The Ego’s Role in Trauma Response

What is ego? Does it need to be destroyed? | Isha Sadhguru

“I am the result of the way I reacted to what happened to me as a child.” AA Big Book, Freedom From Bondage

The ego is a part of the self but not the self. When all needs are met, the ego and the self work together efficiently to take us through our lives. Ego is not inherently evil, although it can become very much so with the right set of circumstances. For example, where there is trauma, the ego rises in defense and seizes the opportunity to lead the damaged self. But, as the ego continues in this position, it becomes stronger in representing the self’s identity, one that is often fallacious and harmful to the self’s wellbeing.

For purposes of this discussion, it’s important to view ego as a two-sided coin. On one side, there’s the image of being better than others, but the flip side reveals the image of being worse than everybody else. It’s the same dynamic at work in either case, and in fact, the latter is much more common than the former.

The ego knows when the self has been hurt and uses that hurt to maintain its position in the mind of the victim. It does so by leading the self into constantly repeating the pain of rejection and abandonment that the self feels. In this way, the balance between the two is nearly impossible to restore. The ego is in a constant search for situations that will remind the self of its failings and, thus, keep the seat of power in the patient’s mind. What person reeling from abandonment issues, for example, hasn’t deliberately walked right into likely rejection? That person is lost, because she cannot figure out why she keeps doing this over and over again. It is the very definition of insanity.

The character of the ego, post-trauma, is described in Eric Bernes’ Transactional Analysis as a juvenile ego state known as The Little Professor, which is why some trauma responses are often viewed as foolish and childish behaviors. The Little Professor is smart, creative, and obsessed with protecting the self. Unfortunately, however, protecting the self includes living the life that the self knows should be hers, and in order to stay in charge, the ego then works to continue the pain that keeps the self bound in what feels like complete helplessness. This is often where the patient’s damages surface in what is often addictive behavior. Quieting the voice of the ego becomes the self’s obsession, which addictions provide for a season. A nervous breakdown of some sort will occur when the patient’s ego/self runs completely off the rails, for example, through an arrest, an outburst at work, or some other form of self-destruction.

The ego’s weapon is deception. Through this, she works very hard to prevent the patient from the contentment of the moment, which is where healing is possible. When the self walks into the ego’s trap, she finds herself in one of two artificial “places,” the past or the future, and often both. Those badly damaged in the past deal with immature emotions, because the ego keeps reminding her of her wounds. With such feelings, the self is then obsessed with what might be coming around the bend. She often rehearses (in her mind) the various scenarios imagined, so that she would be prepared in the event one of her possible scenes would actually occur. Like a baseball batter who’s been brushed back by the pitcher, he faces the next pitch with just a bit of trepidation. He’s, at least partially, expecting to get hit with the next one. The pitcher has the batter exactly where he wants him, just a little off. This is the same concept with the abuse victim. She’s waiting, planning even, that she’ll have the information necessary to know exactly when to duck. This is living in the future.

A self that’s been badly damaged is incapable of rightly judging the world around her, and this is just another way that the ego runs the show. And it can be quite a show, for the ego’s relationship with shame is a two-fold cord that is constantly at enmity with the self. Beginning with the innate sense of worthlessness that comes with the trauma, the patient believes that they are alone in their suffering, which leads to the disease known as Terminal Uniqueness. “There’s something wrong with me” is what manifests in the minds of trauma victims. This feeling is so strong — after all, normal people are lovable and happy, and things like this don’t happen to them — that the best she can do is hide it, and for that, she turns to the Little Professor for help. He does not, however, have her best interests in mind.

Craig Nakken writes in The Addictive Personality that suicide is actually a form of homicide in which the self finally destroys the ego (Nakken references the ego as “the addict”). This internal battle, therefore, can truly be fatal. In recovery, we have a saying that the mind can be a dangerous place, because we’re not alone in there. 

There is little doubt that the ego functions like the devil from the Bible, which was likely early humankind’s way of explaining the complex mechanizations of the human mind. When Jesus said, “Get thee behind me, satan,” he was more likely speaking to his own ego than some external creature with red skin, horns, and a pitchfork.

When preachers fall from grace, count on the ego of that person to be the source of the mischief. The same ego that led them into ministry as a way to escape feelings of unworthiness will pull the whole house down upon them sooner or later. The self of that minister may have genuine feelings in the service of others, but the pulpit has been chosen as a hiding place for the inferiority he actually believes he’s covering up. This person is constantly under stress, but, of course, he’s very good at hiding it until acting out seems the only reasonable response to his feelings. Humiliation is just one of the weapons of the ego. As British Evangelist and author John R. W. Stott expressed, “And they who fain would serve Thee best are conscious most of wrong within.” It’s an open door to behavior that acts out rather than deals with the history behind it.

The most powerful message that the ego brings to the self is one that denies the existence of the ego whatsoever. Science is the ego’s unaware partner here, because science simply isn’t equipped to deal with things that cannot be measured. Besides, the view presented here is too simple, and science “just knows” that it has to be more complex. We must remember, however, that science pursues a paycheck of some form, and complexity sells when approaching potential patients with treatment options. The extent to which we believe that science is “supreme,” is the degree to which we’ll deny human nature in the quest for wellness. Science presses our uniqueness. Recovery voices our sameness. It’s doubtful these two enemies will ever see things the same way.

The problem, of course, is that insurance will more readily pay for science, not this mushy, new-age kind of nonsense. It is a significant problem.

