Tuesday, August 21 , 2018, 5:37 pm | Fair 73º


Brian Burke: About Your Divorce (Letter 123) — The Second E Is for Ego

Oblique Divorce Strategy #19 —  SEE the origin of overly emotional reaction: The second E is for EGO

SEE is an acronym created by writer-psychologist David Richo to use for the generation of likely hypotheses to explain an extreme emotional reaction to a person or event.

What constitutes an overly emotional reaction is decided by the person emoting. The letters stand for Shadow, Ego and Early Experience.

See "Oblique Divorce Strategy #18: E is for Early Experience” for more about David Richo or Amazon for a list of his writings.

When I use the term “Richonean,” it’s intended to mean my understanding (possibly incorrect and probably incomplete) of something I’ve heard Richo say in a class or something I’ve read in one of his more than 20 books.

I’ve treated each letter in SEE as a separate Oblique Divorce Strategy. The second E is for Ego, a slippery word with different meanings for different people that must be defined as to its intended meaning at the outset of an exchange.

The ego from the SEE acronym differs from the usual meanings intended when the word is used.

What follows is merely an idea that can be utilized provisionally; it’s not something that can be proved either true or false. You do not need to believe it to use it.

In the Richonean scheme of things, the self is also called the "True Self.” It’s the self you get if you "find yourself" and the self you meet if you “know thy self.”

Finding and knowing one’s self requires a lot of work. I don’t know if anyone gets it 100 percent right.

For Richo, a psychologist and former Roman Catholic Priest, the true self is connected to the universe. It’s not necessary to know about the divine characteristics of the Richonean true self to use the SEE acronym.

He defines ego as who you think you really are — right now.

The ego has two parts. One is true, meaning it is consistent with the true self. The other is false, meaning it is inconsistent with, often the opposite of, your true self.

For clarity I will refer to the true ego and the false ego, both of which are included in the ego. In any given moment you don’t know what about you is true (consistent with your true self) and what about you is false (inconsistent with your true self).

The false ego is very protective and defensive. It’s what’s usually meant when ego is used in the negative sense. We are very attached to everything included in the false ego, and the lives we construct assume that both parts of the ego are authentic.

The false ego obscures understanding of the true self and prevents a person from flourishing. It’s the phony in everyman and everywoman.

You typically don’t recognize your own phony self even when it’s pointed out to you.

The false ego is tenacious and fights dirty from the inside for its own existence. It no doubt contributes to a variety of biases that impinge our quality of rational thought, such as the confirmation bias, the bias in favor of the status-quo and the projection bias.

Effective flatterers and manipulators know exactly what to say or do to encourage, bolster, inflate or otherwise support the false ego. When this happens our emotional response is admiration, adoration or even love.

The false ego’s gluttonous response to praise makes us feel giddy enough to cause a suspension of judgment approval of its source. This isn’t a big insight; of course we like people who say the things we want to hear, especially when we didn’t know we wanted to hear them.

In contrast, when the false ego is threatened the response is excessive fear and anger.

The threat is perceived as striking at our sense of identity. It strikes the sense of who we are. Note that the people who know exactly what to say to make us feel great by bolstering the false ego also know exactly where to land blows that hurt because they are perceived as a threat to identity.

In our culture, many (or most) men believe in an exaggerated version of their own autonomy, competence and masculinity. We have a deep belief that we possess an inherent strength that prevents others from messing with us. 

But the reality is otherwise. Every man can be messed with. There is always a bigger and meaner kid on the playground, and we can usually avoid or escape engagement with him to protect the false ego’s exaggerated view of just who we are.

When there is a perception of being messed with, overreaction is the part of the false ego that’s going to struggle to protect its existence.

Richo provides an effective touchstone that reveals when the false ego perceives it is under attack.

Say the sentence: “How dare you?” If it resonates (fits) with the experience you’re having, your false ego is defending itself.

Your experience is likely to be overly emotional; yet, this is precisely the time you can identify an aspect of the phony within, cast it out and then overcome the obstacle that provoked it.

Here are a pair of trivial examples of how the false ego works.

In a recent conversation, another lawyer from my building told me about how he was blocked from using the public path that goes from our building to the parking lot.

The reason was a museum fundraising party with live music and dancing. The museum had hired “little wise-ass kids dressed in black” to guard against party crashers and, incidentally, against people who were leaving the office after an exhausting day of work. This meant walking an extra 200 yards.

He became increasingly angry and increasingly inaccurate as he told the story.

The guards were not “little wise-ass kids.” They were well-muscled young men who were well-schooled and excruciatingly polite in their determination to enforce the poorly designed, ridiculous policy of their employer. That they were dressed in black simply amplified the indignity.

I know because the same thing happened to me that night. As I heard the story, my anger was re-stimulated. How dare they? The inconvenience added no more than five minutes to the time it took to get from the building to our cars — and the incident occurred five years ago!

I think the other lawyer and I were so angered because we each thought of ourselves as well-educated, experienced and effective in dealing with the ways of the world.

How could this be true if we couldn’t get past a youth dressed in black enforcing a policy that makes no sense?

In other words, we were undeniably less than what we thought prior to the encounter with the boys in black. We’re still dealing with it.

                                                                 •        •        •

I know in advance that my perceived identity as one who is competent and effective in dealing with the ways of the world is likely to be challenged when I attempt to deal with my health insurance company.

I defer the call for as long as possible. When I finally place it, I remind myself that I’m not the kind of person who gets pushed around by insurance companies.

Well, maybe I am. The call went on for ninety minutes, I was mostly on hold, and I lost track of the times I was transferred and “escalated.”

After forty-five minutes I started to feel pushed around and increasingly angry. How dare they treat me like this?

I disconnected when they got me with elevator music recorded for use at Guantanamo. I couldn’t take it anymore.

Of course, I got myself. The false ego thinks it’s more “effective and competent in dealing with the ways of the world” than it is.

That belief can persist even in light of contrary evidence, and so long as it survives, it will inspire the continuation of self-defeating behavior.

Next column: Oblique Strategy #20 — SEE the cause of your overly emotional reaction to a person or event. S is for Shadow

— Brian H. Burke is a certified family law specialist practicing family law and mediation in Santa Barbara. A researcher and educator in the field of divorce and family conflicts, he is also the creator of the Legal Road Map™. Click here for more information, call 805.965.2888 or e-mail [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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