Challenging The Dark Art of Ego Defense
Early on in the pandemic I realized, in the blink of an eye, the Pandemic brought into awareness two fundamental truths about life that most of us would much rather distract ourselves from: “We are not in control” and “We do not know what is going to happen.” More recently I have added a third: “We are all of us alone.”
Now, I grant you that these are “heavy” existential truths that most people don’t think about on a daily basis, at least not consciously. But I’ve noticed two things in my practice: an uptick in distress from all three existential truths in a significant portion of my clients, and my clients have been consciously articulating and naming these truths as issues very early on in our work.
It is not unusual for people to confront one or more of these truths if they stay in therapy and do the work, but it usually takes many months to years before these deep unconscious fears can be articulated. During the Pandemic clients were talking about them in days and weeks, with many doing so during their first appointment.
The challenge for my clients, of course, was that while awareness was increasing their ability to absorb that awareness without anxiety or depression was decreasing! A Pandemic side-effect is that it highlighted existential issues while it removed access to the usual ways in which we cope with them.
Most, if not all, of my clients seek professional help because something about their life is not as they believe it should be. They arrive depressed and/or anxious, and they are convinced that there is something wrong with them because they find life difficult and challenging. According to them life is supposed to be easy, and they are supposed to be happy, so why don’t they feel that way?
Perhaps a more accurate way to say it is that they believe there is something wrong, something they missed, something they are not doing because their life is full of challenges, problems, and difficulties. They arrive looking for the key to solve life and they often believe that they somehow missed out on the secret to happiness that everyone else clearly has.
While the pain that my clients feel is real, there are two conclusions that they are drawing about that pain that are inaccurate: 1. There is something wrong with them if there is pain in their lives and they are not happy all the time, and 2. There is something they can do that will fix what is wrong. (I call this the If/Then Double Lie and you can read more about it in a post I made on 1/24/22.)
These two incorrect conclusions are shared by many people, not just my clients. People become my clients when they get tired of chasing after happiness by doing more, earning more, having more, learning more, experiencing more etc. They don’t know what isn’t working, but they are clear that something isn’t.
Rather than challenge the first conclusion, it is taken as “the way life should be.” This leads to a great expenditure of time and energy in an effort to figure out what is wrong and fix it! This rarely works because it does not address the three truths. The best it can do is distract us from them for a little while.
The three truths are painful and challenging because they are all direct attacks on the ego and our own sense of self-importance. There are a lot of ways to talk about what the ego is, but one of the most useful for me is that it is a story we tell ourselves and others that we use to distract ourselves from the pain of our lives.
While it is just a story, it is one that we have a large investment in maintaining as true. So, when the three truths start to challenge our story we seek to support and defend it. When the power of the truths is strong enough that our ego cannot fully defend against them, the conflict between the two emerge as depression and anxiety.
We want the symptoms to go away, but we don’t want to look at what drives them. We would rather turn to external solutions for temporary fixes than turn inward to explore the pain.
The pandemic didn’t create the pain, but by removing our distractions it exposed what has always been there. From this perspective it has given us a gift by jump-starting the process of deep emotional exploration, which is necessary to becoming an emotional adult rather than remaining an emotional child. It opens us to exploring and accepting the way life is rather than stomping our feet in a tantrum about “the way life is supposed to be and the way we want it to be.”
So we all have a choice as we move into the post-pandemic world: Am I going to re-engage my ego in an attempt to return to “normal” or am I going to take this opportunity, while my defenses are malleable, to explore my pain, heal my childhood wounds, and change my ego story?
“Don't wish it was easier wish you were better. Don't wish for less problems wish for more skills. Don't wish for less challenge wish for more wisdom”
― Jim Rohn
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About Dr. Gary M. Jordan, Ph.D.
Gary Jordan, Ph.D., has over 35 years of experience in clinical psychology, behavioral assessment, individual development, and coaching. He earned his doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology – Berkeley. He is co-creator of Perceptual Style Theory, a revolutionary psychological assessment system that teaches people how to unleash their deepest potentials for success. He’s a partner at Vega Behavioral Consulting, Ltd., a consulting firm that specializes in helping people discover their true skills and talents. For more information, visit https://www.YourTalentAdvantage.com.
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