“The ego is the false self—born out of fear and defensiveness.” ~John O'Donohue
“The soul is like a wild animal—tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy.” ~Parker Palmer
Does it sometimes seem like the world is just a little too much for you? Do you feel that you need to protect yourself from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? (Thank you, Hamlet.) Are you a fragile flower being buffeted by life’s storms?
Then I think you’ve been listening to your ego too much. I understand all of those feelings very well, but I’ve recently discovered something life-changing: It’s only the ego, or small self, that’s fragile.
The soul—your authentic self—is a honey badger.
You know those honey badger videos on YouTube, where the little guy gets bitten by a cobra or stung by a whole swarm of African killer bees, but just keeps on going? That’s what your soul’s like. “Honey badger don't care…”
We always have access to these two different perspectives, but most of the time we’re so identified with the small self that we forget about our honey badger souls.
The ego is a prickly little thing, with a hair trigger reaction, ready to go off at a moment’s notice. The soul is incredibly calm and resilient—not touchy and reactive, and yet capable of taking effective action when needed with a minimum of fuss.
The ego’s self-appointed function is to help you get what you think you need from the world and prevent you from losing what you have. It’s fueled by fear, and sees threats everywhere. This fear leads inevitably to feelings of separation, lack, competition, judgment, grasping, and deep loneliness—in other words, suffering.
The soul, in contrast, is rooted in love and a deep-seated well-being. Things that put the small self in a tizzy often bounce right off it.
Recently, I had two experiences within days that gave me a brilliant chance to practice switching focus from ego to soul and seeing what a difference that could make. Neither one was really a “big deal,” and yet both had my poor little ego off and running. What a drama queen the ego is!
In both cases, a person I loved and trusted hurt my feelings, probably unintentionally. Misunderstandings happen; we’re all human. The real issue was my ego’s reaction, which was to immediately shut down in an effort to protect myself from being hurt again.
It went something like this: “Well, I’m certainly going to have to stop being around those people, because I never want that to happen again, and they obviously can’t be trusted anymore.”
The problem is, both of these people are part of a wellness community that I love. This community is all about personal growth—about learning to overcome the illusion of ego and live from the authentic self, or soul.
Pondering my instinctive response to protect myself, I had to ask: Just exactly what needs protecting here? The only answer I could come up with was my ego.
My ego felt hurt and vulnerable when these two people seemed to not understand or value me. My ego didn’t think it could handle that happening again, but when I checked in with my soul, it was like: “Honey badger don’t care…”
I had to laugh when I realized how unperturbed my soul was by what my ego saw as a huge affront and threat. Stonewall Jackson once said, “Never take counsel of your fears,” and yet that is exactly what we do when we put the touchy ego in charge of our reactions.
Ego is like the boy in the fable who raises the alarm at every passing shadow. Ironically, though, crying wolf like this only makes it harder to perceive a true threat when it comes along. The soul doesn’t waste time on false alarms, but when there’s a real need for action, it will roll on that just as fearlessly.
Here’s what my fragile ego thought it needed in order to be okay in the situations I mentioned: first and foremost, an apology to salve my hurt pride (ego is always big on pride); assurances that I really am loved and valued (more pride, with a touch of emotional neediness); and finally, an ironclad guarantee that something like this would never happen again (is that even possible, given that we are all human?).
Now, all of those things would be lovely to have, I’m not kidding. But do I actually need them? Not really. When I drop down to soul level, I find a sense of well-being and security that far transcends my ego’s desperate grasping for reassurance and amends.
Soul knows that I already have everything I need to be okay. Not that it’s a pushover by any means, but things like wounded pride, which are all-important to ego, don’t really faze the honey badger much. He’s got a much tougher hide and a bigger heart by far. Honey badgers do care, but not about the things ego finds important.
So this is how my soul dealt with these situations: First, because I felt genuinely hurt, I let myself feel that pain with compassion. I didn’t dismiss the hurt. Next, I looked carefully at my own part in what happened, to find out if there was anything I needed to clarify or apologize for. Then I reached out and expressed my feelings as kindly and truthfully as possible. And then I stopped.
This part is the trickiest of all. The ego hates uncertainty with a passion (at least, mine does). My ego wanted things resolved, pronto, and it was screaming at me to take action.
Maybe I should try to garner support and sympathy for myself by telling other people about what happened? That always feels good. Or else I could apologize profusely—for what, I’m not sure—and get everything patched up and smoothed over as quickly as possible. Or….
So once again I consulted my honey badger soul, who said: Sit tight. Everything is just fine. No worries at all, mate. As long as I was clear about my own role in the disagreements, my soul was content with that. No need to escalate, but also no need to overly justify or explain or “make nice.”
Unlike the ego, my soul knows that it’s only responsible for its own reactions, not everyone else’s. Gotta love that.
And so I waited. In one case, things have already ended up sorting themselves out very well—I’m sure far better than they would have had I listened to my ego. In the other, I’m still waiting (and that’s okay).
I’ve decided that, even in the face of this uncertainty, I don’t need to take extraordinary measures to “protect” myself, at least not yet. There might come a time for that, and I trust my soul to recognize it if it does.
When something like this happens to you—when your small self feels threatened and is telling you to attack or pull up the drawbridge—stop for a moment first and check in with your soul. Take some deep breaths and sink down under that surface panic.
What do you really need to do, if anything? Is there truly a threat, or is it just your fragile ego crying wolf again? Chances are slim that you’ll find your honey badger soul in a panic. Whether there’s action to be taken or you just need to sit tight for a while, the calm, resilient, and loving energy of your soul is always there to draw on.