To Let Go of Your Ego, You Need to Make It Strong First
As the Western world adopts Buddhist teachings, some ideas are distorted along the way
When I first started meditating, I encountered the concept of “letting go of your ego” almost immediately. I found it appealing. I gave in to fantasies of “being one with all life” and “finding infinity in the present moment.”
Getting rid of my ego quickly became the main theme in my spiritual growth.
“It is important to see that the main point of any spiritual practice is to step out of the bureaucracy of ego,” advises Tibetan monk and scholar Chögyam Trungpa in his book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. “This means stepping out of ego’s constant desire for a higher, more spiritual, more transcendental version of knowledge, religion, virtue, judgment, comfort or whatever it is the particular ego is seeking.”
I know I’m not the only Westerner to become obsessed with the necessity of ego abandonment that Trungpa advocates for here, but the mistakes I made as I pursued this goal are proof that trying too hard to do so can backfire.
As I began meditating, I attempted to toss away all the desires, judgments, and other constraints stemming from my ego. I wanted to go with the flow, to embrace all the challenges that life brings without resisting.
Last summer, I realized something was wrong with this approach. At the time, I was working in a hotel. I did everything from housekeeping and waitressing to greeting guests and even copywriting, and the environment was far from perfect. I wasn’t just overworked as hell, I was also fielding clients and co-workers who had little respect for my work-life boundaries.
During a midsummer staffing crisis, I agreed to take on more hours — though, by then, I could barely manage my existing workload. In the hotel restaurant, one of our chefs regularly criticized me for taking orders she didn’t enjoy making (as though the orders were my fault). The pressure was so intense, and I wanted so badly to “let go of my ego” and “allow things to just be” that I felt I couldn’t say no or stick up for myself.
I was so invested in spiritual teachings encouraging me to simply “let go of my ego” that I was blind to the harm I was doing to myself. I didn’t think to voice my needs and frustrations because I deeply believed my ego was to blame.
Obviously, I was being selfish. I wanted to have it my way — more relaxed work, kinder working relationships, more time off. According to my spiritual convictions, however, this was just “the bureaucracy of ego.” The right way to proceed, I believed, was to let it all be. To accept the chef with all of her flaws. To humbly play my part in the team. If I could do this, I thought, my distress would eventually go away.
The problem? I was totally incapable of letting go of… my desire to let go.
As the summer wore on, I spiraled into burnout and ended up sick with bronchitis for three weeks. That was when I started to realize something: It was my lack of a strong ego that created these problems to begin with.
My inability to hold firm on my boundaries and voice my need for respect and rest was causing me unimaginable levels of stress and exhaustion. Physically and emotionally, I was shattered. Getting sick seemed like my body’s last resort, its way of forcing me to wind down at last.
As I spent my days in bed, I connected the dots — and realized I have been doing this all my life. My relationships were failing because I’d waited too long to express what was bothering me. I was having trouble communicating with my mom, for example, because I valued her peace of mind over my own. Even at school, I’d kept quiet when bullies targeted me because I believed others should have a right to their opinions of me, whatever those opinions might be.
All that time I didn’t realize that in order to “let go of my ego,” I had to make it strong first.
As I grew up, the “spiritual path” I chose seemed to reinforce my belief that this was the right way to deal with things (and perhaps this was why I was drawn to the path of least resistance initially). This was what “letting go of ego” meant to me at the time: not intervening with unpleasant events, but rather accepting them and growing in the discomfort.
I hadn’t yet realized that in order to truly “let go of my ego,” I had to make it strong first.
Ever since Sigmund Freud formulated his theory of the triadic relationship between id, ego, and superego, Western psychology has viewed the role of a well-functioning ego as critical to our subjective well-being.
In modern science, there are a number of ways to describe the dynamics within this triad — as well as names for the various functions of the human psyche. Terminology aside, the general consensus is that, in the words of psychology professor Gregg Henriques, “ego functioning (or identity) is one of the most important elements to consider in understanding an individual’s personality and the ways they operate in the world.”
