How to Stop Allowing Your Ego to Make Your Life Difficult
My alter ego is an egotist run amok. Though that description may sound redundant, I assure you it is not: my alter ego really is like an egotist on steroids. By that I mean it is a harsh taskmaster that sets totally unrealistic expectations for me, and it holds me to standards that are impossible to meet. It doesn’t do this to others, just to me. For way too many years, I didn’t do anything to stop it.
I had a long-standing belief that while realistic expectations are fine for everyone else, expectations of my performance must be much, much higher. My alter ego requires me to know things I have no reason to know, and be able to do things perfectly the first time I try (as well as each subsequent time). It insists that I should be able to [fill in the blank with any task], no matter how ill prepared I am to do so. The punishment when I was unable to fill these unrealistic expectations: terrible negative self-judgments and unfounded beliefs about my abilities in general.
In 1996 I finally realized what was happening – i.e., that I had an alter ego that was running amok and making my life very difficult. That year, while trying to write my doctoral dissertation, I became increasingly frustrated because I couldn’t seem to get it right. Time after time, my advisor would rip apart what I had written and tell me to do it over. One day, when I had reached the point at which I felt that I had to accept the fact that I was a complete idiot, my advisor said, “You’ve never written a dissertation before. What makes you think you should be able to write it perfectly the first time?” When I heard myself respond, “Because I should,” the light bulb went off. I was shocked to discover that I held this arrogant belief that I was somehow super-human, able to do things that no other person was capable of doing without the necessary preparation or skills or talent. On the bright side, once the taskmaster alter ego was exposed, I was able to choose to put an end to its dysfunctional charade.
One of the ways my alter ego had manifested itself over the years was an inability to ask for and receive help. The good news is that as an expert but recovering “non-asker” for help, I easily recognize this dysfunctional behavior - and its companion, not accepting help that is offered - in others, and I can offer very pragmatic advice about how to change it based on my personal experience. Because replacing any long-held, negative habit with a newer, positive one is a process, not an event, I’m still working on this one. But it’s worth it, as I finally learned that life can be really easy when I ask for and receive help when I need it!
In my article “6 Steps to Asking for and Receiving Help,” I suggested that you can begin to make your life easier by learning to ask for help, and then accepting it when it is offered. Those steps can help you bring your taskmaster ego/alter ego in line as well. However, I’d like to offer three short exercises to supplement that advice for those of you who decide it’s time to stop allowing your ego to make your life difficult.
Exercise #1: Expose your ego/alter ego to the light of day
Awareness is the first step in addressing an ego or alter ego run amok. When you find yourself setting unrealistic expectations, especially if you exhibit a pattern of such behavior, examine what’s causing it. Especially if the expectations you have of your peers are strikingly different than those you set for yourself, ask yourself why. Speak the answer out loud. The sound of yourself saying something like, “Because I should be able to [fill in the blank] even when I don’t think anyone else in my situation should,” will help you understand just how unreasonable that belief is. That’s when change becomes possible.
Exercise #2: Give your ego (or alter ego) a time out
When you find yourself setting unrealistic expectations for yourself, stop what you’re doing. Recognize your ego, appreciate it for the good things it does for you, then firmly tell its “run amok” aspect to take a back seat – you’ve got this situation covered. Let the logical part of your ego come forward and set realistic expectations.
Exercise #3: Substitute a realistic view of the situation for the distorted one
Imagine that your best friend or a close family member seeks your advice about an issue that exactly matches your situation. What advice would you give this person? Listen to what you say, then follow your own advice.
I can’t promise that it will be easy to rein in or overcome entirely an ego or alter ego run amok. My taskmaster alter ego still surfaces every now and then. But what I can promise is that life without a harsh taskmaster is so much easier and more joy-filled than a life dominated by it.
To re-cap, here’s what you can do starting right now to make your life easier:
Recognize that life is much more difficult when you refuse to ask for and receive help
Take responsibility for your choices: only YOU can decide whether or not to continue to allow your alter ego to run amok once you know it’s an obstacle to your enjoyment of life
Substitute healthy behaviors and thoughts (e.g., see the above exercises) for the negative ones
Repeat as needed: taking control of an ego/alter ego run amok is a process, not an event
So what are you waiting for? Try one or more of these exercises today and begin to enjoy life more fully!
Pat Lynch, Ph.D., is President of Business Alignment Strategies, Inc., a consulting firm that helps clients optimize business results by aligning people, programs, and processes with organizational goals. You may contact Pat or call (562) 985-0333.
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