The Ego-Neutral Solution to Self-Esteem Concerns:
Transcending the Tyranny of the Pecking Order

This document addresses the following major points:


  1. Advantages of using the ego-neutral strategy in clinical practice
  2. Theoretical basis for the ego-neutral strategy
  3. Ego-neutral setup prior to standard counseling
    1. Introducing the client to ego-neutral concepts and application of strategy
    2. Coaching the client in application of ego-neutral strategy
  4. Expansion and clarification of the following concepts:
    1. The ego-neutral moment
    2. Belief vs. fact                 
    3. Ego-neutral role in addressing substance abuse
    4. Treatment of bullies

Do not be put off by the simplicity of the theory behind this approach or by the ease of applying the strategy. This is extremely powerful and can very quickly reduce self-esteem issues to insignificance.


Perceived location on the pecking order continuum defines self-esteem for many people of all ages and backgrounds: The higher in the pecking order, the higher the self-esteem; the lower in the pecking order, the lower the self-esteem. When individuals dwell in the pecking order, they tend to see themselves as they think others see them. Excessive concern over this produces a chronic ego-defensive life style.


Advantages of using the ego-neutral strategy in clinical practice


Many clients present a picture of distress which can arise from one or more factors: self-esteem issues, other situational non-ego problems (money, job, family and peers) and physical/neurological sources such as brain chemistry, brain tumor, brain trauma, sleep disturbance, etc.  Because of possible confounding factors, if the client is mentally capable of comprehending and executing the ego-neutral strategy, if would be helpful to educate him on this technique from the very first. Immersion in ego-neutrality removes a major source of confusion in the symptom complex.


If ego issues are allowed to remain, medications might be correctly applied to address neurological imbalances and yet symptoms of distress can continue because of over-riding self-esteem issues. It is then possible to incorrectly conclude that the medication isn’t working, when in fact, it is.  In some cases, detaching from the pecking order may result in enough relief that medications are unnecessary.


Ego-neutral outlook and behavior are 100% under control of the client, if he can understand the strategy and chooses to follow it.


Once the client embraces this technique he should experience some reduction of stress. At the very least, he should be relieved of the constant sense of failure stemming from habitual use of ego-defensive strategies that at best can only temporarily and marginally succeed.  


Because this strategy can produce results rapidly, it would be possible for people to pay for the service out of pocket when insurance or government services will not. It could conceivably increase the number of clients through word-of-mouth endorsements.


Ego-neutral clinical application lends itself to group therapy as well as one-on-one treatment. Input from others regarding ego-neutral understanding and approaches can be helpful. The bully from conventional group therapy will not be tolerated. The focus is strictly on understanding and executing the ego-neutral strategy.


Ego-neutral thinking and behavior could be taught in grade school or after school in workshops at the YMCA. It would potentially eliminate years of ego-defensive adolescent anguish. It would clearly define bullies as weak and needy, thus reducing bulling incidents. School would be an excellent place for a longitudinal study of this strategy.


Containment of the ego-defensive influence in addictive behavior may hasten and extend recovery.


Theoretic basis for ego-neutral strategy


All living creatures have a built-in survival mechanism beyond procreation and obtaining food and water. This is expressed as fight or flight. In humans, fight becomes the predominant behavior for ego-defensive victors, who are proactively defensive, and flight for ego-defensive victims, who are reactively defensive. All creatures including people exhibit both behaviors at some time or other, depending upon circumstances. However, based on past experience and genetic influence, at the individual level one mode will tend to predominate over the other.


All creatures that exist in social orders (varieties of birds, mammals, fish) do so in a dominance hierarchy known as the pecking order. The term was initially derived from observing flocks of birds which maintained social order by birds pecking birds lower in the social order and birds receiving pecks from birds that are higher in the social order.


The term, pecking order, has been expanded to the positioning of humans within a social group based on power or lack thereof.  This produces a continuum of leaders/followers, winners/losers, strong/weak, rulers/subjects, popular/unpopular, famous/invisible, happy/unhappy, dominant/ dominated, aggressive/defensive, bold/timid, proud/ashamed and so on.  Thus we get people who see themselves as winners (victors) and others who see themselves as losers (victims) or as losers striving to become winners or as winners struggling to maintain the winner status.


