I think a lot on the concept of ego strength lately, as it has been coming up frequently with clients and group work, and seems to be a trending idea in the larger arena of personal growth and positive behavior change.
As contrasted with the process of developing a 'healthy' ego or 'neurotic' ego (which occurs when our sense of self is defined by what we connect with, understand, love and empathize with or by what we fear, resist or judge, respectively) ego strength is all about how well we are able to deal with the realities of our lives.
Basically, how good we are with stress, and what our internal solidity really looks like.
Resilience, in a word.
And what is this magical stuff and where does it come from? Well, ego strength is something innate to each of us on differing levels, and is something that is first inherited from our parents.
If our primary providers responded to stressful situations by getting angry, having anxiety, avoiding the situation, eating something or shopping we will be far more likely to do the same, and up until adulthood we really don't have a lot of conscious control over changing these ways of being.
However, we can become conscious and responsible adults in our own right despite what we inherited, and take back our ability to respond to stress in healthier ways. It just takes practice to grow our own ego strength, instead of accepting what we got given.
It is a certainty that stress is going to happen throughout the remainder of life, but it does not have to be a certainty that we respond to it as we have always done. We can change to become stronger, more compassionate and more balanced humans, but we just have to practice in order to be able to do so.
Here are three steps to starting that practice, made simple for today. These actions amount to 'three steps to anything' because if we truly practice them and are able to become resilient and resistant to stress both within and without, there isn't anything we can't accomplish:
1. Mindfulness practice (or meditation, if you will)
Without training the mind we will never be able to catch ourselves in difficult moments and halt what would be an automatic response to whatever stress is occurring. Without training, our awareness we will resort to default patterns of anger, sadness, lashing out or avoidance--that which we inherited-- every single time.
Mindfulness is the single most powerful tool we can employ to begin to shift our responses from unconscious (inherited, and highly likely to be dysfunctional) to conscious, where we make the decisions on how to respond with clarity and confidence.
2. Do some reframing.
We all carry subconscious beliefs around our abilities to deal with situations as they occur, repeating to ourselves on a subconscious level that "I can't handle it when people are late" or "I am one of those people that just hates winter" or "I get stressed out when things move too quickly, it's just the way I am."
These beliefs can be grounded in our individual experience, sure, but more likely than not they are something that you share with at least one of your parents, and function more as a not-so-positive inheritance than a statement of absolute truth. And, basically, they just serve to justify your reactions when things don't go as you want them to, allowing you to fall back on old beliefs rather than challenge yourself to react differently.
Reframing and restating just one of these beliefs offers the opportunity to once again become conscious and empowered instead of habitual and reactive, and challenges us to see if maybe the way we've been unconsciously choosing to act isn't really supporting us at all.
Is it useful to have beliefs that excuse you from taking responsibility for your emotions and experience when certain conditions are met, like winter or people being late? Only if you want to be a victim of circumstance, which is, in essence, a person with low ego strength. Blaming people or situations for your state of mind is never a road to any kind of happiness.
3. Work at something small.
I used to be extremely obsessed with the possibility of being late to anything, and would tell myself and others that I was just one of those people who got stressed if I was late in the slightest. I would arrive hours before I had to be somewhere, and would do this only to 'prevent' the stress I might feel by being delayed.
Then years ago I encountered a therapist who asked that I show up to the appointment late (knowing that I had this tendency), just so I would have to encounter that experience and challenge myself to find a place of stress relief within in. Doesn't seem like a big deal, but it was a scary proposition at the time, having gone for so long just never being late so that I didn't have to feel that feeling.
This practice--of finding something non-life threatening and relatively tiny in your life experience, as being late ultimately is--and then asking yourself to see if you can still be okay with it allows us to develop ego strength and move beyond limiting beliefs around our capacity to deal with challenging situations. Perhaps it's dealing with rainy weather on a day you wanted sunshine, or having to sit on the phone with your credit card company for an hour, or just waking up feeling less than ideal. In any of these circumstances where we might normally 'allow' ourselves to feel stress (because that is just what we have always done) we can choose to settle, release, calm ourselves and choose a different perspective. And it is this different perspective--the one that says 'I got this"--that increases our ability, slowly but surely, to deal with whatever life puts in front of us.
And this, friends, is the place where all the good stuff really lives, and where we are the conscious, powerful beings we are meant to be.