In short, the role of ego is to find common ground between the unconscious, instinct-driven id and the demands of the moralizing and perfectionist superego. Ego is also the most “realist” part of human personality, one which connects our inner world to the conditions of the external one.
The importance of a healthy ego for a good life can’t be overestimated. Even Buddhist abbot, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, will tell you:
If your ego functions are healthy and well-coordinated, they give you a consistent sense of priorities as to which forms of happiness are more worthwhile than others; a clear sense of where your responsibilities do and don’t lie; a strong sense of your ability to judge right and wrong for yourself; and an honest sense of how to learn from your past mistakes for the sake of greater happiness in the future.
If I had “healthy and well-coordinated” ego functions while working at the hotel, I likely would have been a much better judge of what was good and bad for me in those circumstances. It wouldn’t necessarily have made me a control freak — but I imagine it would have allowed me to make much better decisions regarding both my short-term and long-term well-being
Maybe I wouldn’t have agreed to increase my daily working time by two hours in the middle of the high season. Maybe I would have told the chef that her rude critiques upset and demotivated me. Maybe I would have asked for help more often and set clearer work-life boundaries.
But I didn’t — because I didn’t want to allow my ego to interfere. Now, I realize this approach wasn’t particularly helpful in reducing the amount of suffering I experienced — which the path I wanted to be on was supposed to be all about.
Instead, I radiated negativity all over the place. Could I have gotten some of Buddha’s teachings wrong?
“Buddhist psychology and Western psychotherapy both hold out hope for a more flexible ego, one that does not pit the individual against everyone else in a futile attempt to gain total surety.” — Marc Epstein
Thanissaro Bhikkhu spent 16 years in Thailand, meditating and studying Buddhist scripts. During this time he observed that, in spite of the “dropping the ego” ideals present in Thai and Buddhist culture, most local people seemed to have a healthy, functioning sense of self.
That may be because Buddhism doesn’t actually insist you erase your ego — at least, not until it’s functioning properly. Buddha emphasizes the importance of cultivating a non-disordered ego, rather than abandoning it entirely. Understanding this distinction has been pivotal to my spiritual journey.
So, what does a “non-disordered ego” look like?
Take, for example, the concept of karma. Karma is nothing more than taking responsibility for one’s own actions. This responsibility comes from a deep understanding of the law of cause and effect. Whatever seeds you plant in the present will yield fruits in the future, so it is important to be aware of what you are planting.
True happiness doesn’t come from taking something away from another.
This comes with being able to discern what is and isn’t your responsibility. You cannot, for instance, control how other people react to your decisions or actions. A healthy (non-disordered) ego knows that, but a disordered one falsely assumes it is responsible for other people’s experiences, which may lead to unnecessary feelings of guilt or shame.
Buddhism also encourages prioritizing long-term happiness. This is not seen as selfish because, in the Buddhist view of the world, happiness is not a zero-sum game. True happiness doesn’t come from taking something away from another. Conversely, by growing your own sense of well-being, you radiate it onto others as a natural consequence.
“The greatest gift we can give another person is the gift of our own personal growth,” explains John Amodeo, an author and psychotherapist who links Western psychology with spiritual wisdom. “The more we know ourselves and develop the courage and skills to communicate our inner experience, the more that trust and love can flourish.”
Your own personal growth directly benefits others. But personal growth cannot happen without a non-disordered ego, one that understands which behaviors help foster that growth.
A healthy ego will allow you to, for example, give up instant gratification in favor of nurturing long-term well-being. Without a strong ego during my summer at the hotel, I never voiced my feedback to the chef even though, deep inside, I knew that speaking up might make our work together (and my stress levels) better in the long run. It felt much more immediately gratifying to not confront her — while justifying this to myself as “accepting her the way she is.”
From this perspective, “letting go of your ego” only makes sense if it allows you to give up the urge to “have it easy” right now for the sake of improving your long-term situation.
