Ego pain and art: advice?
June 24, 2013 9:53 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to spend more time reading serious literature or viewing art, but I find my ego keeps getting in the way. Advice, please?

I'd like to make an effort to elevate my tastes, so when I talk to people I convey interesting 'fascinations.' (In the Mythoself sense, as something that's present in your life which makes you want more of the same; something which you then convey subconsciously through your speech patterns.)

The problem with most serious entertainment, e.g. films is that they provoke the viewer emotionally in order to challenge their preconceptions and / or cause ego pain. Could someone please recommend any resources for training myself to not be bothered by opinions which conflict with my own or psychological observations which are designed to cause ego pain?
posted by Musashi Daryl to Media & Arts (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
With all due respect, I think you may be working on things a bit backward - I think you're correct that your ego is getting in your way, but my suspicions are that it's your ego that is making you feel like you need to be worried about "conveying interesting fascinations" in the first place.

At the heart of it, art is supposed to be something you enjoy, not something that you exhibit as credentials to prove to other people "look, I am interesting". In fact, I suspect your ego may be tricking you into trying to expand your tastes so you can go about telling people about your interest in these elevated tastes - but doing so actually makes you look....well, egotistical. You're correct that your ego is getting in the way - but not in the way you think.

Instead - don't worry about whether the art or literature that you pursue is "elevated" or "interesting" or "serious". Instead, select things that you actually sincerely enjoy. Challenge yourself a little by exploring something you've never seen before, of course, but if you explore something and decide you don't like it, then...that's just that, it's not your taste. Embrace the art that just grabs your attention and fascinates you on its own merits, and explore it further - it'll be something you're interested in. And interested people are interesting people.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:02 AM on June 24, 2013 [13 favorites]

Reading shit so you sound impressive to others is pretty much a guaranteed way of letting your ego drive. Additionally, avoiding any texts that make you question your assumptions is really the antithesis of middlebrow culture - which is what you seem to be wanting and is nothing to be ashamed of. Great literature should make you question your assumptions.

Stop protecting your ego, why is it so special? And why does new information about the world cause you pain? That's not right. I say you should read watch more, not less.
posted by smoke at 10:05 AM on June 24, 2013 [6 favorites]

I think you should read the book Crome Yellow. It's about a bunch of people who are so full of themselves and their own learning that they can't appreciate art or poetry or even basic human interaction.

It's hilarious. And short. Go read it.
posted by phunniemee at 10:07 AM on June 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Well, thanks for the advice... Erm... You all seem to think I have my head up my a**. The main reason I wanted to elevate my tastes is so that I don't convey immature tastes to other people. If all I ever watched was the latest Die Hard movie or Fast and Furious, not only would that not question my presumptions, but other people would sense my low-brow interests.

I'm not trying to avoid things which question my presumptions, I'm interested in psychological techniques which allow me to get my ego out of the way. I've heard that happens if you do a lot of meditation but that's not an option for me at the moment (for reasons which I won't go into here).

I remember reading on a hypnotist's website about a technique he used for causing people to have tolerance for other's viewpoints (I can't find that now). There's something like that in the book "Sleights of Mouth", which gives advice on modifying your reality strategy so you can selectively adopt opinions and see what the world looks like from those beliefs.

Ideally, I wouldn't have to adopt other viewpoints in the first place. I just want a mental buffer so that I can question my presumptions without getting ego pain which discourages me from reading. It's like that old cliche of the Philosophers' Cafe, where everyone can tolerate other people's viewpoints because they're all addicted to nicotine! :-D

I don't want to get into smoking or drinking wine as I read. Can you give me any advice along these lines, please?
posted by Musashi Daryl at 10:20 AM on June 24, 2013

One of the joys of great art or literature or music or [fill-in-your-art] is the opportunity to release ego (unless you are striving to excel in one of those areas) immerse yourself in another's perception/vision, while simultaneously refreshing it.
posted by thinkpiece at 10:23 AM on June 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

The main reason I wanted to elevate my tastes is so that I don't convey immature tastes to other people. If all I ever watched was the latest Die Hard movie or Fast and Furious, not only would that not question my presumptions, but other people would sense my low-brow interests.

