Mar 12, 2011

Detaching from Ego - by Dr Ben Kim

Another great article to share with my friends and to remind myself....

As I approach the last few years of my fourth decade on planet earth, I find myself feeling grateful for some of the conclusions that I've been able to draw from all of my life experiences. One in particular that I try to hold close to my heart, especially in times of triumph and disaster, is this:

The more we detach from our egos, the greater potential we have to experience peace.

I'm far from being an expert on varying schools of psychology, so please excuse me if any of the following thoughts don't jive with what you might find in the original works of Freud, Jung, or Adler.

Here's some of what detaching from ego means to me:

It means when someone intentionally or unintentionally criticizes or insults me, deep down, I don't feel terribly wounded because everyone is entitled to an opinion, and at the end of the day, I have my conscience to tell me how I'm doing.

It means that I walk with gratitude for all that I have right now, regardless of what others around me have. All of us are living out miraculously unique journeys, so to compare what we're doing, where we've been, and what we have in the name of sizing each other up is a waste of time.

It means that I know that it is wrong to try to gain social mileage out of the accomplishments, behavior, or appearance of my children, life partner, and anyone else that I am linked to.

It means that I don't gain or lose emotional strength from external markers of success like the amount of money I make or the score of a tennis match.

Speaking of tennis, being a huge fan of the game and an active player, I can tell you that this relationship between degree of attachment to one's ego and level of inner peace is easy to observe on the tennis court.

In playing with a number of people of different ages and backgrounds, I've observed that tennis players whose egos aren't overly uplifted or crushed by what happens on the tennis court seem to be doing pretty well in other areas of life, especially in their closest relationships (life partner, parents, children, colleagues, etc.).

Then, there seem to be a few players here and there whose egos are too fragile to handle the labels of winning and losing. One such player that I know is so tortured that it's uncomfortable to be on the court with him. Worse than the temper tantrums is the seemingly endless stream of excuses to account for his miserable circumstances, which, coincidentally or not, include difficulties with making a living and connecting with his spouse and children.

It's been said that playing sports can help build character. I'd agree with this notion, especially as it pertains to youngsters who are rapidly growing into themselves and figuring out what they want from their lives. But for older adults who have been through major life experiences like working at a career, having a long term relationship, and raising children, I'd say that while playing sports can certainly help build character, moreso, it reveals character. Ditto for all life challenges.

How do you know if you can use a little detaching from your ego to enhance the quality of your health and life? Some clues are frequent agitation, complaining, excuse-making, and frustration in your closest relationships. If you're relatively free of these unhealthy states most of the time, you're probably secure in your intentions and how you're going about your life. This isn't to say that any of us can be totally free of moments that we're not proud of. The idea is to ensure that a fragile ego and over-attachment to what others think about us do not prevent us from accessing our potential as human beings.

Where does unhealthy attachment to ego come from? I imagine that it comes from many years of being told that we're not good enough unless we look a certain way and accomplish certain things. Once we adopt these beliefs, we live with some degree of fear, fear of having others think that we're nothing but big losers. I think it's this fear that drives chronic angst in most of its disguised and undisguised forms.

So in recognizing this, how do we find a healthy balance of being authentic to our emotions while maintaining reasonable detachment from our egos?

For me, the answer is in the moments that make up each day. In particular, those moments when I am acutely aware that I have one of two choices: to act in an effort to protect my ego, or to put my focus on those around me and the principles that I want to live by.

For example, when someone attacks my character, if I'm in the mode of trying to protect my ego, my natural reaction will be to defend my behavior and attack back. But if I'm able to catch myself and widen the space that exists between stimulus and response, I stand a greater chance of experiencing peace by striving to help the other person feel understood - through empathy, a sincere apology, or any other means necessary.

This takes practice. It's an art, really, to widen the space between stimulus and response, and to consistently choose thoughtful behavior that's about the greater good rather than flipping the finger to someone who we feel is being nasty. And I can say from experience that each time I widen this space, each time I choose a kind and gentle response rather than a proverbial or literal middle finger, I feel a sense of victory within. In my book, this is real life detachment from ego, and few other experiences are as deeply satisfying.

Another example would be when we feel the need to talk up something we've done or accomplished to make sure that others know that we measure up. For me this urge usually comes up in the face of someone boasting for attention. To recognize the silliness of joining this game and to consciously choose not to take part is another inner victory that helps me feel like I've strengthened my character and loosened the grip of my ego.

In discussing ways of overcoming attachment to ego and crippling pride, I don't think we can overlook the importance of feeling like we're doing something valuable with our lives. As Anne Frank put it, "laziness may seem attractive, but work gives satisfaction." I would add to this that engaging in work that is personally meaningful is essential to developing and maintaining healthy self esteem, which I believe is needed to rise above the constant stream of opportunities to display poor behavior.

I know I'm treading somewhat above my pay grade when I make observations about ego, pride, and how problems with either can affect performance and quality of life. But then, I generally trust my instincts about people, and a life that is being crippled by a fragile ego isn't hard to notice, especially when it's mine. It's disturbing to look at, not unlike coming across a gruesome car accident (lots of double negatives in today's post, which means that I'm feeling it).

Let me be clear that I'm not referring to a situation where a person feels incapable. Like the case of one client I will never forget, who, with tears in his eyes, confessed that he simply felt like he was too emotionally damaged to function at an adequate level in our society. I will always have warm feelings about this particular client and others like him, because in my book, to so vulnerably profess doubt in one's capacities is a mark of extraordinary decency.

Where there is enough emotional strength to evaluate and recognize one's shortcomings, I believe there is immense potential to experience personal growth and truly intimate and satisfying relationships filled with respect and even reverence. Humility and genuineness breed fondness, right?

Where pride and ego don't allow honest self examination or the ability to share existing vulnerabilities, I just don't see how there can be hope for a life without major regrets.

My radar for life-crippling, easily devastated egos might be above average in sensitivity because I come from a family and culture that practically invented the idea of starving to death rather than wash dishes for food money. My parents are good-hearted people who wouldn't cheat another soul for a penny, but in all the time that I've known them, not once do I remember them proactively apologizing for something. I think for many of their generation and old school Korean culture, apologizing is viewed as a grossly shameful act and perhaps an invitation to be ridiculed.

Raised without seeing what a mature apology looked like, as young adults, I think my sisters and I were emotionally handicapped, not unlike my parents. I'm grateful that somehow, perhaps through a combination of good fortune and hard knocks from the school of learning how to survive on our own, for the most part, we turned out to be adults who aren't handicapped by overly fragile egos and all of the disadvantages that come with.

This is not to say that I don't have moments when my pride makes me behave in a way that I regret. Twinges of envy, defeat, anger, and humiliation regularly run through my heart, and with each twinge, my ego feels the urge to embrace itself. These are moments when, in trying to save face, I am most capable of hurting myself and those around me, sometimes with thoughts that have no ill intention, and sometimes with insults disguised as compliments. The goal in these moments is to slow my thoughts down and to behave in a way that leaves me feeling good tomorrow.

So to bring this to a close for now, my two strategies for detaching from my ego and striving to be a clear-thinking, productive, responsible, and compassionate person in all of my capacities:

  1. Whenever I feel tempted to defend myself, boast, or attack out of hurt, I try to stop my runaway train of thoughts on a dime, widen the space between stimulus and response, and choose behavior that nourishes the other party.

  2. I strive to make good use of my time and talents every day, and to take good care of my health, because these actions build and maintain real self esteem.

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