“The ego is the false self-born out of fear and defensiveness.” ~John O’Donohue
I started a new relationship in December 2015, then moved countries to be with my Swedish partner in August, 2016.
The last year has been life changing in the best possible ways. I’ve learned so much about myself, things I didn’t have the courage to acknowledge before.
But it hasn’t all been a bed of roses—some of the insights I’ve gleaned haven’t been that comfortable to see.
We met on an intensive spiritual retreat in India. We’ve both spent many years working on ourselves and our issues, so it’s fair to say we’re both awake and aware. But this has not guaranteed an easy ride or a challenge-free relationship.
We both still have to work hard on the problems that come up, affecting us both individually and as a couple.
When our disagreements or arguments erupt, it is often over the smallest things, which seem so important at the time. A prime example is when my partner asks me to do something without saying “please” (something that’s common in Sweden.)
Such a minor failing has the power to seriously irritate me, causing our argument to blow up out of all proportion—sending one or either of us into fits of temper tantrums that can end with one or both of us brooding and not speaking to the other.
Although we’re both aware how childishly we’re behaving and can see our over-reactions, we are nevertheless at a loss to stop or change this process. Why? Because of our egos!
For the first time in my life I am seeing, experiencing, and understanding the ego play that takes place in every conflict I have. These insights are allowing me to unravel the true nature of my ego and its workings.
If I were to describe my ego, I would compare it to an irritable, barely containable caged monster on the one hand and an irate, screaming five-year-old on the other. And just like a child that doesn’t get her own way, she’s constantly throwing tantrums.
These tantrums take the form of anger, hurt, fear, defensiveness, exaggeration, frustration, self-preservation, insecurity, self-pity, and tears—all mixed with large quantities of drama.
In the heat of an argument, my five-year-old ego is very quick to feel hurt, so she reacts by jumping, stamping her feet, cursing, and defending herself. Then, just as quickly, the caged monster surfaces, rearing up like an angry giant, sword and shield in hand, ready to inflict hurt in return.
I literally see my ego self rising up like a dark shadowy character, looming menacingly above my head.
Of course I know this ego play doesn’t solve anything—it only serves to trigger my partner’s own ego defense games. Suddenly we’re both wounded five-year-olds, shouting and throwing ugly insults back and forth at each other.
Then, invariably, we have to argue about who started it and which one of us is right.
As you can imagine, these ego battles take up a lot of energy and are very stressful, not to mention emotionally draining.
I notice that when I’m in this heightened state of drama, my ability for logical thinking goes out of the window. I lose all connection to my grown-up self and I feel the adult receding, regressing me back to an insecure child.
I see myself adopting the same body language and survival strategies I used when I got into disputes with my mother during childhood.
Looking back, it’s obvious to me that my current over-reactions have a lot to do with how I was brought up. My mother was a strict matriarch with black and white views—grey areas didn’t exist in her world. She was always right and everyone else wrong, and there was no room for argument.
If I ever dared to argue, I would be quickly silenced with a barrage of cutting words or physical blows that would leave me hurt, feeling powerless and seething for hours. My voice was quashed, my will controlled, and I felt small and stifled.
As a child, I didn’t have the awareness to recognize the surge of my ego during these altercations with my mother, when my very existence felt under threat. But of course, every part of me screamed silently in protest, including my ego.
Now, as a so-called mature fifty-year-old adult, it’s quite disconcerting to visibly witness my conditioned responses popping to the surface during heated conflicts, especially when some part of me feels threatened.
These responses haven’t altered or evolved at all since my childhood. Sometimes it feels like I’ve never really grown up.
I still discover myself seething in the same helpless way to emotional triggers and feeling the same powerlessness when my will is challenged or when I feel controlled, as I often do during conflicts with my partner.
My ego rears up in anger and defense in exactly the way it did when I was a child.
And yet, even in the most extreme spells of ego drama, I’m sometimes able to take a step back from my hurt, stealing a momentary pause from the heat of my frustration.
These short breaks allow my anger to calm, giving space for my ego to stand down. Then I’m able to recognize the reasons for my exaggerated reactions, understanding that a part of me was feeling threatened.
I’ve observed that my biggest over-reactions occur when my partner threatens what I deem important; for example, the time and money I spend on my spiritual activities.
In these brief moments of lucidity, the ego is fully exposed with technicolor clarity. In this instant, the cause of our argument, which seemed so important just a few minutes before, completely loses its power and dissolves, rendering the whole situation funny and somewhat ridiculous.
My ego’s true nature is laid bare during these points of pure seeing.
It’s utterly clear to me that my ego simply functions to protect the parts of myself I feel I must defend, secure, or guard, like my will, my way of expression, my beliefs and moral values.
My ego jumps up in defense of these values because of the importance I’ve given them, effectively giving my ego permission to react whenever these values feel challenged.
Amazingly, the truth is, these morals can only exert power over me if I allow them to. I can equally decide not to give them any power at all, which should gradually stop my ego’s need to defend them.
