The Ego Is A Mask

A major stumbling block for those wanting to develop better self-discipline and improve their lives as letting their ego get in the way. The ego is a mask; it’s not the real you. Regularly remind yourself of the process, not the outcome and be okay with being a beginner or being wrong. Stop playing a role and encounter the moment as it is—no comparisons, appraisals, or judgments.

On your self-discipline journey, you’ll encounter pain, which is inevitable. But suffering (i.e., the way we react to pain) is avoidable. Blame, personal narratives, regret, self-hate, doubt, anxiety etc. are all optional reactions. Try not to add “second darts” when life deals you a bad hand. With awareness and calm, compassionate acceptance, we can allow both pain and suffering to pass.

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We don’t meditate to earn accolades, or compete with others, or brag. Meditation and mindfulness are ways to become more deeply and clearly acquainted with the present moment. When we meditate, our mental churnings, our personal myths and narratives, our ruminations and excuses and internal dramas—all of these are set aside so we can access still, calm consciousness, right now. This means that ego doesn’t play a role.

Many people seek personal development and strive to be more productive and successful primarily as an ego exercise. Now, “ego” doesn’t just mean that you’re arrogant and self-centered—it’s broader than that, and denotes any state of mind where you are hung up on your own sense of personal identity and self. A person who thinks too highly of themselves and is unable to hear criticism has let their ego take over. But on the other hand, someone who is stubbornly attached to an image of themselves as a loser, and who cannot hear praise or risk trying something new—they have an ego problem, too.

We can think of the ego as a veil between who you think you are and who you really are. It’s like a mask we wear as we move around the world and interact with others. We need an ego—it’s like a vehicle. But it’s a question of being mindful of the role our ego is playing. There’s no need to “kill” the ego or imagine that we need to be selfless monks and nuns with zero personal identity!

Let’s put all of this into the context of self-discipline. Can your ego get in the way of you being your most productive, most effective and most determined self? Absolutely.

Firstly, your ego can make it hard for you to take risks or trying something new, because you’re afraid of what others might think. A big ego can make you avoid being a beginner, asking for help, admitting mistakes, or looking a little silly while you’re learning something new. As a result, your ego remains intact but you learn nothing!

The go can also trap us in all our old stories and beliefs. The ego is like a fixed role you play; if you’re constantly thinking, “Oh no, my character could never do that,” then you are limiting and even undermining yourself. To protect your ego, you could avoid new or challenging situations, ignore valuable criticism and feedback, or simply fail to grow and evolve because something doesn’t seem like it fits who you are now.

How to Use This in Your Life Immediately

Keeping a toxic ego in check is not difficult—it’s something we can do every day, if we only remain mindful:

• Keep your attention on the process and not the outcome. It’s all that you can really control anyway, and focusing on it will prevent you getting distracted by rewards, praise, and so on.

• Always consider yourself a beginner. Get comfortable saying “I don’t know.” Any time you learn something new, there’s something else beyond the horizon. Stay humble and resist the urge to be the expert who has it all figured out. Certainty is stagnation!

• Tell yourself that failing or making mistakes doesn’t define you—and that means ultra-success doesn’t either. Use an internal measure of your own self-worth, that isn’t vulnerable to what shifts and changes externally. This means you need to know yourself on a deep level, and work with a purpose.

• Promise yourself to give up the habit of comparison. While you’re at it, cut short any desire to gossip or complain. 

• Get out of your own head. Regularly engage with people who have different perspectives, welcome diversity of thought, and keep humble by reminding yourself of the bigger picture you’re a part of. 

• Dedicate yourself to your purpose—that thing you would do even if nobody ever recognized or praised it, that thing that is above your own pride and satisfaction. 

• Realize that you are not entitled to anything. At the same time, know that you are allowed to choose your own values, and stick with them, regardless of what others say. 

Know the Difference Between Suffering and Pain

The Buddhists knew a lot about self-discipline, non-reactivity, and inner calm. One brilliant lesson we can borrow from this philosophy is the attitude toward pain and suffering—which are not the same thing!

In life, pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.

What does this mean? We all live in flawed physical bodies that will eventually decay and perish. We all live in a world where things are transient, and where loss is a given. So, we experience pain. People we love die. Accidents happen. We get ill, we break something, we stub our toes. This is all pain—and it’s a normal and natural part of life.

However, suffering is one step further. Suffering is our mind’s attachment to pain. It’s all the stories and narratives we weave around pain. Self-pity, denial, worry, regret, indignation, complaining . . . all of these things are separate from the original pain. These are sometimes called “second darts.” If you were shot with a dart, it would hurt like hell. This is the first dart. But if you then pulled the dart out and spent the next three days raging against the person who threw the dart, that would be a “second dart.” That would be a kind of pain and unhappiness that was purely optional. So, if you tell yourself a story like, “That pain should not have happened, and I’m really mad now, and I won’t let it go . . .” you are creating suffering for yourself—and sometimes the suffering is much worse than the pain!

So, the way you think about pain matters. When you are mindful, you can be aware of the difference, and notice whether you are actively choosing to suffer. Remember that you cannot change the fact of pain. In fact, pain is useful for the body, and alerts us to danger, inspiring us to beneficial action. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is not. The goal is not to live a painless life. The goal is to stop creating unnecessary and avoidable suffering for yourself. To stop blaming others, making excuses, projecting onto others, bargaining, condemning, judging, or engaging in negative self-talk that does nothing to improve the situation.

What should our attitude to pain be? We can sit with it, and let it pass. We don’t have to like it, but there’s no reason to wrestle with it. There’s no point arguing with it.

And our attitude to suffering? Well, we need to remember that suffering is something that we have control over. Let’s turn our attention away from pain (which, after all, we can’t do anything about) and onto suffering (which we can).

How to use this in your life immediately

Yes, we want to “mind our mood” and get into our conscious, rational decision-making mind. But we also don’t want to try and get rid of bad feelings, push them away, diminish them, or judge them. The first step is awareness, and closely on its heels is acceptance. If it hurts, fine. Just be with that. The first step is to accept that we are in pain and be aware of our suffering.

Without any need to judge, interpret, fix or deny, simply sit with the pain that’s there. Be curious about it. Be still and see what it is, without trying to run away, grab hold of it, or shove it out of awareness. Take lots of deep breaths and a little time—can you discern the difference between pure, simple pain right now and suffering, i.e., your attachment and stories surrounding that pain? Remember, you’re just in an exploratory frame of mind, you’re not diagnosing or assessing or making stories.

When a story comes up (for example, “I love my work so if I’m unmotivated, it means I’m weak somehow” or “This always happens . . .”), just notice it. Don’t judge this, either. Just bring awareness to it and see how these stories fit into your ego identity. Gradually, both the suffering and the pain do what they do when you’re not holding onto them—they pass.

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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.

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