This is a terrible reason to want to "elevate tastes" and is 100% about your ego. Read stuff because YOU want to. Watch stuff because YOU want to. Once you get over the idea that what you like or don't like is even remotely relevant in the world or to anyone but pretentious dickweasels, you will get over your ego problem.
posted by phunniemee at 10:24 AM on June 24, 2013 [14 favorites]

I should clarify: I am not calling you a pretentious dickweasel. I am calling anyone who would judge you for what you read or watch a pretentious dickweasel.
posted by phunniemee at 10:25 AM on June 24, 2013 [6 favorites]

I just want a mental buffer so that I can question my presumptions without getting ego pain which discourages me from reading

To be honest, I'm having a little difficulty understanding your viewpoint thus far. The whole "ego pain" thing kinda baffles me a little. Is this a term of art from some particular theory of psychology or other philosophy?

It might help if you could give us an example of the kind of "ego pain" you're talking about. You must have watched some "art" films or read some serious "literary" works in the past; when, exactly, did the "ego pain" kick in and what, exactly, was its nature?
posted by yoink at 10:26 AM on June 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

Ideally, I wouldn't have to adopt other viewpoints in the first place. I just want a mental buffer so that I can question my presumptions without getting ego pain which discourages me from reading.

I'll be honest here: I googled ego pain and came up with absolutely nothing illuminating. I don't know what this means. I'd love to help you but could you define ego pain for us?
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:28 AM on June 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think it's fine to avoid lots of things that are common in art films that might tend to make you uncomfortable: the association of beauty and pain, the aestheticization of violence, excessive moralizing on a point where you see more complexity, etc.

Aristotle said we look at gross and horrible things in art because we like to learn from them, which is fine if that's actually the way you like to learn. But an awful lot of the same lessons can be acquired with more nuance and more utility by reading non-fiction that puts more context around the ugly stuff or by watching thoughtful, sedate documentaries that are more about the subject matter and less about pushing your emotional buttons.

However, ...

Ideally, I wouldn't have to adopt other viewpoints in the first place.

Maybe I don't know what pain you're talking about, because I don't understand what makes that ideal and because I enjoy adopting other points of view, where I can. Maybe you could start with some things like this or this, where the implicit point that different points of view are intrinsically worth exploration is illustrated repeatedly.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:30 AM on June 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

The main reason I wanted to elevate my tastes is so that I don't convey immature tastes to other people. If all I ever watched was the latest Die Hard movie or Fast and Furious, not only would that not question my presumptions, but other people would sense my low-brow interests.

I don't get much of a sense here for what you actually LIKE. Do you like silly action movies? Do you like weird trippy French New Wave movies? Where are YOU in all this? For being so preoccupied with the state of your ego, you don't seem to have a very firm grasp on who you ARE as a lover of art.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:33 AM on June 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

The whole point of most worthwhile literature, film, and other art is to get the reader or viewer to question their preconceived notions. If your ego is not strong enough to handle that confrontation, then you need to work on strengthening your sense of self so that you don't identify so much with other people's opinion of you but can assess new viewpoints against your own experiences in the world.

Sometimes that maturation happens with age. You can probably help it along by letting yourself feel that "ego pain" and realize that it doesn't kill you, that opening yourself up to different ideas and viewpoints -- even to the point of changing your own previously held beliefs -- is a way of exercising your ego to keep it healthy. An unchallenged ego that never changes is like an unchallenged muscle -- flaccid and small and weak.
posted by jaguar at 10:38 AM on June 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you actually want to get out of your ego, there are a few ways to do it
- drugs
- meditation (specifically compassion & empathy)
- submission (to others' points of view; refrain from "Yes, but" arguing when they put you in a bad light)
- deliberately face situations which cause you ego pain, and when in the throes of this pain, tell yourself that this pain is because of how deeply you value your sense of yourself, and your own opinions.

