The Power to Say “No”

Disclaimer: Entire books have been written on this topic, so my handling of it may seem shallow to some. Sorry, but I don’t feel I’m supposed to write such a project, but I do think it’s worth discussing here.

The most important aspect of human life is consciousness and, especially, the mind. The human mind is the command and control mechanism for all of the systems, processes, and behaviors that make us human. Science doesn’t go here, because it requires grappling with human nature and things that cannot be measured in the scientific way. All we have is anecdotal evidence, and no scientist worth her credentials would be so foolish as to give their stamp of approval to such. Even the science of the mind — also known as psychology or psychiatry — admits as much, and this is across the widest possible slice of the à la carte menu of mental health treatments.

I recall when Sandra Seich and I put together our company ANSIR (A New Style In Relating), we spoke to a great many psychologists, both clinical and counseling practitioners about our instrument. This spectrum is fascinating, for one relies entirely on science and scientific theories, whereas the other offers a more holistic approach. What we discovered was the counseling psychologists are patient-focused and, therefore, open to all kinds of ideas and options. Clinical psychologists, however, are driven almost entirely by scientific methodology. As several people told us in analyzing our personality test, the more scientific the test, the less useful it becomes in counseling actual people. This is because science demands broad, provable categories to study, while counseling psychologists tend to see each individual patient as unique within the symptoms presented. You can judge for yourselves which is for you.

The point is we don’t “know” much about the human mind, even though countless investigators have tried. For this, we must turn to other practices including religion, pseudoscience, countless non-religious yet spiritual institutions, such as New Age thinkers, and even the anecdotal experiences of professionals within the field. This of course fits nicely within the realm of quackery and deviance, which is another reason science wants nothing to do with it.

Even what can be considered breakthrough schools of thinking receive skeptical responses from those colleagues who stick to their scientific guns in defending against the relentless growth of mental health issues within our culture. While mental health is tricky to navigate — and for whatever the cause — those poor suffering souls I’ve known in my life (self included) all seem to have lost the ability to say “no”. The real mystery is why and, perhaps more importantly, what to do about it.

Knowing that it’s not good for us, why do we sneak that piece of cake just before bedtime? Why do we “just have to” gaze at the beauty of comeliness and covet possession of the same? After awhile on the river of alcohol consumption, why is it that the first thing we think of upon awakening from a spree with a hangover is doing it again? Why do we allow friends to convince us to do things we know we ought not to do? And, why do we get so defensive when observers of our behavior try to help us, and why do we agree with those who say that regardless of the cause (if there is one), modifying behavior is the only process that can help.

We do so, because the alternatives are considered beneath our dignity. Perhaps our problems are not the problem but rather our inability to reject a course of behavior that will eventually lead us to ruin. The Apostle Paul wrote that he was perplexed by his own behavior, in that he would do the things he knew he should not do, and that he would not do the things he knew he should do. “O wretched man that I am,” he wrote. “Who can deliver me from this bond of death?”

Trauma only makes matters worse, for our reactions to trauma seem to set us up for future mental health difficulties, such as anxiety and depression. Why does this effect some and not others, or does trauma have a way of forcing an escape from reality? Is it not all wound around an inability to say no, whether it’s forced or assumed? And, is the cause at all related to the cure? Do we simply just need to say no?

Bob Newhart’s wonderful skit about a psychologist who’s only treatment is the use of the words “stop it” is a marvelous illustration of the foolishness of such thinking. That’s because we think of these problems in terms of ownership, and it defies logic to give up what we have. “My” illness. “My” condition. “My aches and pains. “My” anxiety. “My” relatives. “My” ex. “My” helplessness. “My” upbringing. “My” uniqueness. “My” cancer. “My” fibromyalgia. My” suffering. “My” affliction. “My” thorn in the flesh. “My” depression. And so forth.

No, no, no, no, a thousand times no!

Look, afflictions are real. Diseases are real. We’re not talking about the things of the flesh. However, when we take ownership of such, we’ve entered dangerous territory, for such things do not actually define us. If that were the case, we should all hide our heads in hopelessness. The truth is that these things stand in the way of self-discovery, and that is a spectacular piece of self-deception, one that’s based in our senses under the sun. Healing, therefore, is found — is often found — in the here and in the now, for that is the time and place of life, and life rejects all forms of artificial death, e.g. “poor me”. Like many other things in life, it isn’t the affliction that causes our suffering, per se, but rather our reaction to it.

