A New Perspective on Ego, Emotions & Distress Tolerance

“Not abiding with our energy is a predictable human habit. Acting out and repressing are tactics we use to get away from our emotional pain. For instance, most of us when we’re angry scream or act it out. We alternate expressions of rage with feeling ashamed of ourselves and wallowing in guilt. We become so stuck in repetitive behaviour that we become experts in getting all worked up. In this way we continue to strengthen our painful emotions.” – Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare You

You know what’s scary? That ominous, shaky feeling we get sometimes when we’re alone. It’s so subtle we don’t even consciously acknowledge it – but we find a way to drown it out. We might think about our plans for tomorrow, reach for a snack as if the void was in our stomach, go on our phone to numb ourselves to that emotion or have a conversation in our head. Over time one snack is not enough, our uneasiness is spilling over and we need to clog it with crisps. Over time, one YouTube video does not do the trick and we need to watch a stream of vlogs to forget about our own life and to have access to the fantasy of a shiny, happy existence free from pain. Over time, one mental conversation which validates the ego is also not enough and we might find ourselves in a stream of beautiful and horrible fantasies. Ironically, we will likely find ourselves bringing up past aches and arguments – better the devil you know.

The Places That Scare You is a book I bought 2 or 3 years ago. I’d heard about the author Pema Chödrön from my Mam. At the time, although I thought the book was fascinating and full of wisdom, I wasn’t in a place to be able to implement the teachings into my life. I see now that it’s because, back then, I didn’t really accept myself. I got to the fourth or fifth chapter and set it aside. Last week, around about the time I arrived back in Edinburgh, I began rereading it. This time, I feel that my general attitude towards myself is much gentler and I think it’s partly down to the self work I’ve done which has been documented on this blog. The first step, self parenting, was particularly transformative. Ceasing to speak negatively about myself has been a life-changer. The book itself, as far as I can gather, is about doing ourselves the kindness of sitting with uncomfortable feelings and actually letting ourselves feel them. A “kindness” because the less we sit with the discomfort, the worse it will get over time. Before I started reading this book, I saw myself as someone who was very in touch with their emotions. I’m starting to question this now. Finding things to do when you’re feeling a certain way isn’t necessarily being in touch with your emotions. Isn’t that just finding more ways to distract yourself? Although certain things can be beneficial, like having a bath (because it does give you the time and space to reflect) or writing, most activities just plug the holes of emotion.

“Most of us just blindly reach for something familiar that we associate with relief and then wonder why we stay dissatisfied.” – Pema Chödrön

The kind of training that allows us to be more open to these feelings is called “bodhichitta”. This word can be translated in many ways but the one I like the best is “open heart”. Unsurprisingly, meditation is an important part of bodhichitta training. In the past week, I’ve been meditating most days and I’ve been trying to do less guided meditations. What’s interesting is Pema mentions that meditation and spiritual practice in general can also be a from of escapism. She notes that people can meditate for years and use this time to get further away from, not closer to, their emotional distress. I’ve been trying to keep in mind that meditation isn’t about “feeling good” – it’s about sitting with what is there. One of the qualities that meditation allows us to cultivate is paying attention to the present moment. Pema says that: “Attending to our present-moment mind and body is a way of being tender towards the self, toward other, and toward the world. This quality of attention is inherent in our ability to love.” This is very important to me because I am always striving to be a better girlfriend and I want to be more conscious of my words and actions. Or rather, not a better girlfriend because I don’t believe I need to change myself, but to more regularly tap into the well of compassion in me that I know is always there.

Another lesson this book is teaching me is awareness of my own ego. The way I see it, ego is responsible for us being very precious about ourselves and, equally, berating ourselves. It’s responsible for the beliefs we strongly hold onto and the image we have of ourselves. Narcissism and codependency are probably the most absolute and direct manifestations of the ego and I certainly have these tendencies in myself. Some people will say that empathy is the opposite of narcissism but I think that whilst narcissism is about having an overblown concern for oneself, the opposite (having an overblown concern for others) isn’t healthy, either. To learn more about codependency, you could check out my blog post – Enmeshment + Codependency: A Tangled Web. In this case, I am referring to the person who depends on another’s control due to a lack of self esteem and autonomy. That blog post explains the see-saw between being treated like a princess and then being ignored by my father that I experienced growing up and it serves as a good explanation for why I have both narcissistic and codependent tendencies. So learning to be more aware of my ego is something that could help me considerably. The times when I usually become aware of my ego is when my mind commences a seemingly endless running dialogue – when I’m thinking of myself or others (judgement), when I’m thinking of what I’m going to eat that day or how I’m going to micromanage things (control) or then musing on past memories and future plans (fantasising). The past week, I’ve been stopping myself multiple times in a day – and just laughing. Laughing about how absurd it all is. The other day, during a meditation, I focussed in on the feeling of regret – something I realise I feel all the time – and it became clear to me that I’m never going to perfectly follow a rigid schedule because things change all the time! It seemed so obvious to me in that moment that I just started laughing. The amount of mornings I’ve woken up feeling regret because I slept in, the amount of times throughout the day that I get a feeling of anxiety about the inevitable passage of time and for what? To try and resist the inevitable passage of time and the changing nature of things? Impossible. All I can do is be as organised as I feasibly can and try to enjoy life in the meantime.

I’m very grateful that this book is in my life because it has gifted me a new perspective that I hope can stay with me forever. Being given the teachings to be a more loving and open person is a great way to start the year. It’s worth mentioning that the practice of bodhichitta is not easy and I’m not trying to romanticise it – I’m just coming to terms with the feeling of my eyes having been opened to another way of going through life. Sitting with pain is not easy but in a way I feel ready to face these fears. Quite fittingly, the next step on my journey to self esteem is self determination. So, next week’s post will be about how I plan to stay determined with the training of bodhichitta. 🙂

Thanks for reading (and making it to the end of the post!).

– SMUT. ❤ xxxx

6 thoughts on “A New Perspective on Ego, Emotions & Distress Tolerance”

  1. Such a good post, helped me sit with and accept this evening’s anxiety (about moving, travelling, things to do, control…) I feel better having read your post, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is such an insightful post, and said something quite useful to me at this point (advanced beginner, I guess?) in my meditation practice. I don’t want it to become an attempted escape; the point is to open eyes and take constructive action to heal. Not to “fix” our selves, but to be present in the moment with compassion. That’s an abstraction that it’s easy for us to idealize and misunderstand, but this post, and your talk of meditation and bodhichitta, brought it a little more in focus. Thanks for that!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your kind comment! I’m just trying to figure things out as I go so I’m glad I could help someone else figure it out too. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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