For you specifically - go watch Die Hard. Watch it. Feel the pain. Then go to a snooty party and tell them how much you loved Die Hard, so they will humiliate you with their dismissiveness of your lack of sophistication and once you get over the pain you will be released of your ego. I'm not kidding, try it. Having people hate me (for legitimate reasons!) was one of the best experiences.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:41 AM on June 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

or, better yet, they'll admit they love it too, and you'll find that you don't need an elaborate facade to interact with the rest of the world! hooray!!
posted by acm at 10:43 AM on June 24, 2013 [6 favorites]

Another way - ask your best friends to list 3 of your flaws, and when they tell you, TAPE YOUR MOUTH SHUT AND LISTEN. Repeat over and over in your head: they are right, they are telling me the truth, this is how I look through others' eyes.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:48 AM on June 24, 2013

i don't know what you mean by ego pain either, but i really hate it when bad things happen to characters in books or movies. but without any bad things happening to characters, books / movies are pretty fluffy and banal. so, left to my own devices, i read things that tend towards the fluffy and banal because i know they can handle them. so what you said resonates. one way i get over this is by being part of a book group. i enjoy our conversations, so i force myself to read books chosen by the group that i don't think i'll like. but in 18 months (18 books) i think there has only been one i really disliked.
another way is to find a list of great books and pick some at random and commit to the first 50 pages. if it feels like a slog, quit and find another book. no one has read every worthwhile book. there literally is not enough time in your life. there's nothing wrong with starting with books that feel easier / less threatening to you.

by the way, i also have no idea of what you mean by mythoself or the cliche of the philosopher's cafe. i am confused by why you expect these terms to be common knowledge. i wonder if you are imagining that there is a basic knowledge of the world that educated people have that is much broader than it really is. so you expect us to know about these concepts that you have read about, but you also are worried that other people are throwing around terms that they expect you to know about. no one knows about everything, just like no one has read every worthwhile book. it's ok to say that you haven't heard about something yet. i am just guessing but it sounds like you are trying to catch up to what you perceive the people you admire already know about.
posted by katieanne at 10:58 AM on June 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm not trying to avoid things which question my presumptions, I'm interested in psychological techniques which allow me to get my ego out of the way.

But that's exactly what I'm saying, is that questioning your own presumptions will get your ego out of the way and let you do what you want to do. Let me explain:

You are correct that your ego is getting in your way, but you are INcorrect when it comes to HOW your ego is getting in your way. You think that the obstacle your ego is giving you is that it is preventing you from liking things you think you're "supposed" to like. But the truth is, is that your ego is incorrect in making the assumption that there are things you are or aren't supposed to like, and those incorrect assumptions are themselves the obstacle your ego is putting in your path.

So questioning your own assumptions is the psychological technique which will get your ego out of the way.

But, if you really don't believe me, all I can suggest is to remind yourself that, if you read something you disagree with, that "well, that's just that person's opinion, I do not have to agree."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:00 AM on June 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

Also, I would consider that your ego has gotten in your way just in the course of reading these answers, right here:

You all seem to think I have my head up my a**.

Not a single person in here has accused you of having your head up your ass. People have only said that you are mistaken about the exact way in which your ego is getting in your way. I suspect that your ego is also making you perceive a suggestion as an affront; you may want to think about that.

And your ego is getting in your way here too:

The main reason I wanted to elevate my tastes is so that I don't convey immature tastes to other people. If all I ever watched was the latest Die Hard movie or Fast and Furious, not only would that not question my presumptions, but other people would sense my low-brow interests.

People who also liked Fast and Furious or Die Hard wouldn't think your interests were low-brow, they'd be happy talking about them with you. So where's the problem? Only in your own ego.

