“Ego and Conflict,” by Juan M. Ponce Jr.

“People with a healthy mind have a clear understanding of what is right and wrong.”

Conflict is an inevitable and unavoidable aspect of human behavior. Pride can be blamed for the vast majority of these conflicts. Being an individual involved in the martial arts world for the better part of a decade, I have seen not only the most obvious and visible example of conflict in the form of sparring and competition, but the rarely seen conflict within groups and organizations in the form of differences in administrative decisions and technical applications of their art. What drives this mentality to believe a person, group, or even so far as a nation, is superior to anyone and everyone else? Why is the urge to prove this superiority so strong and prevalent in the martial arts world?

Ego and Freud

The reason comes down to one singular culprit. The answer is ego, more accurately, how the ego fails to meet certain needs of the human psyche. An overview of Freud’s Structural Model of Personality is necessary to better understand the ego’s involvement, or lack thereof, in creating conflict. Freud’s model explains the different roles that the Id, Ego, and Superego play in how we interact with the world around us.

The id is crucial to our survival, more specifically during our infancy, and is oblivious and indifferent to the reality of the current situation being experienced. The most common example given is that of an infant feeling hungry. Having the urge to satisfy its hunger, the infant will cry until its needs are met and will not care whether the parent is sleeping or otherwise preoccupied. The id is solely interested in doing whatever will give it pleasure at that moment.

As for the superego, its role is that of morality developed by our parents teaching us what is socially acceptable and unacceptable. It is mostly related to the conscience as it helps us determine what is right and wrong.

The ego is a regulator of sorts. Centered on the basis of reality, its role is to satisfy the needs of the id while not upsetting the superego in the basis of morality and still take into consideration the reality of the current situation. If the id becomes stronger, then we see, for example, people conduct themselves with a strong need to show off. Their life is filled with acts of self-gratification to satiate the need to emphasize their superiority. If the superego is stronger, then we have a person similar to the Pope where his religious beliefs and morals govern his life. His morals are so rigid that, for the most part, there is no room for a different interpretation of them.

Ego and Martial Arts

With this, we can now relate the ego in a martial arts setting. In the Aikido world, becoming egoless is always a major goal. The ego is highly viewed as an extremely negative idea or way of being and daily practice of physical techniques and philosophical ideas allow practitioners to overcome this problem. Yet throughout my Aikido training, there have been instances where someone’s ego (including my own) lacks control. It can be something as small as one practitioner making it very difficult for their partner to practice a technique, or trying to prove their way of performing the technique is better during class, to as big and inappropriate as starting an all-out debate on the mat about whose understanding of the overall application of the art is best during a major seminar.

Perhaps if the ego were seen as a tool rather than an obstacle to overcome, practitioners can utilize this new found tool to better manage these urges. It’s not a matter of being egoless but about not being egocentric or ego maniacal as we have already derived that the ego is essential to controlling the urges to become the extremes of one’s self. The main goal, in essence, should be to develop a healthy ego, instead of eliminating it, and utilizing this to resolve and even possibly prevent conflict altogether. Creating a healthy ego requires the person to improve certain characteristics, such as assertiveness, values, and self-esteem, and also be completely truthful and honest with themselves. The attainment of these virtues is what attracts parents to bring their children to a martial arts dojo. Aside from learning self defense, they are hopeful that martial arts show them the way to becoming humble and decent people with strong self-esteem. Being honest with yourself and recognizing your faults is the first step needed to allow the use of your ego to control the urge to go off into the extremes.

Ego and the Mind

For example, people with a healthy mind have a clear understanding of what is right and wrong. Choosing right over wrong sounds fundamentally easy to accomplish, but we have all deviated before (receiving incorrect change at the grocery store and walking away when we get the better end of the deal; deciding to create or spread gossip at the workplace; receiving an award and then gloating profusely about your accomplishment) and in some way or another we have decided to do something when, in the back of our minds, we absolutely know it’s not right, however insignificant it may be. We realize that the ability is there to recognize these moments; now all that’s left to do is exercise the discipline to choose the right option and continue to be consistent. By learning to recognize the overwhelming urge to shine in the spotlight or to become an overbearing watchdog to control others behavior, we can start utilizing the ego to avoid these pitfalls and possible conflicts. As before, all that’s left is to have the discipline and integrity to see it through and maintain consistency.

Ego and Aikido

The founder of Aikido, O-Sensei Morihei Ueshiba, developed this art with the idea to create harmony and peace within humanity. Aikido, being a true budo and only for self defense, has no competitions or tournaments. The only way for practitioners to gauge their ability and skill level is through seminars; gatherings, great and small, with aikidoka from many different regions of the world. Through these gatherings, master instructors come to share what they have learned and honed through incessant training. Aikidoka are then able to enhance their own skills and understandings of the art. Sometimes innovations and evolutions within the art are shared at these events; all in the name of continual progress in the art and developing individuals into better people overall, achieving this harmony and peace which it’s based on.

Unfortunately, along the way this message is sometimes lost and forgotten, creating an environment which I can only describe as similar to children bickering over who has the better toy or which of the participants has a better set of rules for monopoly. Can we not all share this brand-spanking new toy (technique) or learn someone else’s rules to play monopoly (technical application of the art)? We seem to forget that the purpose for these gatherings is to PLAY (TRAIN)! Not using our ego to control these urges (not wanting to share how you were able to learn a particular technique or imposing upon everyone you meet on the mat that your understanding of the master instructor’s style is the one and only correct way) becomes detrimental to the development and ultimate enjoyment of training for everyone involved.

These conflicts can simply be avoided by using the ego to get around these obstacles. Recognize that, as you have the right to your opinion and point of view, so does everyone else and there is no need to become determined to defend your position to the death. Use the opportunity to learn from those differences joyfully. Let go of the need to draw attention and recognition your way. Recognition will come on its own if you focus completely on your training and give it your best as you are bound to get better. In the end, the only important thing is to keep training, so just train!


  1. Did anybody else notice the field study of chimps which noted that periodically males would form up and move out, single file, to patrol the “borders” of their clan, even aggress a little onto the desirable territory of an adjoining clan?

  2. The Ego & Conflict article is quite excellent. I agree — we often squabble over who is stronger, faster, quicker, can destroy more readily, falling into the trap of other macho, display oriented martial arts! Big hat but no cattle!

  3. Henry Jennings says:

    Thank you for a very well written article. It is an important subject that often our society overlooks because we are wrapped up so much in our own egos. I hope others have experienced differently but I have noticed an increase in egotistical behavioral patterns with not only adults but young people as well. I believe that current streams of media and entertainment have been reflecting a more “self-centric” viewpoint which increases the egotistical behaviors on a greater scale. In fact, the glorification of such egotistical behaviors even makes it attractive to many young people. I appreciate you publishing your thoughts and I have shared your article with many of the people I know. Thank you again for sharing your thoughts.

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