The Ego Myth
While there are numerous myths about self-actualization, there is one myth that is actually dangerous. At least, it is dangerous to self-actualization. Why? Because it creates tremendous misunderstandings— misunderstandings which actually limit and diminish people. Yet the pitiful thing about this myth is that it is based on shallow connections between words. Yet it leads to tremendous philosophical distortions. I’m speaking about the ego myth.
The Ego Myth
The myth is based on the ridiculous fact that the term self-actualization has the word “self” in it. From this innocent beginning, the myth jumps to an unfounded conclusion. How? By assuming that the term “self” is contaminated and by assuming that a phrase with “self” in it inevitably means egotism, ego-centricity, and selfishness. Of course, all of this is preposterous to anyone who knows anything about these terms and their history. In a word, the ego myth confuses self-actualization with an exclusive focus on one’s self which is then evaluated as a form of selfishness.
First, the History of Self-Actualization’s Origin
If you think Abraham Maslow invented the term self-actualization, think again. He did not. He found it in the literature on brain-damaged soldiers from World War I. It was Kurt Goldstein who came up with the term to describe a process that he discovered in brain-damaged soldiers. He applied it to the dynamic within by which our neurology functions to actualize its highest operations. As the plasticity and flexibility of the nervous system impressed him, he used “self-actualization” to describe the body’s natural wisdom and orientation for healing, for adapting, and for developing.
This research impressed Maslow. So when he turned his studies to healthy people, the most psychologically mature and developed people, he applied the term “self-actualization” to describe these best human specimens of psychological health. He used it to refer to the men and women living at the highest development, to those experiencing peak experiences, and to those contributing most to society.
Yet there’s more. To more fully and accurately understand the term “self-actualization,” we need to go back to the original context. Back in the 1930s and 1940s there were two forces in psychology, Behaviourism and Psychoanalysis. The basis for understanding humans in Behaviourism was reduced solely to the study of rats and pigeons. Now while the psychoanalytic understanding of human nature was at least based on humans, it was based on the sick ones—those neurotic and psychotic, those most hurt and traumatized. Against that, Maslow said that it is time that psychology study human nature at its best and healthiest—the bright side of human nature.
“We have sold human nature short” he asserted. We have looked at “averages,” “adjustment to culture,” at vicious animals, and the psychologically sick. It’s time we look at the exceptionally healthy and mature humans, the ones who live fully, contribute significantly, and who experience life as an adventure. He called these people self-actualizers because they were so outstanding in fully using their talents, capacities, and potentialities.
To know how fast a human being can run, it would be useless to “average” the speed of the general population. That “average” would tell us nothing about human possibilities in running. Instead we would search for the exceptional runners. We would find the best specimens and the superior runners to get an idea of what’s possible.
The same applies with regard to the possibilities for psychological health and well-being. To determine the goodness and excellence that human nature allows, we need to search out the best specimens of people—people living at the growing edge of creativity, openness, vitality, contribution, health, leadership, etc. We call such people self-actualizers and their experience self-actualization.
Now, Back to the Ego Myth
Given that self-actualization has everything to do with human excellence and nothing to do with egotism or ego-centricity, where does that leave the myth? Let’s return to it and de-mystify the entity that many fear and rage against. Yes, I’m speaking about the fearful and offensive term “ego” itself. Some have associated something “evil” or pathological with this term to such an extent that now they feel that the term itself is contaminated. That “ego” is somehow a “bad” term and refers to something bad.
Yet what does it mean? In its most basic meaning, “ego” simply refers to “I.” It refers to me, myself, self, and sense of self. If you were to open up a copy of the Greek New Testament, you would see ego everywhere. Every time Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd,” “I am the way and the life,” “I am the son of God” he began the sentence with ego. In itself, the term is completely neutral. It is as neutral as “I” as in, “I am Michael,” “I hold authenticity as a high value.” “I want to do my best.” “I love you.”
Knowing that it originally signifies nothing more threatening than one’s self, “ego” is not a bad thing at all. You are not a bad thing. You are a wonder of the universe—a special and sacred being. This distinction now enables us to make some more refined distinctions:
- Low ego strength
- High ego strength
- Ego defenses
- Weak ego (insecure ego)
- Ego state
- Ego boundaries
The Development of Ego and its Permutations
We are born without an ego. A human baby begins life without a sense of self or ego. In the beginning, infants don’t know themselves as a separate self. This is our first human task in our development. We must first develop a sense of self to begin to answer the questions: Who am I? What am I? What are my likes and dislikes? Who do I relate to?