Ego-defensive victors are less likely to seriously test ego-neutrality because they believe they are “winning” just as long as they feel successful in their chronic proactive defense mode. Ego-defensive victims should be much more engaged in the ego-neutral strategy because they are longing for relief.


Assuming normal brain chemistry and average situational stress issues, people experience feelings of inadequacy because they are born to feel that way. Do not blame emotional distress on childhood incidents. These are merely triggering events that invoke feelings humans are hard-wired to experience.


Unlike open-ended talk therapy, the ego-neutral strategy identifies and directly addresses feelings, rather than circuitously exploring them. The goal is not to improve self-esteem. Rather, the goal is to make self-esteem a non-issue.

Ego-neutral setup prior to standard counseling


Insure the client is aware of sources of emotional discomfort beyond self-esteem issues. Refer to the section, Advantages of using the ego-neutral strategy in clinical practice. Inform the client that the ego-neutral strategy may or may not result in happiness, but it should result in the client feeling better. Once ego issues are contained there will be a clearer picture of remaining sources of discomfort. 


Instruct the client on the importance of an ego-neutral outlook. This is the starting point of discovering who he really is, his likes, dislikes and goals which are truly his own without the corrupting input of others. Detaching from the pecking order can rapidly produce noticeable relief from stress. It also tends to improve the way others perceive and relate to the transformed ego-neutral person.


Teach the individual to identify his own ego-neutral moments: We are in and out of ego-neutral moments every day, but without recognizing their importance, or even noticing their existence.


Train the client to increase the frequency and duration of these ego-neutral moments by using ego-neutral responses that compete with ego-defensive reactions until ego-neutral attitudes and behaviors become a habit.



Introducing the client to ego-neutral concepts and application


First, ask, “Are you familiar with the phrase “pecking order”? If he answers “Yes”, ask him to explain it so you can be sure he actually knows what it means. If he does not know what the pecking order means”, explain it as simply as possible.


In either case, ascertain that the client is aware that the pecking order with its accompanying emotions is a biologically rooted tendency. In the wild, it insures survival of the species by rewarding aggressive, physically strong individuals with choice food and mates and thus enhances the probability of survival for the species. Power equates to survival while weakness signals demise. The exaggerated feelings of pride, shame, strength and inadequacy etc. come from the pecking order complex. Humans feel badly about themselves, not because of childhood trauma, but because they are born to feel that way.


In an attempt to improve their pecking-order position, humans look to other humans to define how and what they should think or feel. They tend to accept statements of peers and superiors as fact. These are frequently beliefs, not facts. The client must be trained to differentiate between beliefs and facts and subsequently confirm or reject identified beliefs based on the client’s own life experience, observation and conclusion. The client also needs to know that is OK not to have an opinion when people all around him are strongly proclaiming one.


Ask the client the following questions and be sure he knows or learns the correct answer.


How are humans different from animals when it comes to the pecking order?

  • Humans have the intellectual ability to understand that there is a biological source generating these emotions
  • Humans, because of superior brain power, can consciously choose to detach from the pecking order and replace it with something ultimately more satisfying, ego-neutrality
  • Or they can choose to remain ego-defensive somewhere in the pecking order continuum

Will detaching from the pecking order and becoming ego-neutral really be more satisfying?

  • You are the only person who can answer that question.
  • You can only answer it after having thoroughly tried this strategy in your own life.

What if you can’t stop feeling ego-defensive?

  • You can still behave as though you are ego-neutral
  • Feeling ego-neutral will become easier after you experience some of the benefits of behaving in an ego-neutral way


Present the client with reasons why being ego-neutral can be more satisfying than life in the pecking order, even when one is a “winner” in the pecking order.


You can discover who you truly are, rather than depending on others to define your likes and dislikes and who you are. You will actually “be yourself”.


You will be able to more accurately identify an objective threat vs. a threat to your self-esteem and will not waste time and energy in ego defensive activities. You will no longer be reflexively distracted by threats to your self-esteem. You will no longer be pre-occupied with manipulating others into viewing you as powerful or successful in some way.


You can actually be satisfied with and enjoy the good things you already have. If you are ego-defensive you will never be satisfied – you will always crave “more”.

More of what? More of anything. More of everything. No matter how much you have, if you are ego-defensive there will always be someone who has something that you don’t and you will want that something. Ego-defensive need is a bottomless pit that can never be filled.


