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.