Tuesday 16 January 2018

Alter egos... The ego can sneak in the back door

Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

The ego has undergone something of an image overhaul in recent years.

We used to associate it with arrogance, conceit and dark sunglasses. Nowadays, thanks to authors such as Eckhart Tolle, we understand that we all have an ego and that it can take many different forms.

The ego is often crudely defined as the 'false self', or the part of us that acts out of fear rather than love.

However, it isn't just the telephone voice or the front-door face. Likewise, the biggest ego in the room isn't always the person who is talking the loudest.

An ego doesn't necessarily carry a leather briefcase and wear a gold watch. Indeed, introverts can have larger egos than extroverts, just as the oppressed can be more egocentric than their oppressors.

Elsewhere, spiritual gurus can have greater ego attachments than their disciples (look up 'spiritual bypassing' if you get a chance).

The ego, in its many guises, can sneak in the back door. Yes, even if you practise meditation and own a Himalayan salt lamp.

Here's a few ways in which the ego operates in disguise:

Can you recall the Aesop's Fable about the fox and the grapes? When the fox was unable to reach the grapes that he wanted to eat, he claimed that he didn't actually want them, rather than admit defeat. Most of us fall into this ego trap when it comes to matters of the heart. Rather than admit disappointment when we are rejected, we declare that we never really wanted them anyway. In other cases, we dwell on the bad and disregard the good, constructing a narrative that leads us to believe that we had a choice in the matter. At times like this, it's worth remembering that the ego is the ultimate spin doctor.

Modern self-help literature advises us to cull 'toxic friends' from our friendship circles. This is largely helpful advice; however, occasionally the ego can get in the way and cause us to dissociate from friends that challenge us, as opposed to friends that devitalise us. An ego that is in check knows the difference between constructive criticism and gratuitous criticism. We need friends that push our buttons just as we need friends that help us heal our wounds.

Those with 'victim complex', aka 'martyr complex', have an unconscious desire for penance and drama. They seem to sacrifice their own needs for the needs of others, yet by habitually putting themselves last, they are unconsciously putting themselves first. It's inverted egocentrism, in that the victim's 'poor me' posturing showcases their apparent selflessness, while making those around them feel guilty for not doing likewise. If this sounds like you, it's worth examining the role of martyr. Who conferred you with the role? Do those around you appreciate that you have taken on the role? More to the point, who would you be if you weren't a martyr?

We've all met people with the fairly lofty ambition of 'changing the world'. They want to make a difference, but that difference generally involves them being centre stage. An ego that is in check doesn't underestimate its capacity to effect change. Yet it also realises that a series of mindful day-to-day actions can be as prolific as one big, front-facing campaign.

The act of surrender and letting go is a form of ego dismantling. It follows that forensic 10-year plans are often drawn up by the ego in disguise. The trouble with this level of projecting is that it doesn't allow for the ebb and flow of life. Fastidious planning flies in the face of natural law, or, as the saying goes: 'If you want to give God a laugh, tell him your plans'. Even non-believers would have to concede that life often has other plans in store for us. It's egocentric to think that we have complete control over the matter.

It's wise to ask yourself who you're really helping when you are in service to others: them or you? Genuine service to others tends to be quiet, discreet and humble, while ego-led service to others tends to be loud, proud and overbearing. The ego helps others because it wants to control and dominate situations. The sacred self helps others because it knows no other way.

We're all aware of the tendency for addicts to pair off with what are known as 'enablers'. These beatified beings are often praised for 'taking on' an addict. I don't know how she does it, etc. The truth, however, is that enablers are often co-dependents with an ego-attachment to the victim role. They also get to avoid their own problems by focusing on the problems of others. What may look like self-sacrificing behaviour is, on closer inspection, self-interested approval-seeking.

I've heard one or two people claim that they don't have an ego. It's a lovely idea, but patently untrue. If you didn't have an ego you'd be levitating in a cave somewhere. As CS Lewis put it: "If a man thinks he is not conceited, he is very conceited indeed."

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