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Our egos, like all things human, evolved as a survival mechanism to protect us from danger and maximize our strengths and potential.
It is absolutely unique to our species (to the best of our knowledge), and despite having gotten a pretty bad rap, our ego is a fairly miraculous thing.
The ego, you see, is the what we use to make meaning in our lives; it is the ultimate storyteller, and it tells us the stories it does about ourselves and our world to help us creatively problem-solve, to give us the will to survive unimaginable challenges, and to forge powerful connections with other human beings.
Well, that’s what it’s supposed to do anyway. Ideally, the ego tells us useful stories that help us interpret reality in a way that is beneficial, but (as with all things evolutionary) there’s often a glitch in the process.
For most of us, our egos sometimes tell us good stories, but just as often, they tell us terrible ones in an effort to protect us from getting hurt. This can create beliefs about the world that are completely counterproductive. I’ll give you an example.
When she was three, my daughter went into the ocean, and a wee, little fish brushed up against her leg. It was a strange sensation with which she was unfamiliar, and her ego decided to tell her a story about what was happening. It said, “The ocean is scary, fish are terrifying, and you better never, ever go in there again or you might die.”
And guess what? In the 30+ subsequent years, she never has. That one little fish combined with an overblown ego-story created a lifelong phobia she has never been able to shake, despite some fairly intensive efforts. But all her ego was really doing was trying to keep her safe.
Another three year old girl in the ocean with a different ego and different experiences leading up to that day, may have come away with a whole different tale. Maybe it would’ve been, “Fish feel weird, but it’s kind of fun. I love the ocean!” That kind of interpretation would have created room for lots more ocean fun in this kid’s life instead of canceling out a whole awesome part of the world to her.
This simplistic example might not underscore just how prevalent and ingrained our ego-stories are. Much of the time we mistake them for absolute truths that one could not possibly challenge, and this is where the problems really begin.
Someone who grow up in an abusive home, let’s say, takes as an absolute truth that relationships are painful and demoralizing and thus, they accept abuse in all relationships, not really believing there is an alternative.
Someone else who experiences trauma in combat comes to believe the world is never safe and is then tortured by sustaining a state of hypervigilance.
The only way to heal both of these types of people is to somehow convince them that while their experiences were true, they don’t represent or predict every subsequent situation all the time.
And this is where we come to the idea that your ego is an octopus.
I have noticed that our egos often just need to fill in empty space with any kind of story they can grab a hold of. Without a story, even a painful or scary one, we humans panic. We think there is no logic to reality and no way to predict outcomes and protect ourselves from harm. The stories we most tend to grab a hold of are the oldest ones, the least challenged ones, and I noticed that as well, as I lay one night recently tossing and turning in a bath of anxious sweat in my bed.
As anyone with anxiety knows, bedtime is one of the worst times for flare-ups because there is nothing else to distract us from our thoughts—and so it was for me that evening. I had had an upsetting conversation with a family member earlier in the day, and I just kept replaying it over and over in my mind and unintentionally adding all kinds of layers of dire meaning to it. I was aware of what I was doing, but it seemed absolutely beyond my power to stop. As I braced myself for a sleepless night wracked with misery, I wondered, was there any way to do this differently?
Suddenly the image of an octopus flashed across my brain. This octopus (my ego) was trying to grab a hold of any story to calm my mind down and make sense of the unhappy conversation I’d had earlier. I imagined these stories as objects inside a glass jar that the octopus kept sticking it’s tentacles into. Some of the objects were nails—these were the bad stories. Others were marbles—less bad stories. And lastly, some were bits of fluff that dissolved as soon as the octopus made contact with them—these were the better stories I couldn’t seem to hold on to.
Focusing on the image had the remarkable effect of making all the stories lose power, and it put the attention on the process of story making rather than the narratives themselves. In other words, it took me out of the story so I could be an observer rather than a participant. Success!
Well, sort of. I struggled to stay focused on the image. Just when I thought I was on track, I’d realize I was replaying the terrible conversation in my mind again. As I did so, all the old hurts flared up centering mostly around—if I’m being honest—the sense that I am always somehow the victim.
But I soon learned that I could acknowledge those thoughts and then switch back to envisioning the ego/octopus as it tried to grab, for the umpteenth time, that damn nail in the jar—let’s call it the “victim nail.” The more I did it, the easier it became, and while it did not completely alleviate my negativity, it helped a lot. I eventually fell asleep, which was remarkable!
The main idea I walked away with was this: one, we are constantly engaged in identifying with some version of reality that is our own creation, and two, if we understand this, then we can either upgrade our interpretation or step away from the process for a while. This is empowering!
The same old stories that have been knocking around our heads for our whole lives, for whatever reason—I am unlovable, I’ll never be successful, I’ll always be alone, I am not special, I am not safe, and so on—can be challenged, or even temporarily shelved if we train our minds to do so.
Especially during this supremely weird pandemic/Trump era when the general level of anxiety in our culture feels like a tea kettle that’s about to steam itself right off the stove, using what are essentially mindfulness techniques like these can be invaluable.
It may seem stupid, but envisioning complex ideas as images can be an anxiety game changer—so go ahead and give it a try!
What is your octopus trying to grab a hold of?