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in: A Man's Life, Sunday Firesides

March 9, 2019

Sunday Firesides: Don’t Borrow an Ego

If you have a dispute with your landlord, is the first thing you do to call Mom and Dad for advice? Whenever a question crosses your mind, do you immediately type it into Google? When your girlfriend does something to make you mad, do you deal with it by texting a friend?

Psychologists would describe these behaviors as “borrowing an ego.” (Here “ego” refers not to overweening pride, but to the part of the psyche that plans, decides, regulates impulses, and gives you a sense of self.) When you borrow an ego, you externalize your executive control, your agency and identity, to other minds (human or robotic). Dr. Meg Jay describes it as “reaching out in a moment of need and letting someone else’s frontal lobe do the work.”

It is of course necessary and healthy to sometimes tap others for help, advice, and comfort. But too often, we do so too quickly, too lazily, too mindlessly.

If you dial up your parents anytime you have a bad day at work, you forgo the chance to develop your own resilience. If you text a friend for advice whenever you have dilemma, you lose the opportunity to get better at figuring out answers for yourself. If you Google a meaty question as soon as you think of it, you close a space in which you could have exercised your critical thinking skills.

When you borrow an ego, it can help you get through a certain perplexing moment, but then you have to return it; meanwhile, your own ego remains unused and unstrengthened. When you take a moment before leaning on the minds of others to first see if you might be able to solve a dilemma yourself, you build self-trust, and create an identity you own, rather than use on loan.