What is Ego and What Egotism Looks Like?

Ego is simply the Latin word for "I." In 

traditional psychology, the ego is the ordering principle of our personality. It is the executive function of our psyche, the part of us that carries out what helps us reach our life goals. The healthy ego has the capacity to observe, judge, and choose. It also establishes a sense of personal continuity, giving coherence to our life story, stability to our lives. It is our hale and hardy ego that makes relating effective.

This ego is usually equated with the self, our enduring sense of a unique identity. This is the conscious personality-self that has and processes experience. The self-ego described in psychology is not an ontological entity. It is a process, ever-changing, operational not metaphysical. 

We can see how the strongly individualistic ego emerged over the centuries. From the time of the origin of our species, nerve circuits helped us coordinate our movements and soon stored memories and impressions so we could move safely and productively in the world. As we learned to predict outcomes based on past experience our executive functions became stronger. The more we knew about how we and the world worked, the better equipped we were to handle the challenges of daily life and the better we became at surviving. The name for all these powers in us is ego. When ego powers work in favor of mutual survival they are contributions. When they work to institute personal sovereignty over others they become threatening—not a healthy atmosphere for the love we are here to give and be. 

Our sense of our self is based on actions, attitudes, and personal history. When our belief is that we are superior and privileged rather than equal, our sense of self does not reflect the union of the human family. It has become tied to rugged individualism, which easily leads to arrogance. The arrogance of egotism or selfishness is based on an illusion that the world revolves around us and on an exaggerated opinion of our self-worth or skill level. Our world is only safe when we recognize that we are all unique but also all connected. Teamwork is an antidote to egotism. And, of course, ego is not the captain of the team, only a player. 

What Egotism Looks Like 

The first reform must be in attitude. —Poet FRANCIS

In the early nineteenth century the word "ego" referred only to the thinking, conscious mind. Later in that century the word came to be associated with conceit. Then ego took on the meaning of excessive pride, putting oneself front and center, self-absorption, self-obsession. This is egotism—what can get in the way of personal development, successful relationships, and spiritual growth. This is what needs to be identified in our behavior so that we can find ways to tame it, and so that its energy can be used to nurture us, strengthen our relationships, and contribute to our spiritual evolution.

The word “egotism” refers to excessive self-reference, arrogance with boastfulness. Self-centeredness is a natural part of our existence as beings intent on surviving. It becomes a handicap to healthy relating when it leads us to pull rank, look down on others, or act in self-serving ways. We also use the word “egoism.” Here the emphasis is on valuing things in accordance with one’s own self-interest but not necessarily calling attention to it in a boastful way. 

Egoism is about taking care of number one; egotism is insisting on being number one. Egoism might be quiet; egotism is loud. The little pig who calmly made his house of bricks is an egoist; the big bad wolf who “huffs and puffs” is an egotist. We notice which one survived.


  • “Too big for his britches”
  • “On her high horse” 
  • “Thinks he’s a big shot” 
  • “Thinks she walks on water” 
  • “Sits in judgment” “Puts on airs” 
  • “Comes across as high and mighty” 
  • “Has a swelled head” 
  • “Alpha male (macho)” 
  • “Diva,” “princess,” 
  • “prima donna” 
  • “Smart aleck” 
  • “On an ego trip” 
  • “100 percent male ego”


  • I am above other people. 
  • I deserve special treatment. 
  • I am never in the wrong so 
  • I never have to apologize. 
  • I am never wrong so I can’t be corrected. When I am offended 
  • I do not forgive, I only demand redress or retaliate. 
  • Others have obligations to me but not vice versa. 
  • I can’t own the impact of my behavior on others because I am so caught up in defending my position. Others are either of use to me or competitors. 
  • I have to look out for “number one” even at expense of others. 
  • There is no such thing as “good enough”; it has to be perfect. We are “too big to fail.”


• Is controlling, bullying, or manipulative in relationships 
• Feels entitled to special treatment 
• Has a cut-throat competitive style, engaging in one-upmanship at work or home 
• Insists that everything has to be quid pro quo, win-lose, survival of the fittest 
• Thinks "I am entitled to get all I need no matter what others lose or are deprived of —I'm up, so pull up the ladder"
 • Is territorial, demanding This is mine; stay off my turf!"; makes no distinction or pause between "I want it" and "It's mine" 
• Responds in a hypersensitive way to criticism; even the most gentle feedback, good-humored comments, reasonable recommendations are taken as criticism 
• Is highly critical of others 
• Cannot tolerate being disagreed with or shown to have been mistaken, unable, inferior, or wrong 
• Cannot apologize or forgive 
• Cannot stand being in a group as "just anybody" rather than the most important person present, the center of attention, the one with pride of place; for instance, an ego-centered person might resent waiting in line with ordinary people rather than being served first as befits his "station" 
• Feels continual status anxiety and there-fore needs to be continually reaffirmed by everyone • Cannot compromise, sometimes not even negotiate 
• Believes that maintaining one's position is more important than happiness or connection; ego getting its way or saving its face trumps love, relationship, money, integrity—even life, as Shakespeare says in Troilus and Cressida: "Holds honor far more precious-dear than life" 
• Defends his or her "honor" for reasons that are often the same as defending the ego 
• Is vindictive when hurt or thwarted in any way, spiteful, unable to forgive and cer-tainly not able to forget 
• Can hold a grudge for a lifetime 
• Is enraged when unable to get away with something or outed in any way 
• Has a defensive reply and an excuse even when caught red-handed 
• Is able to lie about things easily 
• Runs roughshod over others' feelings without recognizing their pain or needs 
• Looks down on others no matter what their status; arrogance thrives on comparison, hence "I am above or better than other people" 
• Feels disdain for those considered "less than" 
• Secretly or openly rejoices at the downfall or blunders of others 
• Cannot ask for help or receive it, no matter how well-meant or necessary; cannot admit having a need of anything from others, and thus refuses to be grateful, or cannot feel grateful, to anyone 
• Insists on organization and order, feels stressed by conflict or change of her rou-tine; this is why everything has to go and be "my way" 

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