The Ego Is Not What You Think It Is: 3 Ways To Make It Your Friend

An ego that is free is not beaten down by beliefs of victimization by people and situations.  It sees challenges as opportunities rather than threats to its constitution.  An ego that is flexible can bend, but will not break.

-Me, about 2,500 words later.

How Restaurant Work Made Me Realize I Needed To Master My Ego.

I’m serving a table in a restaurant.
They ask for some suggestions.
I provide shimmering descriptions of 3 or 4 of my favorite things.
They take none of my recommendations and order the 3 items that over half the un-curious clientele default to.
I validate their order with a cold “sure” and walk away, imagining them choking on their food. Their chances at good service just dissolved.

Another table asks for a description of something and 6 words in one of them interrupts me and the rest start talking amongst themselves.  I fantasize about sneering, “Gosh it’s a drag talking to the help isn’t it, you ignorant bastards!” Again, ice cold service coming your way since I’ve decided you are my enemy.

I can remember having these feelings. I knew they were just the twitches of an unsettled ego, yet they were so powerful, I didn’t know how to prevent them. You wouldn’t believe how many “angry waiter” blogs document such situations. The problem is, their stories usually they end there: the story of the poor waiter grumbles about the evil people they’re shackled to serving. The end. This brings enough angsty pleasure for the disenfranchised waiters across the country to get quick laugh and not feel not so alone.

Millions of waiters might be comforted by reading this, since the ego gets relief from not feeling isolated in its negative reflection of the world. But rather than just giving our egos some snack food and letting them spend all that wattage on covertly hating anonymous people (rather than something valuable in our lives), why don’t we try and understand how our egos work and try to make them a bit healthier?

If intense emotions come, it’s important to feel those things.  Don’t resist them and definitely don’t feel bad about having them. After years of meditation, I am not even close to being free of this.  But it’s a wasted opportunity to just feel without examining where it comes from, and explore opportunities to be free from its grip.  I still ask myself why I can’t  exist in some iron cage of “Who cares what choices my guests make? What does how they behave have to do with me such that I am overtaken by feelings of rejection?” That is what is at the core of these experiences: invalidation. Even if you strongly dislike someone, and don’t think you want their approval, any invalidation of you can be felt. It’s how the ego works.  And I’m human, and part of being human is not liking when you are invalidated as one.  The key is catching this and seeing that it is just your perception of being invalidated.

Understanding the ego means understanding what is disrupting our relationship to what is really happening. But it also means connecting to our sense of inner strength. Mastering the ego does not mean getting rid of it, but developing a healthy relationship to it.  This comfort in your skin frees you to make clear decisions, connect with others, make the necessary change in our lives, you name it.

And it allows you to serve better.  Every moment where you think serving sucks is the ego transmitting a report of imaginary wounds.  Every unnecessary block between you and the people you are serving is the result of the ego putting up a wall, thinking they’re a threat (when, if given a chance, are probably mostly harmless).  No one other than you can be depended on to prevent these wounds, so you need to become solid in who you are so that whatever someone who is ignorant (and by that I mean unaware of the consequences of their behavior, AKA: basically everyone in some way…especially me).  And that healthy self-image involves having no attachment to self-image at all.  We will explore techniques for cultivating this.  You might be surprised about how the ego works and how making it more fluid can turn out to be a source of personal strength.

What The Ego Is…And Is Not.

The ego is simply our sense that we are an individual that is separate from all other things.(2) Our sense of “I am ___________”.  Although everyone thinks the ego is a bad thing, it’s necessary for the mind to not dissolve into a sense of all-ness(3). It’s crucial in forming the boundaries to ensure that you remain healthy enough to live the potential of this vessel you have found yourself embodied in.

