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Ego, Part 1: Ego Is Like a Hyperactive Robot

My internal arguments would be a bit embarrassing to replay -- but they are part of being human. Watching my mind at work has been such a humbling and wisdom-building process. It is amazing how my ego can see "danger" in harmless situations.
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When you are driving along the road, do you sometimes engage in a conversation with yourself? I do. I wish I could run a tape recorder on my brain.

My internal arguments would be a bit embarrassing to replay -- but they are part of being human. Watching my mind at work has been such a humbling and wisdom-building process. It is amazing how my ego can see "danger" in harmless situations. I sometimes picture my ego as the Robot character from the old TV show, Lost in Space. The Robot's most famous line is "Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!" (Yes, I know I am showing my age!)

The robot metaphor is powerful because our egos often run on automatic programming. And like Will's robot, they are prone to saying "Danger! Danger!" -- even if the danger is perceived but not real. This bears repeating: The ego alarms even when the danger is imaginary.

Here is a theoretical example. You are walking down the hall at work. Your boss is coming from the other direction. She has an unhappy look on her face. You say, "Good morning." Your normally upbeat boss says "Hmmmph. Not looking so good to me right now." Your inner alarm goes off. You start imagining what might be going on. Soon your ego locks in on an interpretation. "Ah, there is a layoff coming! I knew it!" You go into the coffee room and confer with a friend. "You know that layoff we were thinking might happen? Well I just saw the boss and she said she is having a bad day. She was coming from the CEO's office. I think she just got the news!"

The rumor mill is now off and running! Drama is in high gear. And in a few minutes the anxiety level of the whole department is scoring a 10 out of 10. Work grinds to a halt as people gossip, start updating their resumes, and worry about how they will pay their bills if they are let go.

Why do we stir up such drama? It is not because we are evil or stupid. It is because our egos are tightly linked to our "fight-or-flight" system. Our fight-or-flight responses need to be lightning-fast. We need to react quickly to external threat. If a bus is about to hit you or a wild animal is chasing you, fast reactions can save your life.

But there are two serious problems we experience with this ego-fear system:

1. It triggers too easily. It sees threat when there might not be any threat. Its philosophy is, "It is better to overreact than to under-react!"

2. It runs on "old programs" -- habituated reactions are coded in our interior software when we are kids. They are ways we learned to "stay safe." They include withdrawing (flight) or a million ways of "fighting," from passive-aggressive to openly aggressive.

Our ego dumbs us down to keep us safe. This hyper-reactive, habit-based aspect of ego deprives us of our IQ, EQ (emotional intelligence), and SQ (spiritual intelligence). We lose the flexibility to choose a response from among evaluated options (IQ) -- sacrificing blood flow to our higher brain functions to instead send it to our muscles, hearts, and lungs in preparation for running or fighting. Hijacked by our limbic brains, we surrender our ability to experience empathy or to manage our own emotional triggers (EQ). And in robot mode, we certainly cannot act with wisdom and compassion while maintaining inner and outer peace (SQ).

So what is the solution?

We can learn to calm the ego and put "Higher Self" in the driver's seat of our lives. We can learn to stop, take some deep breaths, and discern if the threat is real or not. We can learn to calm down and bring all of our intelligences back to full capacity. And then we can deal with the situation from a much more competent place.

When I feel my own drama story rolling out, I breathe, and then I thank my ego for being alert and wanting to protect me. I talk to it like it is a child and tell it to calm down. I tell it that the grown-up me (Higher Self) is here and in charge and all is well. Then I try to make a game for my mind to play with: "What are the other possible explanations for my boss having a bad day today?" And I can typically come up with dozens (I have played this game a lot!).

Here are some possible alternative stories (interpretations) for the boss's upset:

  • She has received some bad personal news about her health or the health of a loved one
  • There is a problem with one of her children
  • Her marriage or relationship is in trouble
  • She got bad performance feedback from her boss
  • She didn't get a promotion she was desperately wanting

Because ego wants to keep us safe, it is seeking to find the worst-case scenario for us and then protect us from it. Yet none of these very reasonable alternative explanations threatens us. Disaster-planning is useful if you really are facing one. But spending our lives in hyper-alert mode is exhausting and unhealthy.

Relying on our SQ skill set, we can choose to challenge the inner robot warning system. We can choose to challenge the assumptions and interpretations of ego. And we can seek to understand what is really going on.

Even more importantly, we can choose to be a soothing, helpful part of the situation. We can go up to the person who is upset and ask, "Hi. Is there anything I can do to help?"

For more by Cindy Wigglesworth, click here.

For more on emotional intelligence, click here.