In the recovery community, there’s a lot of talk about humility. It’s true that people in recovery need to be willing to admit that they have a problem, and that they need help. However, recovery isn’t always about putting your ego aside.
Contrary to what many people assume, a weak ego can leave you at risk for addiction, while a strong ego can support a healthy and long recovery. That’s why treatment focuses on helping you build a strong ego. Here’s why:
What is ego?
Ego is one of the three facets of personality identified by psychoanalytic researcher Sigmund Freud. The ego is focused on the self, and your experiences interacting with the world around you. Over time, as you navigate through the world, you develop either a weak or a strong ego.
People with a strong ego have a strong sense of themselves. The qualities of someone with a strong ego include:
- Self-knowledge, insight, and the ability to objectively look at the circumstance of your life.
- The ability to plan ahead, making decisions based on past experiences
- The ability to follow through on a decision once it is made
- The ability to resist temptation and social pressure, because you are confident in your decisions
- The ability to control impulses and direct them into useful, rather than harmful outlets
On the other hand, people with a weak ego lack a defined sense of self. This can leave them more vulnerable to the influences of the world around them. People with a weak ego have the following qualities:
- A fragile, undefined sense of self
- Emotional vulnerability and excessive emotions
- Impulsiveness and inability to resist temptation
- Feelings of being inferior to others
Surprisingly, a weak ego is also connected with an inflated sense of self. The person with a weak ego doesn’t have a concrete idea of their self-worth, so they project a sense of superiority in order to try to protect themselves.
Ego and addiction
It’s easy to see the way that the development of a strong or weak ego can impact someone’s likelihood of experiencing substance use disorder.
Oftentimes, people who experience addiction have a weak ego. They are susceptible to the influences of the people around them, and may have a grand sense of self. They might think that because of their superiority they can use drugs recreationally, without developing a problem, or that they can use drugs without suffering the consequences that so many other people experience.
On the other hand, a strong ego can help protect a person from substance use disorder. A strong ego is no guarantee — however, people who are better able to objectively reflect on their actions and who are able to exert impulse control are generally less likely to find themselves using drugs frequently, although experimenting with drugs is part of typical teen development, says Geoff Thompson, PhD, program director for Sunshine Coast Health Centre in British Columbia.
Ego and addiction treatment
When you get treatment for substance use disorder, your providers are focused on more than just helping you put aside substances. Building a more concrete sense of self and a stronger ego can help you stay sober even after you leave treatment.
In treatment, you’ll work with professionals to address your past traumas, and underlying issues that have contributed to your substance use disorder. But at the same time you’ll also start building a sense of self. You will explore who you are, learn to accept responsibility for your actions, and practice impulse control and resisting temptation. Over time, this can lead to a strengthened ego.
Ego and recovery
Staying sober is difficult. Over time, many people in recovery can experience ego depletion — where the ego simply gets tired of doing the hard work of resisting temptation and making good choices.
Just like having strong muscles can help you accomplish more in the gym, having a stronger ego can help you accomplish more in recovery. You can continue to strengthen and nurture your ego in recovery by celebrating your successes, acknowledging how far you’ve come and being of service to others.
Although ego develops over a lifetime, you can take steps to strengthen you ego at any point. While a weak ego might leave you open to addiction and relapse, a strong ego will help give you the strength you need for sustained recovery.
Sunshine Coast Health Centre is a non 12-step drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in British Columbia. Learn more here.