Why your self-image might be wrong: Ego, Buddhism and Freud

"You" might not be as real as you think you are. Here's what Buddhism has to say about living ego-free, and how Freud misunderstood it.

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You first develop your ego when you are two or three years old. It creeps into existence the moment you realize that you are not empty—you are a self, and everyone else has a self in them. As you grow up, it latches onto positive and negative feedback and uses them to build the story of who you are. "The ego likes certainty, it likes security, it likes repetition, and so it’s always reinforcing its own vision of itself, and that starts to restrict us, to confine us, to make us think that we know ourselves better than we actually do," says psychiatrist Mark Epstein. So what to make of the Buddhist concept of 'egolessness'? Should we destroy the ego? Freud seemed to think that's what Buddhists meant, but as Mark Epstein explains, the famous psychoanalyst got it wrong. The full nuance of 'egolessness' is not to be completely without ego, but to doubt the story that it tells you. "For many people [the ego] stays in a kind of immature place," he says. Your ego has been your constant companion throughout life, but was there some point at which it stopped growing? "Maybe some of those fixed ideas that have been operating inside of you since you were a little kid and conditioning the way you interact with other people, with the world, maybe those are not all so right. Maybe you’re not as "really real" as you think you are, and you could start to let go of some of that a little bit." Mark Epstein is the author of Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself.

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