The ego as a condition of humility – and actually this was just supposed to be a post about masochism

I sometimes experience a state of mind, in which I feel ardent determination to

1) be absolutely honest, no matter how ashamed I will be about what I have to say

2) fully submit to my opponent´s will to the point of trying to feel the way he wants me to feel before he even says it and

3) as a result of the two intentions above – suffer. I´m only comfortable when it´s difficult.

This all sounds like the typical submission/masochism thing, and in a way it is, but it also is not. At least not in the sense that it is a shallow pleasure I engage in for fun. The truth is, I need the artificial, “shallow”, “non-sincere” atmosphere of “play” in order to bear the sincereness of these feelings. The idea that I might demand from myself to be like that for real is scary.

I´d like to compare this to what I wrote about the expectations I had about therapy when I first saw Dr. Stoneface. I wrote:

I was oddly fatalistic and indifferent at the time, thinking that one therapist was as good as the other one for the dirty business that lay ahead, which was basically: breaking me. I felt unfit for making any choices for myself, and I just wanted to get the ugly stuff (therapy a.k.a. breaking me) over with and one day wake up and be a whole, healed, good person. Until then, I wanted nothing to do with myself. I was abandoning myself and made others responsible for making me sane. I felt that was fair, because I believed the process of making me sane would be a punishment more than anything else. I couldn´t want to be punished (only in a very perverted way which would have rendered the punishment ineffectual). Therefore, I needed somebody else to drag, force and batter me through this. My implicit attitude towards therapy must have been somewhere along the lines of: “I will resist all I can, but please be stronger than me!”

I would say that this, too, is extremely masochistic, but it is very different from what I described above. Both scenarios are about stripping away the ego, but it happens in very different ways. In the first scenario, I give everything up on my own free will. If you´d ask me where you have to hit to hurt me most because that´s what you´re planning to do, I´d answer you truthfully. Not out of fear (goodness, no! That would be horrible!), not even just out of love, but because it makes me happy to be hard on myself. I´m feeling humble but strong – strong, because I dare (and bear) abandon so much of my usual self-protection.

And then there is the second situation. My self-protection failed with regards to Dr. Stoneface. I did abandon it willingly, though in a very troubled state of mind, with the aim to be humbled. To have my “false ego” stripped away, or rather: violently shattered. But why did it have to be such a passive process? Because I was in two wills about this. I wanted it to happen, but I didn´t trust myself to cooperate in it, because there was a very strong part of me opposing it. Feeling shame, anger and repulsion at the thought of it. And this “counter-will” was what I wanted to have broken. I wanted to be unable to say, feel or want anything that wasn´t “good” and docile.

So, in one situation I´m abandoning my ego out of my own free will, and in the other situation my will is what stops me from that and must therefore be broken. The feeling that follows is in both cases rather pleasant. Feeling affectionate and grateful towards your opponent, emotionally intimate, you can freely look them in the eye because you have nothing to hide. It is, oddly enough, a state of no shame.

If it is an involuntary encounter, though, the shame might hit afterwards. I remember a situation when my sister asked me to talk to her after an argument with my father which had left me quite upset. She and I were then talking about my future, my problems with my parents and so on, mostly with her lecturing me and me being too down, exhausted and upset to defend myself. Eventually, I started to cry, which I absolutely didn´t want to, and she pulled me towards her, which felt awkward as hell (and I didn´t want that either, but resisting didn´t seem worth the effort of prolonging our talk) and whatever her feelings about this encounter might be, I felt like I had been stripped naked in front of an audience, but, oddly enough, for the rest of the evening I felt absurdly close to her, determined to do everything she had told me to do, and I was sad she was leaving already. Those were almost infantile feelings, a small kid seeking mommy´s approval, eager to please, happy to be somebody´s little child. They were followed, though, by disorientation and anxiety, and I feel like those infantile feelings were out of character. I don´t want to feel like that about her, it grosses me out.

Where was I? I was talking about how the state of humility and intimacy, be it forced or voluntary, feels fairly good. What I seemed to believe, though, is that this state is also what it is like to be cured. Humility, honesty, openness. The ability to feel intimate towards someone. The very things I believed I was lacking after the break-up with Athena. Reaching that state of mind and making it permanent seemed like a moral and psychological ideal to me. I basically believed that efficient and thorough therapy ought to remove my ego for good. (When I say “ego”, I don´t mean the Ego in the psychoanalytical sense, but “petty” things such as pride, self-image, lust for power, sarcasm, envy, anger, malice, pet peeves, attention-seeking, being a smartass, lack of respect, cockiness.)

The question to what extent psychoanalytic and -therapeutic literature itself has contributed to this idea of mine would be worth an article of its own. I do believe that evidence can be found, both with regards to the process of therapy, where you are supposed to be absolutely honest even though it is hard yada yada, and to the desired outcome. But I believe the most important or appealing aspect of humility as a cure is that in this specific state of mind shame loses its power. If you make a point of embracing an image of yourself as weak, flawed and vulnerable, then you don´t have to worry about finding more weaknesses, flaws and vulnerabilities in yourself. They cannot threaten your self-image. There is this saying “freedom´s just another word for nothing left to lose”. In the same spirit, you could say “self-worth´s just another word for you cannot sink any lower”.

The idea of having to give up my ego in order to be healed or to stop suffering is scary. I have made the experience that, in this submissive mindset, not only is the impact of shame reduced, but I´m not as anxious, either, even with regard to my phobias (see my experience with the dentist). But I don´t want to be healed at the cost of the freedom to have bad habits, a vicious sense of humor and an arsenal of smartass remarks. And I want to feel proud of myself, excited about things I´ve managed to do or plan on doing, I want that little shot of megalomania which keeps me going, makes me write blog entries at 5 a.m. because I´m dead sure I have something to say that will change the way we all see the world.

At the same time I still want to feel the calm, humble excitement of knowingly and deliberately offering up my vulnerabilities to somebody who will use them to make me squirm. If my ego had been erased, I could no longer feel this, as it would be a permanent state of mind. I could no longer pleasantly shiver with the apparent pervertedness of exposing myself to an imaginative sadistic mind, because it would feel right, normal and natural. The way it is now, there comes a point where I, fairly high, think: “This is totally sick, but it feels…right. It must be like this!” It feels right, it feels natural, even necessary, but there is still an awareness that this in itself is crazy (at least compared to our normal instincts of self-preservation and our everyday life “narcissistic” needs). I still realize I´m transcending my normal ego. I´m challenging myself as to how far I can transcend it, how much I can beat and thrash it, how low I can go. Without an ego, none of this is possible. 

I´m just baffled by how deep-rootedly I must have believed that somehow I need to be emotionally abused. Not just in order to be a good partner and friend, but also in order to ever feel good in that certain way and to be intimate with people. Heck, I even believed I need to be broken in order to have a functioning sexuality! It is bullshit. If I ever want to be or have any of this, I need the exact opposite! I need an ego! I can have all the bad habits and megalomania I want!

Even the most humble people must have an ego, otherwise their exercises in humility would be pointless. If they didn´t have an ego, what would they be keeping in check? What follows is that by embracing my ego and being my smartass, sarcastic self I´m not excluding myself from the possibility of experiencing the state of humility outlined at the beginning of this article. I don´t need to decide once and for all if I want to have an ego or be an integer masochist. It is a false dilemma, as I cannot have one without the other, and as long as I want to I can always strip away my ego for a while – its size doesn´t matter.



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