Journey to a Healthy Ego

In the book The Four Agreements author Don Miguel Ruiz says that we shouldn’t take anything personally; that someone should be able to say we are the best person in the world or the worst person in the world and either should mean nothing to us.

In some zen egoless state of nirvana perhaps we could all feel that way, but in reality we have egos, and our ego is the part of us that cares what other people think.

So while we may feel autonomous when it comes to our feelings, in truth we are often saddled as a vehicle for our egos to support the beliefs that the ego has developed in order to protect ‘us’ from fears of the ego itself.

Our true beliefs are far different because they come from who we are versus who we want other people to think we are.

The ego is both master and slave, being the subconscious captor to the innermost nature of ourselves.

In order to break this cycle, we have to remember that the ego seeks to validate false notions designed to protect us from vulnerable feelings. It does this by magnifying the pain of our feelings being hurt, causing us to act out in order to protect them.

So, we might have an over inflated sense of our self-importance in relationships (the false notion) arising from the fact that we are insecure or afraid of being alone (the vulnerable feelings), and as a result our ego causes us to feel disproportionately spited whenever someone does something that even remotely challenges this false notion of our self-importance. So what ends up happening is that our ego causes us to retaliate and react in a manner that isn’t healthy or fair to others. When we are really just seeking to protect ourselves from the fears and insecurities of the ego (perceived as our own true fears and insecurities), in reality we just end up being major assholes.

Please read the above paragraph again.

Understanding this is one of the keys to understanding human nature.

Next time someone lashes out against you, remember that they are just trying to protect their ego. It’s the classic case of the asshole who wasn’t loved enough as a child. Guess what, none of us were. We are all that person.

But we don’t even step back to see this about ourselves or others.

Recognizing is the first step for a reason.

Begin to see the yin and yang of behavior relative to feelings. Take an objective look at your feelings next time you find yourself engaged in or experiencing unhealthy behaviors/feelings.

These behaviors include self-deprecation (belittling/diminishing/undervaluing oneself), self-destruction (sabotaging/punishing/harming oneself), martyrdom (reacting as if persecuted/victimised/oppressed), stubbornness (resisting change in one’s life), selfishness, arrogance (inflating/exalting/overvaluing oneself), and impatience.

Each of those behaviors are driven by feelings that the ego doesn’t even want us to be consciously aware of. We’re too blinded by our ego’s quest to protect ourselves from these chinks in our armor that we don’t see the clear paradoxical nature of our feelings, realizing that 90% of our emotional triggers are obvious defense mechanisms.

The ironic thing is that while we use these defense mechanisms as a coping strategy to defend against feelings that are counter to the notions of our false self that the ego has created, they do nothing to mask the underlying emotional triggers to others. Meaning that our ego driven behavior ends up looking exactly like ego driven behavior. An obvious case would be jealously looking like blatant insecurity.

So, now that we begin to recognize these defense mechanisms, we can start becoming aware of them and looking beneath them to discover the underlying stories that are driving them..

We can also adopt healthier models for dealing with these ego-driven defense mechanisms, using Vaiillant’s categorization of defense mechanisms.

Dr. George Eman Vaillant is a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard and employed at Massachusetts General Hospital.

He authored a study on how different psychological coping methods helped people succeed or fail during their lives.

His four categories of defense mechanisms are arranged in a hierarchy that can serve as an excellent and extremely valuable framework for anyone seeking eye opening information about themselves and who wants to make significant change and growth in their life.

The following is from Wikipedia, but I beg you to read it with an introspective mind. You’ll find both insight into your own behavior, and healthier models for behaving and communicating your ego driven feelings.

Vaiillant’s categorization of defense mechanisms.

Level 1: Pathological (psychotic denial, delusional projection)

The mechanisms on this level, when predominating, almost always are severely pathalogical. These six defenses, in conjunction, permit one to effectively rearrange external experiences to eliminate the need to cope with reality. The pathological users of these mechanisms frequently appear irrational or insane to others. These are the “psychotic” defenses, common in overt psychosis. However, they are found in dreams and throughout childhood as well. They include:

  • Delusional Projection: Delusions about external reality, usually of a persecutory nature.
  • Conversion: The expression of an intrapsychic conflict as a physical symptom; some examples include blindness, deafness, paralysis, or numbness. This phenomena is sometimes called hysteria.
  • Denial: Refusal to accept external reality because it is too threatening; arguing against an anxiety-provoking stimulus by stating it doesn’t exist; resolution of emotional conflict and reduction of anxiety by refusing to perceive or consciously acknowledge the more unpleasant aspects of external reality.
  • Distortion: A gross reshaping of external reality to meet internal needs.
  • Splitting: A primitive defence. Negative and positive impulses are split off and unintegrated, frequently projected onto someone else. The defended individual segregates experiences into all-good and all-bad categories, with no room for ambiguity and ambivalence. When “splitting” is combined with “projecting”, the negative qualities that you unconsciously perceive yourself as possessing, you consciously attribute to another.
  • Extreme projection: The blatant denial of a moral or psychological deficiency, which is perceived as a deficiency in another individual or group.
  • Superiority complex: A psychological defense mechanism in which a person’s feelings of superiority counter or conceal his or her feelings of inferiority.
  • Inferiority complex: A behavior that is displayed through a lack of self-worth, an increase of doubt and uncertainty, and feeling of not measuring up to society’s standards.