I know it will take time to break this pattern of over-reactions to emotional triggers, since my conditioned responses are almost automatic now. However, in conflict situations, if in one time out of ten I don’t react, it will certainly make a difference to my life and relationships, won’t it?
What a liberation that will be!
For years I’ve unknowingly been trapped in the same ego cycle of trigger/reaction, trigger/reaction that developed when I was a child.
Now, with the benefit of being able to witness my ego play in action, I no longer feel a prisoner of its games. For the first time in life, I am learning to choose whether or not to react.
These other insights around my ego are helping to improve my partner relationship, as well as the relationships with family and friends.
The ego wants to blame others.
We have all become so accustomed to blaming other people and circumstances that we are often not even conscious that we’re doing it.
On the surface, it’s much easier to blame others, because it removes the burden of accountability from us and places it firmly at the feet of the other. However, although blaming others appears to be a quick-fix solution, in all honesty, it isn’t.
Believe it or not, blaming others takes away our control of the situation and passes it onto the other. It prevents us from seeing the whole truth of the issue and blocks us from fully understanding ourselves, which can keep us stuck in the same obstructive patterns of behavior.
For years I blamed my mother for everything that was wrong in my life. I blamed her for not being there for me, for not supporting my dreams, and for not being the parent I expected her to be. Spending so much time and energy blaming her, I wasn’t able to see my own part in the situation.
When I finally had the courage to stop blaming my mother, it came as quite a shock to me to realize that I was equally responsible for the things I was unhappy with.
It’s clear to me that my ego’s fear of admitting culpability kept me in blame mode.
I naturally progressed onto blaming my partner, because my ego makes it difficult for me to accept my part in a conflict that I am at least partly responsible for. So it’s no surprise our arguments escalate as they do.
Ultimately, we must all strive to accept responsibility for every action we take, even the ones we’re ashamed of. The more we’re able to do this, the stronger we become and the weaker our egos will be, gradually loosening the grip they have on us.
The ego covers up.
Another thing I can say about the ego is that it will do anything to cover up its mistakes, especially when it sees it’s wrong. Its attempts to cover up increase when caught red-handed, behaving just like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
I remember when I was a child, even when I was caught in the act, I would do everything I could to cover up my mistake, trying my best to deny the blatant truth.
Maybe my actions as a child could be excused, but sadly, my behavior as an adult hasn’t improved—I still find myself fighting to deny the truth when I’m unexpectedly caught off guard. Like when my partner surprises me, by correctly guessing the trivial cause of my upset.
My ego hates being so easily called out, so it must cover up and defend.
One of the hardest things for any of us to do is to admit we are wrong, because when we own up to being wrong, it automatically makes the other right.
And being wrong is something our egos cannot bear. As a result, we find it difficult to say sorry or to ask forgiveness, which exacerbates our conflicts.
I’m also recognizing that our inability to admit our wrongdoing keeps us stuck in our defensive positions, which allows our egos to fool us into fighting, justifying, and defending every point of view—a complete drain of our energy.
I’ve noticed, however, that when I see the truth and can openly admit it to my partner, surprisingly, rather than separating us, the admission brings us closer together, healing some of the hurt we created during our conflict.
So admitting that we are wrong need not be a negative experience, but can instead empower us, lessening some of the control our egos have on us.
The ego wants to hurt back.
For me, one of the worst things in the world is the pain of feeling hurt, as I imagine is true for most of us.
Sometimes, the hurt we feel paralyzes us and we’re unable to fight back, but at other times, the only thing we can think of is how we can hurt the other person back.
Our egos trick us into believing that hurting the other will alleviate the pain we’re feeling.
I’ve realized that in all conflict situations, it is actually our egos that feel hurt. Again because some value or aspect of the image we have internally built up of ourselves is being challenged, threatened, or undermined in one way or another.
I’m ashamed to say that on many occasions, both in my childhood and adulthood, my ego has wanted nothing more than to inflict as much pain on others as possible, as a way of lessening some of the hurt it was feeling.
But retaliation is not the answer; it only adds more fuel to the fires of our egos.
Maybe I can be forgiven for saying that in my childhood, hurting others was an unconscious reaction to my own feelings of hurt. And in the recent past when I was still unawake, hurting someone who hurt me was my natural course of action. But now, with my increasing awareness, knowingly hurting another is not something I can condone.
In the heat of ego fights between me and my partner, when my ego rears up ready to defend itself, it’s hard, but I am becoming more and more able to check myself before I go over the line with insults I know will cause my partner pain. Even when I feel he has crossed the line with me, I can still consciously stop myself from going too far.
I consider this a huge triumph over my ego, and something I’m proud of.
Every time I can stop myself from blindly over-reacting to a perceived threat to my values and can become an observer of my ego and its games, I know I’m taking a step in the right direction.
The more conscious we can all become of our ego play in action, the more freedom we will gain from our egos. Then, over time and with consistent effort, positive changes to our life journeys and relationships are inevitable.
Artwork by artbymanjiri, CC 2.0