My ego pushes me to present a false image to the world so that other people will like me. This image is a version of me but it is not the real me. I try to make other people laugh so they will think I am funny. I try to talk about interesting subjects so they so that other people will think I am intelligent. I hide my flaws so other people will not judge me and abandon me. The motive behind these actions seems to presume that if the other people knew the real me they would not like me and they would not be forgiving.
The ego seems to have its own personality. Over the years I have observed the qualities of my ego. It is dishonest and unforgiving. It does not trust and is paranoid. It seeks self-aggrandizement. It seeks approval through self-deprecation and false modesty. It becomes angry when criticized and jealous when it sees other people succeeding. It is spiteful and critical. It ceaselessly judges other people and situations. It judges itself (myself) unmercifully.
The question arises, why does my ego need people to like me in the first place? Is it lonely? Does it fear being lonely? Does it think I need allies to protect me? Does it fear being attacked? Does it seek validation? Do it want me to be important? Does it fear being a nobody? Does it fear being labeled a failure? Does my ego want other people to like me to protect me because it assumes that other people will attack me under normal circumstances?
It seems like the ego is a protection device that has gone awry. It seems like the ego originally came into being to protect me. When I was a child other kids picked on me and adults shamed me. I created my ego to protect me from these forces or to mitigate the damage they caused but now that I am an adult those same forces do not exist in the same way. But my ego remains still performing its old function.
If I was alone in the world would I still have any of these fears? If I was alone in the world would I still have my ego? Does my ego exist because other people exist? Is it the separation between people where we cannot know each other’s minds that creates the ego? Do I need to create my own other person (i.e., my ego) so that I can anticipate what these other unpredictable people might do and thus protect myself?
So the challenge lies in dialing back my ego. I do not think it is possible to completely eradicate it. Being aware of its functions and behaviors seems to be the first step towards diminishing its power but awareness alone is not sufficient to happy. The next step is probably developing the ability to ignore or actively marginalize my ego. I must develop those qualities that are the opposite of the qualities the ego possesses. I will let you know when that happens.
Throughout my life I have gone through periods where I have worried about societal collapse. Sometimes it would fill me with a such a feeling of dread that I found it difficult to go about my daily activities and carried this feeling around with me for weeks at a time.
Realistically, although unlikely, this sort of thing is not impossible. Societal collapsed happened in the 400s to the Western Roman Empire, so there is precedence for this. When I was younger I worried about nuclear war and swarms of killer bees. After the fall of the Soviet Union I worried about peak oil, an asteroid or commit hitting the earth, the super volcano in Yellowstone Park, the dollar collapsing and viral pandemics. All of these are possibilities and could destroy civilization as we know it causing untold death and misery to those who were fortunate enough to survive.
But I have to wonder, are these worries really an indication of something else? There have been many times that I worried that I would never be successful in life but then wondered why it mattered in the first place because the Earth could get hit by an asteroid and society would collapse and success would no longer be defined the same way under the new social order. I think this line of reasoning is more my shame ego undermining my motivation to succeed. There have been times when I felt this kind of anxiety and it turned out to be an indication that I did not feel safe in the normal functioning of my life. I know this because I expressed these anxieties to a therapist. He responded, “so you need safety?” When he said this I felt an uncontrollable wave of grief well up in me. Once I allowed myself to feel the grief in this safe un-judging environment my anxiety about societal collapse lifted. This pointed out to me that what I thought my fear was about was really a disguise.
Of course it does no good to worry about these things. They are completely outside of our control and that is why they are scary. They threaten to overturn all we cling to in life to make ourselves feel safe. But really this feeling of safety is an illusion as much as the fear is. There are no guarantees of safety in life. There are no guarantees of success. There are no guarantees of misfortune.
We cannot really avoid worrying from time to time. We can recognize this fear for what it is, however. We fear loosing these illusions that serve us by allowing us to function in the face of the intimidating, dangerous, enormity of reality. Thinking about this I really have to resign myself to the fact there is not much I can do to protect myself and must therefore try not to worry and live each day grateful for existence and the good things I experience therein. It is an adventure to live under such circumstances. That answer is not entirely satisfying but truth often is not satisfying. Why else would we cling to illusions?