It’s time to talk about the Biblical devil, for evil is always the outcome of self-deception, whether big or small. If the devil is the “father of all lies,” then his realm must be the human ego, for that is the person within us that often makes the decisions for us — for our protection, of course — especially in times of stress. For purposes of this discussion, let’s define evil as that which draws us from the here and now with its incumbent rejection of any life that exists beyond the sun. This results in all forms of inhuman behavior, including those events that seem to lead our news reports hour-by-hour. Man’s inhumanity towards man ought not to dominate our minds as it relates to life, for this is a profound limitation to our lives under the sun. There’s absolutely nothing “new” about it, for the matter of evil is part and parcel of our nature.

Are babies born innocent and later “learn” selfishness? That’s illogical and provably so, because crying when hungry is most certainly a form of self expression. To argue that a baby learns this through trial and error is to deny the first screams and tears. Yes, she learns that it works, but where does that initial behavior originate? The senses demand to be heard, but at the same time, they send false signals of satisfaction that are never enough. Satisfaction may last for a season, but eventually, it requires more and more and more. As Olivia Newton John asked a musical question, “It’s never enough, never never enough. Why is all that we have simply never enough?”

Absent our ability to actually study the matter, for a very large group of people, the devil is an answer that’s sufficient. Creative attempts to offer a different perspective have come from enormously talented and curious people, especially those who’ve taken the time for individual study of what is commonly known as the human ego. If you are human, you have an ego. He exists to provide answers where none seem possible, and it’s to him that we often turn in times of distress. Thoughtful, intriguing, and soaring books have been written about such things as “ego states,” trauma bonding, and other manifestations of ego study. They deserve our attention, because they come from minds with a lifetime of deep diving when it comes to understanding the human mind. Adam and Eve had egos. It was Eve’s ego that led her to the Tree of Life (“You don’t really think that God would kill you for eating it, do you? I mean, it’s not poison.”). Jesus faced and defeated his own ego in the wilderness. His stomach was growling during the 40-day fast, so the voice of his ego rose to tempt him to turn rocks into bread. It wasn’t a guy in a red suit with horns and a pitchfork. That is the stuff of myths. Hell, we don’t need a devil when we have such an intimate enemy as our own ego.

One of the things that was so different about Jesus is that he recognized the voice of his ego and said a resounding “no”! So, it seems to me that we can do the same. Otherwise, we are most to be pitied, especially for Christians who say they “follow the ways of the Lord.” The first deception of the ego is that he doesn’t exist, and that gives a great multitude an excuse to give up without even trying. After all, their discomfort is greater than any earthly solution, and therefore, we should all just suffer while bearing our own personal thorns in the flesh. Nonsense. Either that, or Jesus was not “the firstborn among many,” and the gate he claimed to represent leads to nowhere.

I fully appreciate the potential for mischief that’s presented with this missive, for we still see through a glass darkly. However, in order to talk back to our egos, we must first learn to recognize its voice, even during times of panic. “You’re going to be abandoned” was a constant, almost unspoken message that I heard throughout my life. Think about that for a minute. It was a marvelous deception foisted on me as the result of an episode of what seemed to me an abandonment in my youth. A mind incapable of separating such a voice from the situation that brought it about is impossible for a 5‑year old, and so it became an essential part of my thinking about myself. I fought it, and I fought it, always to lose and try again.

I learned through AA that what I thought made me unique was all bullshit and that I needed a miracle to overcome it. I got my miracle, and the most obvious evidence is in my sleep. When we give up fighting the deceptions that dominate us, it is an enormous weight lifted from the shoulders of our souls, and the problem of sleeplessness disappears. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous contains the stories of many people who had found recovery from the addiction that drove their lives for sometimes a very long period of time. These stories are filled with addicts trying to explain their drinking to themselves and others. Example episodes of their perplexity often begin with “I had this thought” or “it came to me that I should.” These triggers were, in fact, the voices of their own egos attempting to rationalize or make an argument for drinking.

