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Real Life Interjects

By Lisa Meuser.  

“You’re Good Enough, You’re Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like You.”

You might recognize this quote from Stuart Smalley, a character who played on Saturday Night Live in the 90s. Stuart was known for his positive affirmations, including the one above, and wrote a book of Daily Affirmations. Whilst the character and the book are based in comedy, there are hidden gems of wisdom in using affirmations and many transformational modalities are based upon their use.

While some approaches largely depend upon the use of positive affirmations, lauding their effectiveness, their critics suggest that they are little more than wishful thinking, essentially ineffective when it comes to sustainable change. Breaking it down simply, the first camp might assert that the positive affirmations will become reality if said enough and that until they become reality, you can “fake it until you make it” using positive affirmations. The second camp suggests that using positive affirmations may be like planting pretty flowers on top of a smelly, full septic tank- the pretty flowers can only hide the smell for so long, leaving cognitive dissonance- and smelly yet pretty flowers.

Who’s right? In their own way both camps sound plausible. After all, it sounds logical that repeating a positive phrase repeatedly would eventually start to “soak in,” right? And at the same time, it also makes sense that repeating phrases over and over won’t really get at the deeper stuff. In my own experience, both are true.
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Personally speaking, affirmations have been helpful for me.

While exploring the depths of my psyche using somatic inquiry or other deep process methods, hidden belief systems are often found, along with how they were formed and/or what continues to keeps them alive.

A belief system I recently wrote about was “ignoring my feelings is a loving thing to do.” I had been exploring presence, and all sorts of memories arose in which I saw how my mom took care of me involved her ignoring my emotional state – i.e. not being present with me. Through somatic inquiry I was able to remove various layers of meaning that were Velcroed to the belief system and the pain body. As the layers dissolved, so did the belief. I was left with the declaration, “being present with feelings is a loving thing to do.”

Whilst the old belief had felt quite real, somatically speaking, only moments ago this new pronouncement felt genuine and authentic. To help ease this new truth into place, it was useful for me to repeat it to myself every once in a while over the next couple days. Said another way, it was useful to gently utilize it as an affirmation until it became more integrated.

In my own experience, this is an effective use of affirmations: using an affirmation, which already has some resonance, in changing out old belief patterns. I suspect that the efficacy and sustainability of using affirmations in this way is hinged upon (1) the clearing out of an old core belief, which (2) makes room for a new affirmation (3) that resonates as an actual truth, as opposed to just a thought one wishes to be true. After all, knowing something from our being is more sustainable and meaningful than something from our minds. (Consider, for example: how fulfilling is it to love someone from our minds, as opposed to from our hearts?)
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Speaking of something coming from the mind, instead of the heart…

This brings me to my frustrations with the use of affirmations; they are often from the mind, hoping that they will (often magically) make their way to the heart. I call these empty affirmations (as opposed to affirmations which already have some felt resonance). Because we’re already a mind-biased and a body-phobic culture, I don’t think strategies that are mind-focused are ultimately healing. Generally speaking, utilizing empty affirmations requires even more mental involvement (pretending/ strategizing/manipulating) and oftentimes leads to more dissociation. For most of us, subtle affirmations may begin in our childhoods, extending into our adult years.
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The use of affirmations can confuse the psyche, starting from when we were young.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Raise your hand if you’ve heard this one before. Many of us were probably told this in our childhoods by (perhaps) well-meaning adults. Many of us have likely told this to our own children, perhaps from an innocent desire to help, and/or comfort our child so that s/he feels better.

While well-intended, it is confusing for a child (or an adult) to be told that there is nothing to be afraid of when they are actually, in that moment, feeling afraid. It can be discombobulating or create a sense of dissonance when one feels one thing to be true and then is told that something else is the truth. Moreover, the child’s actual experience and feeling is discounted and invalidated. As you might imagine, shame is a likely side effect.

