I like to think of my ego as a carpenter, creating sets for a play.
He works in the back of the theatre, under dim lights, trying to go unnoticed.
The sets he creates are not backgrounds, in this case, but versions of myself that get shown to the world.
They’re very carefully crafted, and great thought goes into how best to present myself to others (and to myself).
Here’s what the carpenter is most renowned for: he takes special care to craft likenesses of me that are least likely to show a wound or vulnerability.
In fact, he sees it as his duty to protect me from the things he’s identified as being painful.
I imagine him creating my face out of plywood, day by day, and showing it to the world. It looks exactly like me, and yet isn’t me.
These wooden sets not only create a perfect scene that he wants the world to see, showing me in the best possible light (and the light least likely to cause any pain), but they also create space between him and the world outside.
When something potentially painful, embarassing, or vulnerable does come up when interacting with other people, the wooden version of me takes the brunt of the feeling, giving the ego carpenter time to react, judge, and soften the blow.
In other words, the carefully crafted plywood version of me acts as a defence mechanism, protecting me from negative thoughts and feelings.
In many ways, the ego produced version of me is identical to the real me.
I know this because as I was dissecting my relationship to my ego, I realized that my ego carpenter portrays me as kind and caring in many instances.
Since I was beginning to learn more that this ego projection of myself was not truly me, I questioned whether this meant that I was not actually kind and caring, but only pretending to be so, in order to present myself in a less vulnerable way.
I learned that that these characteristics are true to my nature, and so realized that not everything my ego shows is a lie – thankfully.
However, even when he crafts a near identical likeness, that gap remains between the outside world, the stimuli, and my true Self.
The “wooden” ego version of me absorbs the brunt of the experience, and filters through only a little of the remaining experience.
While this can make me feel safe during difficult or trying times, it also divorces me from truly experiencing joy, happiness, and love.
What About “Ego As The Enemy”?
If you’ve read Ryan Holliday, you’ve likely heard of his book “Ego Is The Enemy”.
It seems natural to assume that the ego is an enemy if your goal is to live a conscious, mindful life, fully awake to the reality of your experiences.
And it’s true to some extent.
The wooden set versions of yourself that the carpenter displays really are the enemy to intimacy, self-awareness, love, and self-acceptance.
The gap between stimulus (reality, perhaps) and your Self (heart, perhaps) deadens and dulls truly experiencing the joys and mysteries of life, and often keeps you locked up in your own head.
Often, the ego rebels when you try to shine a light on him, making self-awareness and healing difficult.
He will create all sorts of sets to distract you and ensure that his job never comes under threat.
So, the typical desire of those with spiritual practices for ego dissolution and transcendence are frustrated by the ego as an enemy.
But what I’ve come to believe is that the ego is our first and deepest interaction with self love.
The Ego As An Act Of Self-Love
Through my meditation practice, I’ve come to identify my ego and question it.
“Who am I, really?”
“Why do I think I matter so much?”
“What does it feel like to simply experience, rather than process through the ego?”
I’m not a guru or anything, but I feel comfortable saying that I can occasionally “drop the ego” to de-escalate anger or meaningless conflict.
This has proven helpful both as an insightful meditation practice and in my day to day life.
But it still felt like a struggle.
A constant battle against the ego.
As soon as I dropped my focus, the ego would take over, put up another wooden version of me, and I’d get distracted by it once again.
I provide this tangent to show that seeing the ego as love is not a prerequisite for limiting it’s influence, and that meditative practices are still highly valuable to combat the ego’s control, regardless of whether you come to the same conclusion I have, which I’ll share below.
Ego Creation As Self Defence
Through reading and self-reflection, I’ve come to believe that childhood wounds follow us through into adulthood if they’re not consciously felt and worked through.
John Bradshaw’s “Healing The Shame That Binds You” speaks at length about the role you take in your family as a child, and the various types of shame that exist.
He posits that many things we now differentiate today as unique psychological maladies are, in fact, rooted in shame, felt but unresolved from childhood.
Each one of us develops self defence mechanisms to protect us from the shame, fear, neglect, loneliness, and sadness we feel as children, especially if it is too big for us to process, if we feel alone, or if it proves otherwise traumatic.
The ego, as the curator of the self in our early days, must have something to do with the creation of these self defence mechanisms.
For example, today I crave control.
I desire to be the one in charge, to tell my kids and wife what to do and how, and to make sure everything is done my way.
I believe I am controlling because I felt that other people were not reliable as a child, and that the only person I could ever count on was myself.
This led to a distrust of others, and an elevation of myself as the only one who could be trusted to get things done.
