An Open-Ended List of Ego Defenses
We are all familiar with ego defenses, whether we know the term or not. Ego defenses are automatic, unconscious patterns our ego resorts to when it is stressed. We can also call our ego (which is a Latin term the English translators of Freud used for his term ‘Ich’, which German for ‘I’), our consciousness, or our conscious sense of who we are. If you’ve heard of the Default Mode Network, I think the ego is just a very persistent program running in the Default Mode Network.
The ego’s ‘job’ is to get things done, to plan, to think. It overlaps with the mind and some people use the term ‘ego-mind’.
However, the ego does a few other things. One thing it does very convincingly is convincing us it is all of us, that our unconscious, including our body and its gut wisdom, don’t exist. We know this in the phrase ‘My mind [ego] is telling me one thing, but my heart (or gut) is telling me something else.’ Ideally the ego should be in service to the soul, which is mostly in the unconscious. The problem when the ego has convinced us it’s the only thing that makes us us, is expressed in the statement ‘The ego is an excellent servant [to the soul], but a terrible master.’
Another thing the ego does is throw up barriers when we attempt to listen to our soul or try to do things to honor our soul. These barriers are defenses and they are characterized by appearing very quickly and unconsciously and being emotionally uncomfortable, so that, out of a habitual sense of not wanting to be uncomfortable, we have an unconscious tendency to avoid moving towards our soul.
Although these ego barriers are uncomfortable, if we become aware of them and recognize them, they can become sign posts that we are moving in the direction that honors our soul. Instead of automatically, unconsciously reacting to the uncomfortable feelings by going back into habitual patterns ruled by the ego, we can say ‘this makes my ego uncomfortable, therefore this is exactly the direction I need to explore more.’ In this way we can overcome the unconscious dominance of the ego and restore the healthier pattern of the ego being the servant to the soul.
(As a side note, in a field called ‘ego psychology’, there are a list of ‘ego defenses’ that are more commonly known, such as avoidance, denial, repression, reaction formation, etc. In my interpretation of these, they are firmly in the realm of the ego and to me don’t present the same opportunities for becoming aware of the soul and its demands.)
Over time I have come to identify ego defenses that reveal that we are moving in the direction of our soul. I want to spell them out so they are easier to recognize. By recognizing them, we can become aware of them and grow towards soul, instead of staying stuck in ego. This is an open-ended list, as we all discover more ego defenses, they should be added to this list.
“It’s Too Late.” or “I’m Too Old.”
When we have glimpses of our soul, or have experiences or insights that show us the limitations of our ego-trapped way of being, a common reaction is to feel grief for how long we’ve been stuck. The ego then throws up the ego barrier of ‘It’s too late to change now, after all these years of being stuck’ or ‘I’m too old’, which is really the same thing. instead of unconsciously, habitually going back to the old way of being, we need to recognize this as a sign we are, at last, beginning to own our soul. Whatever we were thinking, feeling, doing, we need to stick with it, in spite of the discomfort, in spite of feeling it’s ‘too late’ and we will receive more guidance from our soul. Another way to reframe this feeling is to realize how precious it is that our soul is finally guiding us and committing ourselves to not wasting any more precious time in the former, ego-trapped ways of thinking.
“This is stupid!”
When we have soulful experiences, the ego may attempt to devalue them by making us feel ‘this is stupid.’ When something is stupid, the ego tries to suggest, it’s not worth pursuing or digging deeper into. Or the ego will try to ‘explain it away’ in other ways, as if to say ‘Nothing to see here, folks.’ For example, if someone has a profound, ego-transcending experience with psychedelics, the ego may make us think ‘That was just an effect of a molecule’, to discount the profundity. (A related ego defense is the false, limiting belief that we always need psychedelics to experience such a transcendent state.) So, when you have a profound, transcendent experience (especially without psychedelics), including synchronicties, and the thought ‘this is stupid’ (or some variation thereof) pops into your mind, pay attention. Remind yourself that whatever was happening threatened your ego so it had to resort to this ego defense. Linger in or go back to the experience and be open to what your soul is asking.
“This is scary!”
