As long as I could remember, my father, a psychologist, would greet me and others with these words, “empty the ego and fill the spirit.” This greeting often confounded and even annoyed me. When I was very young, I had no idea what the ego was and why I had to go about emptying it. However, over the years, I became fascinated with human behavior and undertook graduate study in clinical psychology. Very quickly, I became familiar with the ego and began to view my father’s adage as consolatory and a compass to truth that we should all embrace.
So what is the ego? The ego is a false sense of self. It is who we think we are, rather than who we really are. It is characterized by all of the labels, masks, images, and judgments that we acquire over our lifetime. And because the ego is highly dependent on our circumstances, our idea of who we are is constantly changing with new experiences and beliefs. Think about racism, sexism and other “isms” that exist in the world. The ego makes us feel superior to others, thus separating us from others on the basis of these false beliefs. However, the ego is very good at making us feel inferior to others too. Some of the beliefs that form our ego structure are:
“I am ugly.”
“I am unlovable.”
“I will never be good at anything.”
“Nobody is to be trusted.”
“Nobody likes me.”
Consequently, these beliefs create an ocean of emotional pain in one’s life, such as anger, shame, sadness, disappointment, or anxiety. In order to cope with these uncomfortable feelings, we might attempt to numb this pain with food, drugs, prescription medication, becoming a workaholic, blaming others or isolating oneself from others. The ego does a very good job at creating a reality for us that keeps us stuck, unhappy, and in a vicious cycle to escape the pain. Sonia Choquette (2008) describes the ego this way: “a posturing, confused, defensive, insecure, needy, demanding dictator who basically holds us hostage and robs our joy and peace” (p. 6).
How to Know When the Ego is Running The Show
There are a several telltale signs that suggest that your ego is in control.
- You are consumed with negative thoughts as described above
- You constantly compare yourself to others
- You feel inferior/superior to others
- You set impossible goals and beat yourself up when you don’t reach them
- You find that your life is an endless drama
- You have a need to be the center of attention
- You constantly seek approval from others
- You always have to be in control
- You struggle to be vulnerable and real around others
- You find it difficult to encourage and grant others compliments
How to Move the Ego Out Of The Way
There are quite a few ways that you can move the ego out of the way and make room for a more peaceful, fulfilling life. I offer three suggestions here: challenging the helpfulness of your thoughts, staying present and practicing gratitude.
- Challenge the helpfulness of your thoughts: The existence of the ego depends on thinking. The ego is contained within thought and research shows that 80% of our thoughts have some degree of negative content. So when difficult thoughts come up, it is not so important whether the thought is true or not, but whether the thought is helpful. For instance, if the thought that you are unlovable does not help you to connect with your values and create a meaningful life, it is NOT helpful. Instead of saying, “I am unlovable,” you can say, “I am having the thought that I am unlovable.” By using the phrase, “I am having the thought that …”, you are less likely to get bullied by that thought and buy into it.
- Stay in the Present: The ego keeps us stuck in the past or the future. It has a hard time staying in the present. With mindful practices, like focusing on the breath, you can get free from the tyranny of ego mind. As we breathe deeply, we become calmer, clearer and more focused. Also, it is very difficult to focus on the breath and worry at the same time.
- Practice Gratitude: The practice of gratitude is a good way to become unstuck. Gratitude helps us see our situation in a way that can lessen panic, and could open up our thinking to new solutions. When you’re appreciating something, your ego moves out of the way because you cannot have your attention on gratitude and the ego at the same time. By simply keeping a journal and recording one thing that you are grateful for each day, you are on the way of moving your ego out of the way.
I always say that awareness is the first step. Once we have the awareness of what the ego is and how it is impacting our life, we can make the shift and behave differently in the world. I encourage you to take an honest inventory of how your ego is impacting your life. Then try out some of the suggestions above. Share your story by leaving a reply at the bottom of this post. Additionally, begin to practice some of the tips that I have offered and see how they work for you. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me at email@example.com.
Choquette, Sonia. The Answer is Simple: Love Yourself, Live Your Spirit. USA: Hay House, INC, 2008.
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