But what is a child to do? Because they were met with a mental response to their emotional pain body experience, they are likely to then employ their own mental strategies to cope with the emotional overwhelm being experienced. In other words, they will dissociate. The child, not wanting to risk further rejection from their parent, may pretend that they are ok, stuffing their feelings down in the process. Or their response may get louder or stronger, in which case they may be labeled dramatic or “too sensitive.” Either way, they are discounted, which goes counter to what we all want – validation, acknowledgement and/or someone to be present with us whether they agree or disagree with what we’re experiencing.

(As an aside, one can see in this simple example how pervasive gas-lighting is in our culture: one person says how they feel and another (who has more power in the dynamic) says that they don’t.)

As it is not ultimately helpful for an adult to repeat an affirmation to a child when it goes counter to their actual experience, it is not sustainably useful for us to repeat an affirmation to ourselves when it is counter to our actual experience. (It may be temporarily useful, and I’ll get to that later.)

When, as an adult, we use this affirmation to help ourselves in this way, it can (1) mimic or echo the same discount or invalidation we received as children, which can (2) confound the dissonance even more, (3) perpetually discount or invalidate our own experience, which may then (4) lead to an internalized state of dissonance and/or (5) increase dissociation.

We continue to experience dissonance, and so we continue to struggle, maybe even more so. We want relief, but the (empty) affirmation denies our actual experience and creates more resistance to it. (Some relief may be found temporarily if any part of the psyche can “buy into” the affirmation. More on this later.)
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Real life interjects. Literally.

As I’m writing this on my porch, the sun is setting.

I look out and see the sky behind the trees turning into an orange glow, the tree branches swaying gently. I look up, and the undersides of the leaves are glowing orange, as the top of the leaves are deep green. The sunset is somehow shining upon the bottom of the leaves. I gasp when I see them. They are beautiful and they greet me in mystery.

I am reminded that we must look underneath, we must go under what we normally see, and invite in everything else that exists too.

And perhaps this is why I’m not always a fan of affirmations. I don’t want to make myself mentally ok using affirmations; I want to feel true OKness in my being. I don’t want to cover up experiences, I want to honor them. When I cover up a part of me, I am telling myself that I am not allowed to be as I am. When I say, “there’s nothing to be afraid of,” when something in my system says there is, I’m relaying to myself that something is wrong with me – that I’m doing it wrong – that I’m humaning wrong. The violence in that brings a tear to my eye.

I appreciate affirmations as temporary bandaids when used along with other adjunct work, but not as the main approach. When utilized as a practice, I see time and time again how they ultimately create dissonance and self-harm as it encourages pretending or diminishing as opposed to honoring. I see it in the clients that come to see me, heads filled with dissonance, trying painfully to have “the right thoughts” as they try to have “the right feeling” as they try to be “the right human.” The shame and disappointment are palpable.

Lastly, maybe more than ever, we are in a time of being called to wake up. I have noticed that affirmations can be used to pacify and placate. In my experience that lends itself to mindlessness as opposed to mindfulness. In a time when we really need to be paying attention, using affirmations to gloss over things so that we can go unconscious and be asleep to our lives does not appear to be what is best for our evolution.

“There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own Soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” C.G. Jung
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Small Steps

I imagine some of you saying- “ok FINE! But I’m not there yet. I don’t know how to really live in a state of complete acceptance. I can’t always let things be as they are!”

Me either!

In those moments, I may use the mind to connect with an affirmation I already feel some resonance with to help in supporting myself. In my experience it’s very different to use affirmations that resonate in some kind of real way as opposed to using empty affirmations. Affirmations are most useful when they come from an already lived resonance in the body that feels real, perhaps because there is a deeper level of honesty and authenticity.
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Real life Interjects, again

My daughter is on her first overseas trip and is struggling. As her mother, I want nothing other than to say a bunch of affirmations so that she will feel better, so that she will feel safe, so that she will feel ok.