The victims of horrible abuse are mostly shunned by our culture. Firstly, victims don’t advertise their wounds as abuse. They move forward, always anxious for tomorrow, and this often appears to outsiders as “wallowing in self-pity” instead of putting their big girl pants on. The truth is that such victims are often highly sensitive when it comes to their skill at reading a room, for example, as a way to position themselves against those who likely won’t understand. We call many of these people “Empaths,” and they are legends in their own minds. They view their sensitivity as a gift in order to feel special, but this is simply another manifestation of the patient’s trauma response. People like this are a full-course meal for science in its unwillingness to explore such things, because they are almost always wrong or overly general in their analysis of what’s going on around them.

Empaths are usually approachable and friendly, so they make good healers, friend, and sounding boards for others, who are more interested in using empaths for self-gain than genuine friendship. Empaths are often overweight, having used eating as an addictive response to the trauma that they’re fleeing. Not all fat people, however, have mental issues, and they’re quick to defend themselves against such accusations. Overeating can be a very visible form of “sin” — a.k.a. gluttony — to those not trapped in a trauma response, and these sorts of judgments only make things worse for the patient.

We all want to feel special, and trauma victims are no different. Their specialness, however, Is laced with the poison of feeling utterly unlovable and different in a bad way. They blame themselves for what happened, and it’s through this door (the one labeled “shame”) that the ego makes its appearance.

The only cure for this of which I’m aware is the practice of deliberately making the effort to live in the moment, for the ego has great difficulty functioning outside the world of time and space, choosing instead to live in the pain of the past or the anxiety of tomorrow. This must come, unfortunately, as a revelation or an awakening, something science completely rejects.

Remember always that as long as he/she is trying to run your show, your ego is most definitely not your friend.

Terminal Uniqueness

To addicts in recovery, we are made aware that the real disease of addiction is called “Terminal Uniqueness,” that age-old quest to prove myself better, worse, or otherwise different than you. It is entirely ego-driven, and it effects people in ways that are both observable to others and deeply-known by the sufferers. Its most damaging symptom is that it results in our separating from others and isolating, because it validates the internal belief that I am somehow unique. The word itself means alone in whichever class we pick, and that is what leads to all sorts of behavior that undermines our self-worth.

I’ve written about this before, but I need to take a slightly different tact today.

I can get away with presenting this as an illness inclined towards addicts, but the truth is it’s rampant in our culture, especially today when we have so much leverage in determining our own brands. Yup, that’s what we call crafting a sellable self for others to consume.

You can find it in discussions of race or poverty today. It’s all over political arguments. You can certainly find it on social media everywhere. You can find it on “Only Fans” (BTW, parents, do you know if your son or daughter has an Only Fans page?) among those who take their clothes off and do nasty things to make a buck while in isolation. Take a look at the patrons, for example, of Walmart, where a particular form of uniqueness can be found in the way people dress. Pick just about any issue, and you’ll find it stuffed with the masks and fallacious imagery of those who offer support or disagreement. Wealthy people have their own ways of standing out, but it depends on your point-of-view.

Our culture is flooded with the unspoken cry, “Dig me,” and its institutions are designed to take advantage of the disease.

  • Finance: You need money to reach your objective. We can help.
  • Marriage: You need the right “partner” to be all you can be. We can help.
  • Medicine: You need your health for your unique journey. We can help.
  • Mental Health: You need to determine how far you can go with this. We can help.
  • Religion: You need us to make sure you have a right relationship with God. You want God’s blessing, right? We can help.
  • The Law: You need to make sure you don’t cross the wrong lines in your effort to be YOU. We can help.
  • Education: We can put you on the right path for your unique objective.

These groups represent the status quo in Western life, the aristocrats, the one percent. We are the hamsters on their wheels. And so we plot and plan. We try things on to see how they fit. We organize ourselves around our self-image and fine tune it before heading out to make a name for ourselves. I mean, it’s the American way, right?

So it has always been and will always be, unless there is a righteous rebellion.

We’ve gotten so far downstream in this effort today that we’re no longer able to even consider how alike we really are.

“But my husband…”
“But my upbringing…”
“But my abuse…”
“But my bad luck…”
“But my illness(es)…”
“But my injury…”
“But my situation…”

Can we please stop our complaining?

We find excuses everywhere to deny our nature as garden-variety human beings. It seems there’s just no future in being just one in the crowd. Who wants to be “normal?”

Somewhere inside all the masks and afflictions, we are all the same.

My old shrink, Doctor Gagrat, told me once:

“Terry, people are like snowflakes. All different but all still snowflakes. Put some heat to them, and they melt. If I stab you with an ice pick, you’ll bleed, and your blood will be red. If I stab your psyche with a weapon, you also bleed.”

This is without a doubt a true statement, and my point today is that if we were each simply seeking our authentic selves, we’d be much better off as a species within the cosmos. Instead of seeking to stand out, we would be able to give our attention to being better human beings.

But who wants to be a better human? What does that do for ME?

  • Life is free to do our heavy lifting for us.
  • It allows us be imperfect, just like everybody else.
  • It buys us freedom.
  • It buys us peace and all of the spiritual fruit we believe is tied to the goals of our struggle.
  • It allows for unconditional love.
  • We cease striving for “our” place within the whole, for our place is already set.
  • Life gets remarkably easy to live, for we’re in sync with it instead of fighting against it.
  • Things go wrong, of course, but we’re able to place them in the proper perspective.

The real idiocy of this disease is that it’s so incredibly useless. It functions as a yoke attaching us to a life of constant struggle. You wonder why people can’t sleep? The subconscious mind doesn’t shut down when attempting to sleep, because it’s way too active trying to plan the next steps in the fantasy. If we could just all say “Enough!”

This ought to be the top priority of all religions and the most preached sermon across the globe. Only then will we learn the truth about what humanity is doing on this planet and the path for reaching our universal purpose.

We simply don’t have the power to sustain such artificiality.

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.