We humans are remarkably self-centered.
Belief that the universe revolves around our individual needs starts at birth. Babies quickly figure out crying or making a fuss gets them attention.
Of course we’re helpless at that point so the method has merit. The problem is, many of us never leave that level of centrism. Yes, it evolves as we age, but at the core its the same wailing baby that we were back then.
Part 1 — Ego is
Ego is an artificial construct that builds around us as we experience life.
Needs are met or not met, desires are stymied or engaged. Each win or loss forms the basis for how we ‘feel’ our lives are going.
That feeling sets the tone for how well or how poorly we interpret our existence. Across a lifetime of experience the ego becomes ‘who we are’. It’s a lie, but it’s a difficult one to see and combat.
Anyone who truly believes they are what they appear to be is incredibly easy to damage or manipulate. They have no mechanism to fight back against someone with the superior knowledge of human nature and an inclination to do harm. Many of us can be made to do anything people like that want.
Witness the control of politics, popular culture and marketing on an otherwise ‘normal’ person.
With the right set of words and images or thought processes people can be made to do horrific things to each other.
That kind of thinking is a trap of course, but it’s pernicious in its ability to bring us to our knees when things go south.
Ego has a clear imperative to ‘protect’ itself from harm or ridicule. We go out of our way to avoid painful moments. Sometimes sinking into alcohol and drug abuse or dangerous behaviors to assuage or minimize the effects that life sometimes has.
Those crutches don’t work, but it doesn’t stop us from trying.
By definition Ego is ‘a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance’.
Out of control ego is self-esteem or self-importance run amok. The controls that regulate emotion and filtering of words aren’t present. Such people are said to have ‘no filter’ or to ‘not give a fuck’.
Don’t misunderstand me. A healthy level of ‘not caring about everything’ keeps you sane. There’s only so much room in our minds and hearts to worry about the world. That’s not what I’m talking about here.
I’m talking about the anger driven person who says whatever is top of mind without regard for anyone else around them. They alienate everyone but feel slighted when people avoid them.
Anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the mindset of the out of control ego becomes the enemy no matter who it is. Family, friends, co-workers — all are equal in that world view.
All events that occur are about that individual. Judgment of outside actions is colored by bias, envy, jealousy and thoughts of revenge instead of consideration and thoughtfulness.
I’m guilty of that kind of thinking across the span of my life. Staying mindful is difficult and life is a daily battle to remember it’s not just about me.
That doesn’t mean I ignore my own feelings or let people talk to me any kind of way. However, I actively work to stay mindful that people’s actions have nothing to do with me and everything to do with them. I also try to stay aware that I don’t know anything about a person’s circumstances. If they come at me wrong it’s up to me to make sure my response is proportional.
Swing at me and I’ll swing back, but harsh words are their problem, not mine.
“You find peace not by rearranging the circumstances of your life, but by realizing who you are at the deepest level.”
― Eckhart Tolle
Part 2 — What the ego isn’t
Working to reign in an out of control ego is difficult. It’s the foundation for who we think we are. Controlling it is tantamount to commiting a form of suicide.
I’ve seen arguments that ego isn’t the real cause for the world’s ills, but I can’t think of a single more complex set of circumstances that allow one person to prey on another.
Who we think we are drives our purchases, life choices, feelings of job fulfillment, circle of friends (and enemies). We’re driven by the need to conform or fit in to one group or another and sometimes choose something totally wrong for us out of a desire to be part of some kind of crowd.
Even people who feel they’re not a part of any group make choices based on an egoic structure of some sort. I’d argue that we have to in order for life to proceed on any level.
The feeling that our choices are our own is something the ego is amazing at portraying. We feel that each decision is based on a careful understanding of the facts leading to a choice that drives some portion of our lives.
There’s a religious saying that the greatest feat of magic the Devil ever performed was making people believe he doesn’t exist. That seems to be how the ego works.
Examined up close and personal our choices are almost entirely designed to feed the ego.
We buy clothes not because we need to be protected from the elements but because they make us look and feel good, or because we had a bad week and we deserve a present, or just because.
