I am a physician, neuroscientist, yoga and meditation teacher, and stand-up comic (no joke)!
I specialize in helping people (like myself) who struggle with chronic anxiety. I had a great experience with Elephant Journal on my recent article on “Cognitive Bypassing.” While not necessary, reading that article will give you a greater context for this one.
What we call “anxiety” is a combination of intrusive thoughts from the mind and a sense of alarm in the body. In this article, I will discuss how the ego creates worries in order to protect us using a mythical and powerful dragon we incarnated as children.
In Scandinavian cultures, they depict this image often: a dragon protecting its treasure. To me, this image is the “Ego Dragon,” protecting our innocent and vulnerable childhood ego.
As children, when we are traumatized and don’t have a secure attachment figure to metabolize the inevitable trauma of childhood, we feel completely lost. As a result, the child in us creates a mythical dragon for protection. This (over)protective Ego Dragon lives in our unconscious forever and sits upon the treasure of our innocence—guarding with relentless tenacity. The dragon’s job is to stand guard over our innocent selves, making sure we don’t experience the same pain or trauma again. Ever.
But it’s a dichotomy: in shielding our true innocent selves from “harm” by keeping our authentic selves sequestered in the treasure chest, the dragon, in the same fell swoop, also prevents our authentic selves from being open to the world. In this human life, we can be in growth or protection, but other than in true faith, growth and protection are mutually exclusive.
The more we perceive the world as a stressful place from which we need protection, the more the overprotective dragon gets fired up; it shields us from putting ourselves in a place of vulnerability. But, vulnerability is a prerequisite for growth. In other words, our magical Ego Dragon shields us from pain, but at the same time “shields” us from any real chance at growth.
Many purport that we overpower our Ego Dragon and “feel the fear and do it anyway,” to quote the title of a book by Susan Jeffers, Ph.D. But the dragon is not our enemy. I propose that our dragons are not to be slain but embraced. It was our inner child’s attempt to protect us when we needed it most. I harshly judged my Ego Dragon for decades. But I recently realized that my dragon only has the intelligence and wisdom that was available to my compromised child (when the omnipotent figure was created). For me, this was about five years old. Although it appears powerful and imposing, my Ego Dragon is a child. Yours is too.
And, the dragon is not discerning. Anything that caused us pain in the past is resisted by the dragon, especially if the pain occurred in our childhood. If you stood up in front of the class for show-and-tell and you were ridiculed, any potential public speaking opportunities in your future would light your dragon up in fight-or-flight resistance.
This is probably beyond this little piece’s scope, but I’ve seen many people who had an inconsistent or abusive parent develop massive Ego Dragons for their protection. If you had a traumatic experience, like loving a parent who could not reflect that love back—or worse, abandoned you or was abusive to you—your dragon concludes that love is something from which you need protection. As a result, the Ego Dragon reacts by withdrawing from love, and that is truly devastating. You can avoid public speaking and still live a full life, but you cannot avoid love without creating mental and emotional unease.
The dragon gets all fired up when it recognizes anything that hurts us. It works in tandem with our amygdala, the so-called fear center of the brain. The amygdala, like the dragon, never forgets. It will shoot us into fight-or-flight at the slightest whiff of a past painful experience. The amygdala is like a smoke detector on steroids; it will sound a considerable alarm for a minimal danger if it detects the same or similar trouble in our past.
This overprotection prevents our growth and healing. We cannot get past our old traumas if we run from them at the first sign of trouble. If our nervous system freaks out and causes us to look only through the eyes of fear whenever we get close to our old wounds, we can never heal them.
My article on Cognitive Bypassing is about overthinking and getting trapped in ruminative thought. Overthinking, rumination, and worry are some of the Ego Dragon’s most potent tricks to keep us “protected” from our traumas. The dragon knows that if it can keep you busy with (over)thinking in your head, you won’t go down toward an old painful feeling in your body. Indeed, the goal of worry is to keep us in our heads and away from the old traumas stored in our bodies. Anxiety, or worry in the mind, is a way of bypassing feeling in the body.
But, you’ve got to feel it to heal it. Your dragon helped you not to feel by overthinking when you were a child (OCD and Anxiety are examples of this), and that was productive and adaptive back then. But, as an adult, it is neither.
When you find yourself trapped in incessant thoughts and worries, look for your dragon. Tell it,
“I know you are just trying to help me, but I am an adult now, and we are not back where we were. Thank you, dragon, for protecting me when I needed it most, but I’ve got this now. Let’s work together so we can face this.”
Put your hand on your chest, and feel three deep, slow, conscious breaths. Provide some resistance to the exhale by pursing your lips. Sensation and awareness bring you into the only place where you can create change—the present.
Once you are present in your body, assure your childlike dragon that you will be there in support and collaboration. Allow your true and innocent self to feel your old traumas without making a story about it.
If we can embrace the Dragon of Ego that our child selves incarnated—treat it as the unsophisticated, brute protector it was made up to be—we can then make it our true friend and ally. (Rather than something that needs to be judged, discounted, or “managed.”)
Our Ego Dragon is not something to win over in a fight, but instead to join forces with us. When we “win over” the dragon and essentially bring that self-created ego figure alongside us, we allow our dragon to stand down and become our ally in our growth. When our dragon stands down and allows us access to the treasure chest of our innocent and authentic selves, we can grow past our old traumas. That’s where true growth and healing comes from.
But be warned, our dragon will continue to be threatened by our exposed authenticity and innocence. Unless we commit to soothing that dragon (it is also a child, after all), encourage it to stay present with us as we face our fears, it will have us automatically and unconsciously run from any growth opportunities.
When you find yourself judging, blaming, or shaming yourself, you can bet your Ego Dragon is behind it. It is not trying to hurt you; it believes it is keeping you from going outside of your comfort zone where you could be hurt even more. By keeping you down in your comfort zone (or perhaps more correctly, it should be called your discomfort zone), the dragon keeps you from spreading your wings.
If you can find the place in you that is judging, blaming, or shaming, and then soothe it, you are taking a big step. Your Ego Dragon can then go from an unconscious adversary to a conscious ally.
The trick is to commit to seeing and embracing your Ego Dragon in conscious growth. Then, and only then, will you no longer have to be it in unconscious protection.