Ego depletion/cognitive fatigue.

I don’t know exactly when it was that I started thinking about “ego strength” but this term has become very important to me lately. A few days ago, when I did a search on the word “personality” I found the term ego depletion. Here is the definition of this from the encyclopedia of social psychology:

Ego depletion refers to the loss of a personal resource (and associated breakdown in performance) due to the previous exertion of self-control or other effortful and willful acts of the self. The model of ego depletion suggests that individuals have a fixed amount of resource to exert self-control or perform other effortful and willful acts of the self. This resource, called ego strength, is required for any and all self-directed efforts (in particular, self-control and making choices that are relevant to the self). This ego strength is consumed or depleted in the process of self-control, however. In addition, this ego strength is recovered slowly, so that it remains depleted for some time after the exertion itself. Thus, the process of exerting self-control or making choices reduces the amount of ego strength available for future self-control efforts. Moreover, the success of self-control depends on ego strength: When ego strength is depleted, self-control is more likely to fail. Hence, individuals whose ego strength has been depleted through the previous exertion of the self’s will are more likely to suffer a loss of self-control, because the success of self-control depends on having enough strength to fight off the temptation. In short, the exertion of self-control can lead to poorer self-control subsequently, through the exhaustion of self-control strength, a process known as ego depletion.

On the Wikipedia page for “personality,” this term is described a bit differently:

Ego depletion, or cognitive fatigue, is the use of one’s energy to overtly act in a way that is contrary to one’s inner disposition. When people act in a contrary fashion, they divert most, if not all, (cognitive) energy toward regulating this foreign style of behavior and attitudes. Because all available energy is being used to maintain this contrary behavior, the result is an inability to use any energy to make important or difficult decisions, plan for the future, control or regulate emotions, or perform effectively on other cognitive tasks.

What immediately comes to mind as I read this is, 1) that self-control can be described “as the use of one’s energy to overtly act in a way that is contrary to one’s inner disposition” and, 2) that because I live in an extroverted, sexist world, a large percentage of my available energy is being used to maintain a contrary behavior (to be someone I am not), resulting in an inability to use my energy to make important or difficult decisions, plan for the future, control or regulate my emotions, or perform effectively on cognitive tasks.

A few days ago, a woman who works as a personal assistant at a large corporation said, “I’m really not very good at my job, but because I am friendly and outgoing, people would rather work with me than with the women who are more talented and competent.” As an introverted professional woman, now retired, this pretty much summed up the experience I had in the workplace. Over and over, I watched less competent, less talented women (and men), surpass me simply because they had extroverted personalities.

But when I tried to be like them by “acting” extroverted, or “by using my energy to overtly act in a way that was contrary to my inner disposition,” I experienced ego depletion – which led to an inability to use my energy to make important or difficult decisions, plan for the future, control or regulate my emotions, or perform effectively on other cognitive tasks.

By living in a shared space environment, I saw how the extroverts immediately took control of the tone and atmosphere of the house, and how, in reaction to this, the introverts started feeling overwhelmed and depleted. Within the first week of living here, one of the extroverts shamed and humiliated me because she didn’t like “how I treated her.” It took me awhile to recognize that what she disliked about me was my refusal to make her the center of attention and cater to her demands. As an introvert, I am (without my consent) socially de-powered by extroverts, and after this de-powerment, I am expected to acquiese to their “social superiority.” While I have been aware of how this power dynamic happens between men and women, I did not see how this same behavior happens between introverts and extroverts.

If I try to stand up for myself, act assertively, defend my innate disposition, I am exercising “self-control” which for a woman/introvert can also be experienced as cognitive fatigue. By simply being aware of the fact that I am not powerful, “that my presence in world is perceived as socially inferior,” I lose energy/ego strength.

The only way I have found to maintain and stabilize my ego strength is to be alone. And while being alone is comfortable and satisfying, I can’t help feeling that is also, on some level, an admission of powerlessness, a self-regulated constraint on my freedom. If I have to “do something, or do anything” to feel safe being the person I innately am, doesn’t this imply a lack of freedom? But if I am constantly in a state of cognitive fatigue, how can I ever have the ego strength to overcome the obvious limitations on my freedom?

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12 thoughts on “Ego depletion/cognitive fatigue.

  1. I sometimes wonder if it would be instructive to ask extroverts to spend as much time alone with themselves ( perhaps meditate a bit? ) as they spend with others (in order to siphon off the energy of other people for their own use). We could see how they fare. Typically, they get bored, anxious and they seem unable to tolerate such imposed isolation (with their very own selves even !!) for very long.
    We, as introverts carry an ease of grace when alone. Extroverts, with all the charged activity, commotion and bids for recognition they bring, whether alone or together, lug around a heavy ( often un-examined ) load. I feel sorry for them in a distant kind of way. Distant because it is inconceivable to me that they don’t seem to understand how intrusive they can be and that they do not beguile everyone.

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  2. Why deplete energy resources having to contend with extroverts?

    Just remember, extroverts have a need to feed off others; without that attention and rapport, they soon feel uneasy, unwanted, and often become offended, eventually moving on to a more forthcoming audience.

    So the answer to my question is, you don’t; simply ignore them, look the other way, blank them out, continue being yourself (an introvert) – that really hurts them. Whatever you do, do not respond or even look at them – they soon move on with the least expenditure of your own energy possible. Believe me, after a while the experience becomes quite enjoyable that you will be looking forward to your next ‘extrovert’ encounter 🙂

    Best of luck!

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  3. Interesting post…I had read about the depletion of the ego in a book called Will Power (I think)but had not considered how it affected me as a supposed introvert (my bad hearing puts me in the introvert camp though I think without it I could be extrovert)and impacted on my success or lack of it. I certainly know I am at a disadvantage socially but never realised the more socially skilled and less talented were aware if their good fortune!I am glad that it is being appreciated😊. Many creative people I find are at a loss when it comes to networking resulting in a rise of less talented artists having great careers. It is an increasing problem in this increasingly narcissistic world. Another great post with much food for thought. Thanks.

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    1. When I did graphic design professionally, I was plagued with self-doubt about whether or not my work was good enough. Even though I think I could have made a solid income from this, I wasn’t confident enough to promote myself as a graphic designer. Making money off one’s artistic talents requires a lot of self-promotion. Thanks for your comment.

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  4. I really, REALLY love everything you are writing. I get it. I get it so much that I am learning a whole new side of me. I crave the quiet. Therein lies the ability to create, to really feel, to be sad, to be angry and to hate and love. And then, the quiet time of rationalizing everything…leading to absolute understanding of ones self. Before I remarried, you could find me in the dark with a bottle of wine listening to Koko Taylor sing the blues. In those moments I was completely me. The basest form, sure, but organic and real. Your search for solitude is like a cold compress on my fevered head. I am so glad to be alone with new friends.

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  5. I am competent at my job and I often have the task of designing new forms, updating and trending data, etc., yet a staff member who flat out admits to not giving a “#+% gets employee of the quarter. Flashy wins every time.

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