The researcher argues that our ego plays a bigger role than we often think; it contributes to our self-image, to our choices and it plays a part in many social situations. Vonk: “The ego has a bad name, but it’s essentially that little voice in your head that says: I want to be good enough, I want to be liked, I want to matter.” In the book, she combines insights from her own research with research that has been carried out by others.
In doing so, she focuses on her previous research on ingratiation. “People find it extremely irritating when others ingratiate themselves to someone, for example, as a means of currying favour with the boss. But it works like a charm on the person who is being ingratiated to,” she explains. “The ego subsequently distorts the interpretation of ingratiation.”
The professor believes that it is problematic that our actions are always determined by our ego. “As a result, you miss out on connecting with fellow human beings because you’re so preoccupied with yourself. For example, when you try to present yourself in the best possible light, you’ll take offence at criticism. In addition to this, it hampers our development by justifying our flaws and moral transgressions.” She consequently explains that the ego is always waiting in the shadows. “This can even happen when people take a spiritual training course that’s been designed to help them transcend their ego.”
She has also conducted her own research into said ‘spiritual narcissism’, which is the belief that your spiritual development makes you more special than others. Spirituality is often seen as a way to transcend the ego. But as you progress through the spiritual training course, the ego will often still come into play, and you’ll think, “I’m doing so well!”
Breaking free from the ego
In modern Western society, there is a strong focus on the personal individual self, writes the social psychologist. “Many people feel that they ‘deserve’ happiness, that they are ‘entitled to’ express their opinion, pass judgement and rely on their intuition, and that they have the right to explore their unique abilities and their ‘passion’.” This emphasis on the individual means that there is less focus on the importance of connecting with others. We underestimate how strongly we are influenced by our surroundings, by the people around us. And the human sense of superiority will continue to have a serious impact. She argues that it has therefore become even more important that we achieve greater self-awareness and that we recognise our limitations.
Unfortunately, we won’t be able to shake off our ego completely, but a deeper understanding of it will give us a clearer idea, which will make the impact less acceptable, believes Vonk. “We can then explore and subsequently develop the better half of ourselves. A first step to achieving this is to become aware of your ego. If you want to get to know yourself, you have to realise that you’re basically just like everyone else.” Vonk’s book provides more insight into this psychological basis, and her vivid examples show that this is no different for people who think: I’m so special, this has nothing to do with me.
Roos Vonk will present her new book at the Dekker van de Vegt bookshop in Nijmegen on 20 September.
Photograph: Linelle Deunk