On Negative Ego

An elder­ly man I once knew — and now prob­a­bly long dead — used to com­plain bit­ter­ly about all the peo­ple with neg­a­tive ego. I nev­er real­ly under­stood what he meant by the term, as it seemed to derive from some of the eso­teric and cultish lit­er­a­ture he fre­quent­ly read. It felt far afield of the client-cen­tered ther­a­py I was study­ing at the time as part of a Mas­ters in coun­sel­ing pro­gram. Yet the term has stuck with me, almost as the def­i­n­i­tion of a phys­i­cal syn­drome. Not long ago, an acquain­tance post­ed the fol­low­ing chart from James McCrae on Facebook:

I haven’t read McCrae’s book (it looks great), but I intu­itive­ly love the title and the chart. There it is again, I said to myself when I saw it, anoth­er def­i­n­i­tion of “neg­a­tive ego,” the kind of stuff we say to our­selves that implic­it­ly keeps us small, con­stant­ly in tur­moil, envy­ing oth­ers, self-judg­ing, beat­en up and unfor­giv­en. Not much log­ic to it, but exact­ly the kind of thing that ends up as a not-so-sub­tle prac­tice of self-sab­o­tage in all its infi­nite dis­guis­es. The chart in aggre­gate reminds me of what Eck­hart Tolle called the “painbody.” It only makes sense that we would accu­mu­late neg­a­tive voic­es into a dis­tressed per­sona we don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly rec­og­nize as egoic in nature. 

And frankly, I don’t know if it is real­is­tic to expect — even rec­og­niz­ing how eas­i­ly and com­plete­ly we can be hijacked by these voic­es — that the dynam­ics are eas­i­ly over­come. As lit­tle neu­ro­science as I know sug­gests that we cut our own grooves in the brain and dark thoughts engen­der a propen­si­ty for more dark thoughts, so that it is only alter­ing our behav­ior — as if the voic­es did not exist — that offers a way out.

To me that sug­gests a dis­ci­pline of pos­i­tiv­i­ty, as if “neg­a­tive ego” does not also have a func­tion and sim­ply needs to be erad­i­cat­ed rather than under­stood. It’s pos­si­ble, how­ev­er, that the pur­pose of the dark road may well be to lib­er­ate us and, like oth­er forms of nar­cis­sism, must be rec­og­nized for exact­ly what it is. To under­stand that, you may need to look right into the heart of dark­ness at what neg­a­tive ego does in rela­tion­ships to oth­ers and in your own rela­tion­ship to you.

For exam­ple, neg­a­tive ego spe­cial­izes in cat­a­stro­phiz­ing regard­ing one’s wor­thi­ness. This means that an inner sen­si­tiv­i­ty devel­ops around events that might sug­gest a pre­sump­tion of self-val­ue. Although I’ve told this sto­ry before, it remains so clear­ly one of those impor­tant moments in my own edu­ca­tion. Twen­ty years ago I hap­pened to be con­duct­ing a large group work­shop for mem­bers of a small col­lege admin­is­tra­tion. The work­shop at one point involved small groups iden­ti­fy­ing issues they thought need­ed to be addressed. These were list­ed on flip charts next to each of about fif­teen groups that were all work­ing at the same time. On one of these, at the top of the list, one group out of the fif­teen has list­ed the words, “Top Man­age­ment.” The Pres­i­dent of the col­lege, an extra­or­di­nar­i­ly tal­ent­ed per­son who had been giv­en an award for her lead­er­ship by the group as the meet­ing start­ed, wan­dered through the room observ­ing the small groups at work. With­out hear­ing any­thing at all from the group in ques­tion, she saw those words, “Top Man­age­ment,” and imme­di­ate­ly start­ed cav­ing in inter­nal­ly. She fled to the back of the room in a kind of pan­ic and even though the day was very suc­cess­ful in iden­ti­fy­ing some key issues to address and get peo­ple con­struc­tive­ly start­ed on them, the Pres­i­dent expe­ri­enced so much inner tur­moil that she was unable to fur­ther par­tic­i­pate or make any clos­ing com­ments to the group at all.

