Relationships can be very rewarding, but, truthfully, they can be difficult. This is true for everyone regardless of any residual issues you might face in terms of family of origin, trauma, and relationship history. This makes personal development in terms of interpersonal effectiveness, perspective-taking, validation, and empathy development all the more important. Why? Well, a proper development of empathy and perspective-taking enable us to dismantle a lopsided ego when it may, under pressure, take its edification from the disempowerment of others in order to empower itself, and that pursuit and process can be extraordinarily subtle. The question I often ask of myself is this:
Is your ego driving you, or are you driving your ego?
In order to continue to develop a more integrated identity (eg0) and increase interpersonal effectiveness and emotional maturity, it is vital to develop insight into our own behaviors and drives and the behavior of others (empathy):
As James Mark Baldwin aptly stated, “Ego and alter are born together”. What he meant by that is our sense of self emerges in close relationship to our sense of others (and how they treat us). Indeed, because our “selves” exist within interdependent networks of other people, because we initially understand ourselves through the lens of mirrored others, and because our identity is very much about narrating and legitimizing our actions to others, a key aspect of ego functioning is the capacity to understand others in a complex manner. Whereas insight refers to the capacity to understand one’s self, empathy refers to the capacity to understand others. So central is this ability that a recent, modern psychodynamic treatment is called mentalizing, which teaches individuals steps for developing more complex, richer, less judgmental and reactive narratives for describing and explaining the actions of others. (The Elements of Ego Functioning)
Note this idea: “we initially understand ourselves through the lens of mirrored others….” This concept explains, in part, why family of origin trauma is so significant in personal development. If we initially understand ourselves through the perceptions of others, then our budding identities could often be founded upon distortions and extremities when we hail from abuse. Furthermore, this would be normalized because this is our starting point in life and often the cornerstone for our core beliefs.
In my experience, remaining at this developmental stage is often the cause for interpersonal difficulties and suffering. When we continually remain in a state wherein we understand ourselves through the reflective lens of other people we fail to develop insight or even a more developed empathic response towards others because we are functioning from a deficit. What do I mean by that? When you are continually looking to understand yourself through the experiences of other people, your reference point for all your experiences becomes, oddly, self-referential even though you are looking externally for your legitimacy and validation. The mechanism underlying this is the need to consistently legitimize and identify yourself rather than already feeling existentially or ontologically legitimate, and that need is internally driven. It is the ego driving you. The extreme version of this is narcissism. In that context, a person is looking to others for “narcissistic supply” which is:
“a psychological concept which describes a type of admiration, interpersonal support, or sustenance drawn by an individual from his or her environment. The term is typically used in a negative sense, describing a pathological or excessive need for attention or admiration that does not take into account the feelings, opinions or preferences of other people.” (Wikipedia definition)
Essentially, you are building an identity with borrowed or even stolen bricks and repairing a wounded ego by the same means. You are not building, maintaining, or developing a sense of self through an internal process of growth. While it is absolutely necessary to experience support, love, and validation from other people in order to experience a rich and meaningful life, it is important to note the difference here.
We have to ask important questions like: Who is responsible for meeting my needs? Who is responsible for making me happy? Who is responsible for my well-being and sense of personal significance? How do I build a meaningful life and experience rewarding relationships that enrich me and the other person while promoting growth? How do I continue to grow personally even in the midst of a social and emotional drought? How do I feel good about myself when there is no one around to make me feel good about myself? How do I learn to validate and motivate myself?
Why does this matter? Well, on a truly fundamental level, what might happen when you are faced with criticism? It becomes an attack on identity instead of an opportunity to generate growth and listen to another person’s legitimate perspective which may strongly differ from yours. Why might that be the response? If my sense of self is perceived and developed through other people’s experiences of me rather than a solid understanding of myself, then criticism would be, of course, devastating.
What if you are confronted with a hard truth about how you relate to other people? What if you hurt someone’s feelings? What if you have bad relational habits of which you are not aware? Or, what if your sense of self is still largely founded upon what your family believes about you or even an abusive ex-partner? What if deeply rooted core beliefs are dictating the functioning of our egos? What if your sense of self is founded upon social convention, wealth, or meeting expectations and, suddenly, you lose your standing? All this is to say that it is imperative that we devote time and effort to developing insight into ourselves so that we become not only more empathetic but also more integrated in order to be more interpersonally effective.
What might ego-driven behavior look like in terms of personal relationships? We experience this often, and we certainly feel it. The sting of a wounded ego is very particularistic. I’ll give you a more extreme example to illustrate the point:
When my ex-husband and I would try to work out relational issues, it almost always failed. His self-assessment was largely based upon his professional life and success, therefore, my experience of him created an inescapable dissonance. Whenever I told him how I felt or even my experience of him he would say something like this:
“No one complains about me. I have asked other people if I’m like that. I’m not. That hurts my feelings that you even think that about me. I think that you are a broken person because of the things that have happened to you, and maybe you don’t perceive reality as it is. That’s what is happening here. Besides I don’t even remember what you’re talking about.”
This is an ego-driven response.
- “No one complains about me.” His sense of self and his behaviors are understood through others. Were they not, then he would not have used other people’s perceptions to minimize or dismiss mine. Furthermore, this response conflates his experiences with other people and our experience in relationship together. People can and do behave differently with others and within the contexts of different environments. It is not unusual at all to find out that a person, for example, has a bad habit, addiction, or even profound personal struggles “behind closed doors”. To the shock and dismay of their friends and colleagues, everyone says, “I would have never guessed. S/he never gave any indication that they struggled in that way.”
- The presence of blame. Blaming is a way to externalize discomfort, distress, and anger. As Brene Brown puts it, “Blame is the discharging of discomfort and pain. It has an inverse relationship with accountability.” Once the blame sets in, shame follows quickly. To quote Brown again, “Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged and healed…Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”
- The absence of empathy and validation. “That’s what is happening here.” Speaking in terms of omniscience, as if he is the expert on my experiences and heart, shows a lack of empathy, personal insight, and compassion. There is no interest to learn and grow. There is, however, a strong desire to be right as well as another desire to deny.
- The presence of gaslighting. This is an example of perceptual manipulation which defines gaslighting, and it characterizes ego-driven responses. Basically, one must manipulate, suppress, and force change upon the perception of the other person in order to mold it to one’s own perceptions since one’s self-perception is dependent upon others. It is vital for underdeveloped or dis-integrated ego survival that external supply is consistent because dissonance, which spurs growth, is not allowed. Growth is often very painful, and survival and pain often don’t make friends easily.
When you experience something like this in life, and you will, understand that this can be the mechanism behind behaviors like this. Does it hurt to be a part of this kind of dance? Yep. It is much easier to process, however, when you understand the process, and it’s also a wonderful reminder to tend to your own ego and growth process. It’s how we heal, grow, and become people worth knowing. We become better people, and that’s a journey worth taking.
For an outstanding article on ego functioning, read this: