Encourages learners to reflect on their own identity and related elements/dimensionsIntercultural CompetenceMaintaining awareness of one’s own identitySkill to raise identity related awareness within the group

Understanding the connection between the identity and the ego

One of the many definitions of ego is: “the part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity”. Understanding that our identity is not fixed but is rather a collection of ideas and interpretations about who we are can give us the capacity to, when necessary, think critically about what our ego is telling us particularly when the instinct is there to preserve our identity, or ego, at all costs. The ego has gotten a lot of bad rap, but the truth is that the ego is neither negative nor positive. It is merely a sense of self that allows us to operate and function in the world, giving us an idea of who we are and where we belong. The ego is only problematic when it takes control over us rather than our true selves being in control, and when the things it tells us to do or how it is interpreting events becomes damaging to us and/or others.

Why did I choose this tool?

The only way to be in control of our ego rather than letting it control us is to become aware of how the ego operates, and most importantly to differentiate between the ego and between our true selves. When we become aware of the ego and its operations, it can no longer “operate in darkness” and control our actions. It becomes more like our “employee” that has to check in with us and make sure that its words and actions are aligned with our true selves and not working against it.

How does this apply to being a trainer?

As trainers, we are continually in the fortunate or unfortunate position of needing to face our ego and our sense of selves, and we are continually being faced with the ego and sense of self of the others. Becoming very aware of ourselves in this sense and being able to question ourselves is the way to being able to navigate any situation and to be able to deliver an effective training rather then get lost in our own ego’s demands, or even the ego demands of others. An effective training will speak to the true self of others, rather than reinforce or attack their ego and identity. And the only way to do this is by being in touch with our true selves, the self that goes beyond ego and identity. When participants see our true selves, also defined as vulnerability since the ego is also a form of self-defense, it will give them the courage to lower their own defenses (aka: ego) and allow for true communication, growth and contribution to take place.

Main content:

The ego is an identity that we have constructed for ourselves, and it is false in the sense that it doesn’t come from our true self deep within but rather is a combination of our beliefs about ourselves. This includes beliefs about our personality, our talents, our preferences, our skills, our upbringing, our nationality or anything else that we believe is defining us. Although the characteristics may be true (as in we may truly have the nationality or skills that we believe we have) the part that isn’t necessarily true and definitely isn’t fixed is that those things define who we are.

When we have thoughts about ourselves, and we consistently agree with those thoughts and reinforce them, they become part of our self-image. These thoughts are things like:

“I’m beautiful.”

“I’m an engineer.”

“I’m a good father.”

“I’m a player.”

“I’m a devout Buddhist.”

“I’m a vegan.”

“I’m messy.”

“I’m not a good communicator.”

“I’m a great cook.”

Take a moment to think about what you consider to be “the good parts of yourself”.

Now take a moment to think about what you consider to be “the bad parts of yourself”.

It is very likely that the things you consider to be the “bad parts of yourself” are the things that you were reprimanded or maybe even punished for especially when you were very young.

Conversely, it is very likely that the things you consider to be “the good parts of yourself” are the things that you were praised for or maybe even rewarded for especially when you were very young.

Unless you have taken time to consider every aspect of yourself and make conscious choices about it, your identity/ego was likely created based on messages you received about yourself from the outside, especially the positive and negative reinforcements.

Some cultures have reinforced in their children a sense of superiority over other cultures, or a sense of inferiority when the truth is that “all men were created equal” as was powerfully stated by Thomas Jefferson in the US declaration of independence.

When we see ourselves as superior or inferior to other people, we are being led by our ego rather than our true selves because superiority/inferiority is a mental construct and isn’t something that comes from our true selves.

Add to this the fact that what we consider to be “attributes” or “flaws” can drastically change according to the context, and it can leave us very confused while at the same time free from needing to be the same thing all the time.

Consider someone who is very sensitive emotionally, is it an attribute or a flaw?

Maybe a boy has been told by his father that he should never show his emotions and grew up believing that in order to be seen as strong he could never be seen as emotional. Because of this he came to see himself as a strong, non-emotional man and has lived by that identity for as long as he can remember.

However now he is in a relationship and his partner is unhappy because “he never shows his true feelings”, and some of his work colleagues describe him as cold and insensitive. What he adopted as his identity through positive external reinforcement has now become a hindrance in his relationship and his work.

The good news is it doesn’t have to be this way.

How to Spot the Ego

It takes a lot of practice to be able to differentiate what is coming from our true selves, and what is coming from the ego. The ego is constantly looking to reaffirm itself, and therefore it can see threats or even glory when there actually are none in reality. And of course, when we speak of reality, everyone has their own version of what is real and that makes it pretty hard to define as well.

Here are some ways to understand when our thoughts, words and actions are being influenced more by the ego than by our true selves:

  1. Excessive emotional reactions that are disproportionate to the situation (becoming enraged by a comment, believing that your life is over when you lose a job, etc.)
  2. Over preoccupation with what others are thinking about your looks, your position, your “selflessness”, your financial status, your ethnicity, etc.
  3. Needing to always be in control in social settings, feeling easily insecure when you are put in a new situation without any pre-defined title, role or task
  4. Not able to handle constructive criticism or feedback and reacting by blaming the other person for their opinions rather then checking if they have merit or not
  5. Getting very upset when someone voices an opinion or belief that is contrary to yours rather than being able to just listen and understand what they are trying to say, regardless of whether or not you agree with them
  6. Being stressed and overworked all the time rather then taking things as they come and going about it in a relaxed way, means that the ego is overly attached to the accomplishments and feels that it will not be able to survive without them
  7. Perceiving threats and dangers everywhere, from a look someone gives you, to not being included in an important decision, to someone being late to meet with you
  8. Caring more about the politics and bureaucracy surrounding a job or task rather than the task itself, in other words, more concerned about what you seem to be doing then what you’re actually doing.

