When one of my coaching clients, Alex, was passed over for a promotion, she had to reckon with a bruised ego. She felt like a failure and, in her embarrassment, she withdrew at work. She stopped speaking up in meetings, avoided her co-workers, and quit taking on new responsibilities. And, in the end, she only further hurt her chances of advancing in the company.
Like Alex, we all have egos made up of certain beliefs about our personalities, talents, and abilities. While the ego is a necessary part of our identities, it can also be something of a troublemaker. If left unchecked, your ego can cause you to act out in less-than-productive ways.
However, when used correctly, your ego can also help you build confidence in yourself and transform your relationships for the better. Here’s a short guide to finding the healthy balance.
How do you know if your ego is in control?
Your ego is crafty. You don’t always know when it’s taken over. If you find yourself relating to the following points, it’s likely that your ego is at the wheel:
- You feel intense jealousy when others succeed.
- You have a persistent need to be right during arguments.
- You place a lot of emphasis on winning at all costs.
- You’re eager to jump in with your idea, but are slow to seek input from others.
Sound familiar? Follow these few do’s and don’ts to keep your ego in check.
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DO acknowledge how your ego helps you
The ego pops up to protect you from hurt or rejection, which are deep human fears that everyone wrestles with. The goal is to acknowledge feelings when they arise without letting your ego get defensive.
When you realize you’re getting caught up in negativity, think of how your ego is doing its job by trying to protect you from pain. Then use the Name It and Reframe strategy to change the story and spur you toward positive action.
DON’T allow your ego to give you tunnel vision
Your ego can create an echo chamber. You might think you’re right, but if you’re the only voice speaking, who’s to say? Your ego can lead you to discredit the opinions of other people on your team or to tune out your partner during a discussion.
To build strong relationships, you have to nip this self-centeredness in the bud. That starts by appreciating valid, valuable ideas from others. They say two heads are better than one for a reason — because a diversity of opinions and viewpoints actually leads to more creative solutions.
- Listen to your colleagues before chiming in during a meeting.
- Ask permission before giving advice.
- Improve your coaching skills so that you can help people arrive at their own solutions (rather than telling them what to do).
- Ban blaming, shaming language like, “You always do that!”
- Show appreciation for your partner’s perspective. Words of affirmation like, “That’s a great point” or “Thanks for sharing your feelings with me” help disagreements move along more productively.
- Take a time out if things get heated and you need to recenter yourself.
DO look at the upside of letting go
When your defenses are up, it precludes learning and personal growth. Paradoxically, the ego often appears most strongly in situations where we stand to learn the most, like getting feedback or trying (and failing) to develop a new habit.
Instead of throwing walls up, consider what you stand to gain when you let yourself be vulnerable. How much could your relationship improve if you swallowed your pride and had a difficult conversation you’ve been putting off? What might be possible if you took the leap and followed your dreams?
Fear of the unknown is daunting, yes. But refusing to open yourself up to the possibilities life holds? That’s the biggest risk of all. Use your ego as a companion on the journey, but don’t be afraid to tell it to take a backseat if need be.
Melody Wilding is a coach and licensed social worker who helps ambitious high-achievers manage the emotional aspects of having a successful career. She also teaches Human Behavior at Hunter College in NYC. A popular speaker, Melody has delivered talks for TedX and others.