Awesome Kim asks: “Though I know logically that none of the things I am pretending to be afraid of will actually happen, I still feel this fear and powerlessness as I imagine these improbable events. And I wonder – is this some sort of backlash against my progress by my ego? Is my ego fighting back against these positive changes I’ve been creating?”
Dear Awesome Kim,
This is a question I get A LOT and one I’ve been itching to answer for quite some time. In the personal development world, there’s a lot of talk about the Ego. It’s usually described as the enemy, this evil little gremlin part of ourselves that likes to sabotage us. It’s the selfish part of us, the fearful part of us, the greedy part of us. Pretty much all the negative qualities we don’t like about ourselves get attributed to our ego. “I want to change”, we say, “but my stupid ego keeps getting in the way.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to listen to people at spiritual retreats go on and on about the evils of the ego and how it’s basically our main purpose in life to either squash it, kick it out, transcend it or release it.
Well, Kim and everyone else, I’m going to tell you a little secret: There’s no gremlin. The Ego, in the form that many like to talk about it, doesn’t exist. In other words, I’m calling Bullshit.
There is no damn Ego
Now, I know that this is a controversial statement. After all, if there is no ego, then who or what can we blame for all the sabotage? What exactly is the cause of all our greed and selfishness and evildoing? Of course the term Ego is simply a way of describing a phenomenon or set of behaviors and reactions that do exist, but I find this explanation outdated, misleading and quite destructive in many ways. The way that most people define and look at the ego usually leaves them feeling powerless (my ego keeps sabotaging me!). It’s also a bit of a throwback to the good vs. evil paradigm (the ego is often seen as our more evil side). Ego can be used to describe our “human” attributes, versus our “soul” attributes, with our human side being the broken, sinful one and our soul being virtuous and clean. To put it another way, there’s a lot of judgment in the way that most people look at the concept of the ego. And that, boys and girls, just won’t fly here, because judgment ultimately doesn’t serve us.
I’d like to offer a different explanation:
What the Ego actually is
In the post Why Do Our Brains Accept False Beliefs As Truth?, I explained how our brains are really kind of stupid, willing to accept whatever input we give them (a bit like computers). If we make a decision, they will accept this as true, and will just assume that this decision serves us. These decisions then become our beliefs, and our brains will filter all the information they get bombarded with every day using these beliefs. If the decisions we made no longer serve us, we can change them, but until we do so, our miraculous head computers will simply follow whatever programming was installed.
This part of our brains (or our minds), is what people often refer to as the Ego (notice that I’m talking about how ego is talked about in personal development circles. In colloquial terms, ego usually refers to arrogance, which is nothing more than a defensive mechanism born of insecurity). The reason that I really don’t like the ego paradigm is because this explanation attributes negative intent to the ego, as if it’s purposefully trying to keep us from being happy. There is no such intent. There is no judgment. There is only input and output.
Our brains are designed to keep us alive. There are the parts that keep us breathing and our hearts pumping. Yep, that all gets regulated in the brain, and it’s very hard to mess with that basic part of the operating system. Sure, Yogis have proven that they can slow down and even stop their hearts with tons of concentration, but for most of us, it’s just kind of an automated function we never have to think about.
If you go up a layer, you get to what is often called the subconscious mind. This is where all those decisions we’ve made throughout our lives reside. They are also designed to run automatically, so we don’t have to make all those decisions over and over again. There’s a reason for this design – we’d have a very hard time functioning without it. Once you know how to drive a car, for example, you don’t have to think about it anymore. You drive automatically – your subconscious does a lot of the heavy lifting, leaving your conscious mind free to keep an eye out for danger as well as possible opportunities for awesomeness. Just about any thought process, action or response can be automated, often without our even having to consciously decide to do so. If you take the same route to work every day, this will become part of your morning routine. You can probably perform that routine, including shower, teeth brushing, makeup and breakfast in your sleep.
But the subconscious isn’t just there to help you drive a car or drink your OJ before you’re fully awake. This is the mechanism that takes the millions of bits of information that bombard you every day of your life, filters them according to the priorities you’ve installed (yes, you. And your parents. And society), and automatically reacts to the “important” triggers in whatever way you’ve decided it should.
If you have a belief of unworthiness, you decided at some point that you were not worthy. If you have a belief that all men are douchebags, then you made that decision, as well. Even if a belief was handed down to you by your parents or society, on some level, you decided to trust those around you enough to simply adopt their criteria and priorities as valid and true without questioning them first.
Like a dog with a stick
If your subconscious mind didn’t do this filtering and prioritizing, you’d go absolutely ape shit crazy. Your conscious mind cannot handle all the input and stimuli that your subconscious can. You’d be totally overwhelmed. If your brain didn’t have the ability to filter all the sights and sounds around you, for example, you’d suffer from sensory overload. People with brain injuries often have this problem – they can no longer filter and busy places with too much noise cause nausea and panic attacks. People having anxiety attacks often also lose the ability to filter to some degree. They become hyper aware of all sounds, sights and smells (a survival mechanism), making the whole experience so much worse. The point is, this filtering process is a really, really good thing and actually necessary to our survival and continued evolution. There is no way we could be as technologically advanced as we are without the ability to sort through vast amounts of information and quickly filter out only what’s important to us. Our minds can and do perform this function for us. In other words, if it wasn’t for the ego, you’d be a drooling, anxiety riddled mess.