When it comes to the true self, on the other hand, it is:

1. Certain and clear about things. The ego gets influenced by countless outside influences, leading to confusion.

2. The true self is stable. The ego shifts constantly.

3. The true self is driven by a deep sense of truth. The ego is driven by the unending demands of “I, me, mine.”

4. The true self is at peace. The everyday self is easily agitated and disturbed.

5. The true self is love. The ego, lacking love, seeks it from outside sources.

This will give you an indication of where you are at and whether you are being mostly driven by the true self or mostly driven by the ego. Both are present in every one of us, but we can get better at listening and being driven more by our true selves then our ego and this will lead us to feel calmer, happier, more fulfilled and at peace with ourselves and with the rest of the world.

Is the ego arrogant or insecure?

You’ve probably heard, or maybe used the phrase yourself, “his/her ego is too big”. This implies that someone driven by their ego is overly confident, proud and most likely comfortable in public settings, and someone not driven by their ego is humble and meek and shies away from the spotlight.

This is a major misconception and can lead to people artificially making themselves “small” in order to not come across as having a “big ego” when in reality they are feeding their ego by avoiding risk, avoiding criticism, and essentially avoiding growth.

Both arrogance and insecurity are coming from the ego, while genuine confidence and genuine humility come from the true self.

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

This timeless poem by Rudyard Kipling shows how we can experience life without letting the events in it or how we happen to be positioned define us (see the full poem at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46473/if— )

Letting Go of the Ego

This may surprise you, but I will actually tell you not to let go of your ego. Telling you to let go of your ego is like telling you to get rid of your right hand: not practical, not pleasant and definitely not advisable. But you just found out that your hand is out of control, and you’re constantly hitting yourself with it and at times hitting other people as well. What should you do then?

  1. Observe – the first thing you need to do is observe and become very aware of what your hand is doing, whether you think it’s good or bad
  2. Detach – understand that you are not your hand, and if your hand has done something bad it doesn’t mean that you are a bad person, and if it’s done something good it doesn’t mean that you are a good person
  3. Understand – Why is your hand behaving as it is? What causes it? Is it fear? Anxiety? Not wanting to be hurt? Wanting to be seen? Wanting to be good?
  4. Examine – What are the results of your hands’ behavior? What positive outcomes have there been? What negative outcomes have there been?
  5. Control – Realize and enact control over your hand. Realize that you have the power over it, rather than believing that it has the power over you.
  6. Refine – Modify the actions of your hand to get the result you want. Try different things, different actions, different behaviors. Continue with what works well, and drop what doesn’t.

Reflection questions:

Here are some questions that you can ask yourself when you want to differentiate if you are being driven by the ego or by your true self. You can use them in any situation, but it’s easier to apply when you put it in a specific context. To do so, let’s imagine that you are giving a training on human rights. During the training, when you say that you define yourself as a feminist, one of the participants says that that’s stupid and that feminists are making the world a terrible place. Ask yourself:

  • At this moment do I care more about who is right or what is right?
  • Do I feel the need to defend my position because of how I will appear otherwise or do I feel that there is genuine learning for participants that can come from this?
  • As for the person who made this statement, what is his true self trying to say?
  • How would a response coming from my ego sound like (ex: stupid are people like you who don’t want to give women the same rights as men)?
  • How would a response coming from my true self sound like (ex: I understand that the term feminism can be interpreted in different ways, for me it means genuine respect for women and protection from exploitation, what does it mean to you)?
  • Do I feel the need just to win this argument, or am I looking for a deeper outcome?
  • Do I feel hurt? If so is this hurt genuine (coming from real harm done) or is it merely a blow to my perception of myself and therefore doesn’t need to be taken so seriously?
  • What is the best way to grow and contribute at this moment, rather than resorting to fight or flight?


How to apply it in everyday life:

If you find that you easily feel threatened, defensive, needing to prove yourself, needing to be right, and so on, it’s highly likely that you are being driven by the ego instead of the true self. The true self is much more stable, much calmer, much less easily offended, and not easily put down. And it means that you are suffering a whole lot more then you need to be. Your true self is much harder to define, and yet it is the strongest and most stable version of you. Therefore, whenever you recognize that the ego is at play rather than the true self, and you feel upset, defensive, or are beating yourself up or conversely touting your own horn, changing your focus to these 2 questions will bring you back in touch with your true self and with what really matters:

How can I grow?

How can I contribute?

These 2 questions will open up a world of possibilities that you hadn’t seen before and will set you free to be your true self once again.

Leilani van Rheenen

has been active in youth work, training and coaching since 2008. Her specialty is emotional intelligence, emotional fitness, since it is the primary ingredient in competences such as inter-cultural competence, learning to learn, cooperating successfully in teams, etc. Leilani’s contribution will combine the information and methods she has created with the vast array of tried and tested materials available. Leilani has developed herself as a trainer from the Salto training for trainers, but also from renowned coaches and authors, and adapted methods learned from these sources to meet the needs of youth workers.

Click here to read more about Leilani van Rheenen

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