September 12, 2012
You're hopeless, useless, burdensome.
Nothing will ever go
well, everyone is always better than you, you'll never be perfect.
You want to be liked, but you're unlovable, and a failure at life.
To the majority of people this language does. Mental traps - or ego
defense mechanisms - serve as the rusty cogs that continue the
mechanic cycles of pain, toxic shame, and hopelessness within us. In
many instances, they are so deeply ingrained in the mind, that we
are completely oblivious of their existence.
The most important thing to realize about these cognitive errors is
that they're maladaptive ways of dealing with the world and the
self. In fact, living in the world of mental distortions is like
living a lie.
Your perception is
constantly tainted with melancholic negativity that brings forth
unrealistic and untruthful thoughts.
But it's not your fault and there is a way of moving through this
feeling of stuckness.
In this article, my goal is to help you identify, reframe, and
deprogram these ego defense mechanisms. Doing so will allow you to
experience more inner peace, self-love, groundedness, trust, and
spiritual connectedness with life.
What Are Ego
Ego defense mechanisms (or mental traps) are psychological
strategies that help us deal with the uncertainty and ambiguity of
When a painful truth or
reality is too much for us to bear, you can be sure that an ego
defense mechanism will jump in to save you. Think of it like a
knight in shining armor that protects your sanity.
The only difficulty is
that, often, this inner knight is unwilling to let go of its desire
to protect us due to fear and trauma.
When this happens, we are
left with old, outdated, and dysfunctional inner programming that
runs on repeat, wreaking havoc in our lives.
17 Signs Your
Ego Defenses Are Harming You
Pay attention to the following signs:
You suffer from
low self-esteem and self-worth
get into fights with people
You feel on-edge
around others for no apparent reason
You often feel
like an innocent victim
You feel like the
world is against you
You see the world
in black and white ("good or bad," "right or wrong," "friend
or enemy," "us or them," etc.)
You tend to jump
to extremes in relationships, i.e., one day you love your
partner, the next you hate them
You tend to be
critical and sarcastic
You rarely accept
blame (because you "haven't done anything wrong")
You are a cynic
but at the same time an idealist
You have high
expectations for yourself and others
dissatisfied with yourself/life a lot of the time
You have an
You tend to be
You often feel
like a phony/fake
disconnected from your true self and life
How many signs can you
9 Basic Ego
The nine basic ego defense mechanisms are:
An assumption is a supposition.
When we make an
assumption, we believe that something is true based on what
we think is true - without proof. Assumptions can be about
others, yourself, or a certain situation in life.
sound like this: "He treats me this way because ____", "They
think I'm a ____", "I always do this because ____".
create a lot of unnecessary emotional and mental pain,
especially if you always assume the worst.
also lead you to make false judgments about others. This can
harm and even destroy relationships with the people you care
A belief is a conviction that something is true, even if it
may not be.
are very extremist or black-and-white in nature. Beliefs
often sound like the following:
"I will never
be able to speak normally," "He/she hates me,"
are always out to get me"
"No one will
ever like me because I'm ugly"
Like all mental
traps, beliefs are unconsciously held: they can be so
deep-rooted that they evade the conscious mind.
Beliefs are very
blinding by nature. If they're false they can also affect
your self-worth profoundly as they can be so deeply held.
When you struggle
with low self-worth, every aspect of your life is negatively
impacted and crippled.
A comparison is a judgment we make when we measure two or
more people/things against each other.
example, can exist between you and others, for instance,
smarter than me" and "My body is so fat in comparison to
also exist between ourselves and our ideas of what should
"I should be
able to work harder"
"I should be
better at socializing."
and low self-esteem are the two characteristics that drive
we want to be
better, more perfect, more ideal, and excel over others.
comparison also drives competition:
we use other
people and our ideals as a yardstick of success.
Why it's harmful:
tremendous jealousy and envy resulting in anger, pain, and
angst-ridden emotions put a large strain on our
relationships with others and frequently destroy
friendships, family connections, and romantic partnerships.
To desire is to want something you don't have.
We do this
because we're discontent and feel as though, somewhere deep
inside, we're lacking. When we desire, we are plagued with
the sensation that we don't have enough.
