For more than a decade, I have referred to the ego, thought about the ego, looked for my own ego and pointed out various of my attributes as ego. All I can say now is that that process of self-inquiry served me for a time, but it no longer serves me. I am here to suggest that we pause and take in the possibility of removing the ego from our vocabulary.
In a Nutshell
For those interested in the bottom line, here it comes! The path I took to get there is explored after that.
We are complex. In fact, too complex for the outdated and short-sighted concept of an ego. What serves you at one point will not serve you forever. This post is my journey from important insights brought about by my ego-inquiry and how I outgrew the boundaries and restrictions the ego imposes. Perhaps you are someone who uses the term ‘ego’ in your self-observations and judgments of others, and I hope you will read through and open up to the possibility that there is a better way to understand who we truly are.
Where it all started
Over the past year I have been consistently hitting a roadblock in my ego inquiry. How do I make it fit into my ever-increasing and ever-expanding understanding of the conscious and subconscious and the greater mind and body as a whole? I found myself trying to jam the ego into other models of how the brain works that I have found to be helpful, and couldn’t make it fit.
It hadn’t occurred to me to remove the ego from my vernacular, and why would it? I am surrounded by people in the yoga and “personal development” community who - teachers, leaders and students alike - refer to the ego on a daily basis.
While in Palm Springs for New Years, in deep philosophical conversation on the relationship between consciousness and subconscious with my dad, I mentioned my struggle with defining the ego clearly and how to make it fit into my developing coaching structures. Without hesitation, my dad responded with something like: “the ego was debunked by science decades ago. Most people who continue to use the term don’t understand that; and don’t use ‘ego’ as Freud did in any event. You are hearing a cultural echo.”
Mind-blown! In an instant I felt a massive shift; a release, as I opened to a possibility that I had not considered until then. I felt a weight lifted from my shoulders and a calm feeling of truth rung deep within me. It just made so much sense. I mentioned this “new” contemplation and realization to a past client and she remarked that she actually brought this up in one of our sessions a couple of years ago and I didn’t seem open to exploring it. We both equated my resistance to the fact that at that time I was in the process of publishing my book and couldn’t hold space for that unraveling in the midst of sharing my story and my ego-contemplation with the world. I found that to be fascinating! Here I am now, ready to dig in and remove some beliefs that no longer serve me.
Retrain your EGO?
I had gone from perceiving my ego as the impulse to sabotage, compare, judge or put others down as a way to make myself feel more “right” or better-than. I had seen it as being deflated when I was hard on myself or in struggle around my own self-worth. I saw it as something that takes over when I have the urge to be boastful in any “look at me” kind of way. It was a successful point of inquiry as it supported me in cultivating the pause; that choice-point moment between impulsive reaction and deliberate response. I saw it fitting in the structure of the mind as a venn diagram; an overlap between subconscious and conscious, because it housed strong impulsive feelings, as well as manifesting in self-talk.
A balanced EGO?
I then began contemplating what a healthy and balanced ego looks like. Nothing is all bad or all good, and shaming the ego as the uncontrollable animal or over-protective body-guard within us did not leave room for growth. As the ego is described, it seemed to be necessary for our human experience, which means it is not to be killed off or destroyed, but rather it was in need of a tune-up and a shift in relationship.
And so along that route I went for a while, contemplating a healthy and balanced ego. But what does that look like? What does that mean? A healthy and balanced ego, I thought, could be a state where impulse for indulgent desire or instant gratification no longer ran the show. Perhaps a relationship with self that is so grounded and loving that the “ego” still rattled with desire yet also got on board with higher levels of living and being. For example, I thought, an ego could feel rewarded and satisfied when impulse and compulsions quieted and a clear path towards good-choices became the yellow brick road. This line of thinking felt like a worthwhile pursuit for a while.
Too complex for the EGO
However, I ran into problems with referring to the ego as if it is a character within us, separate from all other characters we tend to notice. What started as a simple way to be with and retrain my impulsive reactions, became the roadblock in understanding how to practice my way into balance in my mind and body.
So, consider the idea of letting go of “the ego” as an entity to be feared, shamed, or retrained in our system. Our subconscious generates our self-protection impulse. This aspect of our basic life functioning, evolved to make us feels good around whatever promotes survival and reproduction, and to shy away from anything that could potentially get in the way of the same things.
Our subconscious system works like a recording device, holding on to “life-lessons” in the form of memory that has dissolved into instinct, which keep us alive and make us attractive mates and social companions. This system is often misguided because what serves you at one point in time is not necessarily what is best or what will serve you in the future, and we are all subject to many cognitive biases.
Ideally, our conscious mind will learn about our subconscious blind spots, so that it can help us pause, and create space between reaction and response, so that our subconscious can develop new and more functional instincts. This happens as we continue to slow down, pay attention, and behave in new ways. Shaky, tentative, new thoughts and actions – imagine Bambi learning to walk - eventually stabilize into smooth, powerful behaviors as new neural pathways form that are consistent with our expanding consciousness. In this way, as we become more self-aware and better understand how the world around us works, our brains literally change and we become new beings. I believe that the many powerful religious and cultural representations of personal rebirth refer to nothing more, or less, than this real miracle of self-renewal.
One of the things that I find most fascinating about this process starts with the observation that what served to protect us at the age of 4 is not what will necessarily be in our best interest at age 40. However, until the tedious brain re-wiring project I just described has played out to a successful conclusion, our subconscious will continue to urge us to do what we’ve always done regardless of your conscious mind knowing better.
Try on a New Perspective
So it’s not EGO that urges us to be boastful. This is a deeply ingrained impulse connected to our need to be seen and positively acknowledged, as while our brains evolved, this was essential to our survival and propagation. And it is not your deflated EGO that pulls us into cowering or holding back from opportunity. Rather, this is our subconscious system that has either dipped into hypoarousal or has built a habit of holding back. It’s all habit. It’s all programming.
There is no ego. There is no fragmented version of us that fits the ego mold. Scientific research that became possible long after Freud did his work has made it clear that we are far more complex than Freud’s ego based model of how our minds work. It is fair to say that brains work like small social groups, in which a network of vastly different characters argue, debate and cajole each other to behave as they wish the group (metaphorically, the individual within which this is occurring) to behave. Our genes, history and beliefs all show up in these characters - the judge; the critic; the child; the saboteur; the victim; the prostitute; the fear mongerer; the calm sage; the believer in magic; the bully – to name a few of the possibilities.
So what? Why does this matter? My hope is that you will use this as an opportunity to slow down and check in with how you use the concept of the EGO to understand your - and others - behavior. Without blaming the ego or shaming the ego, we are left with a possibility to see what is habit, what is fear, and what subconscious character is taking the wheel. Perhaps it will support you in pausing and looking at where you are lacking nourishment rather than falling into shame or frustration. When we are nourished and grounded, we have the space and energy to show up as we truly desire, rather than being steered towards habit or the various actions our subconscious has learned as protecting and prolonging our survival. It’s all habit, and with awareness, effort and surrender, we can change what no longer serves us. Happy trail blazing ;).