So, we know it’s important, but how exactly do we learn to recognize the voice of our ego? It’s actually very simple. Deliberately place a temptation in front of yourself. Don’t do anything but listen. Trust me; it’ll be there, perhaps even in thoughts that are profoundly familiar. Listen anyway. We KNOW what the outcome will likely be, so it’s very important that we hear those thoughts as they pass across the horizon of our minds like so many wild horses.

Redemption is what gives us the power to say no to that which is pretending to be us. You might be amazed at how effective a simple “shut up” can be in a conversation with what you think is yourself. As we say in AA, “My mind is a dangerous place, because I’m not alone in there.”

How true, my friends. How very, very true.

The human ego = satan’s realm

There’s a disease epidemic sweeping America, one that the Centers for Disease Control doesn’t track, largely because no medicine exists to fight it. That’s because it’s a sickness of the soul, and the mere suggestion that we each have a soul is debated in the halls of science. Those of us who’ve received the blessings of recovery know this disease as “Terminal Uniqueness,” because it involves efforts of human beings to separate themselves from others, to stand out from the crowd, to be known, to wage whatever war seems necessary to secure our unique place within the culture.

It’s everywhere. Instagram, for example, is an excellent example of how far people will go to become influential, because that translates to advertiser dollars. Instagram influencing is a real way for certain people to craft out a living for themselves. Young people used to become suitors on The Bachelor to find love, but that has now become a vehicle for personal branding and adding millions of followers on Instagram. Social media is the place where personal brands are now birthed and grown.

You see Terminal Uniqueness in the trend towards hyphenated names, like those on the backs of football jerseys that force announcers to say both. I know a very successful businessman named Dave Smith, who gave his children unique first names, because “When I was in high school, the teachers didn’t even know I was there for the first six months”. The number of Dave Smiths in the U.S. is staggering, and my Dave — a marketing genius, by the way — found a way to help his children. One’s name, after all, is the foundation of one’s personal brand, and “the brand” is everything in marketing.

One brand that I used to follow was Edge Shaving Gel. Long ago, there was only one form of Edge. It came in a can with a green top. When the company began adding different formulas, the green can was called “Normal” Skin. Today, there’s no normal, because, after all, who wants to be considered normal? Edge Shaving Gel now offers six formulas (it used to be more): Sensitive Skin, Extra Moisturizing. Sensitive Pro Relief, Extra Protection, Soothing Aloe, and Ultra Sensitive.

There’s no such thing as normal skin anymore.

The problem with Terminal Uniqueness is that the concept of being unique is a very lonely calling, for the word itself means, essentially, one of a kind or alone in her field. It badly interferes with our ability to connect with other people, because it’s a false reality, one orchestrated by the often-self-protective shell offered by the human ego. Nobody understands this like Eckhart Tolle, author of A New Earth:

One way to think about ego is as a protective heavy shell, such as the kind some animals have, like a big beetle. This protective shell works like armor to cut you off from other people and the outside world. What I mean by shell is a sense of separation: Here’s me and there’s the rest of the universe and other people. The ego likes to emphasize the “otherness” of others.

…You don’t have thoughts; the thoughts have you—and if you want to be free, you have to understand that the voice in your head has created them and (the) irritation and upset you feel is the emotional response to that voice…The trick, of course, is to work to free ourselves from this armor and from this voice that is dictating reality.

I’ll take it one step further and say that the source of selfishness is our buddy, the ego, for only the authentic self is capable of righteous behavior. Stop here for a moment and read that again. So this business of ego is of vital importance to everybody, but it’s so misunderstood, superstitious, unmeasurable, and downright confusing that most simply gloss over the whole thing for sanity’s sake. Long after I’m gone, I hope that one day people will agree that what we’ve been doing is the real insanity in life.

At least some of my views come from 21 years of sobriety and the many lessons I’ve learned along the way. When writing the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous in the late 1930s, Bill W. identifies the ego as the source of our difficulties. From page 61:

Our actor is self-centered — ego-centric, as people like to call it nowadays. He is like the retired business man who lolls in the Florida sunshine in the winter complaining of the sad state of the nation; the minister who sighs over the sins of the twentieth century; politicians and reformers who are sure all would be Utopia if the rest of the world would only behave; the outlaw safe cracker who thinks society has wronged him; and the alcoholic who has lost all and is locked up. Whatever our protestations, are not most of us concerned with ourselves, our resentments, or our self-pity?