WE are not
sound like the following:
"I want to be
like ____ but I can't," "I want to buy ____ because it
will make my life better," "I want to be funny just like
closely linked to comparisons. When we compare ourselves to
others or a mental ideal, we often find ourselves falling
short, and thus arises desire.
principle of Buddhist thought is that desire equals pain.
Often, desire results in lust, and lust results in
idolization and obsession. The result is often feelings of
unhappiness, anger, and jealousy.
When we think of
all the crime committed in the world (thefts, murders,
rapes, etc.) they all result from an obsession which stems
When we desire
what we can't have, the result is usually pain.
To expect is to have the preconceived idea that something
should happen or will happen.
usually created by the mind that likes to possess control -
even over future outcomes. When an expectation is challenged
or not met, the result is anxiety, inner turmoil, and
For instance, if
you unconsciously expect your boss to treat you nicely, and
are let down by their arrogance, you feel upset and filled
with anger. Expectations stem from misguided certainty, and
this is a symptom of security-seeking behavior.
You can also
create expectations for yourself, for instance, you may
unconsciously think "I will blush and start to stutter," and
immediately… you do!
behaviors from others usually results in disappointment,
confusion, frustration, and anger - and this causes strain
on our relationships.
setting high expectations for yourself also results in
suffering as you are, after all, human and imperfect.
also become self-fulfilling prophecies: they manipulate the
outcome of a situation by predetermining whether it will be
good or bad. For example, if you expect to be anxious, 99.9%
of the time you will be.
This can have an
immensely negative impact on your life when your mind is
already biased against you.
An ideal is an imagined perfect outcome.
One example of a
common ideal is to find the "perfect lover" (the "One True
Love") - which is unrealistic as everyone has flaws and a
Other ideals we
may possess might include wanting to find the perfect house,
perfect job, or do everything right when it comes to our
Ideals are a
symptom of perfectionism and they are usually set up as
unrealistic goals that are almost always impossible to live
Why it's harmful:
are hard to achieve, we frequently feel like failures, like
our lives aren't good enough, and like nothing will ever go
right for us.
ideals can cause you to live under immense pressure,
creating a lot of chronic anxiety that looms in the
background. When we frequently fail to match our inner ideal
with the outer reality, we experience an inward collapse
which can trigger depression and sometimes an existential
Finally, as those
who hold many ideals are often perfectionists, their loved
ones constantly feel like they're "not doing enough" or not
This can put
tremendous strain on our relationships.
In psychology the technical term is "reaction formation" and
this is something you'll observe everywhere.
The nature of the
unconscious mind is that it requires absolute certainties -
it needs to see the world in black or white. There is no
grey, or "in-between."
As a result, our
minds tend to jump to one extreme or another.
Many people, for example, who have had very strict religious
upbringings grow older and become disillusioned with the
dogmatic ideas they've been taught.
people instantly jump onto the atheism bandwagon and become
fanatical anti-God advocates - almost with the same level of
dogmatism as the religion they were brought up in.
of a reactive extreme is a person who struggles to accept
As a result, they
might become actively homophobic and discriminate against
the LGBTQI community (remember Colonel Frank Fitts from the
movie American Beauty)?
reactive extremes, while natural, limits our capacity to
experience, embrace, and express all authentic parts of us.
Not only are we
usually harming others (by reacting against them), but we
are hurting ourselves in the process.
All too often we live with the inner tension of conflicting
desires that we fear will be socially unacceptable.
Let's say you
want to laugh loudly and freely, but you know others will
look at you strangely, so you suppress that authentic
Or perhaps you
like a movie or a song that you know your friends don't
like, so you bury that desire away and forget about it.
While suppression can be helpful in some situations (like
taking care of small, demanding children), it can be toxic
when done regularly.
doesn't make a feeling, impulse, or thought within you go
away. In fact, it can make it build inside like a pool of
lava that is ready to explode at any point in the future.
Suppression is a
major obstacle in self-growth and living a fulfilling life
because it results in an inability to be authentic to
yourself (which is the key element in self-love).
The more you
suppress within yourself, the more you have to adopt a false
persona or mask to deal with the outer world.
The more you wear
this mask, the phonier you feel, and an increasing level of
disconnection from your Soul occurs.
