Ego: The Enemy of Empathy

Ego is an unhealthy belief in your own importance. Arrogance. Self-centered ambition. Ryan Holiday

I have been embroiled in my own wrestling match between my ego and my true self for many years. It has escalated into a full-on UFC battle. In one corner you have the Ego which is muscular, mouthy, and cares about no one else, but me. In the other corner is the underdog Self who tries to fight its way through the hubris of the Ego, using with its softer skills of humility, heart and humanity. The Self feels a kinship to others. So the real victim of this brawl is empathy. 

Without awareness, the Ego easily pushes the self aside and pulverizes empathy, by always asking, “What’s in it for me?” 

For the Ego kills the ability to feel the pain of others. For this is the test of our own struggles. Do we feel in our hearts and our bodies what others are experiencing? Or do we rationalize it? That is the Ego doing it’s dirty work, making the tragedies of the world explainable, justifiable and fixable. And therefore not MY problem. The further we remove ourselves from the ills of the world, because we can’t let them interfere with our self-important pursuits, our true inner selves are submerged beneath our separateness from the world and each other. And our best self, our virtuous self, gets sedated and suppressed.

My own battle is focused on putting the Ego in check, to quiet the ME within me—to be more present with others and the needs of the WE. It feels like a fight for my soul. So many factors, pressures, mythologies conspire to empower the Ego. The idea that I am inherently better, that I have earned my privilege, that others are not good enough etc etc. Those that know me are saying, “Hey John you are not winning that battle.” While I may exaggerate my progress here, I am increasingly aware of the rise of my ego that obscures my true self and the needs of others and for me, these are small victories in the Octagon. 

We all have this impulse within us to be respected to emote how important we are. To have “status” amongst strangers, peers, colleagues, relatives and even friends. There is a hair trigger that we are ready to pull to unleash a flurry of impressive factoids, titles, busyness, and name-drop to bolster our flagging little egos. C’mon we all do it. Sometimes we do not even mean to, but we run at the mouth to establish our loftiest place in the pecking order of pomposity, the hierarchy of hype, or the strata of selfishness. Name dropping is among the more amusing aspects of these ego maniacal eruptions. Not sure how this got started but when someone and even myself drop a name, a Batman comic book sound effect appears visually and aurally in my mind. Ka-Boom! Bam! Pow! Whack! Whomp! The bigger the names the more elaborate the visual and the louder the sound. I know I am weird.  While my own ego is in a form of remission. I just have to say it takes one to know one.

I was on a Zoom call and realized why the person speaking had a blurred virtual background–it was to hide his gigantic ego! –which must have occupied most of his house. The strange thing was this instance was in the presence of vulnerable people who were seeking our assistance. He got started and he could not stop himself. First, his intro was a lengthy recap of his career highlights. He dropped names that were irrelevant and unnecessary. Then he completed the Ego trifecta–he said, “I understand what you are going through because…” Making an ASSofUandME!

When I witness these ego explosions in others it sends off so many alarm bells. These poor souls are also struggling, and I have empathy for them. He has no self-awareness. But my primary concern is mitigating the unintended collateral damage to the people around them.
We all recognize within ourselves and certainly in others how the ego oppresses and submerges the self. You know those times when you say to yourself, “So glad I am not him/her” (because I am so much better than them) The great impulses to make sure people know how important you are. Our desire for respect, to have “status” in a conversation, in a room can be so strong that things fly out of our mouths to build a Me monument. That is the ego yearning for attention, to impress others.

How is your wrestling match going?

Like so much of our human potential, we have an extraordinary capacity for empathy. Like a skill, a muscle or a innate talent, it develops with use and with experience. There are many factors that grow our capacity for empathy. The key is to move towards the feelings and quiet the mind’s resistance.

You feel, in your own body, a little of what another person feels – without losing your sense of self.

Don’t let your ego try to rationalize empathy, make it into a tool that can be conjured up. To use pity and sympathy as arrogant substitutes over an authentic process of love and compassion. Empathy is not a tactic or a strategy. Empathy happens. Feelings happen and can be very inconvenient.

My friend and meditation teacher, Mandar Apte, describes the self in this way. Think about when you are at a busy intersection watching the blur of cars and vehicles passing you. The observer is the self. The self is always there. It is a constant. The traffic is the mind and the ego. The traffic distracts the self with its sights and sounds. Let the traffic pass. 

Are you listening to yourself? To your body? Are you feeling for others? 

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. Maya Angelou

How do people feel after talking to you?

Ego can dissolve with awareness. My experience is just the sheer confrontation of the Ego–staring it down and seeing it–can reduce its power and influence.

Group think also can dilute our empathy. Peers and tribes can regress empathy to the mean. 
We seem to identify with people of similar age, ethnicity, socio-economic status or the same gender. We select specific charities and support causes that tug at our heart strings – while leaving others out. We take sides, we have favorites. It appears that generally speaking, our empathy leans towards people with whom we perceive ourselves to share a commonality of experience. Psychologist Robin Grille

Like so many personal and professional lessons, we learn from nature—diversity matters.

Be kind, everyone you meet is fighting a great battle. Philo

We have to strengthen our awareness of others by building bridges to people different from ourselves.

People in big corporations, large organizations, military units etc which are harming people’s lives are always filled with nice and good employees who somehow rationalize that their distance from the damage and harm free them from culpability.

“Our endeavor in using these bombs was to win the war. End the war as soon as possible and win the war. No sympathy, no regrets.” It had worked as designed, but it had done what war does, it destroys people.” Quotes from the pilots that dropped the bombs over Hiroshima many years later.

We all need to get more proximate to needs, causes, and mostly the people we want to help.

What bombs are you dropping without regard for where they land?

We have to develop practice to be still and quiet to allow the Self to rise and sense its connection to everyone and the world around us. That is why I have incorporated into everything I teach, coach, consult on— self-reflection breathing and meditation. Anything to assist others to allow their self to move to the foreground and let the Ego move to the background.

The wrestling match is worth it! My ego is less fierce. Empathy is growing in my life.

I found out that guy on Zoom has a 6 bedroom house! Hopefully, he has the good sense to downsize soon!

Thanks for reading. John

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