The self that we first develop is weak, undeveloped, and insecure. We have little sense of what’s out there or how to cope with it. We have little sense of who we are, what we know, and how to manage life’s challenges. We have no strength in our sense of identity to face reality. As a small child, we are dependent and needy. And because our ego is weak and insecure, we look to others for protection, safety, love, information, etc.
Yet within the context of healthy and strong relationships, we develop a sense of self, and over the years a stronger and stronger sense of self. This allows us to individualize, differentiate ourselves, and develop our first experiences of independence. Ego-strength refers to the ability to look reality square in the face without blinking and without defensive reactions.
This gives us the first “ego” paradox. It is the weak and insecure ego that gives one a “big head,” or big ego. It is the person who is, or who feels, insecure and without a solid sense of self who lacks the ego-strength to face and deal with reality. And without a sufficient ego-strength, we engage in the ego-defenses of denial, rationalization, repression, introjection, projection, etc. Why? To protect ourselves from reality.
When Sigmund Freud said, “Where there is Id, let there be ego,” ego referred to the Reality Principle. That is, the ability to face reality for what it is. When we cannot, we fall back to use the ego-defenses as mechanisms for either escaping reality or defending ourselves against reality.
More Ego Paradoxes
There are more paradoxes of human development as we develop our sense of self or identity. The next paradox: It takes a lot of ego-strength to get ego (the sense of self or “I”) out of the way. To be a human being is to have a sense of self. That’s a given. There’s no escape from that. The only question is whether our sense of self is healthy or sick, strong or weak, able to cope and master things or not.
Now for a third paradox: It takes a lot of self-esteem to be humble and self-forgetful. Why? Because of the process of development. Only by developing a strong enough ego to face reality, and to not personalize or defend self in terms of the reactions of others or one’s own success, can we transcend our “self” and live for the larger good, for contribution, and for the full development of our talents by which we give and contribute to the larger society.
Maslow described this integrative process as a process that enables us to transcend the simplistic black-and-white, either-or thinking of childhood. Through synthesizing opposites, the self-actualizing, psychologically healthy person can simultaneously be both selfish and unselfish.
“It is just this person, in whom ego-strength is at its height, who most easily forgets or transcends the ego, who can be most problem-centered, most self-forgetful, most spontaneous in his activities…” (Toward a Psychology of Being, p. 37)
“My subjects had put opposites together in such a way as to make me realize that regarding selfishness and unselfishness as contradictory and mutually exclusive is itself characteristic of a lower level of personality development. So also in my subjects were many other dichotomies resolved into unities, cognition vs. conation (heart vs. head, wish vs. fact) became cognition ‘structured with’ conation as instinct and reason came to the same conclusions. Duty became pleasure, and pleasure merged with duty. The distinction between work and play became shadowy. How could selfish hedonism be opposed to altruism, when altruism became selfishly pleasurable? Those most mature of all people were also strongly childlike. These same people, the strongest egos ever described and the most definitely individual, were also precisely the ones who could be most easily ego-less, self-transcending, and problem-centered. ” (p. 139- 140)
The very process of growth enables us to develop more and more fully, thereby allowing us to transcend self.
“They are all integrators, able to bring separates and even opposites together into unity. We speak here of the ability to integrate and of the play back and forth between integration within the person, and his ability to integrate whatever it is he is doing in the world. To the extent that creativeness is constructive, synthesizing, unifying, and integrative, to that extent does it depend in part on the inner integration of the person. ” (p. 140)
Developing our sense of self (ego) and our ego-strength enables us to experience the kind of personal security and centeredness that eliminates the need for ego-stroking. It’s paradoxical: The person with a “big ego” is insecure and undeveloped. The macho guy, the authoritarian boss, the name-dropper, and the person who is ego-centric and whose egotism colors and contaminates all his communications and behaviours is actually the person lacking a strong sense of self. The flaunting of ego, aggression, name-dropping the famous people, etc. are attempts to become secure and to feel okay.
Ego-strength endows us with a strong sense of self so that we have nothing to prove. We can now get our ego out of the way and operate from a quiet sense of centeredness. Ego-strength gives us the hardiness and energy to sustain our persistence in living for something bigger than ourselves.
Contrast this with the ego-centric person who is constantly positioning him or herself at the center of the universe. Such a person cannot let go of his or her own point of view. Even his perception is part of his ego-investment. This prevents the ego-centric person to understand others, to empathize with others, to step out of oneself and to take another’s perspective. This indicates the lack of growth, of immaturity. It is the lack of self-actualization, not a sign of it.
We all go through the stage of being ego-centric (or self-centered) because it is a stage of growth. It takes a lot of work, development, and personal resources to develop our sense of self— to know ourselves, to develop self-awareness, self-understanding, self-discipline. Today these are the qualities of emotional intelligence and the prerequisites for success, maturity, and adulthood.
