There are a lot of buzzwords that fly around self-help and personal growth circles on a regular basis.
One of them is the term “fragile ego.”
It’s often used as a slur to condemn behaviors that people dislike. But the reality of it is far more nuanced and complex than most people realize.
Furthermore, having a fragile ego is a hindrance that can cause someone a great deal of suffering as they go through life.
Let’s take a look at what it means to have a fragile ego, and how to go about handling and repairing one — whether it’s your own, or someone else’s.
Speak to an accredited and experienced therapist to help you explore and work through your fragile ego. You may want to try speaking to one via BetterHelp.com for quality care at its most convenient.
What is the definition of a fragile ego?
To understand what a fragile ego is, we first have to understand what the ego is.
In simplest terms, a person’s ego is their constructed identity: who they think they are. Their name, story, interests, values, overall personality, hobbies, etc. are all contributing factors to individual identity.
The ego is a person’s sense of self. When someone has a strong sense of who they are, and are comfortable and confident in the mantle they’ve created for themselves, they can often come across as arrogant or “egotistical.”
This usually means that they like who they are, they’re enthusiastic about what they do in life, and believe that they’re generally thought of highly by those around them.
Someone who has a fragile ego lacks a strong sense of self.
They might not know who they are or what they like. They might feel like they lack inherent value as a human being, and are convinced that everyone around them dislikes them.
Having a fragile ego is a very difficult, painful thing to experience, and can make life extremely uncomfortable for the sufferer.
What are the signs of a fragile ego?
1. They describe themselves in terms of negatives.
A person who has a fragile ego tends to have very low self-esteem and self-worth.
When and if they try to describe themselves, they’ll use terms and phrases that denote a sense of lack, rather than abundance. Additionally, that perceived absence of a “something” is perceived as negative.
For example, if they’re asked what kind of hobbies they’re into, they might say that they can’t play sports because they’re weak and they can’t create music because they have no talent, but they like to watch hockey games and listen to a particular music genre.
Then they’ll try to reinforce a perception of value via other people’s input, like saying that they’re friends with someone in a particular band, or that they can get you front-row tickets to a game, if you want them.
2. They’re hypersensitive to criticism and easily offended.
A fragile ego makes a person excruciatingly sensitive to any kind of criticism. Many are perpetually braced against attacks and get defensive about the tiniest perceived slight.
Furthermore, they might do absolutely all they can to become the type of person who can’t be criticized: if there aren’t any perceived flaws, there can be no insults, right?
This hypersensitivity also expands into the realm of constructive criticism. They’re so intent on doing everything well that they don’t want any kind of feedback unless it’s praise-filled and positive. You’ll often see instances of this in social media posts where people ask for “good vibes only.”
As you might imagine, this does not bode well for people in standard adult post-secondary or work environments. If they hand in an essay that doesn’t pass muster, or their boss asks them to redo some part of a project, they’ll crumple. They might cry, or argue, or take more extreme measures like dropping out or quitting their job outright.
To them, criticizing something they’ve done is like criticizing them personally, and they can’t handle it. At all. Instead of thinking “okay, I did what I thought was best but I see there’s room for improvement,” they’ll think “I’m useless and worthless and am never going to get this right, so I’ll never bother trying again.”
Similarly, they’re very easily offended by those who hold different opinions or have values different from their own. Since they are so strongly defined by their chosen values and opinions, anything that causes them to question how they feel or what they think is seen as a threat and treated as such.
3. They seek to be perfect.
This expands upon the previous note about hypersensitivity to criticism. A person with a fragile ego will often be an overachiever, going above and beyond to be the best at whatever it is they’re choosing to cultivate as their personality.
They might work out and train obsessively so they’ll win accolades (and possibly medals) for their athletic ability. Or they’ll save up for plastic surgery in an attempt to keep their looks from fading so they can’t be insulted for having the audacity to age.
4. They have malleable personal identities.
You’ll see this a lot in people who jump from niche group to niche group or seem to change their values, style, and pronouns on a regular basis.
One day they might be militant vegan LGTBQ+ allies, but when you run into them six months later, they’re keto-dieting CrossFit aficionados.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with trying on different “hats” as we go through life to help us figure out who we are. In fact, most of us will shift direction and be very different versions of ourselves at different points of our personal development.
The differences between standard evolution via soul-searching and fragile ego behavior are where these changes come from, and how we behave towards others who are different from us.
For instance, the fictional person mentioned above might have sneered horribly at meat eaters when they were vegan, and then mocked vegans when they decided to switch to a keto diet.