Our sense of individuality is kind of taken for granted. You might be thinking “Duh, obviously I’m a separate person, I don’t need my ego to tell me this.” But if you believe that just having a collection of tissues connected to a brain encased in some hard calciferous material automatically implies sensing boundaries between a self and other, then you have obviously never done LSD.(4)

The rest of our biology is built around preserving this sense of self since remaining alive is a very fundamental imperative of being in a body. The mind reports our ego-self’s state of health to us: something along the spectrum of “I am threatened, help!” to “I am thriving and awesome, high five!”

Things would be very simple if the only danger signals we got were when our physical body was threatened (because survival is actually at stake). However, we get the same danger signals when our non-physical self is threatened. This has to do with our self-image, the sense of who we are (besides just a collection of organs that need to keep pumping) that we have constructed for ourselves. So the ego tends to give us trouble when it is in communication with the mind (5), telling us our lives are at risk, when really it’s just our self-esteem.

For example if you tell someone that they “suck at their job”, then you are certainly not threatening their life, but you are threatening their sense of themselves since so many people form a good part of their identities around their competence at performing their work. So the mind gives the usual fight-or-flight response of “kill! kill! kill!” or “hide! we’re in trouble!”

How to fix this? Have a bigger ego. But I don’t mean this like you think I do.

“Big Egos” Are Actually “Small, Dense Egos.”

Egos are usually understood as “big” or “small”. But that isn’t really the full picture. The term “big ego” is often used in reference to someone with a certain amount of authority. Since their individuality has more influence on the whole of an entity, we get to see challenges to that individuality more often. And if this person is more likely to deny reality, or defend their awesomeness in the face of something that challenges to their self-image, then their ego is referred to as “big”. In the restaurant industry, I often saw it applied to chefs, since they tend to have one or some of the following tendencies.

  • Always believes themselves to be right
  • Cannot seem flawed or vulnerable
  • Like to be perceived by others as superior
  • Takes pleasure in triumph over others

A better word to describe an ego like this is “dense” or “rigid”. This density is often to form a shield around a state of vulnerability. They fear that any contradictions of their perspective may reveal them to be deficient. However, even if they weren’t vulnerable, and just sure that they are superior and everyone else is dumb, this is not because their ego is big. Because this mindset requires such self-absorption, it means the sole focus of who they are is on themselves and the identity they have constructed of themselves. And thinking it’s all about you is a very small perspective indeed.

Having An “Open, Fluid Ego”

A truly “big” ego is consequently less dense. More of a spongy consistency. It allows your sense of self to extend beyond yourself, recognizing that you are not just you, but part of a collective of endlessly variable selves, with endlessly variable priorities.

It is also “fluid” meaning your sense of yourself is not locked in one place. And, especially does not define itself by anything in the external world. This is a much stronger place to be in, since it is a weak sense of self that requires external things like career success (or even small things like winning arguments) to validate who they are.

A great Yogi once said:

“You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis. You are the all singing, all dancing crap of the world.”

Or maybe it was Tyler Durdon’s character in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club.

This is what “knowing yourself” means. Knowing who you are minus all the external bullshit. That’s what everyone in the film/novel were trying to punch their way towards – violently breaking down the identities they had allowed society to construct for them and contacting something raw and essential within themselves.  The film actually captures some of the fruits of ego-liberation that the Eastern paths of Yoga and Buddhism allude to.

An ego that is free is not beaten down by beliefs of victimization by people and situations.  It sees challenges as opportunities rather than threats to its constitution.  An ego that is flexible can bend, but will not break.

Now, is gathering together and punching each other in the face required to ground our identities? Well, it’s not the worst idea, since martial arts are an awesome path to self-mastery (there’s a good reason parents put their kids in karate to cultivate self-confidence). But my expertise is the “sitting still” part, not the “being tough” part, so you’ll have to settle for some more chilled out techniques to expand and strengthen your ego.

Practices To Make Your Ego Healthier.

Meditation

If you meditate daily, then it automatically expands your ego. Our negative experiences build up in the mind/body and continue to fire off stress chemicals and self-defeating thoughts. The more turmoil there is within, the more we look outwardly to feel better. Then we develop a dependence on the external world to make our sense of self feel sound, mistaking people telling us we are okay as feeling “whole”.  The dynamic “restful alertness” of meditation goes on a dig-and-delete spree of these old, irrelevant stress memories.

