Don’t Check Your Ego At The Door

March 11, 2024

Yes, you read that right. A big ego is, in fact, the key to better work culture. It’s the not-so-secret ingredient to long-lasting, satisfying relationships of all sorts be they personal or professional.

You’ve probably heard it said before, check your ego at the door. Or you’ve heard people describe their narcissistic boss as having an enormous ego.

These colloquialisms, though well intended, have it backwards.

Before I explain why, let me start off by saying that the concept of the ego is a metaphor. And even the most helpful metaphors have their limits. You cannot dissect the human brain and isolate the physical matter called the ego. (This is what philosophers refer to as reification, which is the opposite of the verb “to abstract.” It’s taking an idea and mistaking it as having a tangible reality.) Nevertheless, the concept of the ego is a cultural and linguistic artifact that is not going away anytime soon. And for good reason! It is incredibly useful… when used correctly.

Without getting lost in too much detail, the ego is the part of yourself that mediates between the two unconscious domains of the id (in rough terms, unrestrained hedonism) and the super ego (think rigid idealism). Other scholars may have a slightly different interpretation, but for our purposes here this broad outline should suffice.

Unconscious drives are everywhere. Just think of all the biological systems that are working on autopilot inside of you right now. If we were not able to make use of the multiple autopilot functions our brains are capable of, we would be rather inefficient organisms. The ego is the part of ourselves that is consciously aware of what is most important at any given moment. It’s like a CEO who delegates day-to-day tasks to others so he or she can focus on critical items only.

Now imagine a stereotype of the narcissistic boss (or partner, spouse, employee, etc.).

Pop-psychology explanations of narcissism usually focus on the idea of a huge ego. Most psychologist agree, however, that narcissism is not the result of a big ego but of a weak ego. I’m going to bypass all the theories of what might cause this to happen and instead focus on helping you get the language right.

Narcissism does not equal a big ego. It is an ego that interprets the smallest hint of pushback as a personal identity threat. In response, the weak ego-ed narcissist goes into aggressive mode as a safety and survival mechanism… so the model tells us.

The cure, somewhat counterintuitively, is to build up the ego.

What we want is ego strength. This describes someone who not only tolerates criticism from others but welcomes and invites it.

Somebody with a strong ego can easily respond to criticism by saying, “I’m so glad you shared this with me. Thank you,” and truly mean it.

Ego strength is not the norm. Just like having an Olympian physique is not the norm. It must be worked for and developed over time.

Having a big ego, or perhaps more accurately- a strong ego, is a gift to others. It can transform the culture around you and help bring out the best in others and in yourself.

So please don’t check your ego at the door. Instead, look for new ways to flex it. The world needs what your ego has to offer.


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