You are not your ego.
Your ego is a reflection of other people’s observations of you.
So your ego should stick to observing. It should only take control for short periods of time, in emergencies.
But your ego likes to be in charge. When it tries to stay in charge, the day-to-day you, the real you, rebels. And that’s self-sabotage.
So for instance, my ego might tell me that I should try to date someone beautiful, or own a bigger house, or make more money at a more prestigious job, or go on some vendetta against some jerk that was mean to me once back in third grade. But do any of these goals fit with the day-to-day me, who cares so much about cleanliness and financial freedom? Or are these goals just my ego reflecting other people’s expectations?
Because if these goals don’t match who I really am, the day-to-day me will rebel against my ego. And the result is pure misery. Misery for me, and misery for those around me.
Let’s try to be more specific about what I mean when I say the “day-to-day” me.
According to psychiatrist Steven Reich, research shows that there are 16 or so different fundamental desires, or values.
All of us prioritize some small number of those 16 basic desires. And all of us have at least one or two desires that we don’t care about at all. How we combine what we care about and what we don’t is why we are so different from each other.
Here are the 16 basic desires:
Power: the desire to influence others. Ambition, dominance, leadership.
Independence: the desire for self-reliance. Resistance to advice, wanting to be on your own.
Curiosity: the desire for knowledge. Learning for its own sake, asking lots of questions, thinking about what’s true.
Acceptance: the desire for inclusion. Wanting people to like you, to not criticize you.
Order: the desire for organization. Cleanliness, planning, having rules.
Saving: the desire to collect things. Hoarding, being tight with money.
Honor: the desire to be loyal to one’s parents and heritage. Being principled and also your relationship with your parents specifically.
Idealism: the desire for social justice. Volunteering, donating time and money, sacrificing for humanitarian causes.
Social Contact: the desire for companionship. Caring about friends who aren’t your parents, kids or romantic partners. Liking to have lots of people around.
Family: the desire to raise one’s own children. Notice that caring about different types of relationships represents completely different basic desires!
Status: the desire for social standing. Wanting expensive things, wanting to impress people, caring about what you’re associated with.
Vengeance: the desire to get even. Competitiveness, revenge, aggression.
Romance: the desire for sex and beauty. Caring about your sexual relationships, and/or wanting to have lots of them.
Eating: the desire to consume food.
Physical Activity: the desire for the exercise of muscles. Liking sports, being “outdoorsy”.
Tranquility: the desire for emotional calm. Having high anxiety, being fearful.
The basic desires that matter to you are the ones you pursue for their own sake, not because they get you something else. There are four basic desires that I care about: Honor, Independence, Order and Curiosity. There are several that I do not care about at all: Family, Physical Activity, Tranquility, Romance, Status, Acceptance, and Power. The rest of the basic desires are things that I care about but not that much.
So this explains why I don’t have kids and am rarely in a relationship. In fact if I pursue any of those basic desires that I don’t care about at all, it’s only because I have to in order to have Honor, Independence, Order and Curiosity. So for instance, I dance often. But I don’t dance because I love Physical Activity. I dance because I need to stay healthy in order to stay Independent. On the other hand, when I clean, I do so because I desire Order for its own sake.
Alright. Now you are probably completely different from me. Maybe you really care about Status, in which case living in a nice house would NOT be a demand of your ego. It would be a demand of the real, day-to-day you! If you try to live somewhere modest, that’s your ego telling you to “humble yourself.” (And yes, your ego can tell you to humble yourself.) But for me, since I don’t care about Status, wanting to live in a nicer house is just some ego trip.
This is why the same action can be pure egotism for one person, and an expression of basic desires for another.
We all have different combinations of basic desires, and those combinations make up our deep values. And we all sabotage ourselves when we follow our ego’s wishes instead of our deep values. Why? Because when I try to ignore the day-to-day me, the day-to-day me rebels. The day-to-day me rebels through procrastination, pointless or fabricated conflict, and a general unwillingness to put forth my best effort.
So why would anyone try to follow their ego instead of their own deep desires? The ego is mostly about other people’s expectations. It is a reflection of other people’s observations. That’s why it should stick to just observing. But people get confused and they think their ego is who they are. So then it tries to take control.
Pain is pain, and pain is inevitable. But suffering is not pain, and suffering is not inevitable. For many of my friends, the primary cause of your suffering is that who you really are, the day-to-day you, is in a constant state of rebellion against your own pushy ego.