An elderly man I once knew — and now probably long dead — used to complain bitterly about all the people with negative ego. I never really understood what he meant by the term, as it seemed to derive from some of the esoteric and cultish literature he frequently read. It felt far afield of the client-centered therapy I was studying at the time as part of a Masters in counseling program. Yet the term has stuck with me, almost as the definition of a physical syndrome. Not long ago, an acquaintance posted the following chart from James McCrae on Facebook:
I haven’t read McCrae’s book (it looks great), but I intuitively love the title and the chart. There it is again, I said to myself when I saw it, another definition of “negative ego,” the kind of stuff we say to ourselves that implicitly keeps us small, constantly in turmoil, envying others, self-judging, beaten up and unforgiven. Not much logic to it, but exactly the kind of thing that ends up as a not-so-subtle practice of self-sabotage in all its infinite disguises. The chart in aggregate reminds me of what Eckhart Tolle called the “painbody.” It only makes sense that we would accumulate negative voices into a distressed persona we don’t necessarily recognize as egoic in nature.
And frankly, I don’t know if it is realistic to expect — even recognizing how easily and completely we can be hijacked by these voices — that the dynamics are easily overcome. As little neuroscience as I know suggests that we cut our own grooves in the brain and dark thoughts engender a propensity for more dark thoughts, so that it is only altering our behavior — as if the voices did not exist — that offers a way out.
To me that suggests a discipline of positivity, as if “negative ego” does not also have a function and simply needs to be eradicated rather than understood. It’s possible, however, that the purpose of the dark road may well be to liberate us and, like other forms of narcissism, must be recognized for exactly what it is. To understand that, you may need to look right into the heart of darkness at what negative ego does in relationships to others and in your own relationship to you.
For example, negative ego specializes in catastrophizing regarding one’s worthiness. This means that an inner sensitivity develops around events that might suggest a presumption of self-value. Although I’ve told this story before, it remains so clearly one of those important moments in my own education. Twenty years ago I happened to be conducting a large group workshop for members of a small college administration. The workshop at one point involved small groups identifying issues they thought needed to be addressed. These were listed on flip charts next to each of about fifteen groups that were all working at the same time. On one of these, at the top of the list, one group out of the fifteen has listed the words, “Top Management.” The President of the college, an extraordinarily talented person who had been given an award for her leadership by the group as the meeting started, wandered through the room observing the small groups at work. Without hearing anything at all from the group in question, she saw those words, “Top Management,” and immediately started caving in internally. She fled to the back of the room in a kind of panic and even though the day was very successful in identifying some key issues to address and get people constructively started on them, the President experienced so much inner turmoil that she was unable to further participate or make any closing comments to the group at all.
Later, as she drove me to the airport, I asked her, “What happened to you?”
She told me the story of how she’d seen “Top Management” listed on the flip chart of the small group and immediately leapt to the conclusion that the group must be talking about her personal inadequacies as a leader.
I said, “Really? But there’s no evidence of that,” and I reminded her that I’d conducted the same exercises many times and that it was a very common thing for people to call out issues with management. I tried to reassure her by saying they might very well have been talking about other people, or people in the past, or the “top management” that existed above her in the larger college system of which she was part. But I could see that it wasn’t doing any good. She was in great pain but trying to hide it.
Finally, I asked her what was in fact going through her mind. Even if the group had been talking about her specifically, what was it they might have been saying? What was she concerned about, really? It was at this point that she turned to me and said, “As I stood in the back of the room melting down, all I could think of was my High School counselor who told me I’d probably always find myself in over my heard by taking on things that were too big for me.”
The idiocy of the counselor, aside, you can see how this catastrophizing of worthiness can erupt, negative ego staking its claim on a day on which her leadership had actually been celebrated.
What she could not have anticipated, of course, is the level of questioning this caused in me. Did I not set up the exercise correctly? How could I guard against such reactions by a primary client of my work? Shouldn’t I have known? What am I doing, really, in this work? etc., etc. She may have been in the pit, but there was also just the slightest tincture of “Didn’t you know your work could have this horrible effect?” Her pit could just as quickly become my pit, her self-blame becoming mine. And there it was — the real deal about how negative ego works in relation to others — a pit for one person potentially opens up one for anyone around. The very effort to rescue another person from negative ego becomes an infection. I could feel the ground shift under my feet for just a second, worried that I screwed up. Luckily in this case, the President did own that the event itself was fine — that her reaction was hers.