Selfishness-self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate. Sometimes they hurt us, seemingly without provocation, but we invariably find that at some time in the past we have made decisions based on self which later placed us in a position to be hurt.

So our troubles, we think, are basically of our own making. They arise out of ourselves, and the alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn’t think so.

Let me repeat that selfishness would not exist absent the ego.

To be certain, I’m not referring to Freud’s differentiation of the three “sides” of the human psyche, the ego, the id, and the superego. I prefer, as do many, the more simple division of the personality into the ego and the self. Freud may have combined the ego and the id to represent what’s known today as the “self,” but I have doubts about the id and the ego working together for good. In fact, there are more definitions of the word “ego” than you can imagine, which is probably why I choose the most simple.

The ego and the self are in a constant struggle for supremacy in the being that is you. The ego rises in times of stress to provide a buffer against potential pain. In the process, however, the ego affirms one’s Terminal Uniqueness by keeping us occupied with the thoughts and circumstances that led to the ego formation in the first place. Let’s say that you were once a victim of a great trauma. The ego would’ve jumped up to handle the situation and provide your response, which is not always so healthy. Your ego can keep you in a state of dis-ease by the constant referral to the event as the source of distress. You grow up a victim, unable to detach yourself from the pain, because your ego keeps reminding you of your wounds. This then validates the belief that you have no choice but to play the victim forever. Most people consider the uniqueness assigned by the ego to involve pride and envy, but shame is a much more powerful motivator. Once one accepts the thinking of the ego, it is VERY hard to break away.

If you believe in the concept of original sin, the psychological underpinnings must come from what we now know to be the ego. Old Testament laws were all built around containment of the ego, and it alone is why humanity needed the redemption of the Christ. Ego is the plaything of evil, and from it spring all sorts of great mischief, including addiction. The stories of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness are attributed to “the devil,” but Jesus was alone at the time, so it’s much more likely that ideas such as turning a rock into a loaf of bread to feed his starving body came from his own hungry ego.

The original sin depicted in the Bible was also likely the doings of Adam’s and Eve’s egos rather than that of a magical serpent who “made” her do it. Questioning God — or life — is a primary function of the ego, so the idea that they could eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge very likely came from within. It’s like, “Why would God stop me? I’m His creation, after all. He can’t be serious, so let’s find out”.

This, of course, sheds a contradictory light on our vast religious beliefs, because we’d rather believe our troubles stem from others (including the devil) than to accept that they all come from within ourselves. But what if the devil IS actually the realm of the ego? An innocent child victimized by sexual abuse, for example, has no blame whatsoever in what happened, but they are fully responsible for any reactions that continue on after the event has long passed. Ego rises to protect the soul, but that must be surrendered downstream, ‘lest the patient become the being they’ve created, whether for cause or otherwise.

Ego, you see, is a two-sided coin that when flipped more often ends up tails — a set of beliefs, assumptions, and behaviors that shout “I’m a worthless piece of crap.” When we hear the word “ego,” it’s usually presented as the opposite, one who believes the sun rises and sets on themselves alone. Both sides of the coin practice the core belief that we are each unique, which is to deny the reality that we’re all really just the same. As Doctor Gagrat taught me in 1979, “People are like snowflakes, Terry, all different but all still snowflakes. If I turn up the heat, all will melt, not just some. If I stick you with an ice pick, you will bleed. If I stick your psyche with a poking device, it, too, will bleed.” We are all human beings, although we’d rather be special, whether it’s better or worse than everybody else.

Humanity will never rise fully to its capabilities until we find a way to tame that beast, which is actually a vital part of what it means to be human. And, if Jesus was indeed “fully human,” then his mission was to show us not only that it could be tamed but to leave us instructions on how it could be done. “Love God, love your neighbor” is the antidote to the self-centeredness that is located with the ego.

I’m neither a psychologist, a psychiatrist, nor a theologian, so the views presented here will largely be discounted. I accept that. The box only supports those that are boxed, and outsiders need not apply, unless they agree to join their astute critics from within. This, in my view, is the great weakness of scientific inquiry, and it’s why I will forever be judged as deviant.