It feels time for another weighty topic, so I must be having withdrawal symptoms from writing them ;>) I got the idea for this theme when someone I help through my volunteering recently said they had the impression I was timid. ‘What?’ I inwardly cried. ‘TIMID? You’ve got to be kidding me! All I’m being is kind and considerate as befitting my role. What am I supposed to do? Swear like a trooper and bulldoze my way around? Lose my temper in queues, demand this, demand that? Complain? Behave as if it’s all about ME, ME, ME? And you’ve never even seen me dancing! ’
So it’s that old black and white thinking again, isn’t it, not to mention defence mechanisms firing off a bit like this:
But after all, timidity essentially means lacking in courage and confidence, which I would refute being associated with me, and I’m pretty sure most people wouldn’t like it either. So for me the word is insulting, perhaps as an outcome of being seen as a ‘quiet’ girl at school, and of course there’s the INFJ thing if you are into MBTI personality types. (If you are interested in the 16 personality types derived from the theories of Jung, you can take the test here)
But picking up on what happened while I was in the above situation, in the face of this perceived ‘insult’, help was from myself was at hand, because I also recognised in that angry moment that it was an 89 year old person using this word, that they were visually disabled so could only go by my voice, and at the end of the day, it’s just a word. Plus they only knew the volunteer me, the me who always puts them first and tries to accommodate to their needs, and who doesn’t like to dominate the conversation, even though I frequently do. So I groped for some perspective as to how they could have got this idea and was duly rewarded – I must have a gently voice and they don’t like the idea of my being pushed around. But most importantly, I also recognised that it was actually my ego which was kicking off with black and white defensive reactions, an ego I have actually been trying to modify through self-awareness in the last few years, and certainly have trained to react far less to perceived slights. In fact, this very tackling and taming of the ego has been part of my mid-life journey, and has helped me as a creative person with my projects and my resolve. And this is why I’m writing this post to hopefully help others and why it certainly will be addressed in the memoir I will eventually finish :>)
But getting back to the point, being called timid in the past would have really got under my skin, and in that moment of engagement, I’d have sought to dispel this ‘insulting falsehood’ by somehow trying to prove I was far from timid. And the irony is, the more you react with defensiveness through your ego, the more touchy, sensitive, and lacking in assertiveness you actually sound or feel. And so with this 89 year old person….I stopped myself from reacting. I checked myself. And then I knew that the most assertive and confident reaction I could possibly bring to this exchange was to simply say…
‘No, I’m not especially timid.’
‘So you know how to look after yourself, then?’ they asked.
Oh, yes,’ I replied. ‘You needn’t worry about that.’
Now, I will admit, there were still a few ripples of annoyance within me at the time, but overall I tried to keep my Taoist flow open (meaning, for me, remaining open to whatever occurs and responding naturally), and was happy that my ego had not got the better of me.
So what is the ego?
Keeping to the definition within psychology, it’s one’s realistic awareness of oneself and the world, which has evolved through contact with the external world and is determined by the individual’s own life experiences. (I’m quoting from Margaret Hough here, from A Practical Approach to Counselling). It’s also responsible for one’s sense of identity and can be seen as contributing to self esteem and self-importance. And as we know levels of self esteem can vary so widely and be so instrumental within mental health if they are on the low side. Ideally we should have a healthy self esteem, but not to the point of arrogance or overblown self-importance, which are a mere cover up for inner inadequacy. But how are we to get this balance right?
Just to clarify, the superego is that self which we have absorbed through parental influence, it’s the parent to our ego which guides with conscience, morals and values, while the more primitive id is full of instincts and energies needing release. Ideally, these three features of our personality – ego, superego, and id – should be in balance without one taking the dominant role, and defence mechanisms are commonly used to try to maintain this balance.
Here is an illustration I like of the ego as a personal defence, where it shows just how determined the ego is not to be hurt when it feels under attack:
Now lets look at Eckhart Tolle’s concept of the ego and the ‘pain body’
The path I took exploring the dangers of the ego to personal wellbeing, with this feeling of the self being divided against itself, began with my reading Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. At the time I was reading it to learn more about mindfulness and the idea of being present, but it was packed with related concepts and ideas, some of which I struggled with at first.