Lat­er, as she drove me to the air­port, I asked her, “What hap­pened to you?” 

She told me the sto­ry of how she’d seen “Top Man­age­ment” list­ed on the flip chart of the small group and imme­di­ate­ly leapt to the con­clu­sion that the group must be talk­ing about her per­son­al inad­e­qua­cies as a leader. 

I said, “Real­ly? But there’s no evi­dence of that,” and I remind­ed her that I’d con­duct­ed the same exer­cis­es many times and that it was a very com­mon thing for peo­ple to call out issues with man­age­ment. I tried to reas­sure her by say­ing they might very well have been talk­ing about oth­er peo­ple, or peo­ple in the past, or the “top man­age­ment” that exist­ed above her in the larg­er col­lege sys­tem of which she was part. But I could see that it was­n’t doing any good. She was in great pain but try­ing to hide it.

Final­ly, I asked her what was in fact going through her mind. Even if the group had been talk­ing about her specif­i­cal­ly, what was it they might have been say­ing? What was she con­cerned about, real­ly? It was at this point that she turned to me and said, “As I stood in the back of the room melt­ing down, all I could think of was my High School coun­selor who told me I’d prob­a­bly always find myself in over my heard by tak­ing on things that were too big for me.”

The idio­cy of the coun­selor, aside, you can see how this cat­a­stro­phiz­ing of wor­thi­ness can erupt, neg­a­tive ego stak­ing its claim on a day on which her lead­er­ship had actu­al­ly been celebrated.

What she could not have antic­i­pat­ed, of course, is the lev­el of ques­tion­ing this caused in me. Did I not set up the exer­cise cor­rect­ly? How could I guard against such reac­tions by a pri­ma­ry client of my work? Should­n’t I have known? What am I doing, real­ly, in this work? etc., etc. She may have been in the pit, but there was also just the slight­est tinc­ture of “Did­n’t you know your work could have this hor­ri­ble effect?” Her pit could just as quick­ly become my pit, her self-blame becom­ing mine. And there it was — the real deal about how neg­a­tive ego works in rela­tion to oth­ers — a pit for one per­son poten­tial­ly opens up one for any­one around. The very effort to res­cue anoth­er per­son from neg­a­tive ego becomes an infec­tion. I could feel the ground shift under my feet for just a sec­ond, wor­ried that I screwed up. Luck­i­ly in this case, the Pres­i­dent did own that the event itself was fine — that her reac­tion was hers.

And the good news was that the event and gen­tle coun­sel­ing helped the Pres­i­dent seek out some pri­vate and strate­gic ther­a­peu­tic assis­tance. Even bet­ter, the train­ing itself led her to begin ask­ing more fear­less ques­tions of oth­er peo­ple, about rela­tion­ships at the col­lege, and fer­ret­ing out issues peo­ple were a lit­tle uncom­fort­able talk­ing about. This, it turned out, even­tu­al­ly sur­faced some very big and ille­gal things that had been hap­pen­ing under her nose. Her quick action to ter­mi­nate the bad actors con­firmed for her­self and for many oth­ers the gen­uine strength she was bring­ing to her lead­er­ship role. A year lat­er we had anoth­er con­ver­sa­tion — this time about her amaz­ing suc­cess with­in.

I want all lead­ers to think about this dynam­ic of neg­a­tive ego. You can see it when­ev­er peo­ple make com­par­isons with oth­ers’ lives and accom­plish­ments, stature and pos­ses­sions. You can see it in the way peo­ple run each oth­er down in the back­ground while wor­ry­ing about their own imposter syn­drome. You can see it in the way peo­ple can­not accept praise or thanks and come up with rea­sons why it’s not trust­wor­thy, and in the way peo­ple can’t seem to accom­plish even in the face of actu­al skill. You can feel it in cov­er-ups that we use to exchange pleas­antries when we don’t feel very pleas­ant at all but are angry or depressed. You can expe­ri­ence it in pro­jec­tions by oth­ers onto you about your inten­tions and moti­va­tions and the things you did­n’t do or did­n’t say, and also in your expe­ri­ence of your­self doing exact­ly these same things to oth­er peo­ple. And it’s just as dam­ag­ing and demean­ing to the human spir­it as the overblown self-con­grat­u­la­to­ry self-talk that reflects out­right infla­tion of a person.