We spend money on cars and homes that we know we can’t afford. Enough of us don’t bother to save money for our retirement years that the average working age has begun to creep into the 70s.
We eat and drink to much and make excuses the next day for how our bodies feel and then become angry when we get a bad health diagnosis.
I won’t belabor the point, you know where I’m going with this.
We ‘know’ on some level that many choices are bad, but we convince ourselves that there’s always enough time to fix things or correct mistakes.
That’s the ego talking. It’s sole purpose is the survival of itself.
It’s not ‘you’ but it pretends to be and it’s VERY good at it.
“Don’t make a habit out of choosing what feels good over what’s actually good for you.”
Part 3 — How to recognize when your ego is stopping you
If you are a creative (or a human) your road is tough enough already.
Life can beat you down just sitting in a chair watching TV. Add in the presence of an out of control ego and the chances of success drop to zero.
False starts, closets full of unfinished manuscripts, half done paintings, 6 month old one word poems — you know exactly what I mean.
Remember, the ego exists to protect itself. It will do horrible things to you to make that happen. The alcoholic (insert your favorite creative type here) who ends up coming to self harm because they can’t get one more word, or one more brush stroke is abjectly ubiquitous.
One of my favorite John Ritter movies deals with this in detail. His character is a writer who loses everything because ego and fear drive him to drink and chase women instead of dealing with the problem.
He is nearly killed several times running from the effects of his out of control ego. Mistake compounds mistake until he finally figures out that he’s his own worst enemy and will probably die if he doesn’t change.
Granted its allegorical and a little trite, but it’s an amazing watch and the message is very clear by the end of the movie. Once he gains control and subdues his ego he’s able to turn things around and end up better off.
Look, we all have demons. I said above that many bad choices are made in service of ego. You can tell the difference because each time it’s an ego choice you have to talk yourself into or out of something.
Non-egoic choices aren’t like that. I bet you’ve never had to talk yourself out of feeling love for your children, or pets if you don’t have children.
Ego choices ALWAYS breed negative results. That’s another way to recognize them.
Things like self inflicted bad memories, anxiety over decisions, fear of the future, angry or uncontrolled outbursts are part and parcel of the negative. The ego cares only about an immediate outcome. It’s incapable of thinking ahead.
If you are in emotional or mental pain (I’m not talking about true mental illness here, I mean pain over stuff you did to yourself, mental illness is very real and requires medical intervention) always look to the choices you’ve made that were out of character or ‘came from nowhere’.
There are two quick things you can do -
- Realize the choice is now in the past and cannot be undone. Forgive yourself and move on while paying attention to avoid making that poor choice again.
- Never let things fester. The ego wants to keep you stuck so that you’ll continue to make choices that serve its needs. Letting situations sit has a horrible way of coming back and wrecking your life. Deal with pain quickly and again — keep it moving.
“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”
― Eleanor Roosevelt
Part 4 — Don’t kill your ego gently
If you’ve become aware that your ego is what’s holding you back from living the life you want or doing the things you know you should do I’d like to make the following suggestions:
Treat any feeling of ‘better than or lesser than’ like an enemy.
At the end of the day we’re all the same — people trying to make it through life with some semblance of dignity. None of us are any better (or worse) than any other.
Every human on the planet has the same basic needs and desires. If you don’t believe me look up Maslow’s Hierarchy and show me how you’re the one special person outside any level of that pyramid.
The ego keeps us stuck on the bottom level. So long as its needs get fed you simply can’t climb higher.
Recognize our connection to each other and be mindful of what you say and do. I know its work, but what else do you have to accomplish in life besides being a better you?
See the false narrative for what it is and don’t accept it as gospel.
Success and failure are constructs, just like ego. They’re something we build to keep score of our lives.
Will I someday be a successful writer? I honestly don’t know. All I know is that I’m driven to write so it’s what I will continue to do. Success or failure are in my mind and part of the egoic structure that I build for myself. Maslow tells me that so long as I can stay alive in relative comfort then yes, I am successful. But it’s mostly up to me.