And the good news was that the event and gentle counseling helped the President seek out some private and strategic therapeutic assistance. Even better, the training itself led her to begin asking more fearless questions of other people, about relationships at the college, and ferreting out issues people were a little uncomfortable talking about. This, it turned out, eventually surfaced some very big and illegal things that had been happening under her nose. Her quick action to terminate the bad actors confirmed for herself and for many others the genuine strength she was bringing to her leadership role. A year later we had another conversation — this time about her amazing success within.
I want all leaders to think about this dynamic of negative ego. You can see it whenever people make comparisons with others’ lives and accomplishments, stature and possessions. You can see it in the way people run each other down in the background while worrying about their own imposter syndrome. You can see it in the way people cannot accept praise or thanks and come up with reasons why it’s not trustworthy, and in the way people can’t seem to accomplish even in the face of actual skill. You can feel it in cover-ups that we use to exchange pleasantries when we don’t feel very pleasant at all but are angry or depressed. You can experience it in projections by others onto you about your intentions and motivations and the things you didn’t do or didn’t say, and also in your experience of yourself doing exactly these same things to other people. And it’s just as damaging and demeaning to the human spirit as the overblown self-congratulatory self-talk that reflects outright inflation of a person.
Many with negative ego see themselves as good people who just don’t want to come off as being too ego-centric. But I’m here to say that the reverse of egocentricity is not the corrosive eruption of self-blame and self-doubt either. That’s just the same thing upside down. That’s also ego. The good thing is knowing that, seeing that, can grant a different kind of self-respect and resilience in the face of an unpredictable world.
So, in what way, is this dark road a form of liberation? Suppose I am haunted? This is an absolutely wonderful question to consider because it can lead to an important recognition — that whether it is narcissistic or negative egocentrism, it is always and only based on one thing — that it is one hand clapping and the joke, after all, is on me.
As always, compassion is the way through.
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You keep outdoing yourself my friend! Another fantastic post!
The good news and bad news of it all is this.
NONE of us. NO ONE. NOT ONE. Is absolutely 100% FREE from negative ego.
Each one of us wrestles with our own dark to varying degrees based on inherent nature, congenital, and hereditary reasons. Environment. Circumstances. Life challenges. Traumas. You name it.
The impact we experience living on this planet is as unique to each one of us as our fingerprints.
One of the biggest breakthroughs for any of us is to realize that the dark isn’t something just OUT THERE. And we are ‘all light’, as some religions tend to elude to or should I say, wind up CREATING in the minds of a follower. ‘They are ‘evil’. I’m not.’ They are ‘sinners’ and I am ‘saved’. etc.
I tend to lean more towards Jungian theory that accepts we each have a shadow and the light. Our task is to consciously integrate the two on our journeys throughout life.
Compassion IS the only thing that can help any of us. And even with that mandate…that’s an ever-evolving process as our own ego defense mechanisms tend to protect during ‘critical’ moments and there has to be a period where things inside can ‘relax’.
Although we ‘talk’ about many of these good qualities and mandate positive actions like mercy and compassion…in reality, the evolutionary process for any of us happens so much slower then our speaking and thinking minds would have us be.
We talk about some of these things AS IF we have already mastered them and live as enlightened beings, when, frankly…I have yet to meet a soul on this planet that has good mastery over their shadows. Now that isn’t saying much either because there are still billions of people I have yet to meet! (grins)
The point being is that most our talk is ‘inflated’ beyond what the life is actually manifesting in ‘real time’. For the most part, they still remain to be ‘wishes’ and hopes and when projected onto other people…expectations.
All of which is quite exhausting, really.
When most of us really would prefer the ounce of compassion.
Thanks again for sharing your perspectives my friend. Always an enlightening read.
As Samanthaa says, you’ve done it again.
This piece resonates with me on many levels. First it goes to the heart of much of the work I do, and despite the limitations of what I have to work with in business settings, most people struggle with these “voices” in different ways. Everyone experiences “self-talk” although it is often surprising how many people are unaware of it.
Essentially all these voices (on either side) echo our beliefs. Problem is with the “higher” self side often doesn’t believe what it says. The negative egoic side speaks with such authority and conviction.
If we just take the basics of neuroscience that say the brain is always seeking reward or avoiding threat — the list gets more complicated. Clearly we do “hard wire” in the negative ego side through repetitive thought. And we’re now learning that stress (another huge umbrealla term) is “inherited” by the fetus. Cold comfort to someone who had a CHAMPION worrier Mother.
I suspect your elderly acquaintance with the esoteric, cultish interests might say that we absorb this negativity also from the larger culture — that it’s part of our collective heritage. He might also have believed that this form of “energy” is an attractor of like energies.
Eckhart Tolle’s teachings remind us that it is our identification with these thoughts as real and true that cause — and add to the “pain-body.”