My ego certainly wasn’t strong and healthy when I was working at the hotel. In a situation where I should have at least tried to set my boundaries according to my ego’s demands, I instead pursued what I called “letting go of my ego,” and found myself in a paradoxical situation: I was trying to abandon something that was not well-defined in the first place.
As a consequence, two forces battled inside of me. One — the not-fully-established ego — didn’t like the setup and insisted on a change. The other — the inflated superego — tried to impose the idealistic concept of “letting go of itself” on my ego.
As a result, my actions were primarily directed by the primitive voice of the id. And my id was feeding the sense of conflict, distress, and creating more suffering — rather than reducing it.
So, does it make sense to “let go of your ego”?
The short answer is: yes — but not before you have made it strong and healthy. If you try to “abandon your ego” before you work on its suppressed issues (in my case: self-deprecation and low self-esteem) those issues will continue to chase you along your spiritual path.
It may sound counterintuitive at first, but, as Pillar Jennings reminds us in her book Mixing Minds, “It is very possible to have a deep and rich spiritual life that reaps all manner of spiritual rewards while core psychological patterns and struggles remain untouched.”
Without a functional and well-defined ego, you cannot truly access the selflessness Buddha talks about.
When we try to “abandon our ego” before we deal with its afflictions, we experience what’s known as “spiritual bypass.” In Rande Brown’s words, spiritual bypassing happens “when we try to use these [spiritual] techniques to solve psychological problems and end up avoiding them instead.”
That’s exactly what I was doing to myself. Another expression of spiritual bypassing in our modern times is the superficial, Instagram-suited approach to spirituality. Mainstream culture does not just encourage the abandonment of ego, but also vague ideas like “radiating positive vibes,” “raising your vibration,” or “letting go of negativity.” While these phrases are not useless as points of reference, or as sources of inspiration, they can harm us when we try to force them into our experience overnight.
As Vanessa Smith Bennett points out in her article about the traps of spiritual bypassing: “Encouraging someone who has clinical depression to focus on the positive is not helpful and can actually do more harm. This advice can bolster the feeling that they are at fault because they cannot simply pull themselves up by the bootstraps.”
The same mechanism is at work when you try to abandon your ego before you make it functional. Thinking back to my own experience, it’s a little funny how I couldn’t see that “force” and “acceptance” just can’t coexist. In trying to force myself to feel peaceful, there was no other possible outcome than distress.
Buddha’s concepts of “self” and “non-self” are different from the Western philosophies of the “ego” in that they don’t refer to metaphysical entities, but to two different (and entirely valid) modes of operating. They can be used interchangeably, depending on which serves your long-term happiness in a particular moment.
Acting from a place of “self” is useful if it protects you from unnecessary suffering (like refusing to work overtime when you’re already stretched thin). Your most reliable internal compass is your natural urge to experience the greatest possible happiness in the long term. And this is key: Only when the attachment to self is what stops you from experiencing this happiness does Buddha advise you to let it go.
As Bhikkhu writes:
Only on the highest levels of practice, where even the most skillful concepts of self get in the way of the ultimate happiness, did the Buddha advocate totally abandoning them. But even then he didn’t advocate abandoning the basic principle of ego functioning. You drop the best happiness that can come from a sense of self because an even greater happiness — nirvana, totally timeless, limitless, and unconditioned — appears when you do.
In the most paradoxical way, your ego-driven pursuit of happiness will eventually lead you to abandon your ego. But that’s a process (which may even involve combining your spiritual practice with psychotherapy), and all you can do is ease into it gradually. No force is required, or even recommended. So do your best to simply be patient.
Since last summer, I’ve begun to learn how to value my ego as a helpful agent in deciding what’s right for me as I move through the world. Even if it sometimes takes over, I no longer see it as a roadblock on my spiritual path. I’ve embraced its voice together with the beautiful idea of “being one with all life.” And I advise you do the same.
Start by resolving the issues of your ego and growing it strong and healthy. Then, one day, when it has ripened, it may just dissolve into nothingness on its own.
A big thank-you to Wojciech Jura.