What do I do? More than anything I’d love it if affirmations “worked” on her. I’d love if I could cast a magic word spell on her. But I’ve learned that empty affirmations don’t help her. Rather than try to pacify her fears with empty affirmations, I acknowledged her actual experience while also mentioning some positive things that resonate in some real way for her.

Off the phone, I am confronted with my own fears. Being 4,500 miles away “as the crow flies,” I don’t know if what I’ve said has helped her, I just know that the texts have stopped. It becomes increasingly clear that I can’t make everything ok for her, and I can’t make everything ok for me either.

As I hone into what is going on with me, how it feels to my being that my daughter is out in the world and afraid, I find a sense of powerlessness. Powerlessness is no stranger to me, but this powerlessness feels different than the powerlessness I grew up with. I don’t feel debilitated, I feel humbled. There is a resonance in my being that says it is safe for me to acknowledge, “I am not in charge,” while feeling all the big feelings that come with that. There is something in me that knows “I can trust.” These affirmations nourish me, as they feel true deep in my being. When affirmations don’t feel true for me, and are instead more of a platitude, I don’t use them.
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Faking it?

I’ll be honest, faking it doesn’t work for me anymore. If I use an affirmation that feels empty, I honor that feeling and attend to what is actually present in my experience. Anymore, if I use an empty affirmation to cover up my actual experience, pressure will start to build up in my system, I will start to dissociate, and I “go mental”- AND I will continue to feel unsettled. For me, the distinction between an empty and a resonant affirmation is huge and important to pay attention to.

However, there was a time when empty affirmations provided some ready-made assistance for my system, and if you fit into that category then please use them!

Sometimes we need to ground or “land” and affirmations may help with that. Ideally, it is in those moments that a combination of somatic practices and affirmations are used to help the nervous system gain some temporary relief. However, sometimes we aren’t able to land, period. It is during such times that the mind just needs a sense of certainty, and affirmations can provide some temporary relief at those times. Said another way, sometimes we can use the mind to help calm the mind.

Once the mind is just a little more calm, we can start to add the body. While the feet are on the floor, and the back is against the chair, the words “I am safe,” for example, might be repeated while slowly breathing. The nervous system loves practicality, so connecting with and feeling the floor and the chair (for example) can provide physiological relief. Adding in the words “I am safe” may still the hamster wheel mind so that the relief can be felt deeper.

When we really know safety, we won’t need the affirmation, but until that time, the affirmations can be a way to provide ourselves with temporary support. They can teach us to find a sense of inner knowing and trust.
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Sustainability

I find it more sustainable and ultimately compassionate to honor what is actually being felt or thought as opposed to try to manipulate it into something we wish it were. Honoring our lived experiences, even when they are uncomfortable, allows us to really honor ourselves, rather than deny or alter ourselves, which has a tone of violence in it. The “fake it till you make it” adage can only go so far until it becomes a form of self-harm, mirroring the lack of care and attentiveness so many of us experienced in our childhoods.

When we include things as they are, we can know sustainable connection with ourselves and with life. When we don’t have to bypass, pretend, and manipulate, a sustainable sense of peace and trust becomes a lived experience as opposed to a pipe dream.

A client today expressed this: “Sobriety for me means not trying to manipulate or control how I feel and think.” I loved this so much, and of course, it is a journey as it has been the default setting for most of us to manipulate, control, pretend and be asleep at the wheel of our lives. Let’s continue to learn, and journey, together.

To read more about Lisa Meuser, click here.

The Aliveness of Feeling All Our Feelings

By Fiona Robertson.   

Many years ago, and in the throes of relationship turmoil, I went to see my wise friend and mentor. Having sobbed and complained about the behaviour of my soon-to-be-ex partner, I then went into a long diatribe about how I knew I was supposed to accept what was happening and that my inability to do so was evidence of my obvious and inherent flaws. Having recently encountered New Age teachings, I had unquestioningly swallowed the idea of unconditional acceptance and surrender. I believed – for a mercifully brief period, as it turned out – that all my suffering could be affirmed out of existence.

