L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.
- What is it? What does it mean?
- Is it something we are born with or is it something that we can develop?
- If we can develop it, how do we do that? How long does it take?
We first introduced the idea and terminology of ego-strength into NLP when we made it one of the higher level meta-programs in Figuring Out People. Of course, the idea has a long history in the field of psychology. We can trace the development of the concept back to Freud and his three-fold division of personality in terms of id, ego, and super-ego.
If ego is the self in contact with reality, then ego-strength refers to the strength of our sense of self or person to look face in the face without caving in or being overwhelmed. The strength of ego-strength is the power, determination, road ability to engage reality for whatever we find it to be. This highlights ego-strength as the ability to accept what is as existing and to then use our cognitive-behavioral, emotional and relational skills to deal with such. Ego-strength then is our ability to play the Game of Life according to whatever curves life throws at us. Ego-strength also refers to the inner personal strength by which we tolerate stress and frustration. It is ego-strength that allows us to deal with reality without falling back to infantile defense mechanisms.
- Now, given this definition of ego-strength—
- Do you have that kind of internal strength?
- Would you like to?
- What could you do with yourself and with life if you were to develop your ego-strength so that you could just face life on its terms without fuming and fusing?
- What focus would you develop if you had the ego-strength to not be put off by stress, frustrations, or disappointments?
- How much more peaceful and focused would you feel if you had ego-strength?
Clearing out Misconceptions about “Ego”
We are all born without any ego-strength. For that matter, we are all born without an ego. Sure we are born as a self, a human self, we just don’t know it. Being born without any sense of ego means that, at first, there is no “I.” There is only enmeshment. As babies, we grow inside our mothers—fully attached. Then comes the separation. We come into this world still attached and enmeshed with our mother and without the ability to distinguish ourselves from her. As an infant, it is all one and the same. This is the process by which we become an autonomous human being. The physiological separation of birth precedes the psychological separation and birth of the self. We call this process individuation.
“Ego” is Greek for I. In the Greek New Testament or a Greek version of Plato or Aristotle any time someone says, “I…” they utter the word ego. Thousands of years later Sigmund Freud designated ego as the sense of self, the “I” that deals with and relates to reality.
Normally our ego-strength grows and develops psychologically as we grow and develop physically. It’s part of our psycho-cognitive-social development. We develop more and more of a sense of self as we face reality. As that “I” develops the ability to see and accept reality for what it is, without the magical thinking of wishing and confusing wishing with reality, we develop more strength for coping and mastering the facts and constraints that life puts before us.
Weak ego-strength describes a person’s senses of self that doesn’t easily face, take in, and cope with what is. Instead it fights reality, hates it, and wishes it otherwise. Expectations are unrealistic and based on inadequate understanding. Reality seems too big, too frightening, too overwhelming … and so we avoid the encounter. In weak ego-strength, we don’t feel up to the task but unresourceful, weak, fragile, unable to cope, etc. The weaker the ego-strength, the less we will engage reality and the more we will flee to superstition, magic thinking and wishing, and addictions.
Strong ego-strength describes the person who first accepts whatever is as existing has raised his or her frustration tolerance, then looks at it and explores it with a view of dealing with it, coping and mastering. With strong ego-strength we do not personalize things that happen in the world or what others say. We notice and we access the necessary resources to deal with it. The strong our ego-strength grows, the more of a sense of self we develop and the greater our a sense of skills and resources, and ability to handle whatever comes.
This use of “ego” differs from how we use when we say, “He has his ego involved” in this or that. Then we are speaking about a person’s self-definition, pride, and reputation. Typically this indicates a weak ego strength and the need to boaster it up by fighting, defending, and being defensive. There’s a paradox here. The stronger our ego, the less our “ego” is involved, or “on the line” with what we do. Strengthening our ego enables us to sit our “ego” aside and to engage the world as we explore what is out there and what opportunities it offers.
How to Strengthen Your Ego-Strength
How do we go about strengthening our ego?
What patterns and processes allow us to do this?
What frames, beliefs, values, expectations, etc. support this?
The following are offered as beginning guidelines—processes which we have incorporated in our basic Meta-States training, Accessing Personal Genius. If you have experienced that training, then you know these processes and can keep refreshing the meta-stating patterns until you not only strengthen your ego-strength, but actually super-charge it. This will empower you to face life on life’s terms and to develop a sense of self-efficacy in the face of changing times. It will enrich your powers of optimism, resilience, and creativity.
First and foremost, we strengthen our ego-strength by meta-stating ourselves with acceptance. Access the state of acceptance and apply that feeling to your “self.” Think of something small and simple that you simply accept. You could get yourself worked up about it, even furious and frustrated, but you have learned to just go along and accept it. It could be something like the rain, the traffic, changing the baby’s diaper, taking out the garbage, etc. Think small and simple.
What is that like when you are accepting something? Feel that and reflexively turn that feeling back onto yourself—your sense of self, life, the cards that life has dealt you, when and where you were born, your aptitudes and lack of aptitudes, etc. As you do this, you’ll experience a quiet and tender feeling, one that may not necessarily feel very positive. It’s just a feeling of welcoming something into your life but not with any particular thrill or liking. To do that is to experience appreciation. Yet acceptance also is not resignation or condoning. Acceptance is just welcoming something into your world without any negative fanfare.
