Lack of Self-Esteem and Confidence: Why You Need to Gain Your Ego's Trust
by Joshua O’Brien, O.M.
It seems that every spiritual, philosophical, and psychological tradition has used the word “ego” differently. Venerable Thubten Chodron, describing this discord says, “Ego is an ambiguous English word with multiple meanings, and we must take care if and how we use it… Its original, psychoanalytic meaning refers to a neutral psychological function. Within general society, "ego" came to refer to the self, and later to a conceited and inflated sense of self. In Buddhist circles, the word is used with a disparaging meaning, but seldom is it actually defined. From this ambiguity much confusion arises.”
There is value to be found in each of these perspectives, but the point of this article isn’t to defend one position over another, or to produce a perfect definition once and for all. My primary intent is to offer some food for thought that might help someone out there take a look at their relationship to themselves in a new way; a way that is less destructive, more creative, and ultimately more loving and healing.
Points to Ponder
As a point of personal growth, it might serve us well to spend some quiet and contemplative time with ourselves looking into any unexamined ideas we might have floating around in our heads. Relevant to the topic at hand, here are some suggested questions to help you get started.
How do I define the word ego?
What are my beliefs about this word?
What are my attitudes toward this word?
How is this reflected in my attitude towards myself?
How you define and relate to the word “ego” reflects how you relate to yourself. Really spend time with these questions. Sit and meditate on them one at a time, and get your thoughts down on paper. If you don’t have the time to meditate with them then pick just one of the questions and carry it with you throughout the week. Ponder it and savor the process of self-discovery. You might find that you’re entertaining many contradictory beliefs about each question, or you might find that you don’t have any really clear thoughts about them at all.
Only you can decide what ego means to you and how you should relate to it. If you find that this article resonates with you, great. If not, that’s fine too. Again, consider this article as food for thought, nothing more.
Look Within, Not Without
When we think about the characteristics of ego, the tendency of the mind is to look for extreme examples of ego in other people. This serves little to no purpose in your own development as a human being. If you notice your mind leaning in this direction, bring it back home. Look inside yourself. Examine the “egoic” behaviors you exhibit. Better yet, keep the questions above and the concepts from the following paragraphs in mind over the next few days and watch how your own ego manifests in your own life, and then decide if the principles of love and healing examined throughout the rest of this article apply.
That being said, for the sake of clarity I’ll use the word ego to refer to the deeply rooted, unexamined mental habits and programs that have been conditioned by our past experiences, and that motivate our behavior primarily out of fear of loss and suffering. From this perspective, the ego exhibits behaviors such as arrogance, pride, greed, condescension, anxiety, stage fright, perfectionism, etc., but I make every attempt not to confuse the characteristics of ego with the identity of ego or what you might call the wounded inner-self.
Lack of Self-Esteem and Confidence
A lack of self-esteem and confidence is often a symptom of a wounded inner-self that has been lacking in validation, love, and self-acceptance. This wounded inner-self, or ego, thinks and behaves in ways that are intended to keep us safe, but these habits of thought and behavior end up causing harm to ourselves and to others.
Take stage fright, for example. The ego says, "I'm afraid. I don't want to do this. I'm not smart enough, clever enough, (fill-in-the-blank) enough. I don't want to be rejected so let's get out of here. I'll protect us" The ego (this wounded inner-self), activates the sympathetic nervous system causing the heart to race, the hands and feet to get cold and clammy, and the reasoning brain to practically shut down. Collectively, these symptoms are known as the “fight-or-flight response.” From the seat of the subconscious, the ego has more control over our nervous system than we do in a moment of crisis. Try and reason your way out of stage fright on the spot one time. It doesn't usually work.
When time allows, take a mindful pause, allow “negative” or “egoic” feelings to arise within, and simply be there with them. By not making an attempt to resist them in any way, we create a space of mindful awareness, and we then have the opportunity to see what conditioning or unskillful beliefs about the world or ourselves lie below the surface. In my experience, I almost always find a conditioned mental habit rooted in need, and the need is almost always a desire for love, understanding, and fidelity. When the ego starts acting up, look below the surface and you'll find fear, behind the fear you’ll find distrust, and behind the distrust you’ll find love.