Your tolerance for pain is up to you. If you want to grow you’ll have to experience more pain, its just that simple. Ask any child as they grow taller how bad it feels to have their bones and muscles ache. Do you think they’d rather stop growing?
Of course not. It’s like Eleanor Roosevelt said — reach out for richer experience.
Expect pain and don’t let the ego lie to you about how easy things will be if you just listen to it.
Recognize that everything doesn’t end like fairy tale movies and that’s okay.
If you write a book and no one ever reads it, so what?
You still wrote the book. You became the kind of person who could plan, write and publish a book. It’s the process that’s important because that’s when you’re doing your living.
How many of us give up when things don’t go our way or the way we ‘think’ they’re supposed to go?
New Years resolutions have become a running human joke.
You can’t always win, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Every step teaches you something new.
I have a serious problem with American media for just this reason. We’ve been force fed the idea that the hero always wins and everyone lives happily ever after. The problem is, the world doesn’t really work that way so we’re unprepared for times when shit gets real.
The ego is able to take over and turn people from their path because fear is ramped up when things don’t go well. We’re not taught how to deal with pain or loss and as a result we stay trapped or make piss poor choices.
If you can wrap your mind around the idea that failure isn’t necessarily death then it becomes much easier to deal with.
You won’t die because no one read your book or saw your painting. At the most you’ll be mildly inconvenienced.
Life is so much more and many of us miss that while we’re stuck.
There are no fairy tale endings, accept that and life becomes a little easier.
Your ego hates you and will kill your spirit if you let it.
The minute you start making changes to improve your life all kinds of crap is going to jump up to stop you.
I’m not going to spend much time on this point. If you’ve lived a while you know what I mean.
How many people win the lottery and end up worse off later on? How many times have you left a bad relationship and had that person pop back up again and again? How many times have you lost 5 pounds only to gain back 10?
Yep, that’s ego keeping you where it wants you. Your growth is its death and it will fight tooth and nail to avoid dying.
It won’t play fair and neither should you.
Decide to break down the construct by thinking through choices. Make anything you do about advancing your real nature.
The ego fights dirty. It’s sometimes quiet and slippery. Run choices through the filter I talked about before — did you have to talk yourself into something or out of something? Make damn sure its not the construct controlling you.
You shouldn’t have to ‘talk yourself into’ losing weight or not drinking that 15th beer or writing the next paragraph.
You shouldn’t have to ‘talk yourself out of’ looking for a new job if your current one doesn’t fit or not buying that $100K car when your rent is due.
Those choices begin to occur naturally as you grow. Your heart knows what it must do, you just have to listen.
Knowing is not enough; We must apply. Willing is not enough; We must do.
- Bruce Lee
Part 5 — … And beyond
Battling an out of control ego is terrifying.
It puts its hands on the most sensitive parts of you and squeezes hard. In the worst cases it will turn self-destructive to stop you.
Think I’m being dramatic? How many people have you met who self-sabotage the instant that things begin to turn around for them. It’s no accident.
The sword is double edged — having too much self-esteem is just as bad as having none at all. Seeking a balance should be the goal. Believe in yourself FOR yourself.
Your perception of who you are has to shift to gain traction in the fight, otherwise you just repeat the same patterns.
We’re used to the idea that the things we do, say and feel are ‘us’. Breaking away or altering that cycle is like dying and being reborn.
Please understand, I don’t subscribe to the notion that everything we’ve ever done or said or believed is bad. That would be stupid and self defeating.
What I do know — every bad choice I’ve made came directly from feeling like I was owed something because someone slighted me or made me angry ‘for no reason’. Revenge or ‘getting even’ was in the top of my mind and I acted out of those feelings. I’d been hurt and it was time for some get back…
Self-aggrandizing or wish fulfillment only made the situation worse. Thats how ego works, any slight is paid back 20 fold.
It took a lot of years to realize that my efforts to turn things in my direction without first making changes in me were a waste of time and doomed to fail.
This article took me a LONG time to write because of my ego.
I kept trying to make sure it would be the best thing I’d ever written. I was worried about word choices and ‘making points’ instead of simply passing on what I’ve learned.