Therefore, if things weren’t being done the way I would do them, there was a high risk that they’d be done wrong (or so I believed), and I feared that I would be the one who would have to take responsibility to set things right (which causes me to feel overwhelmed because all of this causes me to take responsibility for everyone else’s actions, and I don’t want to be overwhelmed and alone).
This is just an example of what I believe is a clear path from feeling neglected, to believing others can’t be trusted, to believing that I was the only one I could trust, to believing I was the only one who could do things right, to believing that I have to control everyone around me to make sure they don’t make mistakes, because otherwise I’ll be the one responsible for fixing their mistakes, which is overwhelming, and I’m worried about being overwhelmed.
This all started with a wound as a child. The wound of neglect, loneliness, and lack of secure attachment.
The ego moved in at some point, and built these beliefs about myself (I am the only one I can trust to do things right).
The manifestation today of being controlling stems from the sadness, anger, and loneliness I truly feel about my lack of trust and secure attachment as a child.
In order not to feel those painful feelings, my ego constructed a story that could distract me, and in some ways protect me, from being hurt by these feelings. By proving to myself that I was the most capable person I knew, I came to believe that I didn’t need anyone else.
There was no room to wonder if I was actually in pain, because the ego created the idea that I never needed anyone in the first place.
This is an example of the ego creating a self defence mechanism, and I guarantee that if you looked deeply enough you could find many of these in your own life.
But why did the ego go to the trouble to protect you?
Surely there’s an evolutionary, survival-instinct reason, but more relevant is the fact that the ego built up this elaborate story of self in order to shield us from pain.
While all we see today is the fact that he obscures reality and gets in the way of deep relationships, the ego remembers where he came from.
He picked up his tools and set up shop in me to act as a protector.
He has worked day and night my entire life to make sure that I don’t have to feel the original pain again.
He goes about his work quietly, usually in the background, and builds stories that can be highly motivating in some cases.
He’s stuck in the past, sure, but as I dove deeply into who my ego was, I realized that what he did for me was an act of love.
“This Is The Nicest Thing Anyone Has Ever Done For Me”
I journaled on this extensively, and at one point wrote, “this is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me.”
When no one else was there, my ego was there.
When no one else was on my side, my ego was protecting me the only way he knew how.
This realization filled me with love, particularly for myself, because while the ego obfuscates the true Self and makes it difficult to heal in many cases, it is still part of me, which means I created this ego originally out of some primordial act of self love.
It was one of the first times I really felt like I loved myself, and my heart was full.
Ego may be the enemy to intimacy and mindful awareness, but he exists because he loves you.
And in many ways, he is you.
This realization softened my approach to my ego and to myself.
How Can This Help?
1. Reduce Negative Self Talk And Relate More Gently To Yourself
Having a healthy relationship with your ego can significantly decrease the stress of inner conflict when you fall back into unconscious habits that you’d rather avoid.
Rather than beat yourself up about “failing”, seeing the love that created your ego in the first place allows you to send it gratitude, and realize that while the ego can be frustrating, he’s not there to hurt you – just the opposite in fact.
If you’re able to get to this level of self-awareness, you can thank the ego for his services to protect you, and work on gently reminding him that these self-defence mechanisms are no longer serving you.
2. Foster Self-Love
After years of doing inner work, and constantly being in pursuit of internal peace, there came a point where I genuinely felt like my “resting state” was in the middle of the equilibrium between anger and love/joy.
This was a huge accomplishment, because before this point, I had operated almost exclusively in the anger zone.
However, I still felt like I could go no further along the scale…like I was stuck at “just ok”.
The realization that some version of me (my ego) had loved myself all along really softened my relationship to myself, and for the first time ever, filled my heart with warmth and love toward myself.
If you’re on this part of your own journey, getting into relationship with your ego as a “loving carpenter” can feel amazing.
3. Finding Your Genius And Healing The Shame Of Self Defence Mechanisms
It was through this ego work that I realized that many of the self defence mechanisms constructed by my ego were actually serving me, and that I could be grateful for them.
My drive to succeed, my work ethic, my careful attention to detail, my consideration to how others would feel about my actions…I believe these are all forms of self defence that my ego constructed to keep me feeling safe.
Without softening the relationship with the ego, it can be tempting to adopt a victim mentality.
“Well if only my parents did XYZ better when I was a kid, I wouldn’t BE like this!”
Well, whatever happened to you happened, and you’ve got the wounds and characteristics to prove it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t heal the wounds while employing the characteristics for good.
This was the first step for me to see my wounds as healable, to see my personality traits as strengths, rather than weaknesses, and to be grateful for all that I went through in order to make me the man I am today.