Their views and behaviors will be influenced by the social circle they’re involved in, and they’ll either put peers down or applaud them depending on what the other members of their group are doing. They’ll mirror and mimic in order to ingratiate themselves and to be seen as valued and important.
5. They’re hyperfocused on impressing other people.
Since their entire sense of self-worth comes from other people’s input, they will do all they can to impress and fascinate others around them.
First and foremost, they might cultivate a unique appearance that will gain attention and appreciation from others. Maybe they’ll dress in a vintage style that few other people do, with a trademark hair color or accessory that sets them apart from anyone else.
They might make a point of befriending – even dating – people they hold in high regard so they can either name drop in groups, or show off their lover in public. After all, if that actor, musician, author, etc. is dating them, then that’s proof that they have worth and value as a human being, right?
If they don’t have the attributes to impress others physically, they might do so with their achievements. For instance, they might take on more work than they can handle to show off how capable they are, or throw themselves into exhausting charity work so others appreciate them and tell the world how selfless and giving they are.
Their efforts have little to do with actually doing good in the world, but instead center around earning recognition and accolades. They often come off as arrogant, and they tend to not forgive perceived slights towards them. If someone has the audacity to make them feel insulted or offended, they’ll likely be cut out of the person’s life and be persona non grata forever.
6. They’re unable to make strong decisions.
When a person has a fragile ego, they won’t trust their own intuition and interests when it comes to decision making. They’ll waffle on everything and ask countless other people for their advice and opinions to help them make up their minds.
Sure, they might know deep down what they actually want to choose, but are so afraid of making the “wrong” decision, or being mocked for choosing what they actually like that they’d rather have others dictate their life choices for them.
Of course, they’re likely to be miserable by going along with someone else’s choice, but they’ll brush off that feeling by telling themselves that they’re stupid for wanting something different; that the other people who are smarter, cooler, and more successful know best.
Things that many people with fragile egos use as identifiers:
Many people who have fragile ego issues break down their personality into a few different identifiers. They often try to “big themselves up” by comparing themselves to those whom they consider to be inferior. In simplest terms, it’s who they can feel better than, and whom they can dump their vitriol onto.
These can generally be lumped into three main categories: what they have, what they don’t have, and who they aren’t.
What they have.
As mentioned earlier, a person with a fragile ego is trying to gain accolades and recognition from others. As such, they’ll often base their personality around their possessions or accomplishments.
When you try to have a conversation with them, they’ll keep bringing attention back to aspects of themselves that they consider to be most impressive. It could be their education, their job, or the car that cost them the equivalent of your yearly salary.
In terms of the name-dropping we touched upon earlier, they’ll often work those details into the conversation too. Oh, they had dinner with X celebrity last week, and did you know that their partner is a model for X designer brand? Etc.
Since they have so little to talk about in terms of their own life and interests, they’ll focus on their belongings instead.
What they don’t have.
In the same way that they’ll laud their own accomplishments, so might they place emphasis on the many unappealing things they don’t have.
For example, if they’re obsessed with maintaining their idea of physical perfection, they might point out those who are physically unfit. They’ll judge others’ food choices and lifestyle habits, possibly condemning them for being lazy.
They might also adopt a “holier than thou” attitude when it comes to other people’s health issues. Quite often, they’ll brush off someone else’s health issues as being self-inflicted or somehow “deserved,” and act superior to the afflicted because they don’t have the same issues.
Who (and what) they’re not.
Someone with a fragile ego may exhibit disgust at someone who’s in a lower income bracket than they are, as an example, or someone whose clothing style isn’t typically “fashionable.”
You may find them mocking those who don’t have their level of education, or who haven’t read the right books, seen the right films, or aren’t aware of social issues they deem to be important.
Additionally, they might refuse to do things that they consider to be “beneath” them. This might include jobs that aren’t as prestigious as they think they deserve, or household tasks that they might find unpleasant.
Do narcissists have fragile egos?
Not necessarily as a general rule, but many do. There are several conditions that can involve ego fragility, and these may include narcissistic personality disorder and borderline personality disorder.
Both of these disorders can cause people to be hypersensitive to criticism. They’re often unhappy with themselves on a fundamental basis, hence why they try to big themselves up in other people’s eyes.
Whereas a narcissist’s self-aggrandizing will often cause them to belittle a person who criticizes them, someone with BPD will feel shattered to the core. They may retreat into themselves and cause self-harm in an attempt to deal with the pain of criticism and rejection, or they might sever ties with the entire social network they were involved with. This way, they won’t have to feel embarrassment or other negative emotional fallout.