My friend listened, patiently. And then picked up a sharpened pencil from his desk.

“What would happen if I poked you in the eye with this?” he asked.

Flinching, I replied. “Well, it would really hurt.”

“Exactly” he said, and smiled.

It took me a few moments to realise what he was getting at. I was hurting, not because there was something inherently wrong with me, but because what was happening was hurtful. The behaviour I had presumed I should accept wasn’t acceptable. My feelings were there to guide me, rather than being inconvenient reactions that I should repress, censor or overcome.

The belief that we should not be feeling what we are feeling is a major source of distress. This belief may come from a variety of sources. We may have grown up being told certain feelings were unacceptable (in some families, for example, anger is always suppressed or grief goes unacknowledged).  We may have been taught by our culture, religion or spirituality that particular feelings are signs of deficiency, weakness or badness. Wider society sanctions or punishes feelings according to race, gender and sexuality. So when we find ourselves in the grip of rage, grief, envy, anger, fear, or any other emotion which has been unduly designated as ‘negative’, we think there is something wrong with us. We assume we need to fix, solve or get rid of the feeling. In addition to feeling the feeling itself, we also have to contend with shame or self-blame for having it in the first place. Our confidence is eroded; we doubt and criticize ourselves.

At the heart of this dynamic lies the internalised ideal self-image, the fictional uber-self which remains forever out of reach and unattainable. The ideal self-image varies for each of us, of course. Created in childhood and refined as we progress through life, we measure our actual selves against it and find ourselves wanting. Perhaps our ideal self-image is of a serene, calm person who can cope with any eventuality. We find ourselves raging and hostile and judge ourselves accordingly. Or our ideal self-image is adventurous, fearless and risk-taking, and we find ourselves trembling with uncontrollable anxiety and caught in a cycle of self-hatred as a result. Regardless of what we believe we should be and feel, we are stuck with the moment-by-moment reality of what we are actually feeling and being. We can find ourselves caught up in frantic efforts to try to make our real selves conform to the ideal self-image. Such activity is, ultimately, a violence to ourselves and often to others; we often attempt to keep our ideal self-image intact by making others wrong, lashing out in the process.

If we are willing to investigate more deeply, we can begin to unpick the strands of this Gordian knot, and allow ourselves to feel more honestly and deeply rather than suppressing or denying what is here. First, we notice the presence of a should or should not, must or supposed to. I shouldn’t feel like this. I’m supposed to accept this. I should not be jealous. And then we question it. What tells us we shouldn’t feel like this? How do we know we are supposed to accept this? In inquiry, we are not asking these questions from an intellectual perspective. Rather, the answers come from a deeper place; from memory, from the unconscious caches of data we have stored in both mind and body. It may be we discover we vowed never to feel anger because we had a raging parent who traumatised us. Or we were bullied in school for daring to show tears in the playground. The possibilities are endless; we each discover how such inhibitions, vows, rules and so on work within us.

In my sessions with clients (and in my own looking), there is often a moment when a previously denied, forbidden or taboo feeling is finally felt. In the safety of the space, the feeling can be itself at last. And even if it is excruciatingly painful, there is a relief in being able to be with the reality of what is here. The feeling can express, tell and show, its message being acknowledged after many years. We may be astonished to discover the wisdom that lies within all of our feelings. We become more honest with ourselves. We come closer to the realness of ourselves as we no longer cling quite so tightly to the ideal self-image. We find ourselves more willing to feel what is here, and less willing to buy into teachings and rules that tell us how to be or what to feel.

