The Ego-Depletion Theory

February 27, 2020
The ego-depletion theory proposes that your mind can also become exhausted.

When you’re so exhausted you can’t control your emotions, is it because you’ve somehow lost your social abilities? The answer is yes, although it doesn’t happen that drastically. Today, we’ll explore the ego-depletion theory, which proposes an explanation for this kind of mental exhaustion.

Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to make decisions and be polite after an argument, a breakup, or a stressful situation? Although this doesn’t last forever, the duration depends on how long you were exposed to the stressful event.

Many psychologists have studied this phenomenon, and an interesting theory tries to explain why this happens. The best part about understanding why it happens is that it brings you one step closer to a solution.

What’s the ego-depletion theory?

This theory states that you lose your ability to self-regulate for a period of time when you experience a very intense and/or prolonged mental exhaustion. In other words, you aren’t able to completely control your emotions, impulses, or behavior. This is because your mental exhaustion has a significant impact on important abilities such as assertiveness and empathy.

A woman with her hands on her head thinking about ego-depletion theory.

The ego, or the “self”, is the part of your psychology that has to adapt to external situations. That’s why it’s so important for it to know how to react when desires, whims, and tense situations arise. Deciding whether you’ll throw yourself into something without thinking or not or knowing how to meditate to react appropriately depends on your ego.

But what happens if, along with the difficulty or prolonged nature of the situation, your ego is dealing with extreme levels of stress? Well, if your ego is repressed for a long time or you’re in an extremely sensitive moment, it becomes exhausted and won’t be able to function properly for a period of time. It’s just like what happens to your body after running a marathon. You’re so physically exhausted from the effort of running 25 miles that even the simplest movements are hard for you.

Therefore, the ego-depletion theory research argues that, after a period of mental exhaustion, the self has less energy for self-regulation.

Baumeister and his conclusive study

The first expert to develop this hypothesis was a reputable psychologist named Roy Baumeister. He argued that when the self isn’t “in shape” because it has exhausted its normal resources, the direct consequence is that it can’t carry out certain functions. Some of them are:

  • Modification of self-harming behavior.
  • Decision-making.
  • Exercising self-regulation.

All this means that you won’t behave appropriately, but not because you don’t want to. Rather, you can’t because you’ve exhausted part of our resources. As a result, your whims, emotions, and cravings carry you away.

Curative methods according to the ego-depletion theory

The ego-depletion theory argues that, although the consequences for emotional self-regulation are significant, recovery isn’t difficult. Thus, you can recover by following these relatively simple steps:

  • Distance yourself from the stress-inducing situation.
  • Rest.
  • Sleep.
  • Do things that are emotionally positive.
A man contemplating the ocean.

Most people consider physical exhaustion and rest completely normal parts of life. Thus, you should also try to rest your ego to cure or prevent ego-depletion and be able to solve your day-to-day issues more easily. As a result, you’ll be happier and make others happier as well. Your physical condition and relationships will notably improve.

In conclusion, try to avoid both physical and mental exhaustion. If that’s impossible, make sure you take the time to recover.

“Self-regulation is the ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses and moods.”

-Daniel Goleman-

  • Baumeister, R. y Vohs, K. (2007). Self-Regulation, Ego Depletion and Motivation. Social and Personality Psychology Compass.
  • Bejarano, T. (2010). Autorregulación y libertad. Thémata. Revista de Filosofía.