Have you seen the expression "leave your ego at the door and your sweat on the floor?" Well it’s a popular phrase in many gyms and also popular at Zumba Fitness ® conventions and events. Most people understand it to mean "leave your pride and arrogance at the door" and that's certainly one way of reading it, but I think there's a lot more to the understanding of ego and a lot more to understanding why it can be so difficult for us to leave the ego at the door, but why it's vital that we do.
What is the ego really? There are many psychological interpretations but for me I love Marianne Williamson's explanations in "A Return To Love"; a fantastic book where she uses everyday and often amusing anecdotes from her own life to examine the ego. In short the ego is the false persona we have built up over time to protect ourselves, just like an actor may have taken on a character that they were really only meant to play to further their career. When we try to let go of this character it gets upset, because if we "leave our ego" we are effectively killing this false character – so it's going to fight for survival.
But why do we develop these egos in the first place? Because, just like a spy behind enemy lines we have learned to pick up the speech, mannerisms and social habits of our society in order to survive. For some that means acting like our parents and families in order to get along, for others it was acting like others at dance school, or maybe just learning to act like the biggest, baddest kid on the block so that no one picks on you. In order to let go of the ego behaviours that no longer serve us we must first feel safe; a spy does not drop his alter ego while he's still behind enemy lines unless he's ready to fight!
How do we know if we're acting honestly or if our ego is acting out? Well there are certain common tricks of the ego that we can recognise straight away. The first is the "I'm better than… I'm worse than…" game. Every time we think we're better than someone else or worse than them that's the ego talking. In truth we know down deep that we are all the same. Maybe someone is more skilful at something than us, maybe we are better at something than others but whatever we gain on the swings we lose on the roundabouts, no one is inherently better or worse than anyone else; we're just wonderfully, beautifully different. I love Marianne Williamson's comparison to flowers; a lily doesn't have to be a rose to be beautiful, does the fact that daisies are more common than orchids make them any less wonderful? When we "leave the ego at the door" we recognise that we are perfect just as we are.
When we're worrying about what others will think that's the ego. Now the ego is very clever here, as just like the "better… worse…" game this is double edged. It particularly likes to play this game when we decide to change something. Say you want to stop spending time with a particular group of people "what will they think – they won't like me any more", or if we want to do something new "what if I mess up – what will everyone think." As you can see the ego's biggest tool here is fear, because if we never change our behaviour then it's very unlikely we'll see the back of the ego anytime soon. Personally I find my ego acts up the most whenever I stick my neck out and do something wonderful, when I publish a book it calls me all kinds of names, it tells me over and over again how I'll never be successful, never be taken seriously, in short my ego would like nothing better than for me to curl up under the covers and hide for good. But I find that feeling that fear and doing it anyway (as Susan Jeffers would say) tends to shut the ego up. As Marianne Williamson explains so beautifully it is not our darkness but our light that we are most afraid of.
You can see that one of the most popular tricks of the ego is in denying our gifts. Now, it's not to say that we're better or worse than anyone else, but we all have unique and special gifts, whether it's an ability to write or a sense of rhythm. Few of these gifts come fully formed, we also have to do the work to develop our craft, but most of us know our natural gifts because they are whatever makes our hearts sing. Whenever we are doing our best and celebrating these gifts we honour them, but when we act with false modesty or try to deny these gifts this is ego talking. For me I feel that our education and training systems sometimes increase the problem. It's like we can't accept and honour our natural gifts without putting them in a box with a few letters, whether it's an MBA or an MSc. Have you ever said "I'll do that when I get this qualification?" Or we think we're better or worse than someone because of our "education". We know from talent programmes that sometimes the person with no singing training can walk in and shine, but why do we feel so many of our other talents have to be classified before we can accept them? A writer writes. My mother was very disappointed when I decided to study Maths rather than English at university, but I knew I didn't need a qualification to continue to write. After three years of Maths my fellow students and I often remarked that we'd forgotten how to count up to 10. A powerful ego trick is to make us believe that we have to learn everything before we can start. Yes, we need driving lessons in order to drive a car, but we don't need to understand the mechanics of the car. My brother insists in order to ride a bike I must learn to mend a puncture. But I like that this is one of the things I can let someone else do. I worked for years doing PowerPoint and Word materials for finance companies. Every so often I'd be sent off to do some training for the new version and I'd get a certificate. I think those certificates are cute. With no formal training I had already learned more about using those packages than most of the trainers – mainly from getting in a huddle with the rest of the team whenever we had a problem and finding solutions. When I went for a job no one ever asked to see one of those certificates. (Although I would recommend a day with an Excel trainer!) Accepting and using our natural gifts means coming back to ourselves and giving others the permission to shine instead of questioning; "what's your background, where did you study." I often think of "The Wizard of Oz", how the characters had to travel to discover that what they were desperately seeking was inside them all of the time. The brains, heart and courage to do what we dream of is right here inside of us right now.
