Ego Shock Definition
Ego shock refers to feeling mentally paralyzed or frozen in response to severe self-esteem threats. Individuals in a state of ego shock have trouble thinking; they feel distant from themselves; the world seems distant or strange; they feel emotionally numb. The experience of ego shock is temporary, usually only lasting for seconds or minutes.
Context and Importance of Ego Shock
Ego shock typically occurs when individuals experience extreme blows to their self-esteem. One of the most common causes of ego shock is rejection by friends or romantic partners. For example, having a girlfriend or boyfriend unexpectedly say that you are worthless and ugly might lead to an experience of ego shock. There might be an immediate experience of mental paralysis or strangeness that comes over you. The ego shock then passes and other thoughts and feelings, such as anger, sadness or blame, may emerge. Other causes of ego shock include academic failure (such as being turned down for admission by a prestigious university), athletic failures (such as missing a free throw at the last second of a championship game and causing your team to lose), and moral failures (stealing something from a store and then being caught). Fortunately, these are rare experiences: Ego shock does not occur frequently.
Ego shock can have both negative and positive consequences for the person. In the short term, people who are in a state of ego shock have difficulty controlling themselves. Because of this, they are more easily influenced by social circumstances. For example, if someone hands them a bottle of whiskey and says, “Drink this,” the person in a state of ego shock is more likely to do so. In the long term, the experience of ego shock can also have negative consequences. People may respond to ego shock by giving up on what had caused the blow to their self-esteem. For example, a person may swear off dating or quit playing basketball.
On the other hand, ego shock can have certain benefits. It is possible that the experience of ego shock actually protects the person psychologically in the short term following self-esteem threat. Rather than mentally disintegrating or behaving destructively, the person goes numb. In the longer term, individuals who experience ego shock often change their lives in positive ways. After the shock of a major academic failure wears off, for example, students may redouble their efforts to succeed and actually become better students than they were before.
No one knows the exact cause of ego shock. It may be an adaptive or protective feature that has evolved to help preserve the personality in the face of threatening information. Ego shock may also simply reflect a mechanical failure in the brain. When information comes in that is too extreme and negative to process effectively, the brain simply shuts or slows down temporarily.
- Campbell, W. K., Baumeister, R. F., Dhavale, D., & Tice, D. M. (2003). Responding to major threats to self-esteem: A preliminary, narrative study of ego shock. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 22, 79-96.