I have always been afraid to speak my truth because part of me believes that if people really knew what I was thinking they would reject me. As a result I tried to figure out what whoever I was talking to wanted to hear and said it. Over time I developed this skill until it came off as natural. People seemed to like me. The only problems were that I eventually lost touch with who I really was I what I really wanted in life. There was a true self buried deep down that was becoming angry (and sad) for being imprisoned.
At a family wedding I recently attended I had a conversation with my sisters about my aging parents. Later in the night back at their hotel room after a few drinks I sort of let my guard down and started saying some rough things about my parents and them. I let out all my resentments regarding my up bringing and how that created the situation where I no longer knew what I wanted and felt pretty much like a failure.
I told my sisters that I did not really have any feelings for our parents anymore and that every time I talk with them I feel horrible. My Dad does not say much anymore. My mother always makes me feel like I have done something wrong. I do not like feeling this and I am starting to question why I have to submit myself to those feelings just because they are my parents. I also went off on my sisters about how they treated me when I was younger, how cruel they were and how humiliated they made me feel.
My older sister tried to turn it around on me and I told her to go f*ck herself. Essentially I never felt entitled to my anger and grief. If it ever came out of me they made me feel humiliated for it. If I spoke my truth I was made to feel humiliated. That negated any entitlement I had to my true feelings and to my true self.
A therapist told me that because of my upbringing I now have to be willing to feel humiliation in order to express my truth. If I am unwilling to feel that then I will never be able to express my truth. For a long time I was unwilling to feel humiliation and as such for a long time I never grew. I was stuck repeating the same old patterns, feeling the same old frustrations. My truth only came out when my guard was down. When my truth came up I felt humiliated both for the truth I expressed and the circumstances under which it was able to come out.
For a few weeks after the wedding I felt the lingering humiliation for saying what I did to my sisters. I’m sure they thought I was the same old weak little brother they grew up with. Only now I am 40 with a drinking problem. I know what I need. I need to feel my anger and grief. I need to own my anger and grief. If I feel humiliation when that happens I need to not abandon myself and join the forces who think that I deserve to be humiliated. I need to put my arm around that humiliated kid and tell him that I am on his side.
I never realized Steve was an atheist. I think he grew up Roman Catholic in another Connecticut suburb just like me. Now I know full well Roman Catholicism in suburban Connecticut during the 1980s and 1990s was nothing earth shattering in a spiritual sense. There was a lot of talk about feasts, joy and celebrations when nothing of the kind manifested itself. Nobody sang the songs in church. If I did, I felt extremely self-conscious. Mr. Battiston preached pretentiously from the pulpit and he was only a deacon and his kids bullied me throughout my childhood. The folk masses sucked (Mrs. Battiston played guitar). People left the pews before the last verse of the last hymn. There was nothing spiritually going on at all. Based on all that and assuming his experience was similar to mine, I can understand why Steve rejected that form of Roman Catholicism.
At his wedding Steve had a UU minister. Later on he explained to me that he and his wife told the minister they did not want any reference to God in the ceremony. One drunken night I asked him if he ever read the bible. The reason I asked him was because I had just read the entire bible for the first time. It was something I did to pass the time at work. Steve reacted with annoyance. I think he suspected that I was trying to spread the word or some such. In truth, I really felt that the bible was interesting from the standpoint of literature, the impact it has had on our culture and therefore deserved respect. I was motivated to share that intellectual experience mostly.
The conversation progressed to Steve telling me that he was a science teacher and he looked at data to discern the nature of reality. I presume he suggested that he thought religion was uninformed or ignorant because it was not based upon observable data. Later he asked me why life was not enough for religious people. I remember thinking that was a legitimate question but I also thought this question suggested religious people were somehow greedy.
My response to the question at the time was something along the lines of, “I don’t know, but I know it’s not enough.” Part of me wants to say that for a person like Steve (unencumbered by a shame ego) it is easy to say that life is sufficient and satisfying. But for a person encumbered by a shame ego there has to be a resolution, and if resolution does not happen in this lifetime it must happen elsewhere. But that argument is the shame ego’s argument. It is not approached whole heartedly.