Which brings me on to the next ego trick; judgement. Whenever we are judging someone else that's the ego talking. And I'll let you in on a secret, whatever we judge most harshly is often the behaviour that we secretly wish we could get away with. My biggest bugbear is reliability. I hate being let down and find it really hard to forgive people who let me down, but… I can also look round and see occasions when I have let people down very, very badly and remember that they have been generous enough to forgive me. Underneath it all I resent the fact that I feel the need to act so responsibly all the time. That I take on too much and then don't feel I can say no. So I'm working on saying no and not taking on so much and every so often just having a day to mess about and do what I want. My ego would have me be the martyr, the person always doing the dishes at parties in order to be valuable, but if I can let go of it then I'll be the one sitting in the corner eating all the cakes, or cutting loose on the dance floor or maybe just snogging a boy I barely know and not making polite conversation. (Yes, that makes my heart sing!)
Speaking of boys (or girls!) for many of us it's in romantic situations that the ego really becomes the monster, like the Medusa terrifying to look at and when we really need that mirror. It uses all its tricks "I'm too good for him… I'm not good enough for him…" ("I'm too fat." Is a popular refrain.) We worry about what others are thinking, we get competitive: "Well, they've only been dating three months and they're already calling each other boyfriend and girlfriend." We feel we need something official, whether it's a marriage certificate or certificate of cohabitation in some countries. But we all know if we look closely that there is more love and respect in some casual relationships than in some marriages. And judgement, well the ego has a field day with judgement when it comes to romantic relationships; he hasn't called for 3 days, what's his job, and so on and so on. Things we would never dream of saying about a friend or using to judge a friend are seemingly okay when we supposedly love this "friend". Why does the ego get so tetchy? Well perhaps for some people the idea of being single can generate as much fuss, but for me I think it’s because we are often attracted to people who represent qualities that we admire, who may be living values that we are not yet living, whether it's a freshness and openness or a vibrant enthusiasm for life. Trying to sabotage a relationship before it's begun is a perfect way for the ego to stay in charge, before we learn to open our hearts and feel loved and wanted, before the influence of the other person helps us to evolve.
So why is it so hard for us to let go of the ego? Aside from the ego's own tricks, when we've been living a certain way for a long time it's hard to let go of all of our attachments to that old way of living. Like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly it takes a lot for us to metamorphose, we may need to cocoon ourselves for a while, wait for the right moment, and we also have to accept that not everyone will come with us. If you married another caterpillar how will they respond when you start to become a butterfly?
While we may continue to ask ourselves to "leave the ego at the door" and use our understanding of its tricks to realise when we have drifted into ego thinking, we must also have patience with ourselves and others. Leaving behind the ego can be as painful, dangerous and confusing as the butterfly leaving behind its caterpillar self, and perhaps it's only right that we honour the caterpillar, the spy alter ego that got us safely through to where we are now and try to let go with love and respect for our past selves.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
(c) Pearl Howie 2015. All rights reserved.