This clears things up, bringing order to the chaos within. The way is made clear to see the person you truly are unclouded by the story of yourself you’ve built up over the years.  You realize that you are fundamentally whole, without depending on anything external tossing you trinkets of “you’re awesome!” or other forms of false wholeness.  The more you become established in your true self, the less likely you are to forget you are strong, calm, always-evolving, full of endless potentially and deeply happy to be alive. This is the most solid place your identity can be in – no external influences (like someone disagreeing with us) can disrupt this.

So basically, if you’re comfortable enough with yourself to be wrong or shoulder someone being condescending, then it’s because you’re established in your true self (the “small, dense” ego is too brittle).

To meditate, I get the best results from using an effortless Yogic technique. It seems simple, but is really powerful (precisely because it is so simple). All you need to do is the following:

  1. Find a place to sit. Back support is ideal so you’re not worried about body position. Legs crossed is good for the body, but not necessary. A chair is fine.
  2. Sit as straight as possible, but don’t struggle to maintain your posture.
  3. Close you eyes, sit quietly for thirty seconds and just scan you body, making sure all tension (especially in the face) has been let go.
  4. Don’t worry about your breathing or hand position.
  5. Begin to think the mantra “Aham” (Pronounced “Awe Hum”)
  6. Think it in as faintly and effortlessly as possible.
  7. As thoughts come and you’re pulled away from the mantra, just return to it as easy as you left (at this stage it’s important to not feel like you messed up…not because “it’s okay to mess up” but because you didn’t mess up. That’s what mantras do, they pull the mind away from whatever it was trying to focus on. To reject like having other thoughts in meditation is to reject a very natural and very beneficial aspect of it).
  8. After 15-20 minutes, gently let go of the mantra and sit quietly for 2 minutes.
  9. Slowly open your eyes.

That’s it. It’s as simple as that. Your mind will try and complicate the process, and I spend hours and hours working with people and teaching them how to keep it this simple. So just keep it this simple and don’t worry about what happens during the process, and everything will turn out well.

For more detailed instruction or further coaching give me a shout.

Metta Bhavana

This is a practice based in Tibetan Buddhism. It means “Loving-Kindness”, and is a meditative practice for cultivating compassion. This may seem kind of fluffy, but the intention is not what you think it is. The Buddhist idea of love, kindness and compassion is a lot more no-nonsense than “let’s all hold hands” or “hey sit here and suck me dry with your neediness.” It’s more about simply taking the high road. Compassion is a process of expanding your sense of self to include others. It doesn’t mean bending over backwards to provide them with anything they need (as a waiter, I’m sure you do enough of that). It means acknowledging the world as non-threatening and providing understanding of anyone’s situation. This is egoic expansion.

Metta Bhavana is a visualization technique. That doesn’t mean that the better and more faithful the visualization, the better the results. It means even attempting a shoddy visualization will give you powerful results. Neuroscientific study has shown that somehow this rewires your brain to have an expanded perception of others, lending you more patience and resilience to whatever they throw at you.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Sit with your eyes closed.
  2. Bring you attention to yourself.
  3. Settle in by feeling your body seated and noticing the sensations of breathing.
  4. Bring your attention to your heart area and think, with intention “may you be happy healthy and free of suffering.”
  5. Bring your attention to someone you love or care deeply about and think, with intention “may you be happy healthy and free of suffering.”
  6. Bring your attention to someone you are somewhat indifferent to and think, with intention “may you be happy healthy and free of suffering.”
  7. Bring your attention to someone you have definite problems with and think, with intention “may you be happy healthy and free of suffering.”
  8. Bring your attention to everyone in your city and think, with intention “may you be happy healthy and free of suffering.”
  9. Bring your attention to everyone in your country and think, with intention “may you be happy healthy and free of suffering.”
  10. Bring your attention to everyone in the world and think, with intention “may you be happy healthy and free of suffering.”
  11. Bring your attention to every land animal in the world and think, with intention “may you be happy healthy and free of suffering.”
  12. Bring your attention to every sea animal in the world and think, with intention “may you be happy healthy and free of suffering.”
  13. Bring your attention back to your heart area and think, with intention “may you be happy healthy and free of suffering.” (Notice how, this time, you might feel more willing to give yourself some love)

Each phase can be repeated as many times as you have time for. See if you can feel your heart area radiating good will to every one of your targets.