In this, acceptance can be a truly magical state. In it, we simply acknowledge the world for what it is regardless of our likes or dislikes. We simply acknowledge the constraints that exist and that we have to deal with.
2nd Adjusting Expectancies
Second, look at your self-expectancies and expectancies of others, the world, work, etc. and adjust them so that you have a fairly accurate map about what is, how things work, and what you can legitimately expect. What have you mapped about yourself, people, relationships, fairness, life, etc.? Every unrealistic expectation sets us up for a cognitive and semantic jar and for a possible disappointment. If it is unrealistic, then we are trying to navigate and work in a world that is ultimately an illusion of the mind. A more effective approach is to set out to create a good and useful map that will enable us to go and experience what we desire.
This explains how learning and developing greater understandings about things increases ego-strength. Knowing what is, how things work, the rules and principles of people, relationships, careers, etc. gives us the ability to adjust our thinking-and-emoting to such and this increases our ego-strength. It takes the surprise and shock out of being caught up short. It raises our level of frustration tolerance.
3rd Stepping into Our Power Zone
Weak and strong ego-strength is related to our sense of personal power or the lack thereof. We increase ego-strength when we accept our personal powers or responses of thinking, emoting, speaking, and behaving, meta-state them with a frame of ownership and then by welcoming and practicing the use of our powers, step more and more into our power zone. This increases our self-efficacy, activity, proactivity, etc. The more resourcefulness we have, the more willing and able we are to face reality and to master our world.
4th Meta-Stating Flexibility
A fourth process for strengthening ego-strength involves replacing rigidity and closedness of mind with flexibility, willingness to accept change, and an openness to the flux and flow of life. In weak ego-strength we strongly feel a sense of insecurity. Then that we don’t want things to change we want things to stay the same. As we develop more personal security, we are more open to change and to adapting and to using our resources. Openness to change, which supports personal flexibility, enables us to face the world and our future with an optimistic attitude. Then, if things change, we feel fine because our security lies in ourselves and in our strength of ego to figure things out.
5th Optimistic Explanatory Style
A fifth thing that increases the strength of our ego to face reality is the ability and attitude of interpreting things in such a way that we put a positive spin on things. We call this attitude, optimism. It stands in contrast to pessimism.
Martin Selgiman identified both the pessimistic and optimistic explanatory styles in his research with laboratory animals and then with humans. The pessimistic style consists of three P’s: personal, pervasive, and permanent. We take a “bad” thing, an unpleasant or unfortunate event and make it about ourselves (personal), about everything in our lives (pervasive) and about forever (permanent) and that’s a formula for pessimism and clinical depression.
Conversely, when we index the specifics of an event, we contain the “evil” or “badness” because then it is about the event and not us (non-personal), it is here in this situation and context (non-pervasive), and it is today (non-permanent). This frames the negative event so that it doesn’t contaminate us with the “evil” and infiltrate our mind so that’s all we can see and feel. It enables us to then think about other things, what we truly are and what we care about, what we can do and how we can take positive action to make a difference. This begins to create the attitude of optimism as it operates from a position of strength, confidence, possibilities, and taking pleasure in what is going right.
It is in this way that we develop sufficient ego-strength to face reality and to not be overwhelmed by frustration, disappointment, hurt, etc. We do what we can with what we have and we enjoy the process everyday.
6th Consciously raising our Frustration and Stress Tolerance Level
If you look around the human situation at all the things that can and does trigger “stress” in people or that frustrates them and make a list—you will eventually make a list of everything. And the very things that frustrate the hell out of some people thrill and excite others. What one experiences as a stressor, another enjoys as excitement. In this, both stress and frustration are in the eye of the beholder.
The strength of your self develops by framing things in such a way that we endow it with empowering meanings. Positive framing and reframing then allows us to take a new view of things which then effects how we actually feel about things. In this way, framing and reframing things can enhance our ego-strength to face, cope with, and even master the challenges of life. We often do this by developing the kinds of frames of mind that allow us to develop the insights, distinctions, and skills so that what would frustrate others gives us opportunities for development.
- Ego-strength as a meta-state in the matrix of your Self is also a meta-program and so governs how you sort for things and perceive information as you move through the world. As a rich and complex set of embedded frames, your ego-strength plays a significant role in the quality of your life, in your skills for making a difference, and in your ability to effectively face reality.
- Ego-strength can also be strengthened. We can develop a strong and more robust attitude about life. We can grow out of the childish wishful thinking that’s fearful, insecure, and fragile and develop a mind-set about life on its own terms that gives us a robust motivation and an optimistic attitude that allows us to sign up for life.
L. Michael Hall, Ph.D. is a psychologist turned Neuro-Semantist trainer, researcher, and modeler. He lives in the Rocky Mountains of beautiful Colorado and is author of over 30 books.
Hall, L. Michael; Bodenhamer, Bob G. (1997). Figuring Out People: Design Engineering with Meta-Programs. Wales, UK: Crown House Publications.
Hall, L. Michael (1999). The Secrets of Personal Mastery. Wales, UK: Crown House Publications.