All our feelings – whatever their nature, and whatever our ideas or beliefs about them – are natural responses or reactions to experience. They naturally arise, not because we are wrong or at fault, but because that is what our systems are designed to do. They are an essential part of the experience of being human. Being judgemental about them – either our own or others – misses the point entirely. When we develop the capacity to feel whatever we are feeling – and we have a safe space either on our own or with others to do so – we no longer need to act out in destructive or harmful ways. By becoming fully conscious of what we are feeling we are able to be present to ourselves without the self-shaming or self-criticism that leads us into denial. We begin to feel the full spectrum of our feelings, and connect with our innate aliveness, freed from the rigidity of trying to fit into the shoulds and oughts of the ideal self-image we no longer ascribe to. Instead of trying to be Teflon-coated super-selves, we become fully and vulnerably human, embracing all aspects of our being. Life touches us – and we touch life – ever more deeply.

To learn more about Fiona Robertson, click here

How to Stay Stuck in Suffering

By Scott Kiloby.  

If you would like to suffer more (sarcasm intended) and keep negative emotions around, here are the top ten ways to do it – in no particular order:

1. Think about how other people are causing your emotions and blame them for it.

2. Think about just how bad you feel, come up with elaborate labels and stories around your emotions. Tell your friends these stories – often.

3. Engage in addictions more. Addictions are great for more suffering because, in addition to resisting negative emotions by engaging in addictive behaviors, which makes the negativity persist, you add additional uncomfortable thoughts, emotions and sensations into the mix such as withdrawal, denial, guilt and shame.

4. Engage in spiritual and self-improvement practices which cultivate only positive emotions. This will surely solidify the experience that anything negative is REALLY BAD, which in turn will create more resistance to negativity. Negativity plus resistance equals more negativity.

5. Stay on Facebook for hours arguing with what everyone else is saying. Pay particular attention to the posts that piss you off. Respond to those the most, even if only in your own head. Make sure you compare yourself a lot to others who are posting pics of their happy and successful lives so that you feel appropriately deficient and unsatisfied with yourself.

6. When someone close to you passes, be strong. Do not cry. Don’t feel into your body. Avoid feeling the grief fully and consciously. This will keep you from wanting to feel completely connected and intimate with others in your life, for fear that you may lose them. This will also help keep the grief buried in your system for years, creating a host of other mental and emotional issues like fear of death, addiction and trauma.

7. When someone argues with you or criticizes you, insist that you are right. Fight to the death as you defend your position. This will keep you adequately out of your body and will solidify your ego, which always helps to keep suffering around.

8. Make sure that you believe that your religion or view of reality is the right and only view. Other people with other views and religions will appear threatening all of the time, which will increase anxiety.

9. Avoid any type of therapy that might help resolve past trauma. Perhaps the number one way to suffer your whole life is not to deal with traumatic events that helped shape you during childhood or earlier in life. This may result in addiction, which will compound the problem for years.

10. When you feel depressed, isolate yourself completely. Do not connect with others. Do not seek medical or therapeutic help. Do not begin a practice of mindfulness or anything which might dissolve the beliefs underlying the depression. Continue hovering in the belief that you are all alone in your pain and no one understands.

This post is republished from the previous Living Inquiries website

The Critical Mass and the Inner Revolution

By Scott Kiloby.

We live in a world that is largely unevolved still. We are showing at least the outer signs of evolution. Our mobile-friendly lives, social media connectivity, scientific breakthroughs and other worldly advances reveal an ever-changing human landscape that seems to be headed in a progressive direction. But, at least here in the West, we still experience a profound lack of connection to what we are and find many obstacles to true freedom, joy, creativity, contentment and peace. Many have not reached a place where they can truly soar, finding instead many of the same mental, emotional and spiritual limitations experienced by their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. The generations keep generating. The surface keeps getting shinier. But the core issues tend to remain the same, no matter how many new faces are born into the species. In many ways, there is a kind of regression happening, with people so disconnected from themselves and with each other that they find themselves burying their faces in screens even when they are two feet away from each other or in the company of loved ones.

We still seem hell-bent on connecting from a place of deficiency, as if somewhere behind the face, in the deep caverns of the heart and soul, our real identity is “not enough.” This pervasive sense of “not enough” rears itself everywhere, in every relationship. Many have even given up the desire to recognize something greater than this inner sense of deficiency, reframing it instead as “just part of being human.” It’s as if the possibility of living from a more authentic, genuine, awakened, loving place feels so out of reach that they have resigned themselves to embracing, rather than investigating, this false mask.