Level 2: Immature (fantasy, projection, passive aggression, acting out)

These mechanisms are often present in adults. These mechanisms lessen distress and anxiety produced by threatening people or by an uncomfortable reality. Excessive use of such defences is seen as socially undesirable, in that they are immature, difficult to deal with and seriously out of touch with reality. These are the so-called “immature” defences and overuse almost always leads to serious problems in a person’s ability to cope effectively. These defences are often seen in major depression and personality disorders. They include:

  • Acting out: Direct expression of an unconscious wish or impulse in action, without conscious awareness of the emotion that drives that expressive behaviour.
  • Fantasy: Tendency to retreat into fantasy in order to resolve inner and outer conflicts.
  • Wishful thinking: Making decisions according to what might be pleasing to imagine instead of by appealing to evidence, rationality, or reality
  • Idealization: Unconsciously choosing to perceive another individual as having more positive qualities than he or she may actually have.
  • Passive aggression: Aggression towards others expressed indirectly or passively, often through procrastination.
  • Projection: A primitive form of paranoia. Projection reduces anxiety by allowing the expression of the undesirable impulses or desires without becoming consciously aware of them; attributing one’s own unacknowledged unacceptable or unwanted thoughts and emotions to another; includes severe prejudice and jealousy, hypervigilance to external danger, and “injustice collecting”, all with the aim of shifting one’s unacceptable thoughts, feelings and impulses onto someone else, such that those same thoughts, feelings, beliefs and motivations are perceived as being possessed by the other.
  • Projective identification: The object of projection invokes in that person precisely the thoughts, feelings or behaviours projected.
  • Somatization: The transformation of negative feelings towards others into negative feelings toward oneself, pain, illness, and anxiety.

Level 3: Neurotic (intellectualization, reaction formation, dissociation, displacement, repression)

These mechanisms are considered neurotic, but fairly common in adults. Such defences have short-term advantages in coping, but can often cause long-term problems in relationships, work and in enjoying life when used as one’s primary style of coping with the world. They include:

  • Displacement: Defence mechanism that shifts sexual or aggressive impulses to a more acceptable or less threatening target; redirecting emotion to a safer outlet; separation of emotion from its real object and redirection of the intense emotion toward someone or something that is less offensive or threatening in order to avoid dealing directly with what is frightening or threatening. For example, a mother may yell at her child because she is angry with her husband.
  • Dissociation: Temporary drastic modification of one’s personal identity or character to avoid emotional distress; separation or postponement of a feeling that normally would accompany a situation or thought.
  • Hypochondriasis: An excessive preoccupation or worry about having a serious illness.
  • Intellectualization: A form of isolation; concentrating on the intellectual components of a situation so as to distance oneself from the associated anxiety-provoking emotions; separation of emotion from ideas; thinking about wishes in formal, affectively bland terms and not acting on them; avoiding unacceptable emotions by focusing on the intellectual aspects (isolation, rationalization, ritual, undoing, compensation, and magical thinking).
  • Isolation: Separation of feelings from ideas and events, for example, describing a murder with graphic details with no emotional response.
  • Rationalization (making excuses): Convincing oneself that no wrong has been done and that all is or was all right through faulty and false reasoning. An indicator of this defence mechanism can be seen socially as the formulation of convenient excuses.
  • Reaction formation: Converting unconscious wishes or impulses that are perceived to be dangerous or unacceptable into their opposites; behaviour that is completely the opposite of what one really wants or feels; taking the opposite belief because the true belief causes anxiety.
  • Regression: Temporary reversion of the ego to an earlier stage of development rather than handling unacceptable impulses in a more adult way, for example, using whining as a method of communicating despite already having acquired the ability to speak with appropriate grammar.
  • Repression: The process of attempting to repel desires towards pleasurable instincts, caused by a threat of suffering if the desire is satisfied; the desire is moved to the unconscious in the attempt to prevent it from entering consciousness; seemingly unexplainable naivety, memory lapse or lack of awareness of one’s own situation and condition; the emotion is conscious, but the idea behind it is absent.
  • Undoing: A person tries to ‘undo’ an unhealthy, destructive or otherwise threatening thought by acting out the reverse of the unacceptable. Involves symbolically nullifying an unacceptable or guilt provoking thought, idea, or feeling by confession or atonement.
  • Withdrawal: Withdrawal is a more severe form of defence. It entails removing oneself from events, stimuli, and interactions under the threat of being reminded of painful thoughts and feelings.
  • Upward and downward social comparisons: A defensive tendency that is used as a means of self-evaluation. Individuals will look to another individual or comparison group who are considered to be worse off in order to dissociate themselves from perceived similarities and to make themselves feel better about themselves or their personal situation.

