Understanding the concept of ego, ego investments, and ego defense will give you a huge leg up in understanding people and how they work. If you want to understand much more about yourself and human nature, read on.
In the last post, we discussed the human ego and ego investments. We also discussed the upside and downside of ego investments, and how it applies to you.
TLDR; ego investments have a lot of plusses and minuses. Having your ego invested into the right belief or cause can drive you to more success and it can provide you with a feeling of superiority and often less anxiety, but it can also cloud your vision to reality and cause you react emotionally when this belief system is challenged or when you face adversity in general.
This, however, depends largely on multiple factors about your own personality. Additionally, many of the most successful people in the world have their egos heavily invested into what they do. There are more insights in that post than just that of course; I definitely recommend taking the time to read the article, but that’s the main takeaway.
With this said, we will now discuss ego defense, where people stem their egos from, how they respond when they are attacked, and the insights that this gives you about them.
A Primer on Ego Defense
The modern concept of the ego was defined because of people’s natural tendency to feel that they have a place in this world. Understand that most people feel that they are better than you in some way. In order to develop this feeling, they must invest their ego into something. What they invest their egos into and how they respond when they are attacked tells you a lot about them.
Additionally, everyone has a way of defending these ego-investments. It is entirely natural to defend yourself when you are under verbal attack from another person.
As a side note, ego defenses don’t necessarily need to occur out loud against a verbal attack; someone could be defending against an ego-challenging thought that just happened to pop into their head. For instance, someone could ask themselves why a previously embarrassing moment occurred in their life that challenged their current beliefs, then tell themselves “I’m better than that now,” or “I was caught in a bad moment,” to comfort themselves, whether these rationalizations are true or not.
Moreover, there should not be a negative connotation to the terminology of “ego,” or to the process of defending a person’s ego, as there often is. We all have egos, and we have all defended our ego and attacked other people’s egos at some point in our lives.
In most cases, if you don’t defend yourself against verbal attack, people will think you are weak, and they are more likely to perceive that the things said about you are true — although on the contrary, if you embody a high amount of easily palpable status, you may be perceived as insecure if you single out someone much lesser than you. These are all facets of human nature and they are one reason why words ultimately do matter, even if they are cheap and easy to use.
Again, remember that ego defense is natural. Whether our ego is at least partially aligned with reality or not, we must use various methods to defend it when we are attacked. These methods are explained below.
Ego Defense Mechanisms
I strongly recommend reading this link to understand this upcoming section because it is very useful knowledge, and so you can identify ego defense mechanisms quickly as you see them occur. Additionally, reading that link is crucial for understanding the following section.
I will not repeat all of the information that is found in the above link because you can easily click it or just google “Ego Defense Mechanisms” to find even more. Additionally, know that this link is not an exhaustive list of every single ego defense mechanism someone could deploy.
Know that the first listed ego defenses: denial, regression, acting out, dissociation, compartmentalization, projection, and reaction formation, are all “primitive” or “immature” defense mechanisms. Reaction formation, for instance, is converting an impulse into the exact opposite; i.e, being pissed off at a superior but compensating by instead being extremely nice to them. Acting out is when a person does not specify their displeasure but instead expresses their anger in more aggressive and less socially acceptable ways. I guarantee when you think back into your own life, you have noticed a lot of these ego defense mechanisms used by those who you considered immature, obnoxious, or any adjective in that realm. You’ve probably done some of them too, but hopefully only in the past.
You’ll also notice that the “less primitive, more mature” ego defense mechanisms are repression, displacement, intellectualization, rationalization, and undoing. Repression is very common because people tend to repress disturbing memories, or they alter memories unconsciously. The human memory is very susceptible to changes; conscious or not. Displacement is common because people tend to displace their annoyance on those who didn’t cause them to get angry because they perceive that they cannot attack back at those who annoyed them. There’s more in there, so just read the link. These are all considered more mature ways of defending the ego.
The “most mature” ego defense mechanisms are sublimation, compensation, and assertiveness. Sublimation is the act of putting your negative impulses into something productive. Compensation is counterbalancing your weaknesses by emphasizing strengths in other areas. Assertiveness is when you speak up for yourself and emphasize your needs. These are all healthy, masculine ways of defending your ego when attacked. Sadly, unless you are in good company, you don’t see these mechanisms used as frequently as most of the previously mentioned ones.
When challenged, the way a person defends their ego and belief system gives you a significant insight into their intelligence, maturity level, their emotional intelligence, and how they rationalize their beliefs and deal with conflict. The “most mature” ego defense mechanisms give you a great idea of how you should act when your ego is challenged.
