When we think of healing, we typically imagine directing loving attention to a relationship. Maybe an old relationship that lost its way. Maybe our relationship to our bodies. Maybe a family member who hurt us. We can be quite generous when it comes to our healing efforts. And yet, there’s one relationship that we typically avoid healing with fervor like no other—our relationship to our egos.
We’ve long considered the ego to be the enemy within. In many religious and spiritual traditions, the ego is considered to be the part of us that is false, small, and separate from others. It is seen as something to be wary of and transcended. The expression “ego death” roughly refers to the idea that the ego needs to be surrendered so that a true self can emerge. For some spiritual seekers, “ego death” is seen as necessary for “awakening” to a true self and is a goal unto itself. While being more identified with a true self—what I’ll call Higher Self or just Self—is healthy and possible along any personal growth path, the ever-increasing desire to eradicate the ego in modern spirituality presents some challenges for emotional health.
Dropping the Rope
The truth is that as you increase your ability to embody your Higher Self, you’ll naturally become less identified with the ego. You’ll feel more centered and peaceful, but not because you tried to bully your ego out of existence. You transcend your ego identification by looking at it, understanding it, and loving it. In other words, a healthy relationship to your ego is one in which you don’t have an aggressive agenda.
If you’re wary of approaching your ego in a compassionate way, consider that not doing so might actually present a greater risk. An unhealed relationship to our egos means that we are in an eternal state of internal conflict—a tug of war between our highest Self and the parts of us that are trying to protect us. The less inclined we are to drop the rope, the more strain we feel from the tugging.
Once we heal our relationship to it, the ego can be less extreme in its efforts and allow the Self to take the lead. Until then, any hidden or not-so-hidden eradication agenda we hold will compromise our ability to access the Self.
As long as we continue to vilify the ego, we remain at its mercy.
Demystifying the Ego
In order to heal our relationship with the ego, let’s start by demystifying it. Unlike your highest Self—which is an endless reservoir of compassion, connection, and calm—your ego is a collection of internal parts that try their very best to protect you from real and perceived danger. In addition to trying to keep you safe, your ego is also responsible for locking away your wounds and trying to keep them from being triggered. In essence, it is your very own bodyguard. Sometimes it keeps trouble out and sometimes it misreads a situation or uses an outdated approach and unwittingly does more damage than good. You can look at it as a group of subpersonalities, your identity, or just the mind itself.
While many traditional religious and modern spiritual communities point to the challenging nature of the ego as a reason to try to rid oneself of it, there are some psychological theories that offer a different perspective. These approaches focus more on healing and integrating rather than eradicating.
One approach that is particularly salient is called Internal Family Systems (IFS). IFS is a fast-growing evidence-based treatment developed by Harvard School of Medicine faculty member Dr. Richard Schwartz. I love it not only because it is an accelerated path to self-awareness that is rooted in neuroscience, but because it is deeply steeped in self-compassion.
According to IFS, we have many internal parts to our personality as well as a centered, compassionate, wise Self that is at the core of our being. The goal of IFS is to allow this higher Self to lead all of the parts harmoniously. This is called being Self-led. The goal of IFS therapy—which is also referred to as parts work—isn’t to get rid of any of the parts, but to understand and heal them so that they can transform into their highest expression.
In IFS, the ego is mainly seen as a collection of parts that try to protect us by managing our lives. One example of a manager part is an inner critic. The inner critic may seem like a tormentor, but when it is healed, it can become our greatest supporter.
Once we start healing our relationship to the ego—via our attitude toward it and the way we talk to it—it can soften and choose to do its burdensome jobs in a less extreme way. It may even want to take a break from working so hard or change jobs entirely.
Most importantly, however, it will allow us more access to heal the deeper wounded parts that it is protecting.
The Ego as a Trauma Gatekeeper
Sometimes people avoid doing deeper healing work because when they’ve tried to heal old wounds in the past, their symptoms seemed to get worse. They began to eat more, engage in self-harm, or feel more anxious. On the surface this behavior seems perplexing. Why do we run from healing even when we try to approach it?
From an IFS perspective, however, this increase in symptoms makes perfect sense. According to IFS, the protective parts of us basically act as gatekeepers.
In other words, the ego is the gatekeeper of old wounds and we need its permission to enter.
When we befriend the ego and earn its trust through our genuine understanding and compassion, it can step aside so we can heal the deepest wounds that plague us. Bypassing the gatekeeper often results in a symptomatic upheaval as it perceives danger and tries to shut things down. Respect the gatekeeper.
Deep healing work usually requires working with a skilled therapist, but it begins with acknowledging that there is a gatekeeper who is tirelessly trying to protect your most vulnerable wounded parts. Once you have a good relationship with the ego, the process of healing can become easier.
According to IFS, asking our protective parts for permission to heal wounded parts can reduce and often negate the need to do calming techniques in trauma work because the protective parts of us are on board. We truly feel safe. While healing in IFS involves other steps and is best done with a trained therapist, this fundamental principle is essential. Without it, we are paddling upstream.
While not everyone needs to do trauma work, embracing the ego can be beneficial in many other ways. Once our ego is recognized for what it’s trying to do for us, it will not only step aside more often, it will also transform into something far more helpful and effective. Life gets so much easier when there’s less internal conflict and more harmony.
For sustainable inner peace, we need a more inclusive understanding of self-compassion. Instead of getting caught up in promoting compassion while pathologizing the ego, we need to turn compassion inward to the parts of ourselves that we’ve been trying to eradicate.
On the other side of trying to kill off our egos, there are often acres of unexplored emotions and wounds that are waiting for our compassion.
The unintended toxic message that modern spirituality can perpetuate is that an aggressive stance toward the ego is an act of self-compassion. If you’re directing fear, hatred, or disgust toward your ego, internal peace will always be fleeting.
Your ego makes you human. The fallacy of the loving spiritual person who rejects his or her humanity needs to be carefully considered in modern spirituality. Beneath the surface of a carefully crafted spiritual façade—which is actually just another part of the ego rather than the Self—lies shame about having feelings that are deemed unacceptable. This is the essence of spiritual bypassing. Spiritually bypassing emotions means that you don’t have an opportunity to learn how to approach feelings in a skilled, respectful, and resilient way. The reward of a healthy relationship with your ego is that you bring all of your feelings out of the darkness in order to be healed. No feeling is deemed unworthy of your care once you understand the ego.
Unfortunately, healing your relationship to your ego is an oft-unexplored path to a more integrated and compassionate relationship with yourself. And yet, its power is undeniable once it is experienced.
Whether or not you try parts work with a therapist, the important thing is to be open to looking at your attitude toward your ego.
Does your relationship with the less desirable aspects of yourself bring you peace? How well do you really know these different parts? How far will you allow your healing to go?
Buddhist psychologist Jack Kornfield has stated that, “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.” The focus on self-compassion is a huge gain in the last few years in psychology and, yet, we need to keep looking deeper. I’d like to add the following:
If your self-compassion does not include your ego, it is incomplete.
I’d love to hear from you. Do you think that giving compassion to your ego is a radical idea or does it feel good to think about accepting yourself completely?