Developing our abilities to be more mindful helps us to be more of a witness to these thoughts (and triggered feelings) than owner. And — yes compassion — great doses of self-compassion — the soothing healing balm to those fear-based thoughts is the greatest Rx I know.
I’m with you all the way. I especially like this:
“We talk about some of these things AS IF we have already mastered them and live as enlightened beings, when, franklyâ€¦I have yet to meet a soul on this planet that has good mastery over their shadows.”
The slow pace of personal growth (compared to what we want it to be or pretend it is) is yet another reminder of how much we want to find a way to manage the darkness and the weaknesses we conceal within.
This may be as true in social media as any other context. There’s all that data out there about how our Facebook feed can cause anxiety because of all the good things others are reporting about their lives. So we cope by putting up an idealized version of our own lives, too, and then have the private feelings of an imposter. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just acknowledge how burdened we feel about about holding up the image? And collectively learn to put it down.
My greatest concern is that negative ego frequently operates to self re-traumatize — and this is incredibly painful and isolating. The shame and embarrassment can be just soul-killing. We feel violated and yet are blind to how much we are violating ourselves. And yet this is also evidence of exactly how dense and egoic the process actually is, how it feeds on projections and how weak we can feel in its face.
How lovely, welcoming and supportive your insights always are, and especially with this post, Samantha. As always, thank you!
All the best
I so appreciate your thoughts about this post and reminder that our voices are products of beliefs. Perhaps they are ones we haven’t fully unearthed and made conscious. Where negative ego is concerned I sense there are a wide variety of such hidden beliefs, including that somehow the process of re-traumatizing ourselves via negative ego is actually noble and unselfish and more self-aware, that it will lead to the truth, when in fact the only thing it does is keep pain alive, preserving an internal operating system that, as you say, discredits the voices of a higher self by sounding so authoritative.
And, yes, my elderly acquaintance didn’t like the “energy” and thought it fulfilled itself by gathering more darkness around it. He associated it with crime and violence toward others, and perhaps in part this was due to his age, physical condition and sense of vulnerability. (He slept with a gun and kept it under the front seat of his car when he traveled.) On another level, however, I sensed it was also really a part of his spiritual belief system: that much of the world was dark because of the darkness we create for ourselves within.
As always, thank you so much for taking the time to comment. It is so wonderful to exchange observations about the humanity we share in and care for so much.
All the best
I have been wrestling with a self-esteem issue and ‘something’ told me to Google ‘the negative ego’. I knew of its existence but went with my ‘prompt’.
The google search brought this article to my attention, and not only did I read the article, but I also read all of the comments as they added even more depth and insight into ‘the negative ego.
Deepest appreciation to all of you, I now have so much more knowledge to understand the mechanics behind ‘my issue’ which goes deeper than self-esteem. Thank You!!
Thank you so much for stopping by. I’m glad this article and comments were helpful to you. It is a big subject and one I’ve found myself returning to with a certain inevitability over the years. Good luck to you in working through your issue and much appreciation to you for trusting your intuitive prompt.
All the best
Thank you for your warm response to my comment. I would like to say something else though .…. The following words from within the comments hit me like a sledgehammer.
“Where negative ego is concerned I sense there are a wide variety of such hidden beliefs, including that somehow the process of re-traumatizing ourselves via negative ego is actually noble and unselfish and more self-aware, that it will lead to the truth, when in fact the only thing it does is keep pain alive, preserving an internal operating system that, as you say, discredits the voices of a higher self by sounding so authoritative.”
That is exactly what I have done, I’ve even remarked many times to my adult son that I had martyred myself for nothing.
In other words, my negative ego programmed me to believe that I was being noble and protecting others, even though it was poisoning me inside, I played the part of a martyr. And that is the root of the issue. That is why I was drawn to this article.
Again, thank you so much. time for a little humility for me.
Very best to you all
Again, I am happy the article was of help to you! There are so many traps and sleights of hand that keep the negative thoughts in power. It’s good to remember that you might have absorbed these strategies for self-reduction as part of overall conditioning that was originally meant to keep you safe and give you a meaningful role to play. Ultimately, we outgrow the conditioning and then it’s important to fight our way through all that so that we can make better, more adult decisions for ourselves; better judgments about what’s real and what’s not. That is why compassion for self is so important. Compassion asks us to step back and look, to see out of the forest, to feel the truth that we are enough, to be open to life. Metaphorically, it is finding the true, clear water of the soul and (finally) step away from the mazes of ego.
Thank you again for your kind, personal sharing regarding the post and comments. Although this post is a few years old, you can still find both Louise Altman and Samantha Hall on Twitter — where you can follow their rich comments and posts!
All the best to you, Heven