Harry and Andrew share many similarities. Both are leaders in their field and high achievers at work. Both men accidentally discovered their wives online with male friends; they had made travel plans to meet with them. But their similarities end here.
Harry’s first reaction was anger, but soon he calmed down and realized that he didn’t want to lose his partner. He decided to talk to her about what he had found out. He tamed his impulse to control his wife’s behavior and controlled himself instead.
Andrew however, immediately shot back an email commanding the man to stop writing to his wife. His wife (who had been planning to discuss the trip with him anyway), reacted by changing her password and refused to talk further of her plans. Many bitter arguments followed.
Andrew’s impulses took control when he felt he was losing control of his marriage. He wanted to show his “strength” with his demanding and controlling behavior. He tried to save face by accusing his wife of betraying him, instead of facing his fear of rejection. He wouldn’t let his wife know how important she was, because his big ego got in the way. Instead, he attacked the person he loved, depended on, and wanted to keep in his life.
The difference between these reactions to similar events defines the difference between a big ego and a strong ego.
A strong ego is self-realized internally, without much concern for other’s acceptance. A strong ego is aware of personal strengths and limitations, is compassionate, open to constructive criticism, and able to give and receive love. A strong ego is flexible, responds to crises with empathic thought, and can control impulses for gratification to a later time.
A big ego instead depends on others for validation and a sense of importance, and needs frequent bolstering from external sources; it has low tolerance for criticism, and needs constant adulation and reassurance.
A strong ego is therefore better suited to intimate relationships than a big ego, which is really a weak ego.
When a person acts in an all-knowing and highly opinionated manner, even bullying in their insistence that they are right, we often refer to them as having “a big ego”. However, when you scratch the surface, this ego doesn’t go down very deep and is quickly seen as weak instead. Of course when things go well, those with a big ego remain serenely in control and appear stable. But the façade must be maintained at all times, and that is the problem.
There is a significant difference between a big ego and a strong ego – and that is what psychologists refer to as “ego strength.” A strong ego is a flexible one. It can bend with adversity and still remain strong. According to Sigmund Freud, the ego is what combines the demands of the id (our basic urges), the superego (our moral and idealistic standards), and reality. A strong ego is able to effectively balance the demands of these three components. Those whose ego is too big become unyielding and rigid and are easily stressed when things don’t go their way. Those who have a strong ego are able to maintain their feelings of self-worth throughout adversity.
A psychologist can help identify which ego behaviours are healthy and which ones could lead to problems down the road. This is important for the success of relationships and life in general.
Patients in this story are a fictional composite of people who have sought help for this issue. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Dr. Eva Fisher is an Ottawa psychologist who has been providing psychotherapy for a variety of issues for over 20 years. Follow her on Twitter @drevafisher. Blog writing assisted by freelance journalist Ada Wasiak.
Freud, Sigmund. The ego and the id. Hogarth Press 1949.
Copyright © Dr. Eva Fisher