The Pressing Need for Everyone to Quiet Their Egos
Scott Kaufman offers some sound psychology below but seems unaware that it is mainly Leftism that he is criticizing.
It is clear that Leftist advocacy serves ego needs. It is submitted here that the major psychological reason why Leftists so zealously criticize the existing order and advocate change is in order to feed a pressing need for self-inflation and ego-boosting -- and ultimately for power, the greatest ego boost of all.
They need public attention; they need to demonstrate outrage; they need to feel wiser and kinder and more righteous than most of their fellow man. They fancy for themselves the heroic role of David versus Goliath. They need to show that they are in the small club of the virtuous and the wise so that they can nobly instruct and order about their less wise and less virtuous fellow-citizens. Their need is a pressing need for attention, for self-advertisement and self-promotion -- generally in the absence of any real claims in that direction. They are people who need to feel important and who are aggrieved at their lack of recognition and power. One is tempted to hypothesize that, when they were children, their mothers didn't look when they said, "Mummy, look at me".
We live in some times. On the one hand, things are better than they've ever been. Overall rates of violence, poverty, and disease are down. There have been substantial increases in education, longevity, leisure time, and safety. On the other hand... We are more divided than ever as a species. Tribalism and identity politics are rampant on all sides of everything.
Steven Pinker and other intellectuals think that the answer is a return to Enlightenment values—things like reason, individualism, and the free expression of as many ideas as possible and an effective method for evaluating the truth of them. I agree that this is part of the solution, but I think an often underdiscussed part of the problem is much more fundamental: all of our egos are just too damn loud.*
Watching debates in the media (and especially on YouTube) lately has been making my head explode. There seems to be this growing belief that the goal is always to win. Not have a dialectical, well-intentioned, mutual search for overarching principles and productive ways forward that will improve humanity—but to just win and destroy.
Now, don't get me wrong—I find a good intellectual domination just as thrilling as the next person. But cheap thrills aside, I also care deeply about there actually being a positive outcome. Arriving at the truth and improving society may not be explicit goals of a WWE match, but surely these are worthy goals of public discourse?
There is also an interesting paradox at play here in that the more the ego is quieted, the higher the likelihood of actually reaching one's goals. I think we tend to grossly underestimate the extent to which the drive for self-enhancement actually gets in the way of reaching one's goals—even if one's goals are primarily agentic.
Since psychologists use of the term ego is very different ways, let me be clear how I am defining it here. I define the ego as that aspect of the self that has the incessant need to see itself in a positive light. Make no doubt: the self can be our greatest resource, but it can also be our darkest enemy. On the one hand, the fundamentally human capacities for self-awareness, self-reflection, and self-control are essential for reaching our goals.
On the other hand, the self will do anything to disavow itself of responsibility for any negative outcome it may have played a role. As one researcher put it, the self engenders “a self-zoo of self-defense mechanisms.” I believe we can refer to these defensive strategies to see the self in a positive light as the “ego”. A noisy ego spends so much time defending the self as if it were a real thing, and then doing whatever it takes to assert itself, that it often inhibits the very goals it is most striving for.
In recent years, Heidi Wayment and her colleagues have been developing a “quiet ego” research program grounded in Buddhist philosophy and humanistic psychology ideals, and backed by empirical research in the field of positive psychology. Paradoxically, it turns out that quieting the ego is so much more effective in cultivating well-being, growth, health, productivity, and a healthy, productive self-esteem, than focusing so loudly on self-enhancement.
To be clear, a quiet ego is not the same thing as a silent ego. Squashing the ego so much that it loses its identity entirely does not do yourself or the world any favors. Instead, the quiet ego perspective emphasizes balance and integration. As Wayment and colleagues put it, “The volume of the ego is turned down so that it might listen to others as well as the self in an effort to approach life more humanely and compassionately.” The quiet ego approach focuses on balancing the interests of the self and others, and cultivating growth of the self and others over time based on self-awareness, interdependent identity, and compassionate experience.
The goal of the quiet ego approach is to arrive at a less defensive, and more integrative stance toward the self and others, not lose your sense of self or deny your need for the esteem from others. You can very much cultivate an authentic identity that incorporates others without losing the self, or feeling the need for narcissistic displays of winning. A quiet ego is an indication of a healthy self-esteem, one that acknowledges one’s own limitations, doesn’t need to constantly resort to defensiveness whenever the ego is threatened, and yet has a firm sense of self-worth and competence.
According to Bauer and Wayment, the quiet ego consists of four deeply interconnected facets that can be cultivated: detached awareness, inclusive identity, perspective-taking, and growth-mindedness. These four qualities of the quiet ego contribute to having a general stance of balance and growth toward the self and others:
Detached Awareness. Those with a quiet ego have an engaged, nondefensive form of attention to the present moment. They are aware of both the positive and negatives of a situation, and their attention is detached from more ego-driven evaluations of the present moment. Rather, they attempt to see reality as clearly as possible. This requires openness and acceptance to whatever one might discover about the self or others in the present moment, and letting the moment unfold as naturally as possibly. It also involves the ability to revisit thoughts and feelings that have already occurred, examine them more objectively than perhaps one was able to in the moment, and make the appropriate adjustments that will lead to further growth.
Inclusive Identity. People whose egos are turned down in volume have a balanced or more integrative interpretation of the self and others. They understand other perspectives in a way that allows them to identify with the experience of others, break down barriers, and come to a deeper understanding of common humanity. An ability to be mindful, and the detached awareness that comes with it, can help facilitate an inclusive identity, especially under moments of conflict, such as having one’s identity or core values challenged. If your identity is inclusive, you’re likely to be cooperative and compassionate toward others rather than only working to help yourself.
Perspective-Taking. By reflecting on other viewpoints, the quiet ego brings attention outside the self, increasing empathy and compassion. Perspective taking and inclusive identity are intimately intertwined, as either one can trigger the other. For instance, the realization of one’s interdependence with others can lead to a greater understanding of the perspective of others.
Growth-Mindedness. A concern for prosocial development and change for self and others over time causes those with a quiet ego to question the long-term impact of their actions in the moment, and to view the present moment as part of an ongoing life journey instead of a threat to one’s self and existence. Growth-mindedness and perspective taking complement each other nicely, as a growth stance toward the moment clears a space for understanding multiple perspectives. Growth-mindedness is also complementary to detached awareness, as both are focused on dynamic processes rather than evaluation of the final product.
These qualities should not be viewed in isolation from each other, but as part of a whole system of ego functioning.