How to dissolve your ego—and why you should

Ever want to move forward but find you're in your own way?

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  • Many of us are held back by the idea of ourselves that our egos have built and will do anything to maintain.
  • Oftentimes this manifests as a fear of failure, an inability to start on new projects, or the evasion of responsibility.
  • Here we have five suggestions on how to keep your ego in check.

Even for those who aren't self-absorbed, egos can get in the way more often than we'd like. Having a sense of self isn't bad, but we can become so invested in the idea of who we are that we refuse to take necessary steps forward that would challenge that idea.

Every time we don't do something important for fear of what others will think of us, rest on our laurels rather than start on our next big project, or refuse to acknowledge that we might have failed and need to do better next time is a case of our ego holding us back from being the best version of ourselves we can be.

Luckily, this problem is nothing new. People have been dealing with it for the better part of human existence and have come up with a variety of solutions. Here, we'll consider five of them and why experts have turned their attention to each one at some point or another.

Ryan Holiday: Ego is the Enemy

Ryan Holiday is a marketing executive, writer, and speaker with important insights into how ego can trip you up.

In his book, "Ego is the Enemy," Holiday discusses the dangers of getting too caught up in the stories we tell ourselves about how fantastic we are and the adverse side effects of this. Using his own life for an example, he describes how he realized that he was so dedicated to his work that if he didn't slow down, he was going to work himself into an early grave. This was a result of buying into the story he had been telling himself about himself. He also watched more than a few people fall apart because they didn't have the same realization.

His book offers a variety of ideas on how to deal with this problem from sources as diverse as stoic philosophy and the advice of UFC fighters. His most practical suggestion might be the "equal, plus, minus" concept.

In this system, a person should have a friend who is their equal, better, and lessor in their field. When you're working on starting a project, turn to your equals to stay motivated and to remind you that you're all in the same boat. When coming off a success, turn to your better, who could be an accomplished mentor, to keep your ego from growing too much. Lastly, when you've failed, have somebody who you're a mentor to around to explain the failing; that'll help you realize that failure is just part of the process.

These three kinds of people can help you keep your ego in check and help you get over the pitfalls that prevent you from starting your projects, admitting failure, or moving forward after a win.

Buddhist Thought and "Non-Self"

The Buddhist notion of Anatta means "non-self" and refers to the idea that there is no permanent, unchanging substance that we can call the "self." We tend to point at a variety of things, namely our form, thoughts, sensory experience, perceptions, and consciousness, and say that one or more of these things as they currently exist is the "self." Buddhism is here to tell you that they aren't.

As with everything else, Buddhism suggests that suffering arises when we try to hold on to impermanent things. In this case, your idea of an enduring "self." By understanding the true nature of the self, that there isn't something enduring there at all, we can come to realize that many of the things that our ego tells us are fundamental parts of ourselves, how we look, think, act, see the world, or feel about things this moment aren't actually "us."

By getting that idea out of our heads, we can allow ourselves to make the changes, take risks, and accept the things that ego usually wouldn't allow us to. Many a Buddhist monk would also suggest that it would enable you to move down the path towards enlightenment.

Mindfulness Meditation

Meditation's endless benefits are, and have been, promoted by a variety of religions and ideologies in a myriad of forms. We're going to focus on mindfulness meditation here, but know that other kinds of meditation can claim these benefits.

Mindfulness meditation takes a few pages from Buddhism's playbook but goes in a separate direction. The goal is to bring one's attention to the present moment while sitting. This is often done by counting the breath or focusing attention on a particular area on the body. Done correctly, it allows one to enter into a state of "nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is," as described by psychologist Dr. Scott Bishop.

By helping us to turn off that part of our brain that worries about the past, future, and the endless list of threats to our sense of self, mindfulness meditation trains us to focus on what is rather than what our ego often tells us is. By doing so, we gain the ability to get past our ego defenses. This notion is supported by studies that demonstrate that people who practice mindfulness have a healthier and more coherent sense of self.

Drugs!

Before we begin, please remember that you shouldn't go running to the neighborhood dealer just because some website mentioned how drugs can do something interesting.

Ever since Timothy Leary and company got their hands on the Tibetan Book of the Dead in the 1960s, the goal of achieving Ego Death has been a commonly discussed topic in psychedelic literature. The idea is to use drugs to alter your consciousness to a point where your mind no longer differentiates itself from the rest of the world around it.

Psychonauts describe this effect as quite dramatic and unlike typical consciousness experiences. One I spoke to described it as an intense rocket launch into the serine void of space. Another described it as a blowing out of a candle with perfect stillness afterward. The condition allows for the individual to view their mental processes, including ego defenses and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, from a detached state.

As recorded by several researchers, the experience can be cathartic and lead to great personal insights under the right conditions. As Sam Harris mentions in his video, drugs do have the benefit of always producing an effect, and the experience can lead to legitimate insights. Those who research psychedelic drugs believe that this effect is caused by the drugs' creation of new connections between parts of the brain that don't regularly interact with one another.

It is also worth noting that John Lennon blamed the intensification of his personal problems and a bout of depression on trying to follow Leary's instructions. Writer Hunter S. Thompson, who had more acid in him than a car battery, thought that Leary was peddling nonsense.

Tim Ferriss' list of fears

An investor and author with some ideas related to stoic philosophy, Mr. Ferriss has some suggestions for overcoming fear that can easily be applied to getting your ego out of your way.

Fear setting requires that you take a piece of paper with three columns and write what risk you want to take at the top. In the first column, you write very specific bad things that could happen if you take the risk. In the next column, you write ways to minimize those risks. In the last, you write ways to rebound from each listed risk.

This system can be applied to notions of ourselves just as easily as it can be applied to our fear of going broke. If you don't start painting because you are afraid of what the critics will say, list it on this chart. Concerned that people will laugh at you if you change your style? Include it. Even just using it as intended can be enough to battle your ego. How many times have you been afraid of being seen as a failure so much that you don't try something?

Now, ask yourself what your ego defenses are protecting and see if you can get around those walls.

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