When the Soul Wrestles with the Ego

There are two very different and competing voices—that of the ego and that of the soul—that live in constant conflict within us. We are socialized in our culture to be ego-driven; that is, to operate from a position of exclusive self-reference, as expressed in popular expressions such as “What’s in it for me” or “It’s my way or the highway.” The problem with this approach is that it is very narcissistic and myopic and can threaten, or even destroy, the potential of a productive and inspirational connection with others.

We have all struggled with our egos to some degree or another and have experienced its divisive and disruptive results. In this chapter, we contrast specific ego- versus soul-driven behaviors in three key areas of life: work, love, and play. Readers will readily recognize their own and other’s behaviors in these commonplace illustrations. These illustrations help to clarify the distinction between a soul-centered and an ego-centered life. They also function in providing leaders with concrete ways to change their own behaviors and make a positive shift from an ego- to a soul-centered orientation.

We concede that an oversized ego can play a critical role in organizational efforts. For example, an oversized ego, as reflected in the familiar commanding leadership style, can be useful in times of a major transition.  In most business situations, however, an oversized ego threatens to be counterproductive and interpersonally destructive. In contrast, soul-based leadership inspires because of the deep positive connection leaders make with their employees.

We provide real-life illustrations of how soul-based leaders inspire others and lay out concrete and explicit strategies on how to shift from an ego-based to a soul-based leadership style in order to inspire others more effectively at work.

The Two Voices- Soul and Ego

In the world of the everyday, there are voices that disconnect us from others and compete and threaten to silence the voice of the soul. Consequently, our first task is to learn to be aware of the other voices that threaten to dominate us in making personal and leadership decisions. Two very different and competing voices—that of the ego and that of the soul—live in constant conflict within us. We are socialized in our culture to be ego-driven; that is, to operate from a position of exclusive self-reference, as expressed in popular expressions such as “What’s in it for me” or “It’s my way or the highway.” The problem with this approach is that it is very narcissistic and myopic and can threaten, or even destroy, the potential of a productive and inspirational connection with others.

An example of leading with the ego-driven voice is expressed in the statement of a devotee of an Eastern religion in Asia:

“One teaching is, you make money Monday to Friday, then on Saturday and Sunday you come to the temple and meditate and your mind will be more supple and clear so that on Monday you can make more money.”

Contrast this with a more soul-driven statement from the Dalai Lama:

“If we begin with the simple act of regularly helping others, for instance, even if we don’t feel particularly kind or caring, we may discover an inner transformation is taking place, as we gradually develop feelings of compassion [and, we would add, a commitment to the needs of the world-at-large].

Each of the statements above reflects clear goals and highly focused action. But they are qualitatively different in their primary motivation as well as the feelings that are experienced by individuals who lie by the one perspective or the other. While the motivation behind the first statement is obviously solely economic, the second one is about the type of (compassionate) people we can become through our individual or group contribution to causes greater than the self. In regards to the feeling states of living from the ego or the soul imagine the two following scenarios.

A person has just heard that they had received a highly contested and sometimes contentious promotion at their place of work. The announcement is made and the person feels a mixture of happiness and threat. Happiness at the achievement but ambivalence about being able to live up to the demands of the position or the fear that they may have reached a plateau in their career.

In the second scenario a person has just spent an evening with work colleagues at a dinner at their favorite restaurant. They had known each other of years, trusted each other deeply, and shared common interests and values. The conversation was convivial, explored deep issues, displayed personal and intellectual honesty, and reinforced the strong bond between the colleagues. This person left the event with a deep feel of happiness and contentment that let her sleep in peace that night.

The thesis of this chapter is that two very different and competing voices—that of the ego and that of the soul—are in a push-pull struggle within us.

Our task, in regards to these competing voices, is to take the time and imagination to listen to the voice of the soul and honor its directives. (We also need to recognize the voice of the ego for what it is and make the decision to attend to the soul instead)

The Voice of the Ego

The voice of the ego is used here in the popular sense, as in “He has a big ego” or “Her ego got in the way of team communication.” Intuitively, from this perspective, we are saying that the ego-driven person is being self-preoccupied, and (psychologically speaking), trying to hide a sagging self-esteem.

