Ego vs. Self

by Dr. Irene

“Discontent is the first step in the progress of a man or a nation.” -Oscar Wilde

I hadn’t seen my clients Greg and Gina in a while. Their life had been pretty hectic lately with lots of good stuff going on. Yet, Greg was having some problems, so he called for a session. I saw him alone first. “I’m really angry,” he said. “All summer, she’s been pulling away and punishing me; really raking me over the coals. Why are there two sets of rules? How come she’s allowed to be angry when I mess up, but I’m not allowed to be angry when she messes up?”

To make things worse, Gina and I had been on testy ground for the past several months. Each time I disagreed with her, or in my characteristically straight style tried to tell her that she was misbehaving, I blew it. She got very defensive and felt attacked. One time she felt so hurt, she went flying out of my office.

I had to find a way to help her with her acting out without alienating her entirely. Not only was she hurting Greg, more importantly, she was hurting herself! Whenever this pretty young lady felt slighted or hurt, she would retreat into a depressive pity pot. She became self-absorbed and would isolate herself, distancing particularly from her husband. From the time Gina was a little girl, the only solace she knew from her parental abuse was that lonely dark hole she retreated into. I could not get her to understand that “licking her wounds” was hurting herself! She kept seeing what she was doing as taking care of herself. I called it avoidance.

“Why are you telling me I’m doing something wrong? You are the one who taught me to take care of myself and put myself first! So, when I’m mad at Greg, and I need to be alone, away from him, to lick my wounds, I’m taking care of myself!”

That’s when it hit me: she didn’t understand the difference between the ego and the self.

And, she’s not alone. So, lets define the two terms – so people can focus on learning to take care of the self.

The Ego vs. Self

There is no single, more relevant, important variable than understanding the difference between ego and self. Ego is about a temporary, quick-fix feel good. Self is about a lasting sense of integrity. This applies both to the recovering victim and the recovering abuser. Should I repeat that? Well, you get the picture.

For our purposes, suffice it to say that the ego is the part of the self that most people present to the world. But, unfortunately, far too many people confuse who they are with their ego. Think about individuals who define their worth by their beauty or by their possessions. Think too about those people have to be “careful” around because they get defensive and/or hurt easily. These individuals take their egos too seriously. These people live for the facade, and hide the truth. They don’t understand that it is OK to be who you are.

You are not your thoughts!

When I refer to the “self,” I am referring to the “higher self:” The part of you that is connected to the Big Guy or nature or the Universe, or whatever you believe in. Your soul. Your center. The little voice in the back of your head that knows – and tells you what you need to do. “Wise mind” is a DBT term for the same thing.

Much of the time, you won’t like where the little voice is telling you to go. Without even noticing that you are doing it,  you will compulsively want to do what immediately feels good instead. Some, instead, fall prey to compulsively doing what feels bad – as in compulsively reacting out of guilt or shame. Either way, later on, you’re likely to find yourself thinking along the lines of, “I knew I should have…” There is confusion and self-doubt when the self is ignored.

The voice of the self is not splashy or loud. The self whispers while the ego SHOUTS. The more busy-work, activity and distraction, chatter, or obsessive-compulsive activity of any type (e.g., any addiction) interferes, numbs or distracts your ability to hear the internal message. When you engage in mindful meditation, when you”sit with your feelings” or “do nothing,” you give your higher self a better chance of being heard.

The higher self also speaks to you through your physical body. Your body often reacts to information from the self: you are so upset, you feel nauseous or your stomach is tied in knots. You are so worn, you want to sleep. Your heart palpitates in fear or your knees quiver; you have recurrent dreams or nightmares… The self may be trying to talk to you! The self may be telling you that the emotional “air” you are breathing is toxic. In most cases, it is not the victim’s job to learn how to deal with the stress of the relationship; it is the victim’s job to heed the body’s warning signals – and get out.

When we don’t heed the body’s message and allow the emotional stress to go on for too long, our immune system suffers or breaks down. More and more, research is substantiating this mind-body (or self-body) relationship. For example, childhood abuse is related to emotional problems in adulthood. There is a correspondence between one’s relationship and their health: abused women suffer from more medical disorders than women who are not abused.

Self-Care or Self-Indulgence?

“Take care of the self”, “be your own best friend”, “love yourself.” If there is any question as to what this means, always ask yourself: If I do X (X = fill in the blank), will I feel better or worse about myself in the long run. What action enhances my self-esteem? Even if you crave the immediate feel good fix, let integrity be your guide!

So, What’s this got to do with Gina and Greg?

Greg was learning to listen to his inner voices that what Gina was doing in her repeated isolation and pulling away did not feel good. It hurt. He asked Gina to jump up a level of health by knocking it off because her isolation was hurtful to him.

Gina thought she was taking care of herself by licking her wounds. She was actually taking care of her ego and doing her self a major dis-service. Removing oneself from the situation is the first step in anger management. The idea is to prevent more escalation in the heat of the moment. The problem was Gina was well-practiced at removing herself, but she was using her isolation time poorly; she was stuck.

She spent entirely too much time “licking her wounds.” In this space she obsessed over how cheated she feels, how Greg doesn’t get it, how she always gets the short end of the stick, etc. In other words, poor Gina is stuck in the dredges of the pity pot pit. She is symptomatic. Her pity pot helps her feel “good” momentarily by focusing her anger on Greg’s real or imagined sins and away from her own feelings. There is satisfaction in pushing him away and hurting him. This coping method does absolutely nothing to enhance her integrity. In fact, her integrity is diminished! This is why taking a look at your thinking is an integral part of anger management.

Challenging Thoughts and Feelings

Gina was “licking her wounds” by engaging in a cycle of thoughts, feelings, images, etc. that allowed her to avoid what was really going on.

The reality is that she is no more “cheated” than most of us; many people come from abusive homes; you can’t go back in time, but you don’t have to continue your own abuse today. Furthermore, she doesn’t always get the short end of the stick, but she’s actively focused on the times when she does. She does not have to focus on thoughts that hurt and depresses her.

Finally, Greg is very imperfect. We all are. What is the point of focusing on what he does wrong and how he should change? Gina has no control over Greg’s behavior. She does have control over her own. Sure, it would be nice if Greg behaved in healthier ways, but he’s working on it and is rarely abusive. Gina however gives Greg entirely too much power when she thinks that she will feel better if he does (whatever). She momentarily feels better when she punishes him by pushing him away as she once pushed mom and dad away. Unfortunately, her habitual thinking style does no more than maintain her anger, hurt, and depression. Ouchhh!

This sensitive young woman was hurt in childhood. Her family did neglect her. She learned to be defensive to protect herself. She had to in order to survive emotionally. But, that was then and this is now. She no longer has to remain in a place that hurts,  where her only empty solace is to get even with crummy mom and dad by pushing someone away (In this case, Greg.).  As long as Gina equated “licking her wounds” as a healing experience, she was going to continue to hurt.

Gina’s Task

Obsessing over how bad things are and automatically selecting negative aspects to focus on kept Gina down, stuck, and hurting. As long as she viewed her isolation and its concomitant wound licking as caring for herself, she was in trouble. Now she understands she was not taking care of herself, and her goals have changed. While she’s “not ready” to leave her familiar place yet, that’s OK. She now sees she has a choice.

My very best to both of them…

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