Thursday, July 31, 2008

Ego And Self Esteem

Yesterday I received two emails from readers of my thoughts. One asked me what the difference is between "ego" and "self esteem". The other thanked me for my thoughts about fear. He found them helpful in his struggles with anxiety. I would like to share a few thoughts in response to both of these emails.

Ego often gets a bad rap. Some spiritual practices seem designed to kill the ego. Ego is what motivates us. Whether it motivates us in the right direction is another question. Ego can be the fuel that propels the engine of our being. I'm not sure we can survive without our egos. Of course some teach that the ego represents our false self and that our true self is who we are without ego. In a sense, the pure man or woman is someone without ego. The ego that really deserves a bad rap in my opinion is the ego that is out of control. People with big egos generally do not suffer from low self esteem. They are full of themselves. Self esteem is how we feel about ourselves. I'm sure you know someone, or maybe you are someone, who is either full of themselves or they are always down on themselves. Some people think they are God's gift to all of us. Others feel they have no value. A psychologically healthy person has enough ego and self esteem to meet the challenges of daily life while also maintaining a humble and realistic view of themselves. They don't pump themselves up but they aren't in denial of their value and gifts either. The true spiritual life, among other things, strives to maintain a healthy balance of the ego, self esteem, and humility.

Yesterday I wrote about fear. A close cousin of fear is anxiety. I think it is poignant that in the Catholic mass there is a prayer that says "Free us, O Lord, from all anxiety". In general, I am not a person who lives in fear or suffers from anxiety. There are situations, however, that sometimes give me minor panic attacks. Even when I know intellectually that there's probably nothing to fear, I might experience some physical symptoms of panic, i.e., hot flashes, increased heart rate, shortness of breath, etc. Ongoing anxiety can develop as the result of a really bad experience that frightened you, perhaps from a childhood trauma that has been repressed, or we can even inherit anxiety and other phobias from our families. Anxiety in a broad sense can also be the tendency to worry, worry, worry about everything. In my mind, fear is different than anxiety. Although I have concerns about life in general, and my life in particular, I seldom worry. My poor wife, however, worries herself to death. I don't think she is capable of not worrying. We can't worry so much about life that we fail to live. I hesitate to say it's a gender trait but it does seem to me that women worry more than men. Being anxious or nervous all the time is no way to live. If you do feel this way I would consult with your physician. It may also be prudent to seek therapy and explore why you feel this way. We are meant to be happy. We will always have challenges as part of life but the day to day demands of living should not overwhelm us on a regular basis. Yesterday I was able to have lunch with a friend who is a chaplain at the local VA hospital. I had never been there before. We sat outside and ate our lunch until the rain forced us in. While there I also met a Franciscan priest who was also the friend of another friend. The three of us engaged in some wonderful conversation that could have gone on for hours. However, it was a workday and I needed to get back to the office. The lunch was planned but the conversation was an unexpected delight. Sometimes the serendipity of life surprises us with joy. I am missing my granddaughter so I'm going to pick her up at the day care today and take her out to dinner. Any day I get to see Chloe is a good day.

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