Note that these are not all ego defense mechanisms that one could possibly use. Some well versed in psychology may argue that this list is not flawless. That’s fine; just know that it’s a useful model for understanding how people defend their ego. These defense mechanisms are very, very commonly used and identifying their use will give you a lot of insight into the maturity and intelligence of a person.
Identifying Ego Investments and Defenses in Others
You can learn a lot about someone when by what they invest their ego into. You can learn even more about someone by how they respond when it is attacked.
Hint: pay attention to what they talk about a lot, what they take a lot of pride in, and what things piss them off. If you desire, you can challenge them on their beliefs, politely or not, and pay attention to how they respond. Be prepared for any backlash, because if you attack them hard, or if you deal with an irrational person who is deeply invested in a belief, you might really strike a nerve.
Again, ego investment as a whole is not necessarily a bad thing. However, understanding where a person is invested teaches you what people believe about themselves, and how to attack them, should you desire. The way to get someone’s attention and piss them off the most is to attack them in the beliefs that they invest themselves into the most, especially if you suspect that they are using that to hide any insecurities about themselves. If you desire to truly embarrass them, call them out in front of others and let people judge for themselves what kind of person they are.
As a side note, those who develop a reputation for making forceful statements set themselves up for conflict in situations of disagreement. This is not inherently a bad thing — many people need a forceful voice in their heads, and people tend to respect the strength of the person making these types of statements if they perceive that the person has the proper level of authority to make them. Their messaging, and therefore their branding, is how they accomplish this goal. But the fact that someone doing this generally has to deeply invest into what they say is something that one should consider because it can be a pitfall in periods of conflict or necessary change.
Often times, people who are the most condescending use the most primitive defense mechanisms when they are called out on their bullshit. Watch a person’s self-importance get deflated, and you will get a glimpse into their true character. Learning this for myself was one of the most important lessons I have learned in the past few years.
Think about who you know, especially any of those who have personalities that stand out, whether because they’re flamboyant, larger-than-life, excessively negative, or something else. Think about what they invest their egos into; why they claim to be good at, what beliefs they defend, and so forth. Some people invest their ego in their perceived intelligence, their jobs, their physique, their knowledge in one subject, or almost any other trait of theirs that you can think of.
There are many who put their high-status jobs as their primary ego investment, for instance. You can tell that they are overcompensating easily by the number of times they discuss their status and by their sensitivity to criticism. When these types are challenged, they frequently display the “least mature” ego defenses as mentioned above. An example is below.
The Modern American Woman: A Tragic Example of the Above
I once knew a girl who took excessive pride in the fact that she moved out the town we grew up in and was becoming a doctor. In our old town, she was treated like a slut (because she was). Since she had many negative experiences living there, this naturally caused her to view our old town very negatively.
Despite her insistence that she didn’t care about anyone from the town we grew up in, she had a clear interest in gossip about people from our town anytime it came up in conversation. Statements such as “Oh wow, I’m so glad I don’t live there anymore,” said with a palpable bitterness clearly demonstrated that she never got over how she was treated. She saw the people who still live there as dirt, and she saw herself as a higher status individual for moving out and going to medical school.
While I don’t fault her for using her negative past to do something “better” with her life (although as we know, high-powered careers make women less happy), it’s obvious that she still took her treatment there personally. She would also talk about medical school and her future career constantly. I once half-jokingly told her that nobody gives a fuck about her medical school career, and she lashed out at me, telling me that I was jealous of her career and that I would never get to her level. While I laughed this off, the mindset that she displayed is one reason why I don’t talk to her — along with the fact that I rarely ever keep platonic friendships with women anymore.
This example highlights a girl who is particularly status conscious for an easily discernible reason. This girl would constantly flaunt her “status” to hide many of her other insecurities, and she would lash out in a childish defense mechanism when she was attacked. This behavior is especially common in American women, who in are broken in general.
While you typically see this behavior very often with American women who have climbed the career ladder, this is by no means only limited to them. Those who invest their egos too deeply into any one particular belief or value, and lash out with childish defense mechanisms when they are attacked, typically do so because they have many insecurities and little else to bring to the table. You almost certainly have seen plenty of examples of this in the past, and you will continue to see many examples in the future.
Be aware that everyone has an ego and that ego investment is natural. Ego defenses, as we discussed, have obvious uses. Understand when they are used and what it says about the person who uses them. Use this knowledge to give yourself more insight into yourself and the inner workings of others.