Level 4: Mature (humor, sublimation, suppression, altruism, anticipation)

These are commonly found among emotionally healthy adults and are considered mature, even though many have their origins in an immature stage of development. They have been adapted through the years in order to optimise success in human society and relationships. The use of these defences enhances pleasure and feelings of control. These defences help to integrate conflicting emotions and thoughts, whilst still remaining effective. Those who use these mechanisms are usually considered virtuous. They include:

  • Humility: A mechanism by which a person, considering their own defects, has a humble self-opinion. Humility is intelligent self-respect which keeps one from thinking too highly or too meanly of oneself.
  • Mindfulness: Adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterised by curiosity, openness, and acceptance.
  • Acceptance: A person’s assent to the reality of a situation, recognizing a process or condition (often a negative or uncomfortable situation) without attempting to change it, protest, or exit. Religions and psychological treatments often suggest the path of acceptance when a situation is both disliked and unchangeable, or when change may be possible only at great cost or risk.
  • Gratitude: A feeling of thankfulness or appreciation involving appreciation of a wide range of people and events. Gratitude is likely to bring higher levels of happiness, and lower levels of depression and stress. Throughout history, gratitude has been given a central position in religious and philosophical theories.
  • Altruism: Constructive service to others that brings pleasure and personal satisfaction.
  • Tolerance: The practice of deliberately allowing or permitting a thing of which one disapproves.
  • Mercy: Compassionate behavior on the part of those in power.
  • Forgiveness: Cessation of resentment, indignation or anger as a result of a perceived offence, disagreement, or mistake, or ceasing to demand retribution or restitution.
  • Anticipation: Realistic planning for future discomfort.
  • Humour: Overt expression of ideas and feelings (especially those that are unpleasant to focus on or too terrible to talk about directly) that gives pleasure to others. The thoughts retain a portion of their innate distress, but they are “skirted around” by witticism, for example self-deprecation.
  • Identification: The unconscious modelling of one’s self upon another person’s character and behaviour.
  • Introjection: Identifying with some idea or object so deeply that it becomes a part of that person.
  • Sublimation: Transformation of negative emotions or instincts into positive actions, behaviours, or emotions, for example, playing a heavy contact sport such as football or rugby can transform aggression into a game.
  • Thought suppression: The conscious process of pushing thoughts into the preconscious; the conscious decision to delay paying attention to an emotion or need in order to cope with the present reality; making it possible to later access uncomfortable or distressing emotions whilst accepting them.
  • Emotional self-regulation: The ability to respond to the ongoing demands of experience with the range of emotions in a manner that is socially tolerable.

###

By becoming aware of unhealthy, sub-par models, we can consciously seek more mature, healthier replacements, reducing friction in our relationships, and honoring the good wolf, our authentic self, rather than the bad wolf – our ego.

It should be noted that the ego isn’t all bad, and by adopting mature defense mechanisms, we learn to have a healthy ego.

It’s up to you to make a choice to consciously examine and improve upon the areas where your ego is an impedence to your well being.

It’s the battle of the two wolves living inside of you.

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Remember, no one can serve two masters. (The ego, and the authentic-self)

No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. Matthew 6:24

Which master are you going to choose to serve?

You deserve to free yourself from maladaptive behaviors and the accompanying dysfunctions that are negatively affecting your life.

This is a great step in conjunction with my previous post on reinterpreting the stories dictating your life. You’re going to need to shed some of those stories that aren’t serving you in order to adapt healthier behavior models.

This isn’t just paperback Buddhism. This is a chance to take actionable steps towards freeing yourself from the chains of the past.

You can improve your relationships not just with others, but as important, you can greatly improve your relationship with yourself.

You have the opportunity to love and be loved. Making the journey to a healthy ego can change your entire life experience for the better. You deserve it.

Here’s your homework:

1. Read Adaptations to Life by Dr. Vaillant.

2. Ask yourself why you are feeling what you are feeling. Not the real reason, i.e., ‘well, she offended me’ but look deeper to recognize the role of the ego in the feeling.

3. Examine Vaiillant’s categorization of defense mechanisms as seen in this post. Try and not only discover which defense mechanisms you and using, but also ask yourself why you are using them, and find an appropriate replacement that doesn’t feed the ego wolf.

4. Remember, you are okay.

p.s. Listen to this song and make the decision to age with grace. It will be much easier than not being vulnerable and compassionate towards others.

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