It’s important to note once again that ego fragility is often caused by trauma in one’s youth. As a result, it’s beneficial to try to be patient and compassionate during the healing process – whether it’s your own, or someone else’s.
Self-condemnation and hypersensitivity to criticism usually stem from cruelty received while vulnerable. When and if ego fragility rears its head, try to see past the defensive, petulant behavior to the child or adolescent who was mistreated horribly in order for said fragility to exist in the first place.
How can you go about addressing and fixing your fragile ego?
Since a fragile ego stems from the lack of perceived value in one’s own self-worth, that’s a pretty good indicator of where you can start fixing yours.
Work with a good therapist.
Unravelling a carefully constructed ego facade can be immensely difficult. Not only does it involve dismantling behavioral structures that have kept one supported for years, it also lays a person bare and vulnerable as they try to figure themselves out.
If you’ve been bouncing around for years without living your life authentically, then you might feel significant anxiety, even panic, about facing this type of introspective journey.
This is where a great therapist or counsellor can do you a world of good. In addition to asking you vital questions that can help you figure out who you are and where you want to be (and go from here!), they can offer support and guidance through this metamorphosis.
Sure, real friends can help you by being supportive cheerleaders as you shift into a better-fitting, authentic skin, but they might not know how to calm you through panic attacks. They might not know the right things to say when and if you come across pushback from family members, or harshness from a faith community.
Find a therapist you feel comfortable with, and you’ll have an invaluable support structure to lean on as you learn to rebuild yourself.
BetterHelp.com is a website where you can speak to a therapist from wherever you are in the world at a time to suit you. It’s easy and convenient.
Find the cause of the fragility.
First and foremost, you can try to do a bit of soul searching to determine where this fragility stems from.
Or, in simpler terms: who hurt you?
You might have noticed that most young children are quite happy with who they are. If you look at the average toddler, strutting around in mismatched cartoon character-print clothes, wearing their parents’ sunglasses and elder siblings’ boots, they’re probably rather chuffed about themselves. They like how they look, they know what they like and dislike, and are curious and playful about their perceptions of the world around them.
Then, at some point, something changes. A switch is flipped that makes them question everything they know and like about themselves. Furthermore, it also makes them question their general likeability by other people.
If they’re exposed to criticism and abuse on a regular basis, this can cause them to be hypervigilant about all of their life choices. Everything they do is scrutinized for potential criticism, and either chosen or avoided accordingly. They learn early on that their own likes and dislikes are quite irrelevant: the only thing that matters is that they behave in a way that won’t fuel other people’s cruelty towards them.
That sad lesson becomes an armature around which their entire lives are sculpted. As a result, they may honestly not have a clue about what they sincerely like or dislike, or what would make them happy. Other people have been dictating the parameters of who they are for so long, they’re simply passengers in their own life story.
Engage in some intense soul-seeking.
If you’ve become aware that your fragile ego is causing you more harm than good in life, and you’re ready to step onto a path of greater authenticity and fulfillment, then that’s a magnificent first step. Let me be the first to congratulate you on that level of self-awareness, and for the fact that you’re taking strides to change things for the better.
I’m not saying that as a hollow platitude either. You’re doing really good work here, and I have full faith in your ability to discover who you truly are, and what will give you the type of fulfilling life that you’re seeking.
One thing I often recommend to people is that they get themselves one of those question and answer books to fill out. These “all about me” journals ask many interesting, thought-provoking questions for the writer to answer. These questions start out easy, with questions about favorite colors and foods, but then delve a bit deeper.
Many of these questions might get you thinking about what it is you really appreciate and value versus what you’ve been latching onto in order to gain acceptance from your peers and greater social group.
For example, have you been identifying with a particular niche or cause because it makes you feel like you’re part of something big and important? Do you feel valued and seen because of your participation in this group? Or are you taking part because you sincerely feel strongly about what they think, feel, participate in, and stand for?
Many people experience a great deal of depression if they’re not living lives that are true to themselves. They cultivate an aesthetic or a personality that isn’t sincere, solely because they want so badly to be appreciated and part of a group.
But that’s a masquerade that can’t be maintained indefinitely. It’s kind of like pretending to be happy in a romantic relationship in which there’s no real connection or attraction, but they go along with it anyway because they look good as a couple and are content with their creature comforts.
We need to find YOU.
Lean into what hurts you to understand yourself better.
The persona you’ve been cultivating is a type of shroud that’s been obscuring your true self. Chances are you’ve been incredibly defensive about it, and quick to lash out at those who may have questioned your motivations or criticized your interests.
