Ego can be a contentious topic - is my ego to big, or is my ego to small (am I too humble). I am sure that we have all asked ourselves this and waded through the murky world of achievement, jealousy, right and wrong…
Scott Barry Kaufman is one of my academic crushes - as in I find his ideas and the way he expresses them fascinating, intriguing, and informing my own ideas about self, wellbeing, psychology, and character. An article he wrote this year is all about the ego and why we have to quieten that pesky voice in our heads and feeling in our hearts that surge like a tidal wave when we feel threatened in any way. You know, that bristly feeling we get when we make a statement and someone responds with a “weeeeeellllllll….”, or when your friend gets a promotion before you, or when you make a very public mistake that feels like the end of the world, and… well, I could go on and on and on. What Kaufman has to say about the ego is fascinating. He defines ego as this - “that aspect of the self that has the incessant need to see itself in a positive light.” And we all want to see ourselves in a positive light right? We like to ignore our shadow selves and only focus on having the world see us as successful and…. right!
Kaufman talks about how we live in a world of tribalism, meaning a world where it seems you have to belong to a group with a strong opinion and you as a group are right and everyone else is wrong. Think of the rise of populist opinions, the different Brexit camps, the Trump supporters and anti-supporters, you are attacked, despised, threatened, and you’re damned if you do and damed if you don’t. This is called ego, and Kaufman says that our egos are just too damn big at the moment. There is this drive to win an argument at all costs, and it is this need to win, to always be right, that is causing so many fractured relationships and communities. Are we really willing to destroy what actually brings us happiness (and research has shown that positive relationships are one important element that makes us happy - check out Sue Roffey’s book Changing Behaviours in Schools) just for the sake of being right, under the pretence that being right at all costs places us in a positive light?
Heidi Wayment and her colleagues are doing some fascinating research into what they term the “quiet ego.” Inspired by Buddhist philosophy and positive psychology, this research programme shows that quietening our ego is actually a more powerful path to wellbeing, growth, and a healthy self-esteem than working hard at self development and improvement. But what is a quiet ego exactly? Is it possible to have a quiet ego?
Over the past few years my housemate and founder of Inspiring Women Changemakers, Anj Handa, and I have had multiple conversations about egos, being humble, and achievements that we have both achieved. I remember a couple of years ago Anj was stumbling over whether she should speak about a particular achievement, I told her of course she should - if it is fact and appropriate to the situation it is not bragging, it is simply stating something wonderful you have done that fits the needs of the moment. I have had to take my own advice on this countless times as I have struggled with that twist of ego inside my chest, am I only telling someone about this achievement to show off or is it a justified moment to state a fact that I am proud of?
Wayment’s “quiet ego” isn’t about squashing the ego out of existence all together but about lowering the tone of it so that become less defensive and more open to others. For Wayment and her colleagues there are four connected aspects to cultivate a “quiet ego”:
Kaufman notes that when you look at these four aspects they should be taken as a “whole system of ego functioning.” To measure whether you have a “quiet ego” cast your eye over the Quiet Ego Scale:
If you agree with a lot of these you would likely score high for a “quiet ego”. Developing a quiet ego, according to Wayment and colleagues research, shows an increase in wellbeing, resilience and coping efficacy. Kaufman also states that people who have or develop a “quiet ego” seek growth through authentic living and positive relationships, develop a healthy self esteem, are humble, spiritual, open-minded, grateful for experiences, take appropriate risk-taking, and recognise meaning in their life. It appears that developing a “quiet ego” is a key part of flourishing in life, no matter your age, place, or demographic.