Help me not care.
October 30, 2008 5:17 AM   Subscribe

How can I ignore my ego and feelings of self-importance?

Yesterday I was inspired by this comment in this post. The quote "Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one's self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily" struck a chord with me and I would like to become more child-like in this regard.

How can I not give a crap about my ego or self-esteem and go out and take my lumps? Is there really any other answer than "just do it?"

Some additional detail: There are a lot of things I want to spend more time on, such as writing and performing music, becoming more social with people I don't know, and some other things. I just hate the idea of not being any good at this stuff so I tend to just float.

posted by PFL to Human Relations (19 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
Keep a journal of your small successes and failures, when you see them side by side and see the successes grow over time it is much easier to keep going than always thinking you're not good enough yet and don't know when you will be.
posted by Space Coyote at 5:25 AM on October 30, 2008

It is your ego and feelings of self-importance that drives you to ask questions like this. Seriously, and I mean no disrespect, but it is your focus on self that has lead you to this place. With that said, you've already got the seeds planted, you were willing to step forward and ask questions where you knew that you were weak. That takes at least a sliver of willingness to suffer an injury to one's self-esteem, does it not? So now you need to apply that to other areas. Seek help where you are weak. Ask questions. You know how to do it, you just did.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:43 AM on October 30, 2008

This is what has been helpful to me.

For avoiding the ego blow of learning something contrary to what you currently think, you need to hold truth in such high esteem that discovering you have been wrong is a good thing, and every time you admit you have been wrong you are proud of yourself for being the kind of person who values truth. You will be eager to admit you have been wrong. When you reflect on it later in the day, you won't remember how you were wrong, you'll remember how you learned something and made a small step to being a better person.

To avoid the ego blow of failure, you have to value effort in such high esteem that even failure is a good thing because it means you have tried, and every time you fail you are proud of yourself for being the kind of person who tries. Succeeding becomes icing on the cake. And failing, once you have reminded yourself that it is necessary to accomplish anything, becomes remarkably easy once you've let yourself fail a few times. Some people's first goal is to do something badly; I think that's a good idea. Your first steps might be, "I'm going to write a bad story," or "I'm going to give a crappy performance," or, "I'm going to make an embarrassing attempt at talking to new people today." Do it, check it off, then try to do it marginally better.

To be the kind of person that values those things requires devoting some time upfront to seriously think and reaffirm to yourself that it makes better sense to value truth over pretending to be right, and failure over not trying at all. Once you have those ideas clear in your mind, you go on to the next step.

Be conscious of when you are telling yourself you're right when you're not. Be conscious of when you are avoiding something because you fear failure. It's easy to identify these things because you will feel threatened and uncomfortable, like you want to shove those thoughts aside and not think about them anymore. When you catch that feeling, remind yourself, "This is an opportunity to be the kind of person who admits when they're wrong!" or, "This is an opportunity to be the kind of person that tries!" Stop, re-evaluate the situation, and act accordingly.

It's not easy at first, and you may miss some opportunities , but there end up being at least a handful of opportunities each day. And the more of those you take advantage of, the easier it becomes. You won't view conversations as an opportunity to prove what you know, but instead as an opportunity to learn something. When you think about taking on something new, you won't imagine the possible outcomes as success or failure, but as success either way. Both of these are huge burdens to have lifted.

Since I've made an effort to be more aware of this, it has made a huge difference. I have never regretted admitting I am wrong, but I have always regretted looking like an unreasonable or irrational jerk. I have never regretted failure once it has actually happened, but I have always regretted what boundless things fear of failure has kept me from trying. What's funniest about this is that I had those same regrets before, I just didn't recognize the bad feelings for what they were. For example, "I just won this huge argument, so why I do I feel so anxious and yucky...?" I would just think it was because arguing does that. It doesn't; feeling threatened does that.

I hope this is helpful. Good luck!
posted by Nattie at 5:50 AM on October 30, 2008 [55 favorites]

Take yourself completely out of the equation. Focus on the WORK. Don't try to impress people with your performing or writing. Try to serve the music or the subject. Don't try "to learn" from other people; think of other people as your collaborators. You and they are both trying to improve the music or the writing piece. If they are not also serving the work, ignore them.

