We all have egos: every person on Earth has one and every mentally capable adult should have a healthy ego to match, but unfortunately this is not always so. On one extreme, there are people that have an huge lack of self-esteem and their internal conflict is so huge that they are unable to cope with life, and on the other end, there are the egomaniacs: these people are often responsible for many atrocities that make national/global headlines or at the very least, make life hell for those closest to them.
I will attempt to highlight some of the worst of the worst (you may or may not know these names), but before I do, I might as well address the elephant in the room.
What on earth is the ego, anyway?
We all are born with an ego, and a healthy, successful individual has a healthy ego to match, but throughout the course of our lives, they get tested with whatever challenges are thrown our way. With these challenges, we all go through an internal conflict and we all develop defensive mechanisms in order to cope with life; some of us exhibit such mechanisms which everyone can recognize, but others are very good at hiding their inner pain. The reason for the internal conflict because the ego is not one entity: rather, it comes down to three basic elements according to psychodynamic theory:
- The id
- The ego
- The superego.
The id (not to be confused with i.d, short for identity) represents our inner child and our primeval side. This part of us is responsible for working behind the scenes (unconsciously), ensuring that our basic animalistic needs are met, such as getting nutrition from food and drink and expelling our bodily wastes. This part of our mind is closely linked with our dopamine/endorphin centres of our brain: it simply wants pleasure, whether through the ingestion of food, the rush after exercise or through orgasm.
The ego is our reality centre of our brain: it is our problem-solver, our rational and our analytical side. It helps to figures out whether the id can be satisfied or whether it needs to be denied as well as whether the superego should be listened to or ignored.This operates on a level which we are aware of, and basically, it is our inner adult which is confident and capable of making decisions for ourselves.
The superego is a compilation of our inner voices that we all hear: they may be from our parents or other important authority figures that have dictated what is right and what is wrong. This part of yourself can also be your biggest enemy: it is the part of the mind which puts yourself down for doing something wrong, even if the people around you don’t consider it a major issue. Like the id, this part of you works on a level deeper than your conscious mind can pick up on. As a result of the inner conflict between these three elements, we often use defensive mechanisms in an (often vain) attempt to try and balance them. Such defensive mechanisms often focus their aim on the id and the superego: they try to suppress the id from getting what it wants or exaggerate it or try to crush the dictatorial voice of the superego without fully giving it credit.
What defensive mechanisms do we use?
Such defensive mechanisms include the following:
This defensive mechanism can often turn nasty, as it is a way of refocusing negative energy that people may feel toward certain people in their lives. Instead of confronting the person directly with the ‘shameful’ thoughts that they are feeling (whether justly or not), they choose to direct their anger elsewhere. Tragically, this is often a warning sign for those that ultimately become killers: before committing murder against their fellow human being, they may turn their rage against animals that are in close proximity to them. If the problem is addressed early enough, these people can learn to get their anger out safely and learn to incorporate their superego in a proper manner, but more than not, these problems are not seen or just ignored, and, as a result, they escalate to more violent crime. People who displace their negative thoughts often have a high level of awareness of what these thoughts are, and murderers often use these excuses to try and escape justice for their crimes.
This technique has similarities to displacement in that it is externalizing negative energy. They tend to examine other people and find what they consider to be negative traits and intensely focus on them. For an example, some people externalize their own shame about their bodies (either through the teachings of religion or a lack of self esteem) by attacking those they consider to be ‘too confident’ or shaming those that are comfortable with their own sexuality. These people do this because they are either unaware of what they think about themselves or are taught to believe that their way is the ‘only way’ and whoever exhibits different behaviour deserves to be ridiculed.
This is a very commonly used defensive mechanism, and like displacement, this is another common technique used by those who deliberately commit harm upon others. You’ve probably done it yourself at least once in your life: you try to excuse bad behaviour by making up a reason to justify it. A commonly used rationalization by children and teenagers especially is lying to their parents about their risk-taking behaviour they do in order to not make their parents worry and a commonly used one by parents is administering corporal punishment to children by saying it’s for their own good.
Regression addresses the id: unlike displacement and projection, which attempt to isolate the thoughts of the id and superego and externalize them, people who regress tend to do things which are more child-like in nature in times of stress. The id becomes more pronounced, and as a result, behaviours such as crying, loss of temper and grabbing a fluffy pillow or blanket come to the fore. For mentally healthy adults, these moments are brief (up to a few hours except in traumatic situations such as death of someone close) and after their emotions are released, their rational selves once again take over; however, for some, they may regress for a longer duration, either because of a nervous breakdown which results in loss of emotional control, or through mental disturbance which leads to the person retracting into themselves. For the former, with a combination of therapy and medication they usually recover after a few months but the latter will probably need to become institutionalized due to the need to have more intensive care.
Sublimation is a technique which uses the ego as an ally in order to safely channel any fiery energy that we have internally. People who use art therapy or play instruments often use this technique when they are experiencing strong feelings (I’ve often used this technique myself) and others use boxing or other sporting activities in order to channel their anger in a safe manner. Often, after the energy we feel has been released, we can look at the situation more rationally and determine whether the psychological energy that we have injected into it was justified and if possible, figure out how to solve the problem.