Balancing Act: The Dual-Sided Ego

The Trail Sisters debate ego and its effect on running.

By on February 4, 2015 | Comments

From Ashley:
I am a trail runner, says my ego, proudly and to myself, as I lace up my shoes and head to the mountains.

I am faster and stronger than you, my ego says silently to my opponent while my stomach twists into a hundred anxious knots on the starting line of the most important race of the year. My ego convinces me that I am the best, that I can and will win. My ego carries me valiantly to victory.

I’m not good enough; I didn’t train hard enough; I’m not an ultrarunner, whines my hurt ego when I struggle my way to the finish on a bad—no terrible—race day.

I am this and I am that, my ego tells me, tricking me into believing that everything I am is a result of my personality, my self-image, my career… my choice to run ultramarathons or not. It is confusing and yet direct. It is clear and yet convoluted.

In this sense, then, my ego (and when I say I, please note I speak as the collective I) is artificial. It’s just a projection. It’s just my—our—interaction with the external world. But it matters. And, I need it. We all need it to step out into the world and conquer things. Running an ultra is, for example, a thing.

Before we go any further, though, I want to draw your attention to something I deem rather important in prefacing this whole conversation. You know how Muhammad Ali said “I am the GREATEST” even before he became the world’s best boxer? Well, it made him sound like an ass. And yet, that statement helped him win fight after fight after fight.

So, on one hand, we can argue that his egotistical statement of being the best was crucial to his success. He said it and he believed it and he became it. And we admire him for that… at least a part of that.

I gave you this example because it’s proof that ego really does help us achieve “greatness,” amplification, success. But I also give you this example because it begs the question of how do we live with our ego in a more balanced sense and still reap the benefits?

Let’s be clear here: A healthy ego does not translate to arrogance. Arrogance, we will say, is an out-of-balance ego. Confidence then, is a healthy ego. Does arrogance arise from insecurity? I have a feeling that it does. And if it does, was Ali actually arrogant or really just confident?

From Gina:
Okay, so, take Ashley’s example of Muhammad Ali. First thought, he was publicly confident and he followed through. He took his interpretation of what society, or at least what society force fed him (yo-ho! marketing), and produced a well-delivered response.

Second thought, I don’t agree that the statement “I am the GREATEST” means he is an “ass.” Why does his celebration of confidence have to be viewed as a negative? Doesn’t this set a biased stage that ego equals negative? What are your thoughts?

In my opinion, Ali’s confidence and outlook allowed him to make the great business decision of investing in his ego.

Let me break it down. Ali could read between the lines of what society was looking for and what it was willing to do. He was aware of his athletic capabilities, so he had no problem being overly vocal. This mix provided attention, which brought widespread exposure, leading to fame, and resulting in money (like it or not).

You can argue that if Ali didn’t have a ton of talent, his mouth wouldn’t have been enough to make him. But think about this for a moment: If you are able to stir up a crowd, get them on your side, chanting, cheering, and support you, you better believe that energy will help carry you through anything.

An example, the Kansas University Jayhawks men’s basketball team is generally pretty bad ass. They have one of the most impressive home-game records in college basketball. For the past 10 years, they have won their conference championship and have lost less than 10 games at home. Yes, they are talented, but they also have an incredible amount of support from their fans. Knowing you’ve got an army of support on your side will definitely reinforce your “superman”… whether you are or not.

From Ashley:
We understand that the ego can bring us success, fame, and attention, but what about letting go of the ego? Isn’t that important, too? Can’t that help our success in, er, a different way?

I’ll step back for a second and make a personal statement: I have a really difficult relationship with the ego. And that’s probably because I can, admittedly, get lost in it. And, so, it is my nature to question it. Because I find great value in that query, I am asking you to do the same. I am asking you to question your ego. I am asking us to look into ourselves to see what we can infer.

I suppose what I struggle with about the outward ego is its need to make us feel special, different, or even superior to others. Too much ego and we’re liable to think that we truly are a more-superior human being than another person, a step above because of our talents. And it’s simply not true. Sure, Ali may have been one of—if not the—best boxers in the world, but that didn’t make him a better person. And being a boxer wasn’t the entirety of his person.