Many with neg­a­tive ego see them­selves as good peo­ple who just don’t want to come off as being too ego-cen­tric. But I’m here to say that the reverse of ego­cen­tric­i­ty is not the cor­ro­sive erup­tion of self-blame and self-doubt either. That’s just the same thing upside down. That’s also ego. The good thing is know­ing that, see­ing that, can grant a dif­fer­ent kind of self-respect and resilience in the face of an unpre­dictable world.

So, in what way, is this dark road a form of lib­er­a­tion? Sup­pose I am haunt­ed? This is an absolute­ly won­der­ful ques­tion to con­sid­er because it can lead to an impor­tant recog­ni­tion — that whether it is nar­cis­sis­tic or neg­a­tive ego­cen­trism, it is always and only based on one thing — that it is one hand clap­ping and the joke, after all, is on me. 

As always, com­pas­sion is the way through.


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  • You keep out­do­ing your­self my friend! Anoth­er fan­tas­tic post!

    The good news and bad news of it all is this.

    NONE of us. NO ONE. NOT ONE. Is absolute­ly 100% FREE from neg­a­tive ego. 

    Each one of us wres­tles with our own dark to vary­ing degrees based on inher­ent nature, con­gen­i­tal, and hered­i­tary rea­sons. Envi­ron­ment. Cir­cum­stances. Life chal­lenges. Trau­mas. You name it. 

    The impact we expe­ri­ence liv­ing on this plan­et is as unique to each one of us as our fingerprints.

    One of the biggest break­throughs for any of us is to real­ize that the dark isn’t some­thing just OUT THERE. And we are ‘all light’, as some reli­gions tend to elude to or should I say, wind up CREATING in the minds of a fol­low­er. ‘They are ‘evil’. I’m not.’ They are ‘sin­ners’ and I am ‘saved’. etc.

    I tend to lean more towards Jun­gian the­o­ry that accepts we each have a shad­ow and the light. Our task is to con­scious­ly inte­grate the two on our jour­neys through­out life.

    Com­pas­sion IS the only thing that can help any of us. And even with that mandate…that’s an ever-evolv­ing process as our own ego defense mech­a­nisms tend to pro­tect dur­ing ‘crit­i­cal’ moments and there has to be a peri­od where things inside can ‘relax’.

    Although we ‘talk’ about many of these good qual­i­ties and man­date pos­i­tive actions like mer­cy and compassion…in real­i­ty, the evo­lu­tion­ary process for any of us hap­pens so much slow­er then our speak­ing and think­ing minds would have us be. 

    We talk about some of these things AS IF we have already mas­tered them and live as enlight­ened beings, when, frankly…I have yet to meet a soul on this plan­et that has good mas­tery over their shad­ows. Now that isn’t say­ing much either because there are still bil­lions of peo­ple I have yet to meet! (grins)

    The point being is that most our talk is ‘inflat­ed’ beyond what the life is actu­al­ly man­i­fest­ing in ‘real time’. For the most part, they still remain to be ‘wish­es’ and hopes and when pro­ject­ed onto oth­er people…expectations.

    All of which is quite exhaust­ing, really. 

    When most of us real­ly would pre­fer the ounce of compassion. 

    Thanks again for shar­ing your per­spec­tives my friend. Always an enlight­en­ing read.

  • Hi Dan,
    As Saman­thaa says, you’ve done it again. 

