As long as we are the doer, everything is ego. The ego is the only thing that keeps us alive in the world.

-- Baba Hari Dass


Dr. Hendlin: In Part 2 of Gary B. Smith's introspective review of 2001 , he poses the question to himself whether it bothers him to be criticized by some readers. He responds: "Look, if you're a writer, by definition you have a big ego. And those who have big egos are usually ultrasensitive about criticism. I'm certainly no different."

Now, Gary is a skilled trader with a good sense of humor, but my understanding of what it means to have a big ego is different than his. Could you explain from your expertise whether it is true that having a big ego makes one more sensitive to criticism?

J.K.

Shrink Rap: Excuse me, but are you referring to my expertise in having a big ego? Or my expertise as a psychologist? (rimshot and scattered applause)

The confusion is easy to define: The public in everyday vernacular uses the term ego in one way, while mental health professionals use it in another. Actually, this is one of the more insidious misunderstandings out there, and one that has never adequately been addressed by the popular media.

During the '60s and '70s, we used to say, "He's on an ego trip." We meant, of course, that said tripper was too "full of himself." Often, it related to boasting about one's skills, attractiveness, intelligence or other characteristics. Today's generation might say, "He's not all that" to dismiss people who are too full of themselves.

Shrink Wrapping the Big Ego

Interestingly enough, the slang term "shrink" for a psychiatrist or psychologist who practices insight-oriented psychotherapy also derives from this same idea, To wit: What happens in the process of psychotherapy is the shrinking of big egos that have become too bloated for their own good.

As one slowly comes to gain a more realistic perspective on one's strengths and weaknesses in psychotherapy, one's grandiosity is shrunk down to a more manageable size. Used in this fashion, the notion has some truth.

Don't Mistake False Pride for Ego

Pride is the reasonable or justified sense of our own worth based on the attainment of our values. But in addition to real pride, many of us also create a false image of ourselves, a grandiose image that we try to live up to. False pride is what we feel when we try to live up to this false image. It is neither reasonable nor justified.

It is exactly this false pride, grandiosity and narcissism that most people are referring to when they think that someone has an inflated ego. When I talk about assaults to the ego during trading, it is this grandiose false pride that is being attacked in some form.

When trading, examples of defensive gestures that protect false pride from being assaulted include: not selling a position because of having to admit defeat ; getting angry at market makers for getting the best of you; blaming the market for unpredictable news events; blaming others for your mistakes and losses; believing that the market owes you something simply because you are risking money or are a good person; and competitive feelings with others to make more (or lose less) money trading than they do.

An Ego Trip Worth Taking

As used by psychologists, the word "ego" refers to a healthy and necessary core organizing part of our mental organization that helps us maintain a sense of stability and continuity in our lives. Its primary purpose is the perception of reality and adaptations to it -- making sure we don't get too lost in fantasyland or too caught-up in indiscriminately acting out our desires. A good example of the ego's reality-testing function breaking down may be seen in the struggle against delusions and hallucinations presented in the excellent movie, A Beautiful Mind.

Now, here's the main point: Ego is exactly what the disciplined trader is trying to strengthen. He wants the strongest ego he can possibly develop. A strong ego is always your friend, never your enemy. Please take a moment to let these three sentences sink in.

The stronger the ego, the more control we feel. The more in control we feel, the more able we are to strictly follow a trading plan, and the more confident, secure and independent we are in our decision-making and execution.

We are now able to answer the question posed directly. A writer, artist, performer, actress, athlete, salesperson or trader with good ego strength is a person who can handle criticism better than the person with the less-developed ego. He or she is less sensitive than the person responding from false pride when criticized.

Here is an example of what a secure ego sounds like, from a friend who is a professional writer:

"I feel very secure in my writing knowledge and skill. If you hurl insults at me, they will fall away like water off of a duck's back. I understand your words may have nothing to do with my actual writing but come from motives such as envy, pickiness, competitiveness, etc. While I prefer that you like and gain something from it, I don't sit around waiting for you to confirm my writing. If you give me thoughtful criticism, I will consider it but may not end up agreeing with you. But my confidence in my skill is unshakable and my history of success supports my belief."

It's time to move beyond the na¿ve and mistaken image of the ego as a big balloon needing to be popped every time it gets too inflated. Let's reserve popping for the balloons of false pride, narcissism and Internet stock excess.

It's time to finally realize that a truly secure, big ego really is all that. And to appreciate that the job of a skilled psychotherapist is to help expand ego, rather than to shrink it.
Steven J. Hendlin, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in Irvine, Calif. He has been in private practice for the last 25 years, investing for the last 20 years, and actively trading online as a swing trader and long-term investor since 1996. He is the author of The Disciplined Online Investor recently translated into Spanish. He is pleased to receive your comments and questions for publication in his public forum columns at steven.hendlin@thestreet.com, but please remember that he is unable to provide personal counseling or psychotherapy through the mail.

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