With freedom comes anxiety, according to psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in his book, Escape from Freedom, (1941). He believed we don’t know what to do with freedom once we get it, and find new controls and structures to reduce our freedom. Those with long prison histories often return to prison, unable to create structure and consistency outside of prison. Addicts will tell you that getting clean is hard, but staying clean is even harder. We all have, at some point, tried to implement change in our lives, but found it difficult to break our habitual unhealthy patterns of thinking and behaving. Why? It’s our ego’s self-protection default mode of mind to avoid anxiety-provoking situations, including the experience of our own feelings. In other words, there is some kind of payoff for us from unhealthy habits of thinking and behaving, otherwise it would be easy to quit, right? Therefore, “freedom is a practice,” according to Thich Nhat Hanh (2015, p.86). Making space for, and reaping the benefits of freedom within our mind has to be practiced. According to Fromm, the best use of freedom is self-actualization, knowing and being who you are, not what our ego believes we should be.
Although there is an abundance of research pointing to the benefits of self-acceptance, it remains, for many of us, one the most elusive and difficult attitudes to maintain towards ourselves on a consistent basis. Where there is suffering, there is presence of ego. If our ego, and the beliefs that guide it, block us from our authenticity, we must practice being FREE. Faithfully Releasing Ego and Expectations will free us up to stay connected with our true nature, helping us to operate more authentically and contently in the world. “We are here to practice stepping out of thinking.” Eckhart Tolle.
How do we do this? We must first understand the function of the ego. We all have one, and it is neither good or bad, or something to rid ourselves. Our ego is apart of our executive functioning in the brain, and is our vehicle for experiencing who we think we are, and how we think the world works, based on our experiences (Hirstein, 2011, p1-3). Because each person’s past experiences are unique to them, we all interpret our world differently.
We need our ego, it is there to protect us. Ego is a product of the mind, constantly assessing incoming stimuli from our environment, comparing this information to previously stored information, then choosing an appropriate course of action. Our thinking, feeling, and action self is a product of our past conditioning, for good or bad. This conditioning leads the ego to conclude it’s own expectations, which can create conflict within our selves, and our relationships. “Why struggle to open a door between us when the whole wall is an illusion.”~Rumi. Because the ego’s default mode is self-preservation, it is often at odds with self-acceptance and vulnerability. Peer and family pressure is a great example of this. We’ve all made choices, under pressure from others, in which we chose self –preservation, (like avoiding embarrassment or judgment), over self-acceptance. These, and other experiences in our world, shape our ego, resulting in the creation of an ego based only upon selected experiences that reinforce self-preservation, not self-acceptance. When we understand that our ego expects and seeks only our physical and mental preservation, we can help identify when it is interfering with self-acceptance and vulnerability.
An example of this is a woman who works late, and places her own safety at risk by walking alone in a dark parking garage at night, to avoid possibly being viewed as lazy at work. Self-image is what we say to ourselves about ourselves at any given time. Other thoughts that contribute to our ego structure are: “I’m not good at math.” “I am smart,” “My freckles make me ugly,” “Nobody likes me,” “I am stupid,” “If I cry, I am weak,” “I’m a failure if I don’t get an A, that job, or raise,” “I’m not complete unless I find someone,” “I usually get what I want,” “I can’t disappoint others, or make them angry.” One of my own revelations was when I voiced my thought out loud to my husband, “Here I sit,” and he responded with, “What’s wrong with that?” This helped me begin to challenge my beliefs about productivity and being a “good” mother/wife. We live in a society that places a premium on being productive at any cost, so it’s no wonder that feelings of being unproductive can quickly tailspin into overall feelings of inadequacy in many areas of our life. Many of my clients have said, “When I experience boredom, I feel unproductive and like I am wasting my time.” If the feeling of boredom (a common and temporary human emotion) becomes linked with the negative thought, “I am wasting my time,” feelings of inadequacy will be triggered each time boredom is experienced.
When we experience our worth as conditional upon our behavior, we can sometimes feel like we are making our way through life always trying to earn our worth. Worrying if we are doing life right, and what others think of us. We may justify our behavior, or lie to ourselves, and others, to avoid blame or judgment. We may vacillate between perfectionism and feeling and/or behaving out of control. Our expectations can create a great deal of emotional suffering when not met, like guilt, anger, shame, anxiety and sadness. When these feelings are experienced too frequently or intensely, causing us to feel unfulfilled and disconnected from others, this is a sign our ego is blocking us from our authenticity. This is an experience of separation from our authentic self.
How do we begin to rewire this conditioned, reflexive way of thinking so that we can adjust our expectations and live from a more authentic perspective? Carefully and compassionately listening to our mind and body, while identifying and challenging our limiting expectations. It’s helpful to start with an unwanted, and recurrent thought or behavior, then ask yourself the goal of this thought or behavior, and if it is getting you closer, or further from that goal?
Self-acceptance requires authenticity, and authenticity requires living a life in alignment with our values. It does not require us to be perfect, that is impossible! However, we can become aware when we have drifted from our values, serving as our anchor, despite our ego. We can challenge our expectations by comparing them to our values.
Ego: If I say no to volunteering, they might be upset with me.
Value: Spending time with my family, or myself
This is an example of when ego and our values are at odds with one another, blocking our authenticity. The next time you say “yes,” to yourself or others, and you really want to say, “no,” (or “Let me get back to you.”), notice how you feel in your body. Walk away from that interaction with a nice deep breath through the nose, exhale, and ask your self, “Will either answer yes, or no, cause me to drift from my values?” If you are not sure of your values, take stock of your value inventory by catching them in action. While engaging in any behavior, ask yourself, “Why is this important to me?”
Other questions to help identify your ego in action~
On the days you don’t complete your, “to do list,” how do you feel, and what do you tell yourself?
I feel worthwhile when_______________________.
I am embarrassed when_______________________.
What stories do I tell myself when things go wrong?
Why is it hard for me to say, “I’m sorry?”
When I get down on myself, what do I say?
When I get angry, what is at stake? What I am defending? Do I need to be right?
Do my thoughts support self-acceptance, my goals or values?
Tune out so you can tune in~
Checking in with your body and breath as a regular habit is always great self-care, but especially important when creating personal growth, or facing adversity. When we pair our breath with past guilt, or future anxiety, our attention expands, helping to reduce these feelings, making room for a healing experience. Now we can pair our breath with these new insights and hope, amplifying the felt sense of this within us. Learning to listen to all of you requires that we devote time for tuning out, so that we can tune into our wisdom and well-being.
“Use your senses fully and let the alert stillness within you be the perceiver, rather than your mind.” Eckhart Tolle
Our breath is the anchor to the present, where life is really happening and where we have the power to creatively engage and effect positive change. Being aware that our happiness and emotions is a product of our beliefs puts the capacity for change in our own hands. This is where hope lives. When we find ourselves resisting, taking a few deep breaths can make room in our head and heart, revealing what is in alignment with our values and true nature, truly setting us free.
Fromm, Erich, (1941). Escape from Freedom. New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2013.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. How to Relax. California: Parallax Press, 2015.
Hirstein, William. The Contribution of Prefrontal Executive Processes to
Creating a Sense of Self. Mens Sana Mongraphs, 2011; Jan-Dec 9 (1) 150-158.