I have—for years now. Before we get together, my husband and I are given a list of ‘taboo’ topics to avoid in order to have a peaceful dinner together with one particular person. While that helps us avoid outright battle, our meetings are still tense. My difficult person steps into the room angry and on the defensive, before a word, or even a smile, is exchanged.
When people come at you with ego venom, many psychologists say the healthy response is twofold: stand up and back away. First, stand up for yourself by refusing to accept the abuse others may inflict. “Stop, I won’t be treated that way.” Or, “I understand that you disagree, but my opinion is also valid.” Then move away and move on--without having to get in the last word. To be compelled to win or to punish is to be caught in the same ego game your offender is playing.
It takes courage to stand up and say no, and it takes self-confidence to move away without a retaliatory fight.
The result of these two approaches is self-respect. But it’s not easy. And sometimes that two-pronged approach won’t work.
You may find your problem person is utterly incapable of receiving feedback or constructive criticism of any kind. She acts defensively, is determined to justify herself or to show that you are wrong or incompetent. She may not respond appropriately if you stand up for yourself. Here’s why: The ego, especially the narcissistic ego, is tone-deaf to inflection. The slightest criticisms are heard as if they were barbed. A person’s ego actually hears even gentle feedback at a higher pitch than you are using. This activates the predictable reaction of self-protection and makes hearing you impossible.
And if that vulnerable self has fragmented by reason of disappointment or betrayal, rage may arise. This is a result of uncontained—or latent contained—anger. An intact person uses healthy anger to register an “Ouch! I think I’ll avoid you in the future,” A vulnerable ego looks for a way to retaliate, to harm the person who harmed them.
Exercise: Find one example of a strong reaction that occurred this week and look for your shadow in it. Acknowledge this shadow possibility from now on, whenever you are strongly upset by something. Write it in your journal, and also share it in the moment, either with the person who incited it, or with a friend.
Punishing and Placating
Our ego often reacts to painful interactions with others in unhealthy and automatic ways. For instance, when someone snubs us or insults us, our arrogant ego may react with a plan to punish him/her with “an eye for an eye” vengeance, distancing, or sarcasm. Our ego in its victim mode on the other hand, may feel intimidated and react to such rejection with conciliatory or submissive behavior, such as giving in to someone or over compromising. Both sides of the ego are in all of us. We may punish when we are outraged, or placate when we are intimidated. Punishing masks our grief and rage; placating masks our fear.
Exercise: Find an example in our own life of holding a grudge or of attempting to get back at someone for what he/she had done to you. Instead of punishment (even the ‘silent treatment’), approach the other with love and ask for amends without blame. Regardless of whether or not the other person responds, notice how good you feel nonetheless, since you, at least, have done the loving and healthy ego thing. After practicing this for a while, it will matter less and less whether others respond as you wish. The self-expanding feelings in yourself will be sufficient reward, and you will feel better to do good than to get even.
The FACE of the neurotic ego also has a positive, creative side. We find this positive shadow side of ourselves, not by besting others, but simply by losing face.
The F for fear becomes an acknowledgement of our vulnerability while being excited by the unknown. The A of attachment becomes bonding in a committed but non possessive way. The C for control becomes power for not over others. The E for entitlement becomes speaking up and standing up for our rights, but then letting the chips fall where they may. Each feature of the FACE of ego causes pain. Fear is the first because it is the origin of the other three and because it may have happened first in our lives. We attach because we fear loss. We control because we fear grief. We demand entitlement because we fear that things may not always be fair. But there is a healthier condition than the scared-child ego: The adult ego that can work a program of change.
Everyone is occasionally rejected or intimidated. The ego takes poor treatment by others as a personal affront. Punishing and placating are neurotic attempts at controlling and avoiding the painful feelings that arise when we have to confront these normal predicaments of human existence.
The healthy alternative? Admit and feel grief, hurt and fear. Maintain self-protective boundaries in relationships, act assertively (not aggressively), and consistently override the impulse to punish or placate. Practice compassionate forgiveness, let go and move on.
Here is Richo’s list of healthy changes that occur in each of the negative features of the ego when we let go of having to act out its agenda in arrogant and neurotic ways:
As I let go of having to: I become more able to”
Get my way Cooperate with others
Be noticed and appreciated by everyone Ask for, give, and receive appreciation
Insist my misdeeds be overlooked Apologize and make amends
Insist I not be shown up or be proven wrong Do my best and be open to feedback
Be devastated if I lose face Admit an error and not let others shame me
Make demands on others Ask for what I want and be able to accept ‘no’ for an answer
Always win or be given preference Do my best, ask for rightful credit and let go
Have to get back at others Have a sense of justice without the need to punish
This list, by the way, is the basic definition of groundedness. To no longer be moved off-center by what others may do.
I’m taking a break from shadow work to celebrate Ostara, and then will conclude the shadow blogs with “The Long Bag We Drag Behind Us,” and how our shadow self developed in the first place.
Until then, be kind to each other.