The mask presents one thing to others, while deep down beyond the outer presentation, we lack the capacity to truly be ourselves, to show up exactly as we are, openly and unapologetically. We are largely out of touch with the basic insecurities that are fuelling the majority of our needs and wants. We are easily triggered emotionally, falling back into old childhood patterns of conflict, pouting, blaming, complaining or projecting. We remain out of touch with these basic emotions, having over-intellectualized and over-analysed ourselves and each other. In the age of political and spiritual correctness, we are so out of touch with our own bodies and feelings that we have placed a premium on not hurting other people’s feelings. And so, like mother bears, we are protecting each other from evolving beyond our limited mental and emotional patterns. This lack of connection with our deeper emotional landscape places us at risk of heading down the same path we have been on for thousands of years.

What seems important for many people is how they look or appear to others, whether they have enough likes on Facebook, whether they are smarter than the next guy, whether they are “right” or “getting it right” or whether they have accumulated enough money, fame, attention or acknowledgment from the faceless masses. Of course, not everyone is prone to these patterns. But there is some degree of it in most of us. We look on the outside for what we feel we lack within. And the promise to fill that void lies at every turn, in every TV commercial, job promotion, new relationship or addictive substance or activity. Even many modern forms of spirituality seem to focus a lot on these things. In some of those circles, it seems more important now to be part of a popular movement, to offer people a spiritual Neverland or to build up a fantastic set of spiritual promises rather than invite a deep and radical investigation of our experience. In some ways, the spiritual teachers become the replacements for parents who did not act as proper role models or did not give the necessary love and attention. Deficiency is the fuel of our lives and relationships and we never seem to run out of it. It has such a cunning and stunning ability to survive each generation and to hide itself so well in every story, feeling and relationship that we are only dimly aware of just how much it’s running the show. It’s much ado about nothing. And that’s exactly what the deficiency story gives us – nothing – nothing more than the appearance of advancement, acknowledgment or fulfilment.

There is a kind of scarcity in this way of life that leaves many feeling empty, lost and heartbroken, unable to actualize their true creativity and potential in life. We do not love ourselves. And our culture is sending all the wrong signals about how to love ourselves. It is focusing on what lies on the outside and what is presented on the surface. We continue to buy into that culture instead of dismantling it from the inside.

We ought not to stand for it anymore. But what it takes to rise above that is not more promises coming from the outside. It is not a new iPhone or a new lover. It is not about the future, for the future is always at least a step away, if not more. We never reach it. It is not a spiritual Neverland that holds itself out as a happy Hollywood movie ending. It is not the prospect that others do love, need and acknowledge us. What it takes is the courage to fully face these patterns of deficiency as they arise in the moment and to see through them, to immerse ourselves nakedly in the emotions we are trying so desperately to avoid. If we can take all that energy that is being projected outward onto others and onto the future and turn it in on ourselves with the power of mere observation, we have a chance at evolving in a much deeper and more transformative way.

But how we turn that looking towards our inner landscape makes all the difference, for we are prone to spiralling down into a kind of analysis paralysis as we look inward. There is this seductive pull towards over-conceptualizing ourselves, each other and our emotions. What I’m inviting here is not a reframing of our inner experience but rather a pure observing of it, of allowing it all to be exactly as it are. And along with that observation can come an investigation into these patterns, a dismantling of generations of false beliefs and patterns. There is a beautiful freedom in that, an embrace of everything. This embracing does not leave us merely complacently quoting pithy sayings like “I accept both my perfections and imperfections.” That’s the stuff of entry-level spirituality. It can go much deeper than that.