This is the danger zone: If we identify solely with our ego and never with our true selves, we are not living authentically. Spiritually speaking, the ego is our humanness and the true self is our awareness. More often than not, we forget about the second part. And that’s when we get lost.

It’s like saying that being a runner is who we are. I can imagine right now many of you are saying to yourselves, Well, yeah, I am a runner. Believe me, I have said it. And it has confused me when I’ve gotten wrapped in it.

That mentality may lead us to believe that our successes and failures as runners may easily become, in our mind, a reflection of who we are and a measurement of our worth. If you don’t win a race, for example, you may feel utterly devastated. But it has nothing to do with our worth. (Sure, it has to do with our “worth” in terms of business, if we are athletes trying to do business with our sport. If we lose race after race, our viability as an athlete is lessened. But here we’re talking about the spiritual side of the ego, not the business side.)

Yes, we are runners, but we are also many other things. That’s because our ego does not comprise our whole. And to let it become our whole is to lose sight of reality.

Yet, while I preach about the true self and blah, blah, blah, I know very well that ego is needed and important for success. I feel my ego strong and healthy in my career outside of running. I know I need it to climb my way to where I want to be. So here is the difference: In a human world, the ego drives us to the top of what we do. That’s why it’s so very important.

From Gina:
I have to jump in here. Ashley states that outward ego is needed to make us feel special, different, and superior to everyone else. She also mentions that just because Ali was a great boxer, that didn’t make him a better person.

I interpret her statement as a blurred perception of Ali’s intentions. Just because you voice your confidence about being a kick-ass runner doesn’t mean you think you are a better human than everyone else. I think I’m pretty decent when it comes to running trails, but I don’t believe my worth as a human is any better than the next person. Why the negative tie to ego? The following is my “brain dump” answer to that question.

Why judge anyone’s ego, or amount of ego? Why waste your time? How does it really affect your life? Ahh, I know! Could it be because we are really just comparing or analyzing the “ego maniac” to ourselves? Ashley says we sometimes forget about the true self and awareness, but I consider this a breach in one’s self-confidence. I’m only going to judge/hate on someone else because I’m insecure with myself. Otherwise, why the hell would I even care?

There is no good reason why one person shouldn’t be able to have a loud (or too much) ego. I’ll give that person a high-five for putting it out there and believing in themselves. As for the people who are annoyed by a flamboyant ego, I would love to ask them why? I would be curious to hear justifiable reasons that don’t include any emotional ties to our own self-worth.

No matter what I think or what Ashley thinks, ego is all in the eye of the beholder. Everyone has their own interpretations of how much is too much (or not enough), and reasons for expressing their thoughts. Ego, as in, everybody’s got one, should be recognized as exactly that. It is not a trait that only some people have, but a characteristic of every human. Since everyone is different, so is their ego. At the end of the day, a confident, balanced ego will always prevail.

From Ashley:
To me, that confident ego is all about celebrating self. And not in an arrogant way but, rather, in a true, happy-to-be-in-the-moment-just-where-I-am-me-beautiful-me-right-now kind of way. And no, Gina, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Confidence is an important piece of conviction, to really be who we are without judgment and without the need to display an ego to prove something. If we are confident and present and alive in ourselves, we will shine… ego aside.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Ashley and Gina presented fairly opposing views about the presence/absence/health of the ego and, in some cases, too much ego. Ultimately, however, their respective arguments landed in the same place: that confidence helps us lead a healthy life. What are your thoughts about their viewpoints?
  • Have you found yourself in a situation where your sense of self-worth as an overall human being was deflated or inflated because of what was happening in your running? Can you describe what happened?
  • How necessary do you think the ego is for doing sports? Are there particular aspects of trail and ultrarunning that require us to rely on our belief in ourselves, our ego, in order to reach our goals?
Trail Sisters
Trail Sisters is a group of three women, each with unique opinions, ideas, and attitudes toward all things trail and ultrarunning. Pam Smith is a mom, physician, and lover of running who lives in Oregon. Liza Howard is a mom and 100-mile specialist from Texas. Gina Lucrezi is a Colorado-based short-distance speedster exploring the realms of ultrarunning.