Repression differs from suppression in one important way.
is initially a conscious process of having a desire and
learning to avoid or ignore it, repression is an entirely
For example, you might have had a traumatizing experience as
a child that was so scary or unsettling that it had to be
immediately buried. Of course, this was not your fault: it
happened automatically as an ego defense mechanism.
repressed content still lies buried within your unconscious
and can come out in your life in various destructive ways.
with repression is that it is automatic and unconscious.
As such, we don't
even become aware of what our original authentic desires
were because they were squashed out before they had the
chance to blossom. The result is a feeling of being out of
touch with your true self and alienation from life.
The solution to
this is to do some conscious inner work and go Soul
Also, check out projection and splitting (which are too long to go
These are also ego
defense mechanisms that can harm our wellbeing.
4 Roles the Ego Adopts That Sabotage Self-Growth
The four ego defense mechanism roles are:
One of the greatest hindrances in anybody's journey of
self-growth is to fool themselves into thinking they haven't
done anything wrong.
This may be why
the recovering addict's first step is to acknowledge that
they have a problem.
Most people live
in denial or avoidance, denying the need to take a good look
at themselves because it keeps them from properly
recognizing their more unsavory traits and capacities.
"The world is
screwed up but I'm completely guilt-free" is their basic
outlook on life.
They refuse to
see the interconnection between their actions and lifestyle
with the external world around them.
This defense mechanism is very similar to the Innocent
Bystander, only this one avoids guilt by actively
criticizing the world and people around them.
our way of rebelling against society and wanting to find a
way out, of wanting to be outside of the ‘herd' while still
feeling a sense of false participation.
Don't get me wrong: critical thought is a necessary
instrument in any person's self-growth. But often these
"critics" use critical thinking as a way of boosting their
ego and to feel smarter than the ‘herd' who haven't realized
what the critic has.
noticing what's wrong with the state of affairs of the world
isn't enough unless you actively apply a solution to the
I'm sure we've all come across an angry victim of life,
someone who blames other people or the world for 100% of
But everyone uses
blame as a defense mechanism to some extent. In truth, what
we're defending ourselves from is our own responsibility for
dealing with the unpleasant experience we've been given.
To indulge in blame is to give up personal responsibility
and mentally delegate it to someone else, convincing
ourselves that we are not responsible for the state of our
lives, and instead blaming it on some "outside force." The
blameless victim ego defense mechanism blocks us from seeing
clearly just how we are contributing to our own suffering.
Essentially, the blameless victim is one of the fiercest
protectors of our ego.
It causes us to
feel that we're never failing ourselves, or that we lack the
maturity or strength to come to terms with the reality of
the situations we're confronted with.
happened is not evidence of our own inadequacy, but of
Finally, we come to the almighty controller - the ego role
that adopts a guise of invincibility as a way of trying to
misguidedly protect us.
Let's take a
moment to stop and appreciate this well-meaning part of us:
after all, it just wants us to be safe.
however, is that this ego defense mechanism assumes a
position of omnipotence. It assumes that if we try to exert
control over everything we will finally be "safe." The
opposite is actually true.
The more we try
to control ourselves, others, and life, the more we suffer.
We end up
oppressing ourselves, repelling our loved ones, and
resisting the current of life. In reality, the true power is
not in fear-based control, but loved-centered mindfulness.
this more below.
How to Free
Yourself From Harmful Ego Defense Mechanisms
Before you learn how to undo, rewrite, and deprogram your mind from
the above ego defense mechanisms, I want to highlight something
Not all mental
patterns are bad...
Sometimes it's necessary
to have a certain belief in order to motivate yourself in the face
of heart-breaking difficulty.
Sometimes we need to jump
to conclusions and make assumptions in order to protect ourselves
from danger (e.g., assuming that the guy in a dark hoodie lurking on
the street corner might try and mug you.)
And without desire, there
could be no progress in life.
But mental patterns become mental traps when they start interfering
with our mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing and we struggle
to free ourselves from them.
Below, I'll share how to liberate yourself from the damaging impacts
of these ego defense mechanisms:
When a negative emotion arises within you, inquire into it.
Think of yourself
like a psychoanalyst, teacher, scientist, observer -
whatever word appeals to you - and examine the nature of it.