This investigation does not leave us in some blanked out, spaceless space of nirvana, for even that is a fleeting state. I’m not talking about nondual realization here either, for even that is merely a transient phase. No, this kind of looking, as long as there is no bypassing and there is a courage to be with absolutely everything, allows us to fully love and be ourselves. We leave behind attachments to past and future but also attachments to now and to all spiritual or special states and experiences. We come back into the world, realizing that we never left it. We love ourselves without being able to truly define ourselves. And this freedom which is no longer weighed down by concepts allows us to continue changing and evolving. Our hearts, minds and bodies remain pliable, able to adapt and move fluidly through all sorts of experiences – from love to heartache to grief or death. This can profoundly change how we see ourselves, each other and the world. It can unleash our creative potential so that it is no longer tied to wanting praise from others. Instead we become creative merely out of the pure and naked joy of creating – nothing more. We naturally leave behind the generations of pain and deficiency. Our relationships change. We are no longer tied to protecting other peoples’ feelings or getting love from others. We are no longer attached to each other in that old sticky way that feels stifling and needy. We love with a sense of maturity, clarity and open-heartedness. We come closer to one another, connecting more deeply with one another, by simply putting the masks down.

And that, my friends, is not a promise. Promises imply that there is something to give, something that comes from the outside or is found in the future. All of this is already within you. All that it takes is the courage to look in the right way. Let no one tell you that you need anything more than the act of pure observation and the organic acceptance of experience that comes with it. The key to life is not hidden away in a profound text. It is not something we add to ourselves. Human life is no mistake. There is no need to correct it from the outside. Our love is held within our pain, waiting to break free once the pain is faced. Our promised land is our present awareness of everything that is already unfolding naturally. The greatest realization is not that there is some wonderful future state waiting for us. It is in the moment by moment seeing of what truly lies at the core of our present experience. As we see that nothing lies there, everything is possible. We are then like an empty slate that allows for life to be completely full and to evolve in a profoundly different way. That’s how the generations of pain and deficiency fall away. That’s how we find connection with each other. That’s how we rediscover the pure joy of creating what we are here to create. That’s how we get our heads out of the screens. That’s how we set healthy boundaries. That’s how we open up new possibilities for our children. That’s how we end the wars. That’s how we let others be who they are. That’s how we find our own unique expression in the world. That’s how we stop looking on the outside for what cannot fulfil us within.

That’s how we become what we were always meant to be – ourselves.

This post is republished from the previous Living Inquiries website

Inquiry and the Ego: Listening to All Our Voices

By Fiona Robertson.

There’s a lot of talk in spiritual circles about the ego, the problems it causes, and how to deal with it. Ego is seen as the cause of our suffering, the root of conflict and pain. But what is the ego, exactly? And does it really deserve such pejorative labelling?

In Latin, ego simply means ‘I’. Over time, the word has accrued many and multi-layered meanings. In my experience, the ego isn’t a single, uniform entity, but a collection of voices or self-identities, each with their associated drives and feelings. We could say that the ego is the stories we tell about ourselves, the selves that we believe we are, whatever their flavour. We might believe, for example, that we are someone who is not good enough, or wrong, or better than others, and we act in the world as if that was the case. We could also say that the ego is the inner, critical voice (often called the superego), the part of us that judges, cajoles, exhorts, criticizes. There’s inevitably an interplay – usually conflict – between these two parts or voices. The self believes itself deficient, and the superego judges and demands and strategizes and plans in an attempt to somehow fix or deal with the perceived deficiency.  We’re all familiar with the inner dialogue that ensues when these two voices or parts are engaged in a struggle with each other:

Deficient self: I know I won’t get this job. I’ve always been terrible at interviews because I get so nervous. 

Superego: Can’t you pull yourself together for once? Why, after all this therapy and meditation, are you still so anxious and lacking in self-esteem? And why are you still eating too much? 

Deficient self (feeling even more deficient): There’s clearly something really wrong with me. I’ve never been good enough, and all of this just goes to prove it. 

Superego: Right, well, I’ve got a plan. Let’s start dieting tomorrow, and book onto that ‘Big Up Yourself’ course that you saw online the other day. Then perhaps you’ll be able to be the person you should be. 

