That’s Men: Playing the ego-game


I used to do business with a man who always said no the first time you asked him for anything. I eventually figured out that if I went away for a couple of days, then came back and asked for the same thing in a different way, he would almost always say yes.

Each of us was playing a little ego game. The first time he said no he got to boost his ego above mine. Because he was a decent sort, that was enough for him. When I went back and he gave me what I wanted, then my ego got a little boost. In other words, each of us got to be one-up on the other for a little while.

I have been fascinated by all this since I began to read about it lately in the works of an existentialist counsellor called Rollo May. He saw that need to be one-up as a strong current running through all our lives. Instinctive in all of us is a need for power, among other things, and that often translates into a desire to go one-up on the other person.

Here’s an example: Why am I even mentioning existentialist counselling and Rollo May, neither of which most people have probably ever heard of or care about? In all likelihood it’s to give myself a ridiculous little one-up boost: I know about these things and you don’t.

But it’s not just me: you’ll find this everywhere (the mirror is a good place to start looking).

I was sitting in a Chinese restaurant in Dublin one night on my own. It was a slow night and about half the tables were cordoned off. A man walked in and sat down at a table in the cordoned-off half.

Feeling superior
A waiter came up and, I presume, explained the situation and asked him to move to the other section. The man muttered something irritatedly and walked out. The only way to stop the waiter getting one-up on him was to leave the restaurant. This suited me because I got to analyse all this, to feel superior and to get my dinner as well.

Call centres provide an everyday example of the frustration of this need. I think that’s why we hate them. The demands that you press this, that and the other number before you get to an “agent” emphasises that, well you’re not special, you’re just a little part of the system – a message driven home by the “all our agents are busy helping other customers” line.

Have you ever got into a pointless argument with an “agent?” And have you realised at some stage that this is a complete waste of time because the “agent” in any event is tied to speaking a script? So off you go, nursing your bruised ego.

Your ego matters
But sometimes you might ask to speak to the supervisor. The thing about the supervisor is that, unlike the poor sod you first got, he or she is allowed to play the ego game. So even if you go away empty-handed, you might feel better if the supervisor had enough knowledge of psychology to make you feel that your ego actually mattered in the great scheme of things.

You’ll see the same one-up need in long-married couples too. They will march along the street grumbling about which shop they should’ve gone into first, I told you we should have have crossed at the lights, blah blah blah. It’s just a little ego game, each one trying to get one-up on the other, however silly it all looks to observers, momentarily forgetful of the ego games they themselves play.

What’s to be done about all this? To be honest, I think all we can do is to recognise it, laugh at it, and carry it lightly. Normal human tendencies are almost impossible to shift, and this is a normal human tendency. Because you and I are human, we’re stuck with it. Laughter is the only medicine.
Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind - Mindfulness for Daily Living, is published by Veritas. His mindfulness newsletter is free by email.

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