Part III: Cogito Ergo Sum 1.1
*If you haven't yet, make sure to check out 1.0 of Part III!*
I Dream of Freud:
I actually don’t want to go into Freud beyond giving him a shout out for getting the ball rolling on the ego in some interesting ways. He separated the ego into three parts, which I think is a bit constraining. How can you consolidate the complexity of a person’s consciousness into three categories? It doesn’t leave any space for nuance, exploration, or creativity. It would be like picking up a puzzle from a toy store, and getting home to find that the puzzle was only 3 pieces. You’d be pretty bummed. No - we are a 3,000 piece puzzle at least. The direction I’m going with this involves a cool clinical therapy style called Internal Family Systems or IFS. If you don’t feel like checking out the wikipedia page, I’ll give you a quick breakdown.
Essentially, IFS is a clinical technique that encourages people to break themselves into component parts, all which serve to protect a core self. Think of these parts as shields and swords, meant to fight for your well-being and keep your vulnerabilities safe. In practice this can get a bit out there (which I love), but more importantly it serves us well in this discussion of identity. When you can look at your behaviors, thoughts, and emotions through this lens, it becomes easier to forgive yourself. That part of you that gets defensive when someone makes a political comment you disagree with, yet always ruins your relationships, is actually a defense mechanism trying to help. The intent is always pure. Once you recognize this, it becomes easier to start disentangling these parts, separating them into different personalities, and addressing them individually instead of as a whole.
Let me further iterate the importance of this splitting apart of your identity. I am not suggesting you go full Tyler Durden here and develop multiple personality disorder (or dissociative identity disorder as we like to call it in the biz). This is about further flexing that self-awareness muscle, which is the whole purpose of this blog. Whenever you feel like you stray from whatever you think is your core self, or react in any way (both positive and negative), you can label that part of you and actually interact with it. This allows us to separate our personality and identity into more manageable parts.
This idea of manageable parts is right out of any book about motivation. If you have a large project or goal, what do you think the best way to approach it is? Let’s take weight loss for example. You want to lose 10 pounds as fast as possible. All excited, you join an expensive gym with a bajillion classes and machines you’ve never seen before. You go one time, feel great about yourself, and think, “Why didn’t I do this sooner?” Maybe you go once more that week, but then you slowly drop off. You check your weight and there’s no movement. In fact, maybe you’ve gained a little weight. You stop completely. You make excuses for why you can’t go. You start to feel shame slither through your head and heart. Suddenly the weight of not going becomes almost physical, like there is a literal ball and chain you have to drag to the gym, and so you see it as not worth the effort.
We’ve all been there to some extent, or in a different context. We become burdened by the weight of the goals we set. They become huge and unmanageable without a clear route to success. Every little failure become magnified by our thoughts.
What happens when we break this larger goal down into smaller, more manageable pieces, though. Let’s keep this long-term goal to lose 10 pounds, maybe even throw a deadline on it for good measure - 6 months. Now we can break that 6 months into even smaller goals. What is feasible to lose in the first month, and how many times a week would you have to go to the gym to hit this smaller goal. Even better - what is realistic for how many times you will go to the gym that month. Where specifically can you put it in your schedule? Etc., etc., etc.
It is the same with our identity, and our goal to increase self-awareness and well-being. If you can break down your self into parts, you can speak with them directly as they arise. When you get angry about a comment someone made, you can say to yourself, “Hello angry part of me. Angry part, thank you for trying to protect me. What about this moment makes you feel the need to protect me?” This may seem ridiculous, and if it does this is by no means essential. Merely identifying an emotion that serves as a foundation of a thought or behavior, labeling it, and giving it a quick scan, is a great first step. I would try this, though, because this will start a dialogue between you and the person on the other side of the mirror.
First I want to differentiate self-esteem from self-worth. Self-esteem is largely manufactured. It is how confident you are about your perceived abilities. Operative word being perceived. Can you see how confidence in your abilities is different from the ability itself? For example, if you have been playing piano casually for a couple of years, and all of your friends comment on how great you are - this has the potential to inflate your perceived abilities...your self-esteem…your ego. The problem with this is that your friends are pretty biased. Even if they themselves truly believe you’re the next coming of Bach, their ability to actually understand what separates a master piano player from an amateur is likely nonexistent. So what happens when this self-esteem, this confidence, gets challenged. For example, you decide to apply to Juilliard with your newfound piano skills, and you are 100% confident you will get in. Of course you don’t. What is the proceeding reaction? “They don’t know what they’re missing” “How could they not choose me, I’m so great!” “What was I thinking, I’m terrible...I suck at playing the piano I’m never going to play again!” “Why did my friends lie to me!” And any number of thoughts. Self-esteem is like filling a glass bottle with smoke. It looks solid and beautiful as long as it is contained, but once you let it out you discover it was nothing but air. This is why the self-esteem movement of the late 90s/early 2000s ultimately failed. Self-esteem is a symptom, not a cause of our troubles.
