The bold science and emotional impact of public and private ego

A successful former colleague of mine is someone who publicly, is without any airs. Privately, she believes she should be in an even bigger position than the one she’s in. She acknowledges she’s doing great work and receiving recognition for it. But like any person with a burning passion and desire, she wants much more.

I think she’s one of the best at her profession. She’s genuine, authentic and very hard-working. She seems to have it all. Yet I find that her ego is often at odds with how she’s perceived.

My friends, this is both a blessing and a curse. Here’s why:

Ego is a tightrope act you will walk personally, professionally, publicly and privately your whole life. Achieve success of any kind, you’ll find external recognition for your accomplishments. You’ll feel good on the inside. Ideally, this will lead to confidence and perseverance, rather than an inflated sense of self-worth which only leads to the pursuit of the next “high.”

This high can never truly be satisfied by any accomplishment. It’s driven by pride and ego, which will push you further away from what you truly desire at your inner core. Ego is something we always need to stay on top of.

The Science of Ego

Ego can lead to overconfidence. Being overly-confident often leads to mistakes. Dr. Joyce Ehrlinger of Washington State University, in a combined study with professors from Stanford and Florida State University, found overconfidence can lead to poor decisions:

“A little bit of overconfidence can be helpful,” said Ehrlinger, “but larger amounts of overconfidence can lead people to make bad decisions and to miss out on opportunities to learn.”

Particularly with social media, we’re wont to share our measures of success. All of us, even the most introverted among us, want to feel appreciated and recognized by our peers. For some, it’s easy to manifest a cult of personality, where it seems our whole world revolves around how great we are. We get frustrated when others don’t recognize our tremendous value!

With ego, when you keep it in check, you’re doing the right thing. When you go too far, losing control, it’s not what might hurt you on the outside, but what might affect you on the inside that could disrupt your behavior. Damage to your reputation can certainly hurt. I tend to focus more on character. The worst damage is self-inflicted. It’s dangerous when you corrupt your own sense of value and self-worth.

Are you fighting one of these battles?

Compassion Versus Ego

Dr. Heidi Grant, a Senior Scientist at the Neuroleadership Institute, and associate director for the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University favors self-compassion. She wrote the book, Nine Things Successful People Do Differently, and believes self-compassion is instrumental in taking us away from anxiety and undue stress, toward optimism and happiness:

“Self-compassion is a willingness to look at your own mistakes and shortcomings with kindness and understanding — it’s embracing the fact that to err is indeed human. When you are self-compassionate in the face of difficulty, you neither judge yourself harshly nor feel the need to defensively focus on all your awesome qualities to protect your ego. It’s not surprising that self-compassion leads, as many studies show, to higher levels of personal well-being, optimism, and happiness, and to less anxiety and depression.” — Dr. Heidi Grant: Quote Source

I hope both privately and publicly that you are always compassionate to yourself. Despite the winds of change and emotion, it’s imperative to find time to be kind to yourself. This is where surrounding yourself with people who love and empathize with you matters so much.

Always stay true to yourself. Privately, I know you have pride and ego. So do I. (So does every person on the planet!) Don’t ever let your perception of how people see you on the outside, change the way you carry yourself (character) on the inside. Over the long haul, you’ll find life will be so much better if you live with integrity.

Even as I say this, there’s no doubt many successful people use their public and private ego to fuel their ascent to the top. Look at our President, Donald Trump. At some point, he made a very deliberate decision to act the way he does. No one instinctively behaves like they’re the greatest gift to the world. At least I can’t imagine it. It’s repugnant. It’s a choice.

Most of us find pompous, self-righteous behavior detestable, right? And yet, the confusing part is that it’s hard to argue with the results of many successful people who are egocentric. It drove Donald Trump all the way to the White House. Big ego drives athletes, entertainers and leaders. It’s hard to argue against that choice they made. They make a lot more money than you and I. They have mammoth social media followings, everyone knows who they are.

At least on the outside. But what about on the inside? This is where it gets challenging.

We’ll never know the burdens they bear in private. And the B.S. they likely add to their lives by being who they are. Stress, anxiety, depression, mood swings, highs, and lows. We don’t see that from our view. But you can rest assured it’s there.

Self-Consciousness and Ego

Take this hilarious study Paul Bloom recounts from a 2000 experiment by psychologist Thomas Gilovich:

“Gilovich and his colleagues asked undergraduates to wear a piece of clothing that they found embarrassing — a t-shirt with a picture of singer-songwriter Barry Manilow on it. After putting on the shirt, the undergraduates had to spend some time in a room with other students and were later asked to guess how many of the other students noticed what they were wearing. The undergraduates tended to overestimate the proportion by a large margin, and did the same when asked to wear a t-shirt with a positive image on it, like Bob Marley or Martin Luther King Jr. In study after study, experimental subjects thought that other people would notice them much more than they actually did.”

Barry Manilow! How embarrassing! What?! Look him up! Talk about a hilarious study in self-perception, ego and how much people’s opinions of us really matter.

Take inventory of how good you have things. Even when you find yourself peering over your shoulder to what one of your competitors, friends or co-workers has, remember to hit the reset button and take a deep breath. There’s no need for you to walk around puffing your chest. Ask yourself this — would you be OK having the material possessions you currently don’t, in order to become someone you’re really not?

Only you’ll know the answer to that one. My hunch is you wouldn’t.

Build the life you want without struggling mightily on the inside and outside. You’ll flourish mentally, emotionally and spiritually if you jettison ego to the side.

Put in the work. Sacrifice things in your life that you don’t need in order to get to where you want to be. Take risks and chances that align with your character — who you truly are at your core. Be genuine, be real and the right opportunities (and relationships) are going to come for you. Always stay true to yourself and leave big egos to megalomaniacs.

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This article first appeared on Medium.