Ego, Part 2: The False Self?

Ego is sometimes characterized as the "false self." Some spiritual teachers advocate destroying the ego. I do not. If we love it, it can grow up and be helpful.
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Ego is sometimes characterized as the "false self." Some spiritual teachers advocate destroying the ego. I do not. If we love it, it can grow up and be helpful.

In psychology, the term for the image we project to others is "the persona." We all need to have an image of the self to project into the world. The challenge is to make sure it's authentic and derived from our higher self. When ego is immature and running the show, we may be projecting a personality self that is indeed "false" -- one that is not truly who we are.

Halloween masks are fun. A false role worn as a mask is not fun. Often, in order to fit in or be successful, we take on a role and a script handed to us by others or created to make up for some lack we have felt in our lives.

These false masks are by their nature unrealistic. We can't live up to them. This can leave us feeling like fakes. We become terrified of being "found out." So we do even more to look like the perfect mom/boss/whatever. All this inner turmoil can create feelings of depression or a midlife crisis, or rupture relationships. Unhealthy masks steal our joy. Even worse, a false mask deprives the world of the beauty and talents of the real self!

So why do we take on these masks? How are they related to the roles we need to play in life? And how do we find a way to be authentically ourselves?

We all have roles. They describe the nature of our relationships with others. I am a mom, stepmom, wife, sister, daughter, friend, author, executive coach, and public speaker. Each of these roles calls for a slightly different version of "Cindy." As a public speaker or coach I appear to act differently than I do with my family or my best friend. Does this different behavior make me inauthentic? It depends.

Authentic roles, when informed by spiritual intelligence (SQ) have an essence that feels the same. When I am living with high SQ, "Cindy the coach" has much in common with "Cindy the parent," even though I will adjust my behaviors to the context. Someone who knows me well will see that I am being authentically "me" in all these roles. And my higher self is expressing through all of them.

Ego makes four big mistakes with our roles:
  1. It takes on an unrealistic version of a role -- like "Super-Boss" or "Super-Mom" -- a mask or made-up persona.
  2. It confuses "me" with the mask.
  3. It thinks "I will be only be loved if I am the mask."
  4. It then defends the mask with all its power, because it believes that to lose the outer image is equivalent to death.

The net result of living behind a mask is that we lose what we are trying to gain. We actually feel less safe. We don't let others get too close for fear they will see behind the mask. And often we jeopardize the very things we treasure most, like our relationships or our jobs.

Here is an example. Let's say Julia has taken on the mask or "script" of being "Super-Mom." She has decided that as "Super-Mom," she can never ever say "no" when her kids want to do something with her. Looking courageously at the result of living this mask, she sees that she is exhausted. Her kids have become demanding and expect everyone to drop everything for them all the time. Her adult relationships, including her marriage, are suffering because she has no time for anyone but her kids. She is resenting the kids and feeling like a failure.

Now let's go further. Where does this script come from? In this case, it comes from Julia's wounded inner child. She is giving her children the attention she did not get from her own mother. She is actually taking care of her wounded inner child by being this "always-say-yes" Super-Mom. She is loving her own wound rather than loving her children. This can be a shattering realization.

Developing SQ means learning to see the errors of the ego and then lovingly helping the ego grow up so its habitual responses are improved.

When we learn to get quiet and dialogue with our ego voice, we can ask, "What are you afraid of?" In this case ego might reply: "I am afraid my kids won't love me. I am afraid others will judge me as a bad mom. I am afraid my kids will be mad at me like I am mad at my own mother. I am afraid I will be alone." And gently, patiently, Julia's higher self voice can lead the ego to see that the current mask isn't working. There is a better choice. A healthier role, authentically embodied, can give and get the love that ego seeks. And everyone will be happier in the long run -- including Julia's wounded inner child.

What can you do today? Reflect on the roles you play. Could you describe any of your roles with the word "super" in front of it? If so, it might be time for some dialogue between your ego and your higher self.

P.S. Ego is not evil -- it is immature. It is a child who has taken on a job too big for itself. For more on this, my friend Rabbi Alan Lurie has a wonderful post on the importance of loving and liberating the ego. In it, he illustrates how he talks with his own ego.

For more by Cindy Wigglesworth, click here.

For more on emotional intelligence, click here.

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