We all know the drill. These kinds of inner conversations can go on interminably. And when we discover spiritual teachings, a third voice is often added, one that denounces both of the other voices, and that believes it should get rid of or ignore or somehow disallow whatever it perceives as the ego. It’s hardly surprising that we find ourselves completely entangled in all of this, often feeling bewildered and at the mercy of these seemingly unstoppable and argumentative voices. It can feel as if they are fixed, unchangeable givens that we somehow have to manoeuvre around, overcome, or vanquish. When we find ourselves unable to do so, we heap yet more judgement or shame upon ourselves.

When we inquire, we can begin to pick apart the threads of conflict, and give space and time to each of these ‘ego’ voices. Not only do we meet the pain of the deficient self, but we also hear the anguish of the superego and its valiant efforts to keep it all together, to make sure that we get through life as best we can. The superego, after all, often does what the deficient self feels it could never do, as these extracts from my journal reflect:

The deficient self says: That Fiona (superego Fiona) has been clever, and interacted with people, looked after me, talked when I didn’t know how, kept me in line, kept me motivated, kept me from the pain before I could really face it. She couldn’t do all that without despising my weakness, hating my pain, and loathing my failures. 

The judge in me speaks: I’ve been trying to protect you. I’ve been so afraid for you. I’ve been so angry with you for being so stupid sometimes. I love you, but I’m resentful of you…resentful of your sweetness and prettiness, resentful of your gentleness and kindness, resentful of your dreaminess and your imagination. Nothing would get done if I left it to you. Everywhere would be untidy, and a mess, and dirty. I’ve just been so exhausted, having to look after you. Sometimes I hated you, I just wanted you to leave me alone and to stop having needs and wants, and to stop needing me. 

Here’s the thing: both of these voices are essentially part of the self structure that developed in childhood in response to whatever circumstances we were in. Both, ultimately, came into being to protect us on the deepest level. It may not feel like it when your superego is berating you yet again, but it is there for the best of intentions. It took its cue from the people around it, believing that if it could somehow be more like them and less like itself, it’d be okay. We introjected the behaviour and beliefs of the adults in our lives, creating a mesh of inner demands, commands, and expectations against which we measured ourselves. Years ago, while doing some inner work at a retreat, I discovered that my superego solidified definitively when I was around eleven years old, and its primary concern was to make sure that it avoided making my mother angry or displeased (something that happened frequently, to my detriment). When seen in this light, how can we possibly continue to label the ego in all the ways that we do?

As we inquire, and the stories of deficiency unravel, we meet the pain that lies at their core. As we do so, the inner voices of deficiency and judgement begin to quiet. This happens not because we make an effort to control or dispel them, but because once the pain is truly felt, the voices are no longer necessary. Their job was to ensure we didn’t feel the pain, because when we were young children it was impossible for us to do so. The job of the ego was always to ensure that we were kept safe, to ensure that the pain stayed under lock and key. Yes, this suppression is ultimately deeply unhealthy, but we don’t need to blame the jailer just because the prison system itself is flawed. Rather, as we open the prison gates, the jailer – along with all the inmates – is also freed.

Gradually, we find our inner voices – the parts we often refer to as ‘the ego’ – become more benign and unified. In my psyche, the previously harsh voice of judgement seems to have been replaced by a wry commentator. One morning recently, as I was switching on the kettle for the first cup of tea of the day, I found myself caught up in anxious thoughts. The commentator merely said, Starting early this morning, are we? The kind humour made me smile, and the anxious thoughts – left uncriticized and therefore not needing to defend themselves – simply ebbed away. The ego itself, like everything else, is made up of words, images and sensations and feelings. As it unravels, it becomes naturally healthier, neither needing to proclaim our deficiency nor criticize ourselves or others. We discover that it is not the enemy, but simply self-fragments that, once tended to, effortlessly transform.