Death of the Ego

She’s a Killer Queen.
Lake Michigan Shore. Kenosha, WI. 2019.

Do we all still remember that one time Beyonce and Kanye West teamed up to write a song about a very specific male appendage? They called it an ‘Ego’, and we were supposed to be real cool about it.

The 2000s really were a simpler time. Unfortunately, today’s post has nothing to do with the male body or the greatest era of R&B. Disappointing, I know.

From ancient Greek philosophy, to Marcus Aurelius’ inception of modern Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, to studies of behavioral conditioning, to that one time we all learned to line dance in gym class – we’ve been obsessed with understanding our personal role in the ‘big picture’.

Our conscious inner dialogues help us make sense of time and space. They provide an adaptive advantage that encourages us to avoid a collection of threats: carnivorous beasts, poisonous berries, burning brush, and dreaded Judas-types alike. Less fortunately, these inner dialogues also service a gold-chained, sweaty, slimy, final boss: the human ego.

Sigmund Freud controversially explained the ego in three parts: the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. The Id is considered the ‘reptilian brain’ which inherits drives related to life, death, and sex. It is not logical, is self-obsessed, and drunk with pleasure. Freud most importantly argued that all of this was operating subconsciously.

Freud’s concept of the Ego was described as a conscious reality. It is the narrator that considers all experiences through the lens of social norms. It strives to reduce tension between subconscious desires and ultimate realities. It is the character that balances the angel and the devil on opposite shoulders. Within this concept, the Ego can be understood as the ‘story we tell ourselves’ about how the world works.

So, that leaves the Superego to close out the trilogy. Serving as the Batman of the brain, this construct informs our deepest virtues. It is the part of our identity that is obsessed with morality; holding us accountable to control our impulses and maintain positive perceptions. While it sounds ideal – this Superego is actually what informs most of our guilt and pride (McLeod, 2019). Thanks for nothing, sweet prince of the night.

It wasn’t until Buddhism introduced itself to modern psychology that people began to realize the Ego wasn’t a harmless narrator. According to these mindful practices, the Ego actively prevents Enlightenment. Thich Nhat Hanh explains that “thinking prevents us from touching life deeply. I think, therefore I am not really there”. *Insert mind blown emoji right here*

Two of my favorite modern psychologists share similar sentiments on the importance of abandoning our self-serving narratives that feed the human ego. They offer alternatives that allow us to grow closer to each other instead of allowing us to retreat to our obsessive thoughts.

Dr. David Burns is a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist (CBT) and professor at Stanford. He hosts a podcast for mental health professionals and beneficiaries alike. With a focus on CBT, he works to challenge the pillar ‘cognitive distortions’ from which many humans suffer greatly.

While they are worth researching further on your journey to wellness, many of these distortions are self explanatory. To name a few: magnification/minimization, overgeneralizing, disqualifying the positive, jumping to conclusions, etc. These unhealthy patterns of thought help us create narratives about how (un)loved, (dis)respected, and (un)important we may be. If you’re particularly self-hating, these can be quite fulfilling.

With his 5 Secrets of Effective Communication, Dr. Burns requires that his trained therapists abandon their egos in order to properly serve their patients. Unsurprisingly, these tips translate well to the general public. Focusing on empathy, assertiveness, and respect, he challenges us to abandon our solution-based communication to just f*cking listen.

Literally, just make someone feel heard. Acknowledge their feelings. Abandon the need to fix their feelings. Remain apologetic, vulnerable, and loving. What, like it’s hard?

Dr. Burns wisely recommends responding to criticism with a sense of humor. He often responds to judgments of his character with sentiments like “I agree, I’m really annoying! If you had time to ask my wife, I’d bet you’d find out a lot more about me that you didn’t like too!”.

He reinforces his wisdom by explaining that agreeing with someone’s critique of you is a timeless paradox. Having the humility to agree with someones harshness ultimately invalidates their claim. So, what I’m saying is… you don’t have to guard your ego like the last Cheddar Bay Biscuit at the table. You’ll get some fresh, hot buns if you loosen up. Wait.

And la piece de resistance, John Gottman. Clinician, researcher, and relationship extraordinaire. His decades of research focuses on the need to transition from a ego-driven relationship to a soulful relationship with ourselves and with others. He warns of the four ego-obsessed relationship killers, referring to them as the 4 Horseman of the Apocalypse.

Gottman details the curses of Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling as death sentences. These maladaptive patterns close off communication and emotional expression in efforts to guard self-esteem and self-worth. They highlight a lack of maturity, trust, and vulnerability. They work to undermine the relationship and project blame.

Instead, Gottman insists that “conflict is really what sharpens our ability to love”. He explains that maintaining commitments while angry can be an incredibly strong signal of a permanent love. He most powerfully identifies that “a loving relationship is not about one person having the upper hand – it’s about holding hands”. I’m pretty sure this is the stuff of my childhood daydreams. That; JTT, the Cardigan’s ‘Lovefool’, and discount gummy worms.

Modern dating could easily convince you that your ego is all you have. That at the end of the day, you only have yourself. And, anything that might be difficult should be traded in for something more instantly gratifying… with the swift swipe of a finger.

In this dark space, our egos become hyper-vigilant. We starve for approval. We seek affirmation of our minds, bodies, and souls. We strive for virtue, judging ourselves (and others) for any shortcomings. We deny our id of any pleasure, and punish ourselves for having such desires. We find so much discomfort in just being.

However, enlightening experiences with family, friends, and lovers alike can provide you a glimpse into the other side. Your ego isn’t all you have. It’s just a stream of consciousness that attempts to guide you with a familiar schema. You lose nothing by admitting fault, offering empathy, or apologizing profusely. Your tears do not condemn you to weakness. There is nothing to judge. There is only one thing: to be.

Give yourself a f*cking break. Stop taking it all so seriously. Don’t play with people that are at war with themselves (and also with you).

We’re going to be alright.

P.S. Checkout the latest Spotify playlist here!
IG: espressointhesuburbs

“When I told you that if Gotham no longer needed Batman we could be together, I meant it. But now, I’m not sure the day will come that you will no longer need Batman.”

Rachel Dawes to Batman. The Dark Knight. 2008.