If someone criticizes you -- you personally and not some aspect of the work -- ignore it unless it serves the work. Recently, someone criticized the lighting in one of my plays. He said it was too harsh and it made the actors look unattractive. My response was to think, "Well, what does the attractiveness of the actors have to do with the story? Nothing. I'm trying to tell a story. I'm not trying to make the actors look attractive. So the criticism isn't helpful." Another possible response is for me to think, "Hm. If the audience is thinking about how ugly the actors look, they might be too distracted to follow the story. So I should change the lighting so that it narrows the audience's focus to where I think it should be." Both of these responses channel the critique toward the work and away from me.

You must be ruthless about this, which means that you need to ignore (or channel) praise, too. If someone says, "Wow! You're a fantastic writer" or "You play beautifully," that's nice but meaningless. It says nothing about the work. It doesn't help the work. Ignore it. I know so many artists who want to accept praise but ignore pans. You can't do it. Once you connect your work to your ego, it's connected. The door is open. Praise will make you glow; pans will hurt. Meanwhile, the work sits in the corner, ignored and lonely.

I've also seen praise lead people to crafting mediocre work. I once worked at a summer theatre in a small town. The people who lived there were so bored, they would sing the praises of the crappy shows and so-so acting. And some of the actors fell for it. They realized they could get praise for doing half-assed work, so they did half-assed work. They even convinced themselves they were doing great work. They had a rude awakening when they returned to places with more discerning audiences.

If you're used to using work to stroke your ego, it will take you some time to turn your thinking around. But it can be done. I've done it. I'm not 100% successful with it -- it's probably impossible to completely divorce ego from work -- but over the years, I'd say I've become 90% of successful. And when I fail, I have some things I can say to myself that tend to steer me back on track. Mostly, I ask myself over and over, "How does that serve the work?" I am a servant of the work. The work is not a servant to me.

Like all people, I need my ego stroked. I've learned not to use work for that. Instead, I use more mundane human interactions: getting hugs, hanging out with friends, etc.

I also don't participate in ego-based work conversations. When people talk to me about becoming a famous director, I opt out. I tell them that's not my goal. My goal is to serve the work. I refuse to let the work into ego-laden categories.
posted by grumblebee at 6:13 AM on October 30, 2008 [28 favorites]

Ignorance just lets this stuff run unimpeded. Learn to recognize when egotism and self-importance come up. When they come up, stop and look at them.
posted by Coventry at 6:34 AM on October 30, 2008

Ego and self-esteem are opposed here. You have tied your self-worth to being good at things, so your ego, worried about being damaged, is preventing you from trying new things you might not excel at. Deliberately setting out to try and fail at something, especially something public, can be very good for teaching yourself that there is more to you than your accomplishments. It can also be surprisingly fun.
posted by fidelity at 6:35 AM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Whatever happens around you, don't take it personally. If I see you on the street and say, "Hey, you are stupid," without knowing you, it's not about you; it's about me. If you take it personally, then perhaps you believe you are stupid. Maybe you think to yourself, "How does he know? Can everyone see how stupid I am?" Similarly, if your ego is constantly stoked by friends, family or co-workers, then you tend to avoid self-examination.

You take it personally because you agree with whatever was said. As soon as you agree, you are trapped in personal importance. Taking things personally can be an expression of selfishness, because everything becomes about "me, me, me."

Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves. All people live in their own world, in their own mind, in their own dream. When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, therefore we try to impose our world upon theirs.

Your point of view is something personal to you. It is no one's truth but yours. So, if you get mad at me, I know you are dealing with yourself. I am the excuse for you to get mad, and you get mad because you are dealing with fear. If you aren't afraid, then you will not get mad at me. If you can live without that fear by not taking things personally, it then follows that you will feel good, content, and serene.

Psychobabble? Perhaps, but if you can practice the concept, over time you will learn to be gracious, humble and charitable.
posted by netbros at 6:46 AM on October 30, 2008 [4 favorites]

I could write a lot on the subject and quote you - but really this says it all - How Do We Get Rid of the Ego?
posted by watercarrier at 6:47 AM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

another theme is really cultivating conscious care for others. if you can come to a deep acceptance that others' feelings and happiness are truly things worth your effort, than you will have a broader baseline than just your own feelings. in an odd way, it's like getting better, more reliable data. obviously, you don't want to tie your satisfaction to the expressed emotions of people who can be just as, if not more subject to whim and change than you. nevertheless, it is a way to help you begin to loosen a tight grip on 'ego,' which sort of falsely tries to fix what you 'are' when clearly each individual has many manifestations of 'self,' all equally valid, under different external circumstances.