To approach the question whole heartedly, I must say the world does not make sense to me without some spiritual underlying reality. This belief was confirmed first hand through several acid trips. I know it can be argued that the influence of drugs caused me to falsely perceive the existence of a greater reality. But to me those experiences felt far more real than reality. Please note that I in no way advocate or encourage the use of any drugs. I am simply describing my own experience.
So Steve is correct when he says that religion is inconsistent with science in that science only perceives the existence of measurable data as real. However, I believe with my whole heart that there is more to reality than materiality. I also had a conversation with Griz (another atheist) about this. I said there must be more to reality than what we perceive. He said, “What would that be?” as a counter argument. But what would the New World be before Columbus discovered it? What would relativity be before Einstein promulgated his theory? To simply ask what they might be does not prove their non existence in my mind.
I have a friend named Steve. Steve lives in a world completely unbounded by shame. He fascinates and irritates me at the same time. He fascinates me because I have no personal frame of reference for his world view but I also am envious of the freedom in which he seems to live. He irritates me because from my shame ego’s perspective his mere existence is a negative judgment on how I live my life.
I remember hiking with him many years ago. We were walking along a mountain trail. He suggested we go off the path. The neo-hippie wannabe part of me readily agreed. Yeah! Stick it to the trail man who wants us to hike in specificly designated places! Another part of me was annoyed. We had a perfectly good trail to walk on, we were outside, getting exercise, being healthy and enjoying nature. His suggestion implied that walking on the path was conformist and somehow an inauthentic experience of the natural world.
Recently I thought about this interaction when I was walking on a sidewalk. Clearly the sidewalk was the designated place for me to walk. I felt annoyed that the sidewalk builder was dictating where I should walk. I considered walking off the sidewalk and cutting through a yard. Then it felt like Steve was telling me where to walk and that felt annoying too.
In this scenario I do not really know what I want. If I walk on the sidewalk I am conforming to society’s rule. If I stray from the sidewalk I am conforming to Steve’s neo-hippie ethic. If I ask myself what I truly want to do in this scenario my mind goes blank. I have no real, whole-hearted desire. Rather, I am trying to please two alien masters. I am motivated by a desire to avoid the shame that goes along with making the wrong choice.
Even though I do not know what I want, I think the feeling of being annoyed is informative. From the shame based perspective, feeling annoyed is wrong. By being annoyed, on a passive aggressive level I am fighting the system and fighting the system is sinful. Passive aggression is a primary tool in the shame-based tool box. But the feeling of being annoyed is also a message from my true self. There is something happening in the universe that I do not like. That is the truth. That is the key to finding out what I truly want.
Gestalt therapy taught me that my feelings are always right and never sinful. That is, there is always a legitimate reason behind my feelings. They do not arise because I am flawed. I think my feeling of being annoyed comes from the no win situation my shame ego has constructed for me. I can choose to walk on the sidewalk or cut across a yard. Either way I am conforming and as such, unoriginal and inauthentic which is shame worthy. It is the no win situation itself that irritates me. I want to be unbound by shame and the no win situation.
I imagine Steve would not spend a second of his life considering any of this. He would walk where he wanted to walk because he wanted to. How utterly simple. How utterly beautiful. The no win situation is a construction of my shame ego as is not knowing what I want.
I remember drinking vodka and fruit punch in the basement of my parents’ house in high school alone on a Friday night. I felt the buzz. It felt different, as if something uncomfortable was being erased. I liked it. Throughout High School I would not say I was a heavy drinker. When I did drink it was at house parties generally. I remember the first party I went to and got drunk. I do not think I got sick and I do not think I felt sick the next day. I felt like I was doing something different that would put distance between the shy, awkward, geeky persona I projected and make me one of the cool kids.