    This piece res­onates with me on many lev­els. First it goes to the heart of much of the work I do, and despite the lim­i­ta­tions of what I have to work with in busi­ness set­tings, most peo­ple strug­gle with these “voic­es” in dif­fer­ent ways. Every­one expe­ri­ences “self-talk” although it is often sur­pris­ing how many peo­ple are unaware of it.

    Essen­tial­ly all these voic­es (on either side) echo our beliefs. Prob­lem is with the “high­er” self side often does­n’t believe what it says. The neg­a­tive egoic side speaks with such author­i­ty and conviction. 

    If we just take the basics of neu­ro­science that say the brain is always seek­ing reward or avoid­ing threat — the list gets more com­pli­cat­ed. Clear­ly we do “hard wire” in the neg­a­tive ego side through repet­i­tive thought. And we’re now learn­ing that stress (anoth­er huge umbre­al­la term) is “inher­it­ed” by the fetus. Cold com­fort to some­one who had a CHAMPION wor­ri­er Mother.

    I sus­pect your elder­ly acquain­tance with the eso­teric, cultish inter­ests might say that we absorb this neg­a­tiv­i­ty also from the larg­er cul­ture — that it’s part of our col­lec­tive her­itage. He might also have believed that this form of “ener­gy” is an attrac­tor of like energies. 

    Eck­hart Tolle’s teach­ings remind us that it is our iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with these thoughts as real and true that cause — and add to the “pain-body.”

    Devel­op­ing our abil­i­ties to be more mind­ful helps us to be more of a wit­ness to these thoughts (and trig­gered feel­ings) than own­er. And — yes com­pas­sion — great dos­es of self-com­pas­sion — the sooth­ing heal­ing balm to those fear-based thoughts is the great­est Rx I know. 


  • Dear Saman­tha~

    I’m with you all the way. I espe­cial­ly like this:

    We talk about some of these things AS IF we have already mas­tered them and live as enlight­ened beings, when, frankly…I have yet to meet a soul on this plan­et that has good mas­tery over their shadows.” 

    The slow pace of per­son­al growth (com­pared to what we want it to be or pre­tend it is) is yet anoth­er reminder of how much we want to find a way to man­age the dark­ness and the weak­ness­es we con­ceal within. 

    This may be as true in social media as any oth­er con­text. There’s all that data out there about how our Face­book feed can cause anx­i­ety because of all the good things oth­ers are report­ing about their lives. So we cope by putting up an ide­al­ized ver­sion of our own lives, too, and then have the pri­vate feel­ings of an imposter. Would­n’t it be great if we could just acknowl­edge how bur­dened we feel about about hold­ing up the image? And col­lec­tive­ly learn to put it down.

    My great­est con­cern is that neg­a­tive ego fre­quent­ly oper­ates to self re-trau­ma­tize — and this is incred­i­bly painful and iso­lat­ing. The shame and embar­rass­ment can be just soul-killing. We feel vio­lat­ed and yet are blind to how much we are vio­lat­ing our­selves. And yet this is also evi­dence of exact­ly how dense and egoic the process actu­al­ly is, how it feeds on pro­jec­tions and how weak we can feel in its face. 

    How love­ly, wel­com­ing and sup­port­ive your insights always are, and espe­cial­ly with this post, Saman­tha. As always, thank you!

    All the best

  • Dear Louise~

    I so appre­ci­ate your thoughts about this post and reminder that our voic­es are prod­ucts of beliefs. Per­haps they are ones we haven’t ful­ly unearthed and made con­scious. Where neg­a­tive ego is con­cerned I sense there are a wide vari­ety of such hid­den beliefs, includ­ing that some­how the process of re-trau­ma­tiz­ing our­selves via neg­a­tive ego is actu­al­ly noble and unselfish and more self-aware, that it will lead to the truth, when in fact the only thing it does is keep pain alive, pre­serv­ing an inter­nal oper­at­ing sys­tem that, as you say, dis­cred­its the voic­es of a high­er self by sound­ing so authoritative.