How is self-worth different? Self-worth is tied more to your actual capabilities. Confidence is important, but it is no replacement for competence. An accurate alignment of self-esteem and self-worth is powerful, but it is difficult to achieve that balance. It’s also important to recognize how this can differ depending on the context. Maybe you are a godamn maverick prodigy at your job. No one compares in your office, or wherever you work. But then you get into a social situation, and everything falls apart. Awkward conversation ensues, and suddenly you are an alien to yourself...you’re anxious and your brain is screaming at you to “abort abort!”
With this in mind, ask yourself the question “What are you worth?” No, seriously. How valuable are you? And how did you come to that answer?
STOP AND THINK
Some of you will go first to your bank account to answer that question, others to the relationships you have, more others to something nebulous and inexplicable by words or measurement. However you answered this simultaneously mundane and deeply spiritual question, it is probably at the core of our central struggles in life. How we measure our worth has a significant impact on our well-being. As part of this struggle is another battle, which is to both increase our self-worth, while also protecting it. For you investment bankers out there - you need to invest “currency” into yourself that will accrue more value. The problem is, many of these investments will have risks. Maybe rejection by another person, maybe failure in losing that weight. So we must also protect these investments, which may mean pulling certain investments out before we lose too much. The I of Wall Street, and the banking crisis of 2008 is what happens when you invest in self-esteem.
At the heart of many ego theorists is this idea of protecting our ego. Our mind develops all sorts of tricks and games to make sure that our sense of self remains safe and intact - even at the expense of reality. When we have done something wrong, we will perform mental gymnastics more intricate and awe-inspiring than anything Cirque Du Soliel has to offer.
Our entire sense of being converges on our central identity to keep it intact. This is especially true if our identity is fragile. Imagine someone tips your favorite vase over, and breaks into a hundred parts. You take time to glue it back together, but it will never be as strong, and always on the verge of falling apart again. You can’t get a new vase, because that would mean all the work you put into recreating this one would be a waste. So you keep the vase you have, gluing pieces back on over and over when they fall.
You become an expert on caring for this broken vase. You can predict when a piece will fall, or what will put the vase in danger of falling again. You treat it gently because you know even the slightest brush of wind or touch of a finger could cause it to fall apart again. This creates a certain kind of hyper-awareness and intelligence. You are always “on”, and you can never stray too far from the vase. You get angry at those who come to close, yet you yearn for that closeness, for people to see all the hard work you’ve put into the vase. The fear of someone touching the vase and it crumbling is real, and there is no way it could ever hold water or flowers - the purpose for which it was originally intended. Instead it becomes a curated piece of art, standing alone on a pedestal.
We all have the moments that broke us, and may come to define us. We all have our vases, and we have a compulsion to defend them. I do not ask you to stop defending the vase. Do whatever you like. I will say it a million more times - I’m not here to judge your vase, I’m not here to tell you what to do with the vase, or to replace it with something new and shiny. I’m here to look at the vase with you in all its beautiful complexity, and have a conversation with those that protect it. I’m here to help you ask questions that lead to interesting insights, and look at things from a different angle. I only ask that you look closely at the ways you protect the vase from harm. I want you to look at process. What are the mechanisms in place that lead to behaviors. How do events stimulate responses on a granular level with you? How does A trigger B trigger C?
Talking to yourself:
Admit it. You talk to yourself. It’s alright. The stigma around talking to ourselves is no joke. We see a schizophrenic on the street speaking nonsense, and it makes us uncomfortable. It’s just not “normal”. But we all do it in our private moments, when no one is looking. Sometimes out loud, but mostly in our own heads. Even if you do not think it - that is really what normal is. Think about that for a hot second. Think of all the million and billions of inner monologues occurring at any given time. Everyone around you has a voice inside their heads, whispering sweet nothings. Sometimes this feels like us, and other times it feels separate - like someone is speaking to us. We engage in these sorts of inner conversations all the time, except sometimes we forget that it is a conversation and not a lecture. We will explore more about self-talk in Mind Game Strategies, but it is important that we normalize and recognize this behavior now in terms of how it relates to identity. This inner monologue is actually an inner dialogue. It is through developing this deeper relationship with yourself that we cultivate self-awareness.
Who are you? I doubt this came anywhere close to answering that question, but I hope this helped to reveal some of the inner workings of what it means to be you. In this section we talked about how the ego is a construction (both of your own devising, and that of others), not given to you from birth. We took a brief look at shame, and IFS, so that you can practice identifying the individual pieces of the puzzle that is you. We differentiated self-esteem from self-worth, delved into how clever your ego is at protecting itself, and began thinking about the mechanisms that allow it to do so. Lastly we began work on de-stigmatizing talking to ourselves to prep us for using some of those questioning skills we learned in Questioning 101 to create effective dialogues with those parts that protect us.