The reality is, not everyone is going to like this article. I’m sure there are people who will roll their eyes and say — ‘Just how self centered is he??’
You know what? That’s okay too.
When you start out to change your life that’s what happens and I accept it, warts and all. In my effort to write a ‘damn good piece” I’d fallen away from the few things I’ve learned. Like I said earlier, its a daily battle.
I took some walks with Eckhard Tolle and slogged through mud with good shoes on and that’s when it hit me, I was fighting how honest I wanted to be with this article.
Remember, the ego wants to protect itself. The last thing ‘I’ wanted to do was appear to be ‘weak’.
When I realized where the distraction and misdirection were coming from things got easier and I finished the first draft in about 2 hours.
NO ONE WANTS TO BE THE BAD GUY IN THEIR OWN STORY, but the truth is we’re dual natured creatures that think we aren’t. When you accept this your ego has less power to hurt you.
Writing full time has been where my life’s been heading for years. Something about that scares the crap out of my ego so I stop and start and tell myself what I’m doing is crap. It’s just the construct throwing up roadblocks to prevent its own demise. It’s dishonest and it’s self destructive and it will kill you to save itself.
Since this ended up being longer than I thought I’ll end with a bit of a recap for anyone who wants to just scroll through.
- The Universe is all about creating. That’s the real reasons you’re doing the creative thing you’re doing. You’re part of everything around you which means you’re designed to create.
- Become more and more aware of your WHY. A good friend of mine has a 5 WHY process that helps him make decisions and cut out BS. When he decides he’s going to do something he asks himself Why 5 times. Each ask is designed to get to the core of the reason. Don’t stop at the first why because that’s just the surface. It’s not until you get to the bottom that you know the real, rooted reason. Until you have that you’re just kidding yourself.
- Work to release yourself from the TV and movie idea of success. Movies are great tension relievers, but thats all they are. I’ve seen some pretty preachy movies that seem inclined to tell you that the way you’re living or feeling is wrong. Don’t fall for it
- Along with #3 let go of the idea of glitz and glamour of the BS you see on TV. Those illusions are spun to keep people watching and sell products. At their best TV and movies feed the ego and make you feel even more impotent and powerless.
- Staying on the TV theme I recommend news fasts and avoiding episodic TV as a rule. You’re just watching strangers getting paid to do their jobs. TV News will keep you terrified to walk out your door. If you want to know what’s going on become active in your community. That’s what’s real, and I promise you, when you see how some people are barely scraping by your ego will become even more self evident.
- Deal with slights as they occur. Make your response proportional and along the lines of your personality. Flying off the handle and acting out of character just makes you feel worse and feeds the ego that’s stopping you. I’m not saying let yourself be bullied, far from it. You are entitled to be heard and have your needs met, your entitlement ends the moment you beat up on people for having an opinion different from yours.
- Work to recognize that ‘hurt feelings’ are YOUR reaction. They have nothing to do with the other person. Most times when someone does something to you that rankles they don’t even notice it, and when they are doing negative things on purpose that speaks more about them than about you. Some people lead terribly lonely and painful lives and the only way they can feel good is to drag others into it. Don’t fall for it. Keep your distance and work on you.
- The ego construct is an illusion and it will keep you stuck if you let it. The work is difficult and I’ve felt first hand how hard it is to control. I fail daily but I plan to keep trying.
- Work to actively control your automatic responses. Some of this stuff is ingrained in us over the course of our lives and we react without thinking. It’s so deep that its almost muscle memory and lashing out or even worse, lashing IN is normal. Learn to recognize when this happens and take things one at a time. This isn’t an overnight process. It took a lifetime to develop these responses and it’ll probably take the rest of your life to undo them. Don’t disparage though. The process is the thing. Slowly become the person who can make the life you want. There’s no fast path.
- To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt — No one can ever make you feel ANYTHING without your permission, not even you.
Finding your way to your better nature will hurt. It’s a daily battle but I know you can do it. I have faith in you because I know we’re all the same and if I can learn so can you.
With that in mind work to build your empire slowly — one word or one painting or one poem or one screenplay, one saved life at a time. Accept that your ego lies and work to keep it in check.