Taken from UNIBUDS Annual Magazine 2002, a talk given by Rod Lee
The Over-Inflated Ego
A person with a big ego could sometimes appear to have high self-confidence. However, there is a fine line between self-confidence and inflated ego. One needs to have self-confidence. If there is no self-confidence no goal can be achieved. However, on the other hand, the self-inflated attitude builds one’s image to be greater than what one really is. One can do this either externally or internally or both. For instance, one could be claiming oneself as being an expert in a particular field. This becomes a problem when they are faced with other people’s conflicting opinions especially from the same field.
Self-inflation usually results in boasting to others in a way that relates back to selfishness and self-interest. It’s not a pleasant experience to be with people who talk only about all their achievements, or how good they are, because we get a distinct impression that they are actually not interested in us. Their interest in us is merely as partly to their grandeurs and to be there to witness their glory or their extraordinary talent.
It will become a barrier if the over-inflated ideas about our selves are getting larger. A problem will arise when we realise that we do not meet our own expectations and it leads to a sense of frustration. This is where the ‘should personality’ comes in. For example, “I should sit in front of the class”, “I should do this … I should do that…” The self-ego therefore doesn’t mean true self-confidence.
Arrogance is another product of the over-inflated ego which leads to a very destructive relationship. We can’t tell the arrogant person anything as he insists to know it all or as if he has all the knowledge. For instance, they will say “No, no, no.. don’t tell me. I know that, I think…” This characteristic really becomes a problem to the relationship. All of us like to be in some forms of relationship, be it friendship, marriage, etc. However, if there is a know-it-all attitude, the relationship is only coming form one side – where one becomes the witness to the other person’s altruism.
We can be a conceited person and be successful, but at the same time, we make a lot of enemies. It doesn’t create harmony in our lives but a lot more conflicts. In a workplace, for example, if the person in-charge has only one opinion and that he thinks his opinion is right, because he knows, so then there is no teamwork nor expansion of business. A common statement in the business world is ‘The fish stinks from the head down’. That applies to an organisation which is dependent on the leader. That organisation leader may employ consultants and experts in various roles and fields to work in the company. However, if he is too arrogant to listen to them, then the expansion of his business is very limited unless he has the knowledge of everything within that business, which of course, doesn’t happen.
Part of arrogance is pride, which can be defined as ego by proxy. For example, the child is fantastic, so the parent is fantastic. In reality, however, pride doesn’t end up being so much advantageous to us. It doesn’t build better relationship when it is. “Empty things make noise”. It is when someone feels a lack of something in their lives that they make noise, and this too applies to arrogant people.
Ego grasping resulting in low self-esteem
On the other hand, the opposite side of the over-inflated ego is ego grasping. which manifests itself as low self-esteem. This could be seen in feelings like “I’m not good”, “No, no, I could never do that”, “No, I’m hopeless”, or “I’m terrible”. If this kind of attitude continues, it almost translates into self-hatred, thinking that “I’m a worthless person” or “I’m not good”. This is also a problem for us. Sometimes this negative ego may even be attention-getting device as well. For example, “Oh, I’m no good. You think so? Oh…”
One way a child could suffer from low self-esteem is due to high expectation from the parents. This kind of situation is sometimes may even trigger suicide among children. This is because the child gives up when they finally could not face the consequences of not meeting their parents’ expectations.
Dealing with ego
The basic primus of all beings is to find happiness. The arrogant person thinks that if they press you with their supremacy, it isd going to make them happy. The other person with low self-esteem thinks that if one just does not notice them, it will make them happy. However, the truth is that both extremes do not make anyone happy.
Buddhism being the middle way recognises these extremes. Both these extremes are not useful to us. They all come from the same basis (i.e., the over-inflated ego or low self-esteem) which is self absorption. They do not step outside themselves to see the bigger pictur. People with low self-esteem never turn around and ask you genuinely “How are you?”. Similarly the arrogant person never asks “What your story?”. It does not happen because they are so absorbed in their extremes of “I” and “my” experiences that they do not have any room to move. This becomes a suffering situation.
In Buddhism, we want happiness and we avoid suffering. The secret is to find out the “technologies” of the mind that brings the happiness. We need to slowly find out what works for us. If we only have self-interest in mind, then we learn very little.
Honesty within ourselves and to others is very important. Pride and arrogance cause dissociation in relationship. Lack of self-esteem teaches us not to achieve anything. Therefore, we have to find ourselves a way to deal with excessive pride and a way to deal with low self-esteem. We constantly want praise and never want blame. We want high positions but not low positions. For example, “My rock is better than your rock. Mine is from the top of the mountain, yours is from the bottom of the mountain”. Doesn’t this all seem ridiculous? We can change the information in terms of bits of things, but not our personality. Our personality is still the same problem.
The reason we need to manage our ego is because it doesn’t give us happiness. People with low self-esteem believe that they are not good and thus constantly projects themselves in that way. As a result, people often become superior over such persons and even get easily irritated and angry with them. For example, they would be saying, “Loook at what they’ve done!” or “How could you do that?!” This causes the person with low self-esteem to feel even more melancholic and insignificant.
On the other hand, when we look at this irritation and anger more closely, we realise that we can’t be angry with someone else unless we feel superior to them. We have to feel self-righteous to be angry. To be self-righteous one has to have the opinion that my ideas are far greater than others. This could also cause conflict for the person who thinks this way.
All in all, we must practice healthy opinions regarding ourselves. We shall not be over or under-inflated because we know that it will cause problems for us. We have to recognise from our own attitudes. At the end of the day, it is us who are experiencing happiness or suffering. We are the ones who should make a choice to start living a more balanced life.