If the prior two ego defenses don’t work, the ego has to resort to more powerful emotions and fear is a very powerful emotion. When an experience, or insight, or awareness scares us, it is easy and tempting to not want to feel this and go back under the cozy blanket the ego tries to cover us with. This can happen with or without psychedelics. Yet, the fear is really created by the ego, to try to prevent us from going beyond ego consciousness, and to open ourselves to the demands of the soul. Self-criticism and ‘who do you think you are’ I think are variations of this ego defense. Something, such as a feeling may come up, demanding to be felt, and often we have resisted feeling this feeling out of fear, sometimes for many years. And yet, when we allow ourselves to feel the feeling, it often is completed very quickly and the fear dissipates. I think of the fear as the gift wrap, and when we sit with it, allowing ourselves to feel it, the gift wrap comes off and we are presented with the feeling we had been trying to avoid. And when our soul perceives that we are willing to sit and feel and listen, it will give us more messages and gifts.
This could be seen as a variation of the prior two. When we listen to soul, the ego makes us feel we are really tired, that we couldn’t possibly do or feel what our soul wants us to, right now. That if we just take a nap, or distract ourselves, e.g. by going online, we will get back to what our soul wants later. This is a strong archetypal pattern and as such expressed in fairy tales like ‘Sleeping Beauty’ or ‘Rip van Wrinkle’ and other stories where the protagonist is lost in ‘fairy land’ for many years. Even in the Odyssey it appears as the long time Odysseus and his men spent in the land of the lotus eaters, lotus being an opiate-like drug. Time is precious and if we spend too much time asleep, staring at our phones or otherwise distracted or trapped, the precious opening to our soul may irretrievably close. I hope the poignancy of being aware that opportunity is fleeting makes us aware when the seductions of tiredness sneak up.
“I’m not doing this right!”
I first became aware of this particular ego defense when hosting ketamine groups and then saw it in many other settings. We have a soulful experience, an experience that really makes us accept the power and wisdom of the soul and the life-saving necessity of developing a relationship to the soul and then we get the sense ‘I’m not doing this right.’ This self-judgement, often accompanied by shame or other uncomfortable emotions, interrupts the experience and is clearly an attempt by the ego to reclaim control and cut us off from the sense of awe and rightness that a soulful experience immerses us in. When we feel ‘I’m not doing this right’, it might be best to acknowledge that the ego is being triggered and comfort it, like a small child, without letting it take over and remember there is so much more to us than our ego and return to that larger sense of Self. And give your ego a hug. You can tell it ‘you don’t have to try so hard, everything will be ok!’
“Yes, we are going there, but we’re going to do it MY way!”
This one took me a while to recognize. You could think of it as a variation on the prior one, but it’s more subtle and subtlety is one of the ego’s strategies to remain hidden. So I think it needs to be called out, to overcome its subtlety. As in the prior one, we have opened the door to the soul and we are receiving its gifts and demands. And then something (the ego) interrupts and says ‘I can’t possibly do it this way, in the way the soul demands, I can only do it my way,’ as if bargaining and in the process of bargaining, the ego tries to take over control again. For example, the ego might say ‘I can’t possibly quit this soul-killing job.’ The ego may propose compromises, ‘my way’, so that it doesn’t have to let go of control completely. Sometimes, we really can’t drop what we are doing at that very moment, but acknowledging that this is ‘just’ an ego defense and remaining conscious of the connection to our soul may help by exposing the subtleness of this ego defense.
The most common form this takes is ‘Yes, but not yet.’ Someone recently told me, ‘I just want to get rid of all my belongings and join a monastery, but I can’t … not yet.’ What happens to a soul demand deferred? It makes the soul feel that we aren’t cherishing it, not taking it seriously and it may withdraw its gifts and demands and the opportunity for soul-directed grow may disappear. There are other variations of the ‘yes, but…’ ego defense. They all share the message that we don’t value our soul. What can we do. First, become aware. When a ‘yes, but…’ thought pattern appears, stop and ask yourself, ‘what was I thinking or feeling that made the “yes, but…” appear?’ There’s the opening to your soul. Start listening.
As I said, this is an open-ended list. As I discover, sometimes out of the corner of my eye, more ego defenses, I’ll add them. Also, feel free to email me and tell me ego defenses that you have discovered.
The shared thread among all these ego defenses is that, if we recognize them, instead of being automatically and unconsciously controlled by them, they are openings to deepening our relationship with our soul. That’s why i find them useful and wanted to share about them, so we can all recognize them more easily.
I just rediscovered this quote from the Gospel of Thomas, and there are several quotes by Jung that express similar. This quote expresses why I think we need to make ourselves conscious (bring forth) these ego defenses.
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” – The Gospel of Thomas, Verse 70
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