But the idea that got me hooked was Eckhart’s concept of the ‘pain body’ – that part of us that hurts on behalf of our ego self, which rails against personal injustices, which wails, complains, envies, resents, makes enemies, moans, craves, collects grievances, makes war, becomes fearful in so many ways, feels superior or inferior, gets raging angry, becomes manipulative, and cries, cries, cries. And in my midlife crisis my pain body certainly held sway over my perceived losses, thwarted desires, and unfulfilled attachments. But Eckhart explains that this ‘us’ which hurts is not the same as the real inner self us, which lies in the calm beneath. He attributes all this hurt to coming from our pain body which refuses to accept what is. And this refusal is derived from resistance linked to negative judgments which we make, which lead to the emotions above. Resistance hardens the protective shell of the ego; it adds more bricks to the wall.
But whilst Eckhart’s main thrust is all about the present moment, where through acceptance we can tune into our real inner self, the most relevant aspect for this topic on the ego, is that the pain body feeds on the reactions of the ego. And since the ego is always reacting to slights and hurts, then pain leads to more pain. Sometimes the pain body lies dormant but the ego’s reactions can soon make it active again. So we have to tackle our pain bodies and in doing so tame our egos. All we need to do is notice it happening , recognise what is going on within us in the present moment. This is how we begin to stop ourselves identifying with the pain body and the ego. This is where we become truly conscious and with practice you can tame the ego and save yourself from undue suffering. In time you can harmonise with your true inner self which is a far better place to be!
So if we move on to creatives now. Creatives, by nature, when doing our work can move more easily into being present, being free of our egos, and actually entering a place of spiritual practice of a kind. While we are working, this is often exactly where we are. But later, when we aren’t so present, when we have come back to the ‘real world’, and where we must put ourselves ‘out there’ for judgment in showing our work, we can be subject to our egos again, and thereby our pain bodies, because of potential criticism. Even just the fear of criticism can set this reaction off. Praise we can handle easily, criticism not so well. So if we develop a way of managing our egos to the point of dismissing our own egoic reactions, designating them simply as unhelpful knee jerk reactions, then we are actually more grounded in ourselves, more able to evaluate and manage criticism, as well as being more liberated within ourselves. There is SO much to gain from the idea of ‘dumping our egos’. We can’t dump them completely, but just thinking to ourselves ‘dump the ego’ can help to stop the spiral of negativity getting a hold.
Next up is a related idea from Russ Harris’s The Happiness Trap.
Here we have the idea of working with our values, rather than ego, or even self esteem. Russ points out that we are not what we tell ourselves we are, we are not our subjectively biased and heavily edited life stories – those stories being judged as either good or bad. He says ‘self esteem is not a fact, it is an opinion’ and a ‘highly subjective judgment’ , where we do a lot of justifying, negotiating, and reasoning to maintain it, to prove to ourselves we are a good person. But that word, maintain, is a clue to how we have to repeatedly challenge our ‘not good enough’ stories to justify our own good opinion. When I first read that we could actually also dump the idea of self esteem, as well as our ego, I was doubtful, but Russ uses the mental image of playing a game of chess which stuck with me. In many ways to maintain self esteem we do play a game of chess with ourselves, shifting the pieces around, the pieces being our thoughts or feelings, to try to win a point or defend ourselves. The black pieces are the bad thoughts and feelings, the white pieces are the good. Do we really want to play chess with ourselves and battle over the state of our self esteem like this? I know I don’t.
So how do we get around this? How can we still have what equates to operating from a place of healthy self regard by letting go of our self esteem? Well Russ suggests two things:
1. First, don’t try to prove yourself or your self worth. Whatever judgments you come up with, notice them, see them as just words and let them go.
2. Secondly, follow this up with acting in line with your personal values to guide your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Act with what is meaningful to you, what you believe in. Connect with where you are and what you are doing and take a valued direction and take action in line with this. He says, what you are left with, after practising this over and over, is self acceptance – that being feeling okay with who you are, and treating yourself kindly. This liberates you from the battle of the ego and the self esteem game of chess.
