Building a better ego

“Hey, we’ve got mail!” That may seem like an odd statement but not when you consider the demise of door-to-door mail delivery. Since moving to our new house, I’d picked up our mail at the community mailbox down the block. I began to wonder why we bothered having a mailbox next to the door.

“The ego is the false-self born out of fear and defensiveness.”

— John O’Donohue, Irish poet, author, priest and Hegelian philosopher

“Hey, we’ve got mail!”

That may seem like an odd statement but not when you consider the demise of door-to-door mail delivery. Since moving to our new house, I’d picked up our mail at the community mailbox down the block. I began to wonder why we bothered having a mailbox next to the door.

“Who’s it from?” asked my wife, coming up the sidewalk with grocery bags in hand.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “There’s no return address and — there’s no stamp.”

I helped my wife carry the groceries inside, then sat down at the table to open the letter. My name and address was handwritten in an awkward scrawl across the front of the envelope. I should explain that occasionally people write to me with comments about my columns, work-shops and talks. Mostly, they send me emails with positive remarks, like “Point well made,” “Loved the story,” or “Made me think.” Sometimes they offer suggestions such as “Read this book,” “Visit this website” or “Check out this blog.” Occasionally, someone will take the time to write me an actual letter and share his or her life story or experience, and that’s always appreciated. This letter was a little disconcerting as it had been hand-delivered to my door. The letter shared the author’s view of the self-esteem movement and its perceived damage to our youth.

After informing me that I had no idea what I was talking about, the letter went on to say,

“When we relentlessly tell our children that they’re perfect and wonderful and can conquer the world, we’re setting them up for disaster. We end up sending a bunch of spoiled brats out into the world and each with a baseless sense of entitlement and a belief that they are better than their peers. We are punishing our children by denying them valuable life lessons: you have to work hard for what you want, there will be others better/faster/smarter than you. You will have your hopes dashed and your expectations left unfulfilled and that is just part of life.”

The letter concluded with a reference to my naïve and delusional ramblings.

I’ve thought about those comments for some time now and, though I appreciate the point of view, I feel the need to draw a distinction. I think what the nameless letter writer is describing is not self-esteem building but ego-building, and the consequences of such are vastly different.

Yes, if we are constantly telling our children they’re great, amazing and capable of changing the world without the benefits of anything tangible to link these comments to — skills, hard work, passion, talent or goals — we are most certainly setting them up for disappointment. Praise for the sake of praise (empty praise) can create unrealistic expectations and a distorted view of self. If children are constantly told they are the prince or princess, they may indeed adopt an unfounded sense of entitlement and the belief that they are superior to others. They may also come to think that rules and regulations apply to average folk and not to them.

Self-esteem building, on the other hand, tends to be a grounded, reality-based approach to building self-efficacy founded upon strengths, talents, abilities and, above all, awareness. Children raised to have healthy self-esteem are cognizant of their natural skills and uniqueness, interact well with others and move through life with a confident expectation of good things. They also tend to be more courageous, resilient and flexible in changing circumstances.

Confusion arises from the misconception that confidence equals good self-esteem. Truth be known, you can have tremendous confidence in a specific area of your life yet overall still harbour a poor self-image. We sometimes see this with performers who own the audiences yet find themselves unable to deal with success or the eventual loss of status and recognition.

We all reach an emotional transition point at about the age of 12 years — a coming of age, if you will. It is a time when we transcend from a heliocentric or “self”-centred view of life to one where we acknowledge that we are but one participant in the great symphony of life. We bring awareness to the impact our words and actions have upon ourselves and others. We begin to accept responsibility for our lives and the choices we make. Research suggests that praise with-out accountability can leave children stuck at this critical stage and unable to transcend it.

Now you might say that a big ego is necessary to succeed in business, athletics or entertainment. There is, however, a fine line between being confident and self-assured and becoming the victim of a fat head. In his best seller, Ego Check: Why Executive Hubris is Wrecking Companies and Careers and How to Avoid the Trap, author and corporate strategist Mathew Hayward provides some advice to help bolster self-esteem and keep the ego in check. Says Hayward, “Overconfidence badly distorts decision-making.” He suggests that we stay close to our passion, remain true to who we are and never lose track of what makes us tick. He also suggests building and sustaining a network of people whom we can depend upon to remain open and honest about our progress relative to others in the field.

“Our ego is our silent partner,” wrote American quotation and quip writer, Cullen Hightower, “too often with a controlling interest.”

When you work to build your self-esteem (as opposed to your ego) you will soon discover that you grow in awareness and possess a sustained confidence that becomes all-encompassing — a grounded confidence that acknowledges all of your strengths and opportunities.

Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His recent book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at