Over time people will tend to treat you with more respect than currently. This respect should not be viewed as a goal, but as a natural consequence of your ego-neutral behavior. You should neither seek it nor reject it nor enjoy nor dislike it.


Being ego-neutral enhances the probability that your friends and associates will also be ego-neutral. Life is much easier when you are surrounded by civil, objective people who are unconcerned with exploiting you to score their own ego-defensive points.


Immediately you should experience reduced stress and less sense of failure because you will no longer be focusing on manipulating others to behave toward you in ways that you imagine enhance your ego (and constantly fearing failure as you do so).


Excitement and satisfaction you seek through ego-defensive behaviors are accessible and more sustainable through ego-neutral self-improvement. Abandon trying to be better than others. You are the only person you need to be better than.

Acquiring new skills can be enormously satisfying. It is genuine increase in power and independence. Think of the first time you rode a bike without help or the first time you drove a car. Consider acquiring skills that can improve your financial outlook. Money may not buy you respect (ego-defensive), but it can buy you freedom to pursue things you truly enjoy (ego-neutral).


Clearly define ego-neutral moments and ascertain the client is able to identify his own ego-neutral moments. 


These are moments in which the individual’s attention is focused away from himself and how he feels about himself. He may be engaged in play, in problem-solving or planning. It is those moments when he is thinking of things other than what he wants people to think of him or what he thinks people think of him. These are moments of emotional detachment or tranquility. See the Expansion of concepts section for further clarification.  


Clearly describe ego-neutral behaviors and ascertain the client understands.


Many of these behaviors have been widely encouraged by parents and teachers for generations. Some of them are: Be honest with yourself, don’t make excuses, be reliable, be polite, be neat and clean, don’t call attention to yourself and don’t attempt to manipulate others.


Work toward achieving beneficial, constructive goals and over-all self-improvement (are you better at something today than you were yesterday?)


Ego-neutral behaviors must be executed without the hope or expectation that people will think well of you. They must be implemented simply because the client has now decided to live a civil, principled life and this is how to achieve that end.


The reason ego-neutral behaviors seem to not “work”, and are subsequently discarded, is because they are frequently used as a tool for ego-enhancement. Young people are never told the advantages of being ego-neutral. They are not taught how to identify and expand their own ego-neutral moments. They are not taught the importance of being in an ego-neutral mindset when engaged in ego-neutral behaviors.  They are never made aware of the biological basis for pecking-order feelings.


Draw a line representing the pecking order continuum.


Point to various areas on the line and ask the client to name people he thinks belong in those locations. Ask the client where he thinks he belongs

Ask him how he thinks each person he named feels.


Point out that some people at the top of the pecking order are filled with anxiety about their position and are defending it every day with various strategies (bullying, mean girls syndrome, being overtly friendly, being excessively competitive). Others placed at the top are actually ego-neutral and would feel the same about themselves no matter what group they were in. Some that the client locates at the bottom have severe self-esteem issues. Others he assigns to the bottom actually don’t care, because they are ego-neutral and for them, self-esteem is a non-issue.


Communicate that even if the client eventually feels he has moved to the top of the pecking order, being there will not feel like he now imagines. It will, in some way, be disappointing. True power lies in transcending the pecking order and becoming ego-neutral.


Coaching the client in application of ego-neutral strategy


In subsequent therapeutic sessions continue to address the following points:

  • Emphasizing the importance of maintaining an ego-neutral mind-set
  • Identifying and reviewing ego-neutral moments in current or earlier life until the client is able to accurately and confidently recognize them
  • Training the client to use competing responses to increase the frequency and expand the duration of ego-neutral moments until they become a habit
  • Training the client to differentiate between fact and belief. When it is viewed as a fact, there is no impetus to examine and possibly modify or discard a limiting belief.


This is accomplished by repetitively asking, “Were you ego-defensive today [this week, etc.]?” If the answer is yes, have the client describe the event in detail. Then ask, “How was that ego-defensive?” Wait for the answer. Then ask, “How could that have been handled in an ego-neutral way instead?”


Also repetitively ask, “Were you ego-neutral today [this week, etc.]?” If the response is, “Yes” have the client describe the event in detail. Then ask, “How was that ego-neutral?”