Then there was the time a friend slept over and we drank, played Monopoly and dipped tobacco in the basement. In the morning I was really hung over. I think I told my mother I was sick. My friend went home and I went to sleep in my room. My mother later discovered the half-finished bottles in a cooler in the basement. She made me feel like I was the worst criminal in the world. I think she also suggested sending me to a rehab or a counselor, which I refused. I did not think there was anything wrong with me. I was just doing what kids my age did. Later on my Dad drove me around in his car and interrogated me about what I had done. I remember him asking me if I had mixed the alcohol or drank it straight. I remember not knowing why he wanted that information and feeling really embarrassed and frustrated about answering it.
In college I joined a fraternity. I drank in the fraternity to be one of the guys. For the most part it was the time of my life. The worst part was getting so drunk that the room spun or waking up hung over. But there was also something in me that told me the more I drank, the cooler people would think of me.
I did the same thing after college when I worked and went out with friends (although not to the same degree or extent). When I went to law school I did the same thing, perhaps to the same extent as in college, but I was living in New Orleans so that is probably an exception.
At some point after I got married and was working for a law firm alcohol became a way of coping with anxiety and depression. It switched from something fun and seemingly inconsequential to something I began to be concerned about and had trouble stopping.
The good thing and the bad thing about alcohol is that it obscures feelings. It is bad in the sense that if my feelings are obscured then I do not deal with them and do not move past them. It is good in the sense that sometimes feelings are too much to endure. If there is no escape and no dealing then maybe it is a good thing to have alcohol around to escape. Of course the danger of that is addiction and damage to health. It is not easy to control and becomes more difficult if whatever feelings are being obscured by alcohol are never dealt with. In my case that feeling was shame.
So the answer in the long run is of course to deal with feelings and ultimately that is how to overcome a problem with addiction. It is a chicken and the egg type of situation (maybe).
There are two feelings I don’t want to feel, the feeling of missing out and the feeling of humiliation. I have come to understand that both of these feelings are two sides to the same coin which is shame. The explanation is a bit circular. Humiliation is a terrible mental and physical feeling. It is the feeling of being judged negatively by others and agreeing with them. It is the feeling of knowing I have no worth and do not deserve respect. Further, it is the feeling that I deserve to be disrespected because I have no worth. Because I fear feeling humiliation I am reluctant to try new things, take risks and otherwise “put myself out there.” So I make safe choices and stay within my comfort zone. But within this comfort zone I feel like I am missing out. So I stay within my comfort zone until it becomes stifling and intolerable. At that point I reach out for any sort of change. Because the change is new and different and not very well thought out I often fail and when I do I feel humiliated. When I am humiliated I seek safety which then repeats the cycle. This cycle is shame.
Generally, shame is the painful feeling that I am not worthy of respect. This is not merely a mental conclusion but also a physical, bodily sensation. There are two typical ways I deal with shame: hiding my shame from others and distracting myself from my own shame. I hide it from others by pretending or acting to be something other than myself. Implicit in this action is the belief that I am contemptible and if others knew the truth about me they would reject and abandon me. I distract myself from shame through addiction. I drink alcohol, I have taken drugs, I bite my fingernails, I masturbate to pornography, I gossip, and I try to make other people feel shame. All these distractions are a very short-term fix that produces an immediate form of pleasure. This is the nature of addiction. The desire for distraction comes from the primitive brain called the limbic system. The aim of the limbic system is survival via the avoidance of pain and the seeking of pleasure. This aim creates the addictive desire. Unfortunately, the modern brain called the prefrontal cortex, kicks in once the limbic system is satiated and goes to sleep. The prefrontal cortex then makes me feel shame for giving in to my addiction. The prefrontal cortex, whose aim is to plan for the future and preserve the society that protects me, knows that a society of addicts is no society and will fall apart. My prefrontal cortex tells me that by giving into addiction I am responsible for the impending downfall of civilization. I believe this and then I feel ashamed and unworthy of respect. This feeling is painful and will eventually wake up my limbic system who will then recreate the addictive desire to distract myself from them.
This describes the cycle. I do not want to feel humiliated so I seek safety. I then feel stifled and reach out of my comfort zone. When I do this I feel humiliated. This cycle of shame is painful. I hide it from others and I distract myself from it through various addictions. The solution is difficult but achievable. It starts with becoming aware of the process and that is the aim of this blogpost.