The ego is a cunning enemy that comes disguised as a friend. It tells that we are worth something because of our achievements, looks, possessions, social status, or intellectual abilities. It hints at a sense of entitlement and that makes us feel we deserve preferential treatment by life. It can prompt us to be sultry or angry when we are not the center of attention. So how then is the ego an enemy? We become so attached to the needs that it says it will fulfill in our lives we live in constant fear of losing things like prestige, status, or our youthfulness.

(We all struggle with our ego. But the tragedy is when we don’t see it for what it is. We judge that we a really living life to its fullest when really all we have is the illusion of the self. In fact, some call it the false self. This is the self is built on the lies we were told about what we were or should become. “You are the impression that you make” or “You are what you do ” or “You are your physical appearance.” And when we bought into such messages we lived inauthentic lives and missed what it meant to be a soul-inspired being).

In the end the ego is the illusion or poor imitation of the soul. It gives the mistaken impression that life is being lived to its fullest. After all is the person not “being of service in the community” and “making a difference for good in the world?” We may see philanthropic acts, selfless service, and bursts of imagination and energy and believe that we are viewing the soul at work. The trouble arises when the person’s chief driving force is self-aggrandizement, attachment to the fruit of the action, the desire to live up to the dictates of the false self. The public relations impact of the act is more important than the fact that people are helped. Motivation is the litmus test for our behavior to determine whether the origins are ego or soul-driven. But first we must understand the origins of the ego to know why we do what we do.

Its ways are learned but the origins often go back to early childhood. Ego-driven people often learn their ways by the manner in which their parents regarded them. The parents who sought to gain their worth through children may have emphasized the child’s looks or performance. The parents felt inadequate but the children made them look good. The children became the means for their own self-aggrandizement. Consequently, the children never really learn to be accepted for themselves and instead, came to believe that their value rested with how well they score on family measures of success or importance. Unfortunately, this situation is all too common in our culture that assigns value to an individual based on performance or appearance rather than character or contribution.

But the ego-driven life does not end with its focus on accomplishments. It is also toxic to relationships. It uses others for its own ends. In relationships and other aspects of life, the ego-driven person listens only insofar as he can find others useful to his cause. He’s thinking, “How do I benefit from this relationship?”,  “What’s in this deal for me?”; “How do you make me look good?” Using people in this manner makes genuine intimacy and reciprocal love impossible, leaving ego-driven individuals lonely and unsatisfied in their relationships.

Ways to get beyond the ego

1. Feel the pain that it causes

The pain of having one’s person eclipsed by measures of performance can be our teacher after we are left feeling empty and unsatisfied. Unfulfilled longings linger as we desire acceptance for what we are or the value of our contribution. The soul gets bored with the empty pursuit of image. But the ego is not easily dissuaded since rewards like praise and promotion are not to be sniffed at. It is also very cunning in its efforts to ‘con’ us into believing that it is really what life is all about. Both the advertisement and the ego tell us “Life does not get any better than this” or “the one who dies with the most toys wins”. The good news is that a creative tension is set up in the conflict between the soul and ego. It can force an examination of the rewards and consequences of attending to either voice. We read of a lawyer who leaves a high-powered job to teach inner city kids because she perceives that to be her passion and calling. She followed the call of the soul. Like her, we all suffer the pangs of a life lived apart from the soul seen in boredom, lack of imagination, and sterile relationships. We then search for a better way.

2. Reflect on the shallowness of relationships based on the ego.

3. Expose yourself to the transforming light of self-awareness. “What is the cost to me of living with an attachment to all my ego needs?” “Lack of meaningful and fulfilling connection to others?” “A sense that there must be more to life than this”?

There has to be a better way to lives our lives other than being a prisoner to the dictates of the ego.

The Voice of Soul

The soul speaks in subtle, indirect, and surprising ways. However, since our soul is primarily detectable in the quality of our relationships how do we know when it is speaking to us and we are living according to its dictates or prompting? We experience soul when we:

Feel connected to someone’s essence. (The person reports feeling understood and validated)

Respond to the person’s deepest needs and values (For example, that person’s need to make a contribution)

And that connection inspires them. (The person reports that we have connected with one of their five inspirational sources).

We are aware of and remain detached from the needs of the ego.

Any disruption in a relationship, whether it is through unresolved conflict, unwarranted assumptions, jealousy, envy, or hurtful events that may have occurred, leaves us with the choice. Gary Zukav is right when he writes: “What you intend is what you become.” In order to be soul-driven persons and therefore inspirational we need to choose to live from the soul and this involves understanding and starving the ego.

About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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