Engage the client in identifying and examining belief vs. fact when he voices a possible belief during the session.  “The cards are stacked against me, so why try?”, “If only I were popular, then I would be happy”, or “If only so-and-so would do such-and-such, then everything would be all right”.


Ask the client, “Is that a belief or a fact? Why is it a belief/fact? “


Continue: “Did you first get that idea from a personal event? Are there other possible conclusions/explanations for that event? Are you willing to consider these other possibilities? Why? Why not? “


Also ask: “Did you first get that idea from another person or group? Is there anything in your own life to validate the conclusions of that person or group? Is there anything in your own life that contradicts the conclusions of that person or group?”


Note - The coaching section can be modified for home use around the dinner table. Simply grasp the key concepts and ask each other the following:

  1. Were you ego-neutral today? How?
  2. Were you ego-defensive today? How? How could that be handled in an ego-neutral way instead?

This would give the entire family something to talk about, acquaint all members with ego-neutrality and also enable family members to know each other better.



Expansion of concepts


      The ego-neutral moment


Recognizing and expanding the ego-neutral moment is central in the ego-neutral approach to emotional disturbance. Most people are in and out of an ego-neutral mindset many times a day.  However, they fail to recognize these events as such because until now no one has defined this way of thinking and feeling as useful in any way.   It is extremely important to recognize the ego-neutral moment because it is the starting point for discovering who you truly are. It is the base from which you can more objectively view the world with all of its possibilities.


Imagine you are intensely involved in a task and not thinking about yourself and finally you complete the task. Your mental state is still ego neutral and it can be a little boring without activity. But rather than remaining ego-neutral and bored or looking for a new task, frequently people seek immediate excitement and gratification through ego-defensive activity or fantasy as a way of filling the emotionally empty space.  


When bored, people easily revert to thinking how to enhance their self-esteem. Usually this involves having others, real or imagined, view them in desirable ways. They might start reviewing slights and enter wish-fulfilling fantasies about getting even or making people feel sorry for them. They might go out and pick a fight or lead a group of buddies or bully someone or watch a football game. They may daydream of being admired, being famous, being feared, being highly successful. They have just gone from an ego-neutral, tranquil objective state into one of pecking order drama and immediate, but counterfeit, gratification.


Rather than escaping these ego-neutral moments, the client should continue to fill them with beneficial constructive planning and activities. This could be cleaning a room, reading a book, attending a meeting, studying – actually any practical activity that is not involved in an attempt to achieve ego gratification.


Contrast the two states:








Focused outward

Focused inward


Intense and/or unpleasant emotions





Fixes problem

Fixes blame




Example of an ego-neutral moment:


Imagine you have a cat. When you call the cat, sometimes it comes to you and sometimes it doesn’t. That is the nature of a cat. With regard to the cat:

  1. Are you ego-defensive?
    1. Do you feel depressed or angry or unappreciated if the cat fails to come when called?
    2. Do you wonder what the cat thinks of you?
    3. Do you wonder if the cat finds you repulsive? Weak? Lacking? Ugly? Needy?
  2. Are you ego-neutral?
    1. Do you enjoy the cat even when it ignores you?
    2. Do you enjoy the cat without wondering what it thinks of you?
    3. Can you feed the cat, care for the cat and play with the cat just because you want to, without any expectation of exchange, without feeling imposed upon? 


In your imagination, now replace that cat with a significant person in your life and answer those same questions. Are you still ego-neutral?


     Belief vs. fact in adolescent anguish and rebellion


The individual tends to see himself as he thinks other view him. In this culture, pecking order issues begin to noticeably emerge sometime during grade school. The key factor is the child is spending more time with people outside his family than with his family.


His pecking-order position in the family was established when he was so young it was accepted as normal. Now he is in a new pecking order in which his position in the beginning is undetermined. When the rules of his family seem to fail in advancing his position in this new pecking order he begins to look to sources outside his family (usually peers or the media) to define how he should think and feel.


Depending on the attitude of the peer group, sometimes there is overt rebellion against using the “good manners” taught by their parents. Because such behaviors don’t necessarily or immediately generate ego-enhancing gratification, the young person concludes that they don’t work. He comes to view the rules of civil behavior as a recipe for failure. He followed those rules in the past and now, in the new pecking order, he is unrewarded for the effort. Well meaning parents sometimes add to the pressure by implying or overtly stating that it is important to be liked or popular. Adding to the confusion, the adolescent is told to “just be yourself” without being told how to do that. He then rejects anything coming from the adults who encouraged ego-neutral behavior (without the mindset) and turns to peers as clueless as he is for help in defining himself in more gratifying ways. 


