With freedom comes anxiety, according to psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in his book Escape from Freedom (1941). He believed we don’t know what to do with freedom once we get it and find new controls and structures to reduce our freedom. Those with long prison histories often return to prison, unable to create structure and consistency outside of prison. Addicts will tell you that getting clean is hard, but staying clean is even harder.
We all have, at some point, tried to implement change in our lives, but found it difficult to break our habitual unhealthy patterns of thinking and behaving. Why? It’s our ego’s self-protection, default mode of mind to avoid anxiety-provoking situations, including the experience of our own feelings. In other words, there is some kind of payoff for us to engage in these unhealthy habits of thought and behavior, otherwise it would be easy to quit, right? Therefore, “freedom is a practice,” according to Thich Nhat Hanh. Making space for and reaping the benefits of freedom within our mind has to be practiced.
According to Fromm, the best use of freedom is self-actualization, knowing and being who you are, not what our ego believes we should be. Although there is an abundance of research pointing to the benefits of self-acceptance, such as greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, as well as less narcissism and reactive anger, it remains, for many of us, one the most elusive and difficult attitudes to maintain towards ourselves on a consistent basis.
Where there is suffering, there is presence of ego. If our ego blocks us from our authenticity, we can practice being FREE. Faithfully Releasing Ego and Expectations will free us up to stay connected with our true nature, helping us to operate more authentically and contently in the world.
“We are here to practice stepping out of thinking.” – Eckhart Tolle
How do we do this? We must first understand the function of the ego. We all have one, serving to protect us. Our ego is our vehicle for experiencing who we think we are, and how we think the world works, based on our experiences (Hirstein, 2001). Because each person’s past experiences are unique to them, we all interpret our world differently. Research shows the default mode of mind constantly assesses incoming stimuli from our environment, comparing it to stored information, and then continuously making predictions that guide our thoughts, behaviors and perceptions.
However, defaulting to our past conditioning may not be serving us well today. This conditioning leads the ego to conclude it’s own expectations, which can create conflict within our selves and our relationships. The ego’s default mode is self-preservation, which is often at odds with self-acceptance and vulnerability. Peer and family pressure is a great example of this. We’ve all made choices, under pressure from others, in which we chose self-preservation, (like avoiding embarrassment or judgment), over self-acceptance. These and other experiences in our world shape our ego, resulting in the creation of an ego based only upon selected experiences that reinforce self-preservation, not self-acceptance. Understanding this can help us identify when it is interfering with self-acceptance and our need to be vulnerable at times.
Self-image and self-esteem is what we say to ourselves about ourselves at any given time. One of my own revelations of this was when I voiced a thought out loud to my husband, “Here I sit,” and he responded with, “What’s wrong with that?” This helped me begin to challenge my beliefs about productivity and what being a “good” mother/wife looked like. We live in a society that places a premium on being productive at any cost, so it’s no wonder that feelings of being unproductive can quickly tailspin into overall feelings of inadequacy in many areas of our life. Many of my clients have said, “When I experience boredom, I feel unproductive and lazy.” If the feeling of boredom (a common and temporary human emotion) becomes linked with the negative thought, “I’m lazy,” feelings of inadequacy will be triggered each time boredom is experienced.
How does boredom become linked to feelings of inadequacy? How does crying, embarrassment, or needing help become linked with weakness? Rick Hanson PhD explains, “Whatever we repeatedly sense, feel, want or think is slowly but surely sculpting our brains.” Society at large, and well-intended adults whom cared for us, communicated messages about what behavior was appropriate or acceptable, including our emotions, and how they were expressed. As a result, we all have learned to suppress certain personality traits, or feelings, in order to gain acceptance or approval from first our families, and later the outside world. One of my clients felt she could never complain, because while growing up her mom would typically respond with, “Life is hard, then you die.” This client felt helpless about her future, and felt she didn’t deserve to complain. Mom’s rejection was an emotionally charged event that caused feelings of shame and the expression of self to link together, resulting in my client silencing her self-expression.
When we experience our worth as conditional upon our thoughts, feelings, or behavior, we can feel like we are making our way through life always trying to earn, or chase that worth, not realizing that we are already whole, with unconditional worth. Instead, we are always worrying if we are doing life right, and what others think of us. We may justify our behavior or lie to ourselves and others to avoid blame or judgment. Our expectations can create a great deal of emotional suffering when not met; like guilt, anger, shame, anxiety and sadness. When these feelings are experienced too frequently or intensely, causing us to feel unfulfilled and disconnected from others, this is a sign our ego is blocking us from expressing and responding to our authentic self. Tara Brach compares emotional suffering to getting our leg caught in a trap, and not until we are able to be compassionate towards ourselves will we be able to set ourselves free.
How do we begin to rewire this conditioned reflexive thinking? We have to begin noticing each time our own leg gets caught in the trap, which it will, again and again. This is part of the human condition. By compassionately responding to our wounded self, we are able to identify and challenge our limiting expectations, we are encouraging, instead of discouraging ourselves. By cultivating self-compassion, were merely strengthening caregiving tendencies that already exist (Bell, 2001). It’s helpful to start with an unwanted, and recurrent thought or behavior, then ask yourself if it serves the values you uphold, or helps you towards meeting an important goal. If the answer is no, please don’t judge yourself, rather set an intention to simply notice when you engage in this thought or behavior so you can put that information to good use when preparing your plan for change.
Questions to help you detach from individual thoughts that reinforce the ego~
On the days you don’t complete your, “to do list,” how do you feel, and what do you tell yourself?
- I feel worthwhile when_______________________.
- I am embarrassed when_______________________.
- Why is it hard for me to say, “I’m sorry?”
- When I get down on myself, what do I say?
- When I get angry, what is at stake? What I am defending? Do I need to be right?
- Do my thoughts support self-acceptance, my goals or values?
Tune out so you can tune in~
Checking in with your body and breath as a daily regular habit is always great self-care, but especially important when creating personal growth, or facing adversity. When we pair our breath with past guilt, or future anxiety, our attention expands, helping to reduce these feelings, making room for a healing experience. Learning to listen to all of you requires that we devote time for tuning out, so that we can begin to notice when our own leg is caught in a trap, motivating us to be kind and caring towards ourselves to free us from the pain.
Being aware that our happiness and emotions is a product of our beliefs puts the capacity for change in our own hands. This is where hope lives. When we find ourselves resisting, taking a few deep breaths can make room in our head and heart, revealing what is in alignment with our values and true nature, truly setting us FREE.
Bell, David, C. Evolution of Caregiving. Sage Journals 2001; V: 5, 3, pgs. 216-229. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1207/s15327957pspr0503_3
Davey, Christopher, G., Pujol, Jesus, and Harrison, Ben, J. Mapping the Self in the Brain’s Default Mode Network. NeuroImage 2016; V: 132, pgs. 390-397. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811916001294
Fromm, Erich, (1941). Escape from Freedom. New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2013.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. How to Relax. California: Parallax Press; 2015.
Hirstein, William. The Contribution of Prefrontal Executive Processes to Creating a Sense of Self. Mens Sana Mongraphs 2011; Jan-Dec 9 (1) 150-158. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3115285/
Patoine, Brenda. The Unhealthy Ego: What Can Neuroscience Tell Us About Our Self? 2010. The Dana Foundation. http://www.dana.org/News/Details.aspx?id=43499