You're correct that your ego is getting in your way. But it's not giving you the problem you think it's giving you.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:05 AM on June 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

I get the idea of art as confrontation in theory, but it doesn't do much for me as a layman looking to have a meaningful relationship with someone's work. It may be helpful to look at the author as a friend you are interested in knowing more about, as opposed to seeing the text as something your ego is pitted in a deathmatch against.
posted by Lorin at 11:06 AM on June 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I wasn't going to share this but I think maybe I will because maybe it will help give you some perspective here.

You sound like my college boyfriend. (Weirdly enough, right down to all your previous questions about learning Chinese, but I digress.) I honestly think I've probably heard him use the term "ego pain" before because that's just the way that he talked.

College Boyfriend (let's call him CB) was obsessed with this idea. He had some sort of idea set in his head that he wasn't literary enough or learned enough or sophisticated enough for the world, so he was constantly playing this crazy Hunger Games style narrative in his head where his new, cooler, more special self would have to attack and kill his old, unrefined self in order to be the best and stay the best.

He was a hipster in all of the stereotypically worst ways we think of when we think "hipster".

It caused a lot of conflict in our relationship because he just couldn't accept that I was perfectly happy with who I was and completely content liking the things I liked. I remember having an argument once where he was trying to tell me that I shouldn't like Vonnegut because he was too simplistic, and that I should really like authors like Saul Bellow and Nelson Algren because they were more complicated and therefore somehow better. CB also had an incredible amount of contempt for the fact that I liked Miro and Kandinsky and other modern art because apparently [I don't even remember now what he said] was more legitimate. And he hated the fact that I preferred Beethovan to Mozart because of [some bullshit about music theory]. And when I started listening to/loving Stravinsky, apparently that wasn't good enough either because [whatever]. He was straightedge when it was cool to be straightedge, and then he was a fine wine connoisseur when that got cool.

He, on the other hand, never let himself like anything for more than a couple months at a time, because as soon as he developed a fondness for one thing, he'd read some piece of criticism saying it was less worthy for some reason or another, and dump it for the next great thing.

It was SO TIRESOME. Looking back, I am so embarrassed that I dated CB for as long as I did, and mad at myself for ever letting him let me feel bad about what I liked or didn't like just because he said so.

The real story, what was really going on, is that he had absolutely awful self esteem and was severely depressed. He was uncomfortable just being himself, and so constantly tried to be the coolest and best and most sophisticated so that he could at least say, well, at least I'm better than THAT guy.

You don't want to be CB. CB was always unhappy. And CB was a jackass.

You need to find out what you like, and like it purely because YOU like it. There doesn't need to be any other reason. Enjoying dumb stuff just because you want to is not a moral failing. The sooner you learn to just let yourself be, the happier you will be in life.
posted by phunniemee at 11:09 AM on June 24, 2013 [17 favorites]

Hmm. It sounds like maybe you are trying to stretch your media consumption inch by inch, perhaps watching/ reading things that are slightly more "out there"/"literary" than you're used to.

Jump in the deep end instead! It is harder to have presumptions when you don't feel like you know more than the artist does.

If I'm wrong, and it's the other way around, do the converse.

Of course, if you get in deep enough with Russian fiction, or classical Greek plays, or whatever, you'll find that impressing people with that knowledge is nearly useless because nobody will know what you're talking about: it's impossible to be broadly well-read – there's too much material. So then it's just you and the art.
posted by furiousthought at 11:35 AM on June 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Expanding your horizons is different from maturing yourself. Find complex, difficult to digest works because you want to, not because you want to be more mature. To become more mature, or at least appear more mature, find comfort in who you are.

Finding comfort in yourself is different than saying "fuck the world, this is who I am," because you still are fighting against what you believe others are thinking of you. You need to find contentment in simply saying "this is who I am." But it's a bit like The Game, or the white bear. You win by thinking of anything other than what others