We center on our self when our sense of self is undeveloped in order to address the first developmental task— that of creating a solid identity. Being self-centered manifests the lack of development. It indicates that we have not yet developed strong enough ego-boundaries or self-definition. Our ego-boundaries enable us to recognize where we start and stop, where others begin and end. Ego-boundaries enable us to discern what we are responsible for (accountability) and what we are responsible to (relationship). Without ego-boundaries, we personalize things, relate in co-dependent ways, and interpret everything in terms of self. This is, in part, what we means by “the ego getting in the way.”
Contrast this with the self-actualizers who have solved the problem of self and who now knows how to be a person in his or her own right. Now they can focus on things outside of them and on true problems that need solving. Now they can relate to others.
The bottom line is that we do not achieve self-actualization via egocentric concentration on our own psychic navels. Instead, we self-actualize as we grow, settle the first existential questions, satisfy the lower needs, and develop a mature sense of self. This also explains why Maslow used “self-actualization” as a synonym of growth and personal development.
Here’s the fourth paradox. The process for “getting the ego out of the way” is to make the ego strong enough so that we can become self-forgetful. To reach this level of development, we have to gratify our lower needs. As we do, the higher or self-actualization needs emerge. It’s through these higher needs that we are able to be ego-transcending and self-forgetful, and in moments of peak experience. Now we become ego-less. We experience a level of motivation where we are unmotivated, and not needing.
“Self-actualization begins with self, to create the sense of safety that allows one to get beyond self. The relative absence of fear: they were less afraid of what other people would say or demand or laugh at. ” (p. 140)
Because of their lack of fear of their own insides, lack of fear of their own impulses, emotions, thoughts, they are more self-accepting.
“Creativity is an epiphenomenon of one’s greater wholeness and integration. As a consequence, more of themselves is available for use, for enjoyment, creative purposes. They waste less of their time and energy protecting themselves against themselves.” (p. 140)
To transcend our ego we have to gratify our lower needs and move to the higher levels. First, we have to take care of ourselves. Doing so is not being “selfish,” it is growing and maturing.
Speaking of self-actualizing people synthesizing opposites to create new and higher levels of synergy describes one of the basic processes for transcending our ego. We do not transcend our ego by denying it, resisting it, hating it, or ignoring our basic needs as a human self. Instead we transcend via the process of growth into our full mature development. This requires personal strength and courage. It requires independence, self-sufficiency, and strength of character—all of which describes “ego-strength.” So by developing a strong identity, there’s no need to preserve a fragile identity. This is how self-actualizing people transcend self-centered concerns and ego-defenses.
Peaking and Ego-Transcendence
The ultimate expression of self-actualization is the peak experience. Maslow (1962) describes this as a momentary state.
“. . . is an episode, or a spurt, in which the powers of the person come together in a particularly efficient and intensely enjoyable way, and in which he is more integrated and less split, more open for experience, more idiosyncratic, more perfectly expressive or spontaneous, or fully functioning, more creative, more humorous, more ego-transcending, more independent of his lower needs. He becomes in these episodes more truly himself, more perfectly actualizing in his potentialities, closer to the core of his being, more fully human.” (p. 91)
In the peak experience we experience the loss of ego and became egoless. In this we transcend our ego as we become so completely in the moment and engaged in something other than ourselves. We transcend the here-and-now and encompass the whole of reality in an engagement by which we solve problems and contribute to others.
So, what’s the story about self-actualization and the ego myth? The term “self-actualization” refers to growing into one’s full development as a human being. It refers to becoming a fully-developed, mature, and whole person who can be present to others and can contribute out of his or her strengths and resources. Self-actualization is not “an ego trip,” nor a form of selfishness. Conversely, it is through self-actualizing, that we transcend our ego or sense of self as we get lost in the being-values of truth, beauty, justice, goodness, etc.
As such, the self-actualization process enables us to transcend our individual ego so that we live for values that are higher than ourselves —for justice, order, beauty, peace, contribution, discovery, etc. It is in this very thing that explains that those who contribute the most and make the most difference in the world are the self-actualizers. They create self-actualizing groups, companies, organizations, and businesses. They inspire all human beings to extend beyond just themselves to creating a better world and to imagining a world that lives above the “jungle world” of the lower needs.
And because of that, we in Neuro-Semantics and Meta-Coaching see self-actualizing as the very process that enables people to become not only change embracers at the personal level, but at the group and social and cultural level. But that’s a topic for another time.
Maslow, Abraham. (1968). Toward a Psychology of Being.