The ego behaves the way it does out of fear, but the other side of this fear is love. It wants to protect itself, and feel safe but it does so by acting like a child - because that's what it is. The irony is that it is acting on your behalf, or so it thinks, but does so out of a distorted and immature application of love. In essence, the wounded-inner self (ego) is saying, "I don't trust you to take care of us. You're putting us in a dangerous situation. I'm taking over from here." So here's where "Gaining Your Ego's Trust" comes in.
Love the Ego, Love Yourself
For most of my adult life, I had been taught by one spiritual tradition after another to make war with or abandon the ego because it is the enemy of God, truth, and humanity, and the antithesis of compassion and understanding. On the surface, it certainly seems to ACT that way, but that's not what it IS. In the context of this article, the ego is just another word to describe your wounded inner-self or even your wounded inner-child. It is not bad or evil, it is simply a part of who you are that has developed unskillful means of coping with pain and suffering.
With this in mind, perhaps instead of dividing ourselves against ourselves and warring within by fighting against it, subduing it, suppressing it, denying it, etc., as wise and mature adults we can choose to embrace it and love on it. I believe that what we resist persists, and fighting the ego only causes it to shape-shift, hide, and grow stronger behind the scenes. When we regard this wounded inner-self with even the slightest bit of animosity, we are unintentionally reinforcing the ego’s dysfunctional coping strategies by wounding it once again. In other words, we prove it right.
So, as crazy as it may sound initially, experiment with giving that wounded part of yourself exactly what it's looking for. Relate to it as a parent relates to a frightened little child. Validate its feelings, listen to what it's saying, reassure it, love on it, and gain its trust. Have a dialogue with it. From the heart, say things like, "I see that you're afraid. You are a part of me, and you're trying to protect me. Thank you. I need you on my side, but you're actually harming us. You're holding us back. I will honor you and not put you in harm’s way until you're ready. I will earn your trust. I will not put you in those situations until you're ready, ok?"
Can you feel how those phrases of compassion and understanding are creative instead of destructive? Practicing with an inner dialogue like this gives the ego permission to relax its control, to soften, and to responds to love. It will stop throwing its fear based temper tantrums when you give it what it has always wanted - Love. Consequently, the ego quiets down and fades away.
The battle ends, the ego heals and fades, it learns to trust life and the grown-ups (us/you/me), and we become whole, integrated, human beings. This, in my view, is the true art of transcending the ego. Not through the power of hate and judgment of the inner-self, dark-sides, and shadows, but through love.
As the Nada Surf song goes, “Always love. Hate will get you every time.” Instead of saying things to those wounded aspects of ourselves like “I don’t like you,” or “I don’t want you” try “I love you too. I love all of me no matter what.” And don’t worry; unconditional love isn’t synonymous with approval. Loving the wounded self doesn’t mean we condone the behavior it exhibits. In fact, when we begin to practice this way with love, and behave towards ourselves in a loving way, we directly short-circuit the stereotypical behavior of the ego.
Waste no time fighting the ego with high-minded spiritual principles or philosophies. Waste no time fighting the ego with internal struggle, positive thinking, or motivational speeches. Don’t try to think and reason your way out of ego. Cut right to the chase and Love – right away. The world’s greatest spiritual teachers have established the dominance of love over fear, hatred, judgment, war, violence, aggression, and dominance – all fruits of the ego – yours and mine. Transcend the ego with love. In my estimation, it’s the only way.
As a friend of mine recently said in a Facebook response to this topic, “I tend to figure that if a ‘law’ is really a law, that it applies everywhere .... and therefore judging, resisting, hating ego (ours or someone else's) just attracts more of same. If love is the answer, it really IS the answer .... point it somewhere and at some level things get better. We can't always see it right away, but that's why we practice faith.”
This journey towards loving ourselves and killing the ego with kindness is a process, not a once-and-done event. Putting this into practice takes time, patience, honesty, and mindful awareness, and above all, love. But this journey is well worth it. As we create an environment of peace, unity, understanding, forgiveness, and compassion within, those qualities naturally and easily flow to everyone around us.
Being Nurtured and Protected,
Mind Clear and Alert,
Body Fit and Strong,
Heart Pure and Open,
May you Dwell Always,
In Peace and Love.