Now, granted, some of the criteria and rules that have been programmed into your subconscious no longer serve you. But that that’s not your mind’s fault! It has no ability to judge the programming. It will blindly accept whatever you’ve told it to. There is no intent other than to serve you. Your mind assumes that if you’ve gone ahead and made a decision about yourself and the world at large, that you gave it some thought. It assumes that you know what you’re doing.
Your mind is trying to keep you alive and happy. It makes no judgment on HOW that has to happen. If you tell your mind that something is important, it believes you. If you tell your mind that something is bad or scary, it believes that, too. If you tell your mind to look for something and present it to you whenever possible, it does so. It’s a bit like a dog fetching a stick. It will happily bring you whatever it’s been trained to.
Our wondrous mind: Friend of Foe?
Now, let’s say that you have some beliefs that aren’t serving you anymore (and possibly never did). Your mind will not argue with you. It will faithfully continue to follow the directions it was given until you tell it otherwise.
If you then try to contradict that programming without changing the instructions, your mind will fight you. It’s not doing this to try and sabotage you, it’s trying to keep you alive and happy!
Let’s say that you want to get a promotion at work. You decided, at one point in your life, that you don’t deserve to succeed. So, your mind has been looking for evidence that supports this failure mentality and has been presenting it to you at every opportunity. Any evidence that didn’t match this belief was filtered out. Now, let’s say that you decide to work on a big, high profile project. Your boss gives you explicit instructions and includes one big caveat. If you mess up this important directive, you’ll surely fail. Well, since you’ve programmed your mind with the instruction that you MUST fail, it will make sure that you do. So, when your boss gives you the important instructions, your mind simply filters them out. You’ll later swear up and down that you didn’t hear him say it. Not only that, but your mind will filter out all kinds of other bits of info that could’ve made success an absolute certainty. It might even cause you to oversleep on the day of the big presentation. The problem here is not your mind or ego, but the programming that was installed, which told the mind that failure was the preferred and expected outcome.
Or, let’s say that you get into an argument with your partner. You immediately go into defensive mode and bring up every little thing he’s ever done wrong. This is behavior that’s often attributed to the evil ego. But if we look deeper, we’ll find some programming, some decisions that were made long ago. There’s an insecurity in there. So when your boyfriend accuses you of overreacting, what you hear is “You’re not ok. You’re broken in some way.” And so you defend yourself even more vehemently.
At some point in your life, you made the decision that you are broken in some way. Only, Who You Really Are knows better and disagrees. So, the BASE programming (WYRA is the base programming. Read this post to find out more) is saying: “You are whole”, and your mind is saying “No you’re not”, which creates massive conflict (like two conflicting computer programs causing all kinds of errors). Whenever your mind decides that something or someone has so much as inferred that you’re not ok (and it will look for any evidence that triggers this conflict, because it must look for evidence that proves your belief to be true), it will defend its position. You’ll basically begin to defend yourself against your own belief, while ensuring that the false belief stays true. Sound ridiculous? Well it is. And it happens all the time. Let me give you an example.
Jenny believes that she’s not worthy of love. Sam, her hubby, loves her dearly. One day, he forgets to take out the trash, causing Jenny to lose her shit. Her mind has locked on to the “evidence” that supports that he doesn’t love her. He has forgotten to do something that she has requested he do. The “I’m not worthy” program running in Jenny’s brain kicks into action and screams “See? This proves that he doesn’t love me!”, while Who Jenny Really Is jumps up and proclaims “bullshit!”. Jenny wants to be loved, but won’t allow herself to be. So, while the part of her that wants love and knows it’s possible is asking Sam to prove his love, her mind will always look for any evidence that he does not, no matter how small or ridiculous it seems. Essentially, she’s demanding that Sam prove that he loves her, but will never allow him to actually succeed.
One could say that Jenny’s ego is sabotaging her, but really, it’s just her faithful mind holding onto and carrying out a set of beliefs that aren’t serving her. And these beliefs can be changed.
Now, the good news is that if you install new beliefs, ones that serve you, ones that agree with and support what you want and Who You Really Are, your mind will filter for those, instead. Instead of your “ego” being your worst enemy, it’ll become your best friend. Instead of looking for signs of failure, your mind will show you gobs of evidence of success. Instead of sabotaging you, your mind will support you. Success will become effortless, with your subconscious doing all the heavy lifting, just like when you’re driving a car.
Think of your ego like a loyal servant or even a dog. Don’t blame the employee for your failure to provide clear instructions and don’t blame the dog for your failure to train it properly. If you tell your dog to fetch and it’s been trained to fetch a stick, but you really wanted a beer, you don’t get to chastise the dog for bringing a stick. The beauty of this metaphor is that you can retrain your dog to fetch you a beer when you give the command. You can give your servant better instructions. And you can reprogram your ego to help you get what you want instead of getting in your way. So let’s stop banging on about how horrible our egos are, shall we? You are not powerless against your ego, you’re the master of it, whether you know it or not. So, the only question that remains is: Are you a good master or are you being a douchebag boss who likes to blame his own mistakes on his underlings? Go on, be honest. Your ego won’t judge…