to lose oneself entirely.
To lead is to be humble. If you are not humble, you cannot learn from the experience of those you lead, you cannot take criticism, you are vain, narcissistic, conceited, grandiose, pompous, arrogant and impossible to be around. Your vanity will grate on people, enrage them and drive them away from you more rapidly than anything you can imagine. People can instantly recognise when an individual is vain, and unless they are vain themselves (and therefore can preen each other like basking chimpanzees), then they will internally dislike the person a little bit more than they would otherwise.
Ego can drive a wedge between you and your friends, your colleagues and your loved ones. It can make you think you are above the laws of Being, the tram lines that we are all constrained by in our paths through life. Ego may even lead you to think that you make the rules. This is a deep and dark pit to fall into. But there is light in ego, too.
Why, then, do we need ego?
Because ego is ambition. Without it, there would be no drive, no ambition. People would have no reason to create, to build, to design, to strive, to think, to pursue and to grow. They do that to satisfy their internal sense of self, that nagging feeling in their gut and behind their eyes that wherever they are right now is not where they’re supposed to stay. That there is more to the individual than they are currently showing the world.
Not only is pride the fuel for ambition, it is also the building blocks of confidence. We need to know that the work we do is good, that our actions have consequence and that those consequences are of benefit to the world. It is this competence that gives us confidence. And competence is the ability to do things well. We need to know that there are things that we do well, else we would sink into the ground and beg for the Earth beneath us to eat us up. We would want to hide from the world and the people around us, for we would feel that we have nothing to offer to either of them.
Treat the ego like a see-saw. On one side is your arrogant, brash and confident self, trying to drag you towards being absorbed by your pride and your ego, causing the metaphorical balloon to grow so swollen that it is at risk of bursting, showering scraps of rubber over all who stand around it. The other side is your inner introvert, the shy persona that wants to hide away from the world, putting neither yourself nor your accomplishments out there and erring on the side of invisibility.
You need to resist the pull of either direction and stand as close to the pivot point as you are able to. Walk the line.