The adolescent looks at the foot ball captain and home coming queen, laughing and surrounded by other popular, laughing people. He looks at himself, knowing he is not happy and not surrounded by happy people. He non-verbally equates happiness with power.  He thinks, “If only I were popular, then I would be happy”. The unarticulated belief is, “As long as I am not popular, I will be unhappy. As long as I am unhappy, I will be powerless”.  This is further reinforced by peers and perhaps family, who may have agreed that popularity is important.


Until the adolescent is taught how to distinguish fact from belief, beliefs copied from or influenced by others will continue to determine how he feels about himself. This can expand to countless “If-onlys”.  If only I were rich, then I would be happy. If only I were famous, then I would be happy. If only I were powerful, then I would be happy. If only I were smarter, then I would be happy...


Some fortunate adolescents escape this ego-defensive trap. This is because their brains are sufficiently undamaged and brain chemistry sufficiently robust to sustain a sense of well-being. If the family is at all objective in its view of the world these adolescents are rarely embroiled in the pecking order and, without effort, tend toward being ego-neutral.


     Clinically addressing belief vs. fact


Sometimes a belief is so strong and unquestioned it may be mistaken for a fact. Belief vs. fact can be clinically addressed simply by asking “Is that a belief? Why is it (is it not) a belief? Is that a fact? Why is it (is it not) a fact? This is done until the client can do the following:

  • Distinguish between a belief and a fact
  • Reliably identify his ego-centric beliefs along with their sources
  • Assess the usefulness or limitations of these beliefs


     Self-esteem influence in substance abuse


A couple of generations ago, smoking and drinking were glamorized in movies by people of power and sophistication. Chronic hangovers were an object of comedy in “The Thin Man”. Bette Davis and her sweetheart chain-smoked throughout “Now Voyager”.  Smoking and drinking gave people of all economic and social stations an affordable way to engage in the indulgences that seemed so important to the socially prominent. This provided those lower in the pecking order with a fleeting illusion of power.


When people perform an act that does not provide the hoped for gratification, the tendency is to perform that act even more frequently and more intensely. This is how smoking and drinking can grow in importance in a person’s life. Eventually the habit becomes ingrained. Forgotten is the initial motive for having started, but the subconsciously the motive lingers. The slightest feeling of restlessness or boredom (the short-lived ego-neutral moment) is followed by a search for immediate ego-defensive gratification. This ends with the use of these easily available and glamorous items of luxury and status. At the very least, the substance provides distraction from the initial void of the ego-neutral moment.  


To an adolescent, adulthood appears to be a free and powerful existence. You get to do whatever you want. If you are smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol or doing drugs, you are just like adults – cool, powerful. Parents are against it - but everything they tell you to do fails, so who listens to them? Peers, also wanting to appear powerful, smoke, drink and do drugs. So, in addition to emulating adults or older kids, the adolescent also copies his peers, in an attempt to be like everyone else.


To facilitate recovery, addicts need to at least “test drive” being ego-neutral. Otherwise,

the pecking order influence will return them to substance abusing ego-defensive friends and behaviors. The ego-neutral strategy gives them the positive focus of beneficial, constructive competing behaviors rather than the negative focus of not using the substance and not seeing druggie friends.


     Ego-neutral approach to bullies


Bullies, if not transformed to ego-neutrality and not swayed by ego-neutral arguments, must be addressed in the only language they understand - force. Force can be used by ego-neutral people if their attitude doesn’t turn ego-defensive.

What is the difference in attitude?

  1. The Ego-defensive Victor delights in the successful use of force and punishment of the enemy.
  2. The Ego-neutral person is relieved by successful use of force, but regrets that it was necessary.




Now that ego-neutrality is a known possibility, the client can chose which way to go:

  1. Explore and develop the more satisfying human potential now available
  2. Remain in a state of little more than perpetually searching for gratification or relief, which is rarely found and lasts only briefly


Copyright © 2012 Nancy J. Mayfield
All rights reserved.
Permission is granted to reproduce this document provided the entire document is reproduced, the author is acknowledged and the document is not reproduced for profit.