When we feel pain, it’s a remarkable indicator of what needs to be addressed and changed. Think of this like doing a soul-deep scan similar to when a doctor conducts a physical examination.
If they press on an area and it hurts, that’s an indicator that there’s something not quite right there. Maybe there’s inflammation in the muscle fascia, or a hairline fracture in the bone. Or perhaps there’s an infection in there that would have gone unnoticed had it not been prodded. Now that we know it’s there, it can be treated accordingly, right?
The same goes for ego wounds.
Consider some of the knee-jerk reactions you’ve had recently to what you perceived as criticisms from others. These negative reactions often happen because we know deep down that there’s an element of truth in them, but we’re so enmeshed in the masquerade we’re performing that we don’t want to look beneath the surface.
If we delve too deeply, we’ll have to question our authenticity… and that can be scary. What if we try to be true to ourselves and others dislike us for it? Or worse, make fun of us?
What if we’re ostracized from the peer group we’ve worked so hard to be part of?
The answer to all of that is simple: if the people who claim to care about you reject you or condemn you for being true to yourself, then they don’t truly care about you at all.
People will show you who they are during times of difficulty. From there, you can determine what’s more important to you: to keep maintaining a social group that’s based on superficial compliance, or cultivating a stronger “tribe” full of people who love you for who you are. For every group that turns its nose up at you, there are three others that will welcome you with open arms.
Allow yourself room to fail, and grow.
As you move along this journey of self-discovery, you will undoubtedly stumble and freak out now and then. This is particularly true for younger people who are trying to figure out what they feel and think, but can be relevant at any age.
Think of it like trying on different outfits when you’re out shopping. Some will fit better than others, and some might seem great the first time you try them on, but then you realize that just because it fits doesn’t mean that you like it. And that’s okay.
There is no time limit on self-discovery and authenticity. You can be 90 years old and just starting to figure out who you really are and what you truly love, and that’s awesome. You always have time, and you will learn more about yourself with every stumble and misstep.
What are some effective ways of dealing with other people’s fragile egos?
First and foremost, remember what we touched upon earlier with regard to their wounded inner child. This person doesn’t mean to be so fragile when it comes to criticism: they’ve been hurt on a fundamental level and have yet to figure themselves out.
As a result, if and when you have to correct them in some way, try to make it lighthearted and positive, and offer explanations as to why the correction is happening. If it’s logical and rational and isn’t a personal attack, they’ll be more likely to adapt in the future.
For example: instead of saying “you cut the carrots the wrong way,” try “I appreciate your help with preparing dinner! Did you know that if carrots are all cut the same size, then they cook evenly? I try to cut them all the same size but I need a lot more practice.”
This gives them some logical information to process, while also recognizing that you’re not perfect at this endeavor either. It also encourages them to broaden their skill set in an encouraging manner rather than via insults and condemnation.
If you find yourself dealing with a colleague or acquaintance who’s displaying fragile ego signs, you can reassure and calm them significantly. Do this by helping them realize that they’re valued for who they are, rather than for the superficial things they try to gain attention for.
Although their attention-seeking and self-aggrandizing behavior can be tiring and annoying at times, they benefit a great deal from sincere connection. After all, they’re only behaving that way because they’re deeply wounded and trying to be accepted by others.
Does the receptionist at work go on at length about her designer wardrobe and luxury brand obsessions? Let her know in passing that her handwriting is really elegant and beautiful, or ask her advice on where to get the wonderful tea she brings in to share.
Or is the guy you’re seeing obsessed with exercise and grooming? Mention some of the books you saw on his bookshelf and ask if he has recommendations for you to read.
When someone has a fragile ego, they can be both disarmed and encouraged by those who make it known that they’re appreciated as human beings, with all of their foibles and frailties. That they don’t have to be “perfect,” and that there are things about them that others are going to love and appreciate, rather than mocking them.
Unconditional love and acceptance are of the utmost importance when it comes to handling and fixing a fragile ego. Unfortunately, it’s often easier to love and accept others than it is to turn that care towards ourselves. We tend to judge ourselves more harshly and be far less forgiving than we would be towards our partners, friends, and family members.
There’s a well-known quote by Siddharta Gautama (aka the Buddha) that says: “You can search the world over and you will find no one who is more deserving of your kindness and well wishing than you yourself.”
Let’s all try to be a bit kinder and more compassionate towards ourselves as we muddle through and try to figure ourselves out a bit better. By doing so, we can then be far kinder and more compassionate towards others as well.
Still not sure how to fix a fragile ego? Speak to a therapist today who can walk you through the process. Simply connect with one of the experienced therapists on BetterHelp.com.
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