Ask questions such as:
What am I
thought is at the root of this feeling?
evidence can I find against this thought/feeling?
might be an alternative explanation?
other options do I have?
Be as open and
curious as you can. You might even like to journal about
your experiences with self-inquiry if it helps.
When we examine the energy inherent in toxic assumptions,
beliefs, comparisons, desires, etc. we see that it all stems
This fear may be
that we're not enough, that we might miss out, that we may
be hurt, that we may be abandoned - whatever the case, it's
What is the opposite of fear?
and closes whereas love opens and expands.
In order to deprogram ego defense mechanisms we need to
approach ourselves, other people, and life itself with
loving-kindness. Yes, this is easier said than done, but
remember that it takes time and practice.
Even the inability to approach life with loving-kindness can
be approached with compassion.
Can you be
gentle with your lack of gentleness?
forgive your lack of forgiveness?
practice softness in the midst of hardness?
Be defiant and
You have the right to ask "is that true?" any time a thought
about yourself or someone else arises.
By poking and prodding at the presumptions that emerge in
your mind, you'll be able to take away their power by
undermining their authority.
unchallenged thoughts can easily become like inner dictators
that enslave us to painful emotions and demoralizing
You don't need to be a slave of your mind if you dare to
Be defiant, be a rebel, be a provocateur. When an
assumption, belief, or comparison arises, ask "can I be 100%
sure that is true?"
Such a simple
question has a liberating impact on your psyche.
develop witness consciousness
Meditation is an ancient technique used as a way of
accessing more inner peace, clarity, and Oneness.
don't need to be religious or even spiritual to practice it.
In this context, meditation is a dynamic technique for
learning how to witness your thoughts instead of becoming
them. Most people are so attached and identified with their
thoughts that they aren't aware that there's a great
stillness inside of them that exists outside of thought.
If you've never meditated, this may sound confusing to you.
But think of it
as the sky: the sky is always there, and thoughts are like
clouds in that sky that come and go. No matter what cloud
(thought) arises, the sky is always there underneath,
The same applies
to your consciousness.
To take a step back from assumptions, beliefs, comparisons,
desires, expectations, and ideals, the most direct method is
to meditate. There are many free thought-witnessing
meditations on youtube you can search for, or you can try
downloading a free meditation app like Calm, InsightTimer,
or Headspace to create a daily practice.
Dedicate 5-10 minutes at first to meditating and try your
best to be consistent.
practice may be frustrating at first, it is the most
powerful and scientifically validated practice I know of for
undoing the damaging impacts of mental traps.
persisting, even if you suck at it at first (which you most
likely will because we all do).
Here's a simple five-minute meditation you can try:
Find a quiet
and undisturbed place
If it helps to set the mood, play some quiet ambient
music in the background
Sit down on a chair or cushion, keeping your back
Close your eyes (or if you prefer, leave them slightly
Bring your attention to your breath
Notice your chest/belly rise and fall, or the air enter
and exit your nostrils (whichever is easier for you)
When your thoughts wander, notice the thought, and draw
your focus back to your breath
Continue this practice for five minutes
When finished, do a little stretch and slowly transition
to the rest of your day
will be able to notice the thoughts that arise more and
how busy and how much of a chatterbox your mind is (don't
worry, all of us struggle with hyperactive minds). But with
constant meditation, your mind will begin to calm down and
you'll be able to catch ego defense mechanisms as they
Don't be put off by the simplicity of this practice.
It may be simple,
but it is tremendously powerful and empowering.
Go easy on yourself. It's easy to have a perfectionist
mindset even about the above healing techniques.
So realize that
you're human, you're bound to make mistakes, you very likely
will mess up, and this is all normal and okay.
When you adopt a relaxed attitude that allows room for
failure, there's less stress and tension.
permission to have a laidback mindset will also act as a
natural guard against further ego defense mechanisms from
I hope the advice in this
article has helped.
Remember to take your
time and go easy on yourself...
Your ego is a complex and
multi-layered force within you that requires time and gentleness to
But by arming yourself
with this knowledge and the above tools, you will eventually free
yourself from dysfunctional patterns and negative habits.
The result will be an
increased sense of inner freedom, centeredness, love, and