Fear-Setting/Fear-Following

Basically the black swan of goal-setting (and equally essentially).  As discussed, if your ego is giving you problems, it’s basically saying “we are unsafe right now and could possibly die”. Fear mechanisms are being activated in sometimes subtle ways (i.e. you experience it as “being insulted”. Even if you are feeling puffed up and “how dare they treat me like that”, this indignant response is a fear of not being valued. But it’s all a total distortion of reality, because of course you’re valuable, and how could these harmless circumstances change that?

Tim Ferriss’ short Ted Talk is a great introduction to the value of Greek Stoicism and the power of the Fear-Setting technique. I love his methodical approach to anything, and here it is applied very simply and elegantly to formulating our fears. This process usually deflates the fears, or at least cuts the fangs off of them. This is generally a reflective process that is used to make the positive change in our lives that we’ve been resisting because we think the consequences are too great. Usually we only think that because we haven’t clearly looked at the consequences and realized they are not going to kill us. In fact, they may be beneficial. But without properly observing the consequences, they get to live in the realms of the unknown, and the lizard brain appropriates the situation, saying, “ah yes, the unknown…it’ll probably kill you.” It’s usually wrong. Not always, but usually.

This practice can be used in motion to neutralize short term fears (where I have also heard it called “Fear Following”). If you are feeling uncomfortable, defensive, angry, rejected, then follow the fear with a series of questions, i.e. “what am I worried about right now?”.  And answer will come up like “you will never be valuable to an employer,” then keep going with a deeper question, “why is that bad?” and answer it, i.e. “you will not be able to feed and clothe yourself” or at least “you will never have a job you’re happy with.” Once you reach the most primal level of the fear, ask, “are you really going to die from this?” Then “What can be done to remedy the situation?  Is this problem really so hard to overcome?  Haven’t you always learned from things and come away stronger?” Most of the time, the problem and solution are simpler than we imagine, we just had to look at them.

Footnotes:

  1. For some reason, Sigmund Freud applied a completely different definition to the word “ego” from everyone else. For him, it’s the mechanism that prevents you from acting on your primal instincts (i.e. “kill everyone at table” goes through your inner PR system and comes out as “give table a tortured smile and pinched voice of enthusiasm”).  His definition of “Ego” describes a regulatory feature of the human brain.  It sounds more like the part of your frontal lobes that prevents you front hurling your feces at people.  It’s a good thing to have, but doesn’t have as much to do with our sense of self as it does with our sense of not-self (i.e. this is how I don’t want to behave in this moment). However, mastering your ego will mean having fewer of these destructive urges to resist.
  2. Also a valuable thing to experience, but we won’t get into it here.
  3. Transcending those boundaries is also crucial, but again for another time.
  4. Many less taxing practices that LSD can accomplish this, like meditation. From regular practice, a sense of connection to everything can be established, while simultaneously remaining an individual (and, ironically, you’ll also be better at being an individual than ever before).
  5. Further distorted by the body’s stress memories, which meditation is genius at releasing.
  • […] isolated egos. Serving 40 or 50 people a night provides me with good practice at overcoming this, but other techniques can help progress this faster.  However, I have to be intentional about this in my interactions, otherwise, I’ll just become […]

  • […] – i.e. the needs of others, information, craftsmanship, creative organization, etc.  But though the ego is a valuable ally, it is simply a mechanism to separate and protect your individual mind/body from the rest of the […]

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