And just to clarify, our personal values can be summed up as our heart’s desires and what we derive our personal meaning from, how we want to be, what we want to stand for, and how we want to relate to the world around us. Russ adds that our values are ‘our leading principles that can guide and motivate us as we move through life,’ where ‘a value is a direction we desire to keep moving in, an as ongoing process that never reaches an end.’
And I feel this perspective has so much to offer creative people by nature.
So what did Carl Jung feel about the Ego?
Well, he viewed the ego as the centre of the field of consciousness, the part of the psyche where our conscious awareness resides, our sense of identity and existence. It’s command HQ. But the ego is just one small portion of the self. Jung believed that consciousness is selective, and the ego is the part of the self that selects the most relevant information from the environment and chooses a direction to take based on this, while the rest of the information sinks into the unconscious. It may, therefore, show up later in the form of dreams or visions, thus entering into the conscious mind. (source of info here)
Here are some quotes for you from Jung on the ego:
An inflated consciousness is always egocentric and conscious of nothing but its own existence. It is incapable of learning from the past, incapable of understanding contemporary events, and incapable of drawing right conclusions about the future. It is hypnotized by itself and therefore cannot be argued with. It inevitably dooms itself to calamities that must strike it dead.
Only a life lived in a certain spirit is worth living. It is a remarkable fact that a life lived entirely from the ego is dull not only for the person himself but for all concerned.
The first half of life is devoted to forming a healthy ego, the second half is going inward and letting go of it.
And finally, this last quote brings me to The Middle Passage, by psychologist, James Hollis, to explore the position of the ego within self development and life transitions.
Hollis points out that we develop our egos as ‘acquired personalities’, to negotiate the world, carve out our life path, and survive into what he calls our ‘first adulthood’. We develop our personae, we aspire, have goals, and assume roles, and the ego is a huge part of this. We are soon protecting ourselves and boosting ourselves through our egos as we respond to the competitive cut and thrust of life.
But we also, inevitably, become seriously conditioned and ‘trained’ by life within a somewhat neurotic culture to our ultimate detriment. And our inner self can be suppressed, as we develop ‘complexes’ or inner conflicts to deal with what is thrown at our ego. As the middle years approach, we can find the inner self craving to be heard after long being pushed deep inside and ignored, left behind in childhood where we pursued our interests and passions naturally, without question, where our true self or inner spirit guided us. As we reach what Hollis calls ‘the turn within’ in our middle years, where the spirit wants at last to be recognised and serve as guidance to us once again, this is where we can enter what he calls our ‘second adulthood’.
It’s here in the second adulthood (if we’re lucky enough to recognise what is happening), that we can feel some painful change, with the death of the old urged upon us by our inner self/spirit, and it’s here we can begin our transition journey, our middle passage. It’s here that we can work with ourselves to face up to our losses and accept ourselves just as we are. We can re-evaluate our goals and form a new life map, guided by our personal values, which come from our inner spirit rather than our ego, and the ego must be made redundant because the old life map it managed is out of date. We can now move from outer acquisition to inner development. In short, we can come back to our ‘real’ selves, and we can accept the bright new shining task of finding deeper meaning and becoming a more rounded and full, rather than narrow, person. It’s here we get to redefine success for ourselves, not based on worldly material success, but based on how we feel, view, and express ourselves in the world and it’s a place of far more personal ease and meaning.
A lovely quote to sum all this up is from T.S. Eliot which you may have come across:
We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. (T.S. Eliot)
And if we can manage to keep going with this, despite it not being a foregone conclusion by any means, then Hollis says, ‘we may even come to realise that it does not matter what happens outside, as long as we have a vital connection with ourselves. The new found relationship with the inner life more than balances losses in the outer.’
And an almost comical reassurance for you: Hollis adds that a person who is headed in the right direction will appear to be running away.
Powerful stuff, isn’t it?
There is so much more to this, but I think I’ve covered the essence, so I’ll stop myself here. I hope you enjoyed it and find it good food for thought! As creatives we are bound to expose ourselves to criticism and opinion because it goes with the territory. But we can also make ourselves more vulnerable when we are open-hearted, sensitive, and think ‘too much’. Most of the creative people I know in life and online fit these qualities to perfection, so I wrote this post from head and heart for us.
(pics as ever from the wonderful Pixabay)