Part III: Cogito Ergo Sum 1.0
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Shout out to my boy Rene Descartes for the above saying, which translates to the famous quote, “I think, therefore I am”. To some extent, this does a great job of summing up some of my issues with philosophy. It is quite fun to think about, and is a good primer for this next section which deals with an exploration of the ego, but has very little utility in and of itself. What can you do with “I think therefore I am”? If you stop thinking, will you disappear? Yes and No. The internal you, the ego, will be gone, but your physical self will remain. The way we think about and define the “I” will be integral for our exploration of you, and the games we’ve been playing. So strap on your harness, and let’s go spelunking into the deep recesses of what the term “I” really is.
To begin, I would like to frame our discussion about the ego a little (PS we will be talking more about framing in a future section). It is my belief that the Ego is a social construction. What I mean by this is that the idea of an “I” is something learned. Although there is certainly a biological basis to it, I believe that if the environment in which a child was raised was devoid of things like language or interaction with others the ego would grow. There would be no “I” as we understand it.
This idea stems from the Rouge Test. The video link is less than 2 minutes long and worth the watch. Essentially it is used to see if a child has developed self-awareness by putting a mark on a baby’s head, and then plopping them in front of a mirror. If the child touches the mirror, it means they cannot recognize that it is actually them in the mirror, if they touch their own head, they have self-awareness. A bit reductionist, for sure, and there is some argument about whether this measures what it says it measures, but let’s hold it as true for this discussion.
Another point I do not want to belabor too much in this section, but is fundamental, is human interaction. Our respective egos are largely a result of the relationships we develop throughout our lives. Much of what we believe about ourselves is self-generated, but even those self-generations are based in large part by how others view us. This is especially true if your ego, or sense of self-worth, is struggling. We yearn for approval from people we admire. We even yearn for approval from people we hate sometimes! That exchange serves as a reflection of your desired identity. We dislike people who do not adhere to our standards of “good”. But without these “bad” people we could not define “good”.
This concept could be a book onto itself, but I don’t want to get too far into the weeds of this argument. Maybe you think the Rouge Test measures what it says it measures, maybe it doesn’t. A solid case could be made about this from a variety of angles. Perhaps you believe God has imbued humanity with consciousness. Maybe you believe we evolved to have consciousness, and no manner of environmental factors will contribute to that. I ask that you believe whatever you wish, and if you do disagree with me then take the role of devil’s advocate for this entire section and feel free to poke holes in everything I say.
What I do ask, is that you try this ideological hat on for the purpose of this exploration. Walk along the path with me, because even if you disagree with some fundamental aspects of my views on the ego, chances are you will find some useful nuggets in here. These nuggets are based on the idea that the ego is constructed (both by others as well as by you), but it does not mean some ideas can not be reconfigured to fit your own beliefs.
I make this point because it is important you believe that you can be the architect of your own ego. Developing self-awareness will give you the ability to accurately appraise the structure of your ego, and to recognize how the house that is your “I” was built. This will make it easier to make renovations while still maintaining the spirit and beauty of you.
The Stories we’re told:
We grow up on stories. Some of my first memories are of being read books by my parents. I always fell in love with stories that had a hero. What kid didn’t? Someone beating the odds, and defeating evil. People who are special or unique in some way. They make a difference - an impact. They fit easily into our cookie-cutter categorizations of good and evil, and follow with our conceptions of morality. In a lot of ways, these stories help to form our identities. We relate to those characters who we see ourselves in, or who we one day will strive to become. They are paintings on the wall that we one day wish to replace with a mirror.
It’s not just the stories we read, though. It’s the stories we’re told. You spend all your beginning years with people telling you who you are. Every choice is made for you. The ability to think abstractly takes time to develop. You have a lot of energy, or you’re shy. You have trouble focusing, or you’re so good at listening to mommy. Your parents react with anger when you accidentally break a mug, or they tell you it’s going to be alright when you skin your knee. We are told what it means to be a good person, and what it means to be bad.
Our stories are written for us in the beginning, and may continue that way for our entire lives. We are taught to fit a type, or an ideal. We are told what it means to be normal, without actually ever really being shown. We are told to be both average and exceptional. We are supposed to be unique, and yet conform to what everyone else is doing.
It’s exhausting and confusing.
This is a good place to take a moment and discuss shame. I want us to focus on differentiating shame from guilt. The fundamental difference is one of identity. Guilt is in response to an action that illicits negative feelings. You shoplift a candy bar from a convenience store, and afterwards you feel bad about it. That feeling does not integrate itself into your identity, though. Guilt is “I did something bad.” Shame weaves itself into your sense of self. You steal that candy bar and you think “I am a bad person.” This “I am” makes shame part of you, and when you mix that with an internal philosophy that identity is static, there are some toxic repercussions.
What often occurs is a shame cycle. You have probably experienced this. There probably isn’t a human in the world who hasn’t experienced shame at some point. It would be better if you come up with your own example, but I understand how painful that can be, and maybe even triggering to the cycle, so I’ll give one for you.
Let’s go back to the candy bar. You are young, and this is the first time you have stolen something. You might not have even known it was wrong. Perhaps it was even fun and exciting. You do now have a free candy bar after all, when before you didn’t. Your parents find out, call you a bad child, force you to take it back, return it, and embarrass yourself. Instead of internalizing that as “I did something wrong, and I won’t do it again”, the internal voice says, “I am a bad person, I am undeserving.” This leads to an ironic sort of avoidance, which is called negative suggestion. The classic example of this is when I say “For the next 5 seconds DO NOT think of a polar bear”. Go ahead. Try. I’ll wait.
Impossible. This is because by the very process of trying not to think of something, you have to think about it. This leads to a stress spiral because to avoid thinking about something you have to think about it. So in our example, you keep thinking “Don’t steal, don’t steal, don’t steal” which mixes with the thought “I am bad if I steal, I am bad if I steal”. Once these thoughts gain momentum, there is no stopping their force against your will. It becomes unbearable, and finally you steal just to stop the voices. This reinforces the feeling that you are bad, because you attach the act to your identity. This has a cumulative effect where you feel shame for the action, but the only way to relieve the feeling of shame is to do the thing that defines you as bad.
That’s a lot to digest, so let me break it down more simply. When we try not to think about something, we pretty much guarantee we will think about it. Often to stop that voice in our heads, we need to do the thing we keep telling ourselves not to do. This brings relief, but nourishes the shame. This is the cycle by which many addictions take route and catalyze a downward spiral in so many people’s lives. And why wouldn’t it? If I think “I am bad” then what’s the point in trying to be good? Best to stick with what’s familiar.
One thing I want to be clear about. These shame attachments were likely not created by you. Even the ones that were are likely vestiges of identities you were given by caregivers or close relationships. They are renting space in your brain, but they do not own the space. You can evict them if they cannot be convinced or taught to be better tenants. Eviction is not an easy process (ask any lawyer...especially in Massachusetts), but it is possible. We will be exploring the ways to deal with these thoughts in a future post about how to play these mind games more strategically.
Now for some thinking. I want you to reach deep into your memories, as far back as you can go, and look at some of those defining moments of your life through the lens of other people telling your story for you. It may be best to choose only one story. Focus on someone who was very important in your life, whether good or bad. Someone you looked up to, or feared. How did this person write your story for you? What were the messages they imposed upon you, and what memories stuck? This last question is the most important. Which story stuck? In other words, what integral part of your identity was not defined by you? Take a moment to think about that.
STOP AND THINK
I hope you find this line of inquiry as fascinating as I do. Here is a core part of your identity, a foundation of who you are...and it was not created by you. And yet, it is yours. It is you.
Or is it?