keeping your mind on who is around you and how you can be an agent of help or support to them starts to lessen the screaming voice of ego and focus on broader factors as your input. or, in other words, use your moments of fear as prompts to being intelligently open to that which you fear - e.g., failure - by recasting yourself as an agent more broadly there to do good unto others, not strictly as someone attempting to display personal, individual virtuosity (and risking a poor evaluation on that front). if you can open this door, you can release the pressures that stop you from moving enthusiastically toward that virtuosity, because your framing of the experience is no longer setting you up for a high-stakes mandate. the trick is to not be pursuing that thing exclusively, so that it can be pursued with the looseness that is required at high levels of creativity.

an example: i'm a guitarist and am playing with a new band. i may be worried about my chops and can have moments where i get really pissed at my mistakes when we're practicing. but if i can focus on where the other musicians are at, and do WHATEVER IS IN MY POWER to help them feel at ease and have a good time, i can accomplish something without a myopic focus on just one measure of technique on my instrument; i am listening and complementing them, and helping us all be in a place to bring the best out of each other. if i accomplish something in complementing them, they can help give me the space i need to work out the wrinkles in my own playing.

finally, all the issues you talk about, are issues i've had. they're not gone, but i've been moving forward on them based on the reasoning i describe above. i'd be happy to go more into this sort of thinking (much of which relates to buddhism, but also other places in philosophy and linguistics) if it would be helpful.
posted by LoneWolfMcQuade at 6:56 AM on October 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

hah, watercarrier - funny that you posted that link. i just watched it (had never seen that stuff before). definitely along the lines of what i was thinking.
posted by LoneWolfMcQuade at 7:03 AM on October 30, 2008

Every failure is a chance to learn as well. I have learned a lot from the mistakes I make.

But another thing you could do is enlist your sense of humor into the situation. If your mistake has serious consequences (i.e., you manage to misplace the checks you were supposed to deposit into the bank), that's serious, of course, but those kinds of mistakes are thankfully very rare. But if it's a harmless mistake (you are walking out onto stage durnig a recital and, because you forgot to zip up your pants, your pants fall down), you have two ways to react -- you could either get mortified and drop your music in an attempt to rectify things and panic and scurry offstage, or you could laugh at yourself and either waddle the rest of the way to your chair with pants around your ankles or calmly pull them back up and bow grandly to the audience, or something like that. If you are able to find the humor in some of the harmless mistakes you make, that helps a LOT.

It also helps a lot if the situation has just spun completely out of control because of a number of factors that couldn't be helped -- I once was the stage manager of a show and one night we had one actor bump his head as he was coming onto the stage and another one slipped and gave himself a nasty cut, while a third was wrestling with food poisoning. And that was also the same night a fuse blew and an entire wall of lights fried out, the sound system went screwy and I had to re-program the thing on the fly, someone went onstage with their costume on inside out, someone else forgot their was just a geometric progression of Murphy's Law. The first couple problems were indeed treated seriously and caused much concern and grave faces and rending of garments, but after the next few we started to just give into it and accept that "well, it looks like tonight's show is just going to be goofy." When we finally got to the curtain call, and I saw one of the actors even managed to screw THAT up, I just collapsed back into my chair and giggled hysterically for three solid minutes.

If I had treated every single problem that happened that night as a grave and serious matter, I would have had a heart attack by the end of the night. But because my sense of humor tapped me on the shoulder and reminded me that no children would die as a result of our errors, and if you looked at it from a certain perspective, things really were pretty funny, I was able to keep a good attitude about the parade of mistakes -- not that we still didn't try to prevent them and not that we didn't try to fix them. We just didn't let our egos get into our ways, and embraced the ridiculousness of it all. (The cast was laughing just as hard after the show as well.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:07 AM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

A wise language teacher once addressed this issue for me. He posited - similarly as you point out - that children seem to learn language better than adults. He said the key for learning language as an adult is to relish the role of "village idiot." By curling up in the knowledge that you have no one to impress; no one is judging you; that your only job is to blather like a simpleton - you will slowly acquire the subtle skills and vocabulary that rote memorization doesn't easily address.

Also, ask questions and begin discussions. If you don't understand something -- even simple everyday details -- ask!

I really like this question and wish everyone would bring a more child-like attitude to the world.
posted by GPF at 8:08 AM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Cool LoneWolf - it makes sense and there are no coincidences!
posted by watercarrier at 8:20 AM on October 30, 2008

Your ego and self esteem don't really exist. They only seem to exist because you pay so much attention to them and value them. They are actually imaginary friends.