    And, yes, my elder­ly acquain­tance did­n’t like the “ener­gy” and thought it ful­filled itself by gath­er­ing more dark­ness around it. He asso­ci­at­ed it with crime and vio­lence toward oth­ers, and per­haps in part this was due to his age, phys­i­cal con­di­tion and sense of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. (He slept with a gun and kept it under the front seat of his car when he trav­eled.) On anoth­er lev­el, how­ev­er, I sensed it was also real­ly a part of his spir­i­tu­al belief sys­tem: that much of the world was dark because of the dark­ness we cre­ate for our­selves within.

    As always, thank you so much for tak­ing the time to com­ment. It is so won­der­ful to exchange obser­va­tions about the human­i­ty we share in and care for so much.

    All the best

  • Heven Stanley-Clarke wrote:

    Hel­lo there

    I have been wrestling with a self-esteem issue and ‘some­thing’ told me to Google ‘the neg­a­tive ego’. I knew of its exis­tence but went with my ‘prompt’.
    The google search brought this arti­cle to my atten­tion, and not only did I read the arti­cle, but I also read all of the com­ments as they added even more depth and insight into ‘the neg­a­tive ego.

    Deep­est appre­ci­a­tion to all of you, I now have so much more knowl­edge to under­stand the mechan­ics behind ‘my issue’ which goes deep­er than self-esteem. Thank You!!

  • Dear Heven

    Thank you so much for stop­ping by. I’m glad this arti­cle and com­ments were help­ful to you. It is a big sub­ject and one I’ve found myself return­ing to with a cer­tain inevitabil­i­ty over the years. Good luck to you in work­ing through your issue and much appre­ci­a­tion to you for trust­ing your intu­itive prompt. 

    All the best

  • Heven Stanley-Clarke wrote:

    Dear Dan

    Thank you for your warm response to my com­ment. I would like to say some­thing else though .…. The fol­low­ing words from with­in the com­ments hit me like a sledgehammer.
    “Where neg­a­tive ego is con­cerned I sense there are a wide vari­ety of such hid­den beliefs, includ­ing that some­how the process of re-trau­ma­tiz­ing our­selves via neg­a­tive ego is actu­al­ly noble and unselfish and more self-aware, that it will lead to the truth, when in fact the only thing it does is keep pain alive, pre­serv­ing an inter­nal oper­at­ing sys­tem that, as you say, dis­cred­its the voic­es of a high­er self by sound­ing so authoritative.”

    That is exact­ly what I have done, I’ve even remarked many times to my adult son that I had mar­tyred myself for nothing. 

    In oth­er words, my neg­a­tive ego pro­grammed me to believe that I was being noble and pro­tect­ing oth­ers, even though it was poi­son­ing me inside, I played the part of a mar­tyr. And that is the root of the issue. That is why I was drawn to this article. 

    Again, thank you so much. time for a lit­tle humil­i­ty for me.
    Very best to you all
    Heven Stanley-Clarke

  • Dear Heven

    Again, I am hap­py the arti­cle was of help to you! There are so many traps and sleights of hand that keep the neg­a­tive thoughts in pow­er. It’s good to remem­ber that you might have absorbed these strate­gies for self-reduc­tion as part of over­all con­di­tion­ing that was orig­i­nal­ly meant to keep you safe and give you a mean­ing­ful role to play. Ulti­mate­ly, we out­grow the con­di­tion­ing and then it’s impor­tant to fight our way through all that so that we can make bet­ter, more adult deci­sions for our­selves; bet­ter judg­ments about what’s real and what’s not. That is why com­pas­sion for self is so impor­tant. Com­pas­sion asks us to step back and look, to see out of the for­est, to feel the truth that we are enough, to be open to life. Metaphor­i­cal­ly, it is find­ing the true, clear water of the soul and (final­ly) step away from the mazes of ego. 

    Thank you again for your kind, per­son­al shar­ing regard­ing the post and com­ments. Although this post is a few years old, you can still find both Louise Alt­man and Saman­tha Hall on Twit­ter — where you can fol­low their rich com­ments and posts!

    All the best to you, Heven

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