The ego can be a thing of terrible beauty – rampantly cocksure one moment, fragile as parchment the next.
It is capable of inspiring and propelling us to moments of true greatness, leaving others around us lost in the backwash of its afterburners. And then, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it instant, it can plunge us into self-doubt and self-loathing.
Ego defines our emotional and psychological essence, a wild animal that paces the cage we lock it in. We feed it and it grows. We starve it and it shrinks. We neglect it and it becomes savage.
Often, its food of choice – or, perhaps more accurately at least, the diet we choose to feed it – is the approval and love of others. Our daily interactions with other humans – and machines, actually – can be boiled down into simple transactions of approval and disapproval, an ongoing exercise in the mutual business of validation, judgement, recognition and acknowledgement.
For the most part, these things are largely trivial. It’s the smile from the barista when they hand us a skinny white decaf. It’s the grateful flash of headlights from another driver when you stop to let them through. It’s recognition from a slight acquaintance who remembers you. It’s when someone likes your Facebook post or retweets you.
Other elements of our transactional relationships have more weight: praise and emotional or financial reward at work, the spontaneous show of unconditional and unsolicited affection from a partner, the return of romantic interest from someone we find attractive, the pride of a parent.
And just as this apparent positive validation of our worth to society feeds our ego, fattening it that it might grow, a lack of validation or, worse, active disapproval of our sense of being and value brings self-doubt and, in extremis, self-loathing when we are not anchored by a healthy foundation of self love.
If the essence of who we are – the ego – really is a wild animal, then it’s in our own self-interest to tame it.
But we also need to understand that ego can never be truly housetrained, because there are emotions as volatile as quicksilver that inherently make up its DNA – anger, passion and love, for example – and these are not only an intrinsic part of who we are but are also, in moderation, part of a healthy psyche.
So, what does it take to temper, if not wholly tame, the beast? Ultimately, it comes down to understanding that the most important validation we receive is the validation we give ourselves.
In short, it’s about realising – and then accepting – that it’s absolutely all right to love ourselves.
We are conditioned by society to believe that self-appreciation is ill-disguised vanity, a character trait more deserving of scorn than respect.
But there is a fundamental difference between self-validation and vainglory. The quiet self-reassurance that confirms our own worth and value and integrity as a human being is the polar opposite of wanton boastfulness that is the progenitor of envy.
Like all things, we need to practise self-love daily in order to turn it into habit. We do that by choosing not to beat ourselves up, by not abandoning ourselves through the choices we make and by removing ourselves with dignity from harmful or toxic situations and people.
Self-love is about having the strength of character, psychologically and emotionally, so that the positive view of yourself is unaffected – or, at the very least, less affected – when someone in your orbit decides to be a dick about who or what you are.
And in turn, we find we can recover from painful situations more quickly because we don’t become lost in their afterburners.
An absence of self-love leaves us horribly vulnerable to the ego’s swings in response to validation or disapproval.
That makes for a rocky road through life, one paved with a corrosive and submissive need to please everyone in the pursuit of their love and appreciation. It is the road upon which we develop an anodyne and vanilla mask behind which our true self hides.
With self-love we understand and accept we can’t please all the people all the time, that we will piss people off and that the world beyond the parapet is sometimes an unforgiving place in which we absolutely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.
It’s about allowing your self-belief and self-respect to be absolutely unshakeable despite the fact someone else might not see you for who and what you really are.
It’s about not letting someone tell you that you can’t do something.
It’s about learning to trust yourself and always listening to your intuition above all else no matter how experienced or demonstrative the person giving you advice.
Above all, loving yourself for being you doesn’t mean others will also see you as you see yourself. It doesn’t mean your boss or your colleague or your lover or the barista will treat you as you deserve to be treated. Bottom line? It won’t stop that dick being a dick.
You won’t suddenly be without flaws. You won’t find yourself exalted to a pedestal or adored, Kardashian-style, on social media. You won’t necessarily be everyone’s must-have friend.
Self-love doesn’t make you exempt from criticism and it doesn’t mean you won’t experience toxic behaviour.
But it does mean you won’t tolerate that, and the effects of others’ behaviour and actions won’t be something you stick in your emotional suitcase and wheel around with you for evermore.
Self-love isn’t about being perfect (and what the hell is that even, anyway?) It’s about being good enough for yourself to live with, and strong enough to choose not to live around the people who’d prefer to see you as something less than that.
The festive season is almost upon us, so do yourself a favour this Christmas and give yourself the gift of self-acceptance. Walk tall and proud and relax, knowing you’re already enough, regardless of how much you might want to still improve.
Be you. It’s the most exquisite gift you’ll unwrap this year.