Its like you are asking, how can I get my imaginary friends to stop bothering me?

Well, I'd start by not talking to them anymore and find something to do that involves actual real life... play it by ear. When you find yourself talking to them, remind yourself not to and move on.
posted by ewkpates at 9:23 AM on October 30, 2008 [3 favorites]

First of all, the premise is a bit flawed I think- ever try to convince a two year-old he should give up his favorite toy? Young children are amazingly egotistical.

I think you need to distinguish between "confidence" and "egotism." No successful person succeeds without belief in him or herself. There is no way to "not give a crap about your ego or self-esteem," nor should you really want to. What you need to do, maybe is change the rules of the game: just because you don't know something yet, doesn't mean you're dumb or useless, it just means you don't know that one certain thing yet.

I often find some of the dumbest people I meet are the ones who value experience over intelligence. It's a shortcut for them to feel better about themselves, like people online talking about "newbs," or the New Yorker who laughs at the "dumb tourist who doesn't even know where the Empire State is." How could he?? He's not dumb, HE'S JUST NEVER BEEN TO NEW YORK BEFORE.

No one is any good at something they've never done before. No one who's never been to New York magically knows where everything is. Remember that and I think you'll be fine.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:24 AM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Be good at learning, not the subject you're studying.

To be good at learning is to embrace the idea that mistakes are great, because they help you learn faster.
posted by filmgeek at 9:29 AM on October 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

I just hate the idea of not being any good at this stuff so I tend to just float.

This smells more like perfectionism. Nobody is inherently good at that stuff, and what you see is people making their best effort. If you're going to use an imaginary result of something you haven't (or haven't often) tried as an excuse not to do it, then yeah, you're gonna be holding yourself back.

"I don't think I'm going to like olives" does not mean you won't like olives, and furthermore it doesn't mean that if olives don't turn out to be your favorite food EVER that there's no point in eating them.
posted by rhizome at 9:34 AM on October 30, 2008

I had a friend who got memorably frustrated with me after several arguments because... "You only argue when you know you're right! It's not fair!"

And at the eventual point, where I was wrong, that it was 'No fun!' because on the few times I was wrong, it was usually me going back to them and going "Oh, you know that thing? You were totally right - I looked up this, this and this" and had a discussion about it. Where was the fun in lording it over the loser? I was too willing to admit it!

Er, see - we did both think those statements were hilarious about 5 seconds later, and they do actually like me because of things like that - and that I always had interesting new things I'd been learning about.

And addition being - I also keep questioning and asking when I don't understand, and I thought that counted kinda as arguing, but apparently it doesn't come across that way. Win!

I'm sure I'm pretty full of all my own ego and self-importance-y things stuffed all over the place, but I feel that particularly style towards discussion (when I manage it) has lead to a lot more happiness and learning on my part.
Double win!
posted by Elysum at 6:01 PM on October 30, 2008

Ego transcendence is often associated with meditation and there are a couple of basic mediation practices you might find helpful. These come from the Buddhist tradition, though they are often taught in a neutral way -- they are considered good introductions to meditation -- and need not conflict with other spiritual beliefs you might have (or, indeed, the lack there of).
They are Mindfullness (of Breath) and Metta Bhavana or the Cultivation of Lovingkindness.

The first teaches through the practice of paying attention to your breath and hence to the body. It helps still the frenetic attention seeking of the ego, what is sometimes called the 'monkey mind'. I found it lead(s) to a different physical sense of the self in the world, based upon an awareness of the world, and my place in it. If I can quiet the monkey mind my attention tends to flow outwards into the world rather than being dragged inwards to the self by the ego, and I am less subject to it.

Lovingkindness aims to develop compassion towards the self and others, and as mindfulness does for the physical world, lovingkindness (metta) can help develop a different sense of your self in the social world (of other people), helping develop empathy and deepening our connection with people.

It start by developing/experiencing lovingkindness to the self, so that it can then be extended outwards: first to a friend, then to a neutral person, to someone you experience difficulty with and finally outwards to the world. Feeling compassion towards yourself and others can help you dealing with knocks to your self esteem, you may be able to experience them differently and find them easier to deal with. It will make you better able to forgive yourself and others for mistakes so you can be more tolerant of failure, coming to see it not so much as failure but an opportunity to extend compassion.
posted by tallus at 6:32 AM on October 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

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