Ego, Narcissism, and Spiritual Development
Do you understand the difference between having a big ego and being a narcissist? Maybe it’s a clear issue for most, but I think it can be confusing. Knowing the difference is important, because a big ego is generally healthy—contrary to popular belief—while narcissism is not. Having them confused can be detrimental to your growth and emotional well being.
Discerning Ego from Narcissism
“Ego” is the psychological definition of the conscious self, the “executive of the personality governed by the reality principle.” Coined by Freud, “ego” is used by most branches of psychology to describe the conscious self. This covers a lot of ground, from how we see ourselves, to how we see the world, to how we solve problems and form relationships. Our ego is our basic relationship with life.
It is not bad to have a big ego. In fact, if you want to accomplish big things in life, a big ego is necessary. Yes, necessary! A big ego means that you are confident, realistic, and able to care for yourself through the difficulties (hard work, rejection, naysayers, etc.) of trying to achieve something. People with well-developed egos tend to roll with the flow of life, stay focused on their goals, and keep a healthy perspective. They neither sink into hopelessness at failure, nor feel invincible with victory. They’re willing to do what it takes to get what they want and stand for what they believe in. Without a big ego, you will not have the self-sense necessary to persevere in the face of adversity.
“Narcissism,” on the other hand, describes an overabundance of self-absorption. The term, also coined by Freud, was taken from the Greek hero Narcissus, who was unable to tear his eyes from his own reflection. Narcissists tend to see the world and everything that happens to them in the same, self-centered light, with little regard for others, including spouses, children, and friends. (In fact, parental narcissism probably causes more emotional harm to children than any other single trait. It is at the root of most self-involved and self-destructive behavior.)
We all start out life as flaming narcissists. Infants, utterly self-absorbed and completely ruled by their impulses, are incapable of anything more. As they grow and develop, they become more aware of their surroundings, eventually communicating and learning how to have relationships. They learn that other people have feelings that must be considered, and they learn to share. They learn about right and wrong. Eventually, they learn about love, both brotherly and romantic, and they learn that sometimes, personal sacrifices are necessary in its name. With any luck, by the time they’re young adults, they’ve developed a healthy ego, and they’ve shed most of their childhood narcissism.
In one very real sense, personal development is the process of outgrowing our narcissism. As we grow, we become increasingly aware of belonging to something greater than ourselves: a family, a community, a class, a society, a planet, and pretty much in that order. The larger our sense of belonging, the less narcissistic we’ve become. For example, “Think globally, act locally” is a more sophisticated viewpoint than “Proud to be an American” because it takes into account the entire planet rather than just one nation. The most extreme example of a lack of narcissism is perhaps spiritual enlightenment. People who attain enlightenment disidentify with their “small” self, or personal identity, realizing it to be nothing more than a manifestation of Spirit (God, Emptiness, whatever you wish to name it), which is our True Nature. We don’t all end up here, but it’s important to understand that the ultimate goal of all personal development is, paradoxically, freeing ourselves of the personal. If you look inward and contemplate this for any length of time (which I suggest you do), you will know it to be true. Of course, the personal includes much more than narcissism (which I’ll get to in a moment), but enlightenment is the best example of a narcissistic-free state I can think of.
It’s true that a big ego and narcissism can look the same. However, they are vastly different; polar opposites, in fact. A narcissist only appears to think highly of himself, while a person with a well-developed ego really does. Narcissists have fragile self-images that must be coddled and pacified; truth takes a back seat to maintaining the desired self-image. If you’ve ever run up against a hard core narcissist’s self-image, you’ll know it by the viciousness with which he defends his house of cards; for example, confronting an addict who has no intention of changing. Ouch.
A person with a big ego, on the other hand, has a solid sense of self that does not require any delicate handling. He has confidence and healthy self-regard. Big egos can sometimes be irritating in their single-mindedness and unwillingness to compromise, but understanding how this is different from narcissism is critical to growth. If you have narcissism and ego confused, you may shy away from ego development for fear of becoming conceited or arrogant, and this is exactly backwards. Conceit, arrogance, and other aggrandizing traits are much more likely to stem from a lack of development, not from a healthy ego. This is perhaps one of the most important distinctions you must make if you want to stay the course of personal growth.
Including and Transcending
It may seem contradictory to say that a big ego is essential to personal growth and that disidentification with ego is also essential to personal growth; that to reach advanced levels of development (i.e., spiritual enlightenment), we must disidentify with our personal selves. Yet both are true, and here’s why: All development follows a similar pattern of “transcending and including.” That is, in order to master a higher level of awareness, whether it be rollerblading or spiritual enlightenment, we must first become aware of it, practice until it becomes a part of us, then transcend it by moving on to the next level of difficulty.
Like the pages in a book, we progress through life, each chapter dependent on its predecessor and necessary for its successor. “Include and transcend” occurs from birth forward. Once we learn to walk, we don’t think about doing it, we just do it. But we then move on to running, skipping, and jumping. Once we learn to talk, we don’t think about it, we just do it. But talking enables us to move on to reading, writing, grammar, linguistics, and all other language-related pursuits. Every skill you have, you once had to practice. But once you got it, it became automatic, second nature. You disidentified with it and moved on to something else.
This pattern is universal with all development. Everything starts out with less complexity and moves toward more complexity. The greater the complexity, the higher the level of development. Yet each level of development builds on and contains every simpler level that came before it. (This is why “Think Globally, Act Locally” is a more sophisticated viewpoint than “Proud to be an American.”) Disidentification is just another word for transcendence: when you move to a higher level, you no longer identify with the current level. This doesn’t mean you leave it behind. It means that it is no longer the object of your focus because it has become a part of who you are.
The crucial point is that a thing must be included before it can be transcended. It must be part of our psyche, second nature. When you try to transcend an aspect of the psyche that you’ve never fully owned (included), you end up not with disidentification, but with dissociation, or disowned aspects of your self that you repress from your conscious awareness. These disowned aspects can be both good and bad, and are what make up your shadow. They are fodder for all manner of psychological and emotional difficulties. In fact, many psychological and emotional pathologies can actually be defined as the “include and transcend” process gone awry at an early stage of development, usually due to some sort of trauma; the worse the trauma, the worse the dissociation.
For example, if a child suffers abuse at an early age, she may be too terrified to consciously deal with her powerful feelings, so she represses them. They fester in her unconscious and cause all sorts of problems, from low self-esteem to fear of intimacy, which as an adult woman she experiences only as confusion and pain. Unless she owns the powerful repressed feelings—that is, includes them in her conscious awareness—she is doomed to continued misery. Without conscious inclusion, she is incapable of getting past the feelings, of transcending them. It simply won’t happen.
The same is true of ego (as well as pretty much everything else). You cannot transcend something you haven’t included. While it’s true that ego must be transcended to achieve enlightenment, it’s also true that it must first be developed to a full, healthy state. As ironic as it might sound, if you want to grow spiritually, you must also grow mentally and emotionally. You can’t skip over these aspects of self in your quest for Awakening. If you do, you may achieve advanced states, and perhaps even some form of enlightenment, but it will be fragmented and incomplete, and your fullest potential will remain out of reach until you deal with the dissociated parts of yourself that you’d really prefer to ignore.
As stated earlier, ego is the executor of our personality, our relationship with the world. It isn’t really one single thing that you can work on. Rather, having a healthy ego is the result of growth in many areas. You must face and deal with the dissociated aspects of your self, which we all have to some degree. You must deal with addictive and compulsive issues, rooting out the source of these impulses. You must deal with self-esteem, self-image, childhood trauma, shame, resentments, and any and all other blocks to growth you know you have. We can’t get at everything, but we have to make the effort anyway. Along with this “uncovering” work, we must also develop ourselves spiritually, seeking to answer our questions of “ultimate concern.” We must develop and live by our values and understand our place in the world in a way that feels right for us.
All areas are dependent on each other and are necessary to develop if we want to reach our highest potential. Spiritual growth without emotional growth results in dissociation (which has all sorts of different faces, including the Spanish Inquisition, Jim Jones, Muslim extremism, and most branches of fundamental Christianity). Emotional growth without spiritual development results in more assertive narcissists. And mental development is essential for all growth, as cognitive capacity is a prerequisite for pretty much everything.
Thus, ego can only be developed by working on everything else. It’s not easy, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s a lifelong adventure, always unfolding before us, always just beginning, always promising more mystery, adventure, and excitement than the best novel we’ve ever read. It is a journey not to be missed.
In summary, ego development is a necessary aspect of the personal growth process, while narcissism is the thing we’re trying to outgrow. We are all to some degree narcissistic; we all have shadow aspects we’d rather not deal with. But we must be willing to face them if we are to transcend them. “Include and transcend” is the basic pattern for all growth, and explains why ego development is necessary on the path to spiritual enlightenment. Outgrowing our narcissism isn’t the only factor in personal development, but it is an essential one. Integral personal development—which ultimately results in enlightenment—requires both.
This essay is but a brief introduction to the ideas of narcissism, ego, spiritual enlightenment, and “include and transcend.” These are all extremely important concepts in personal growth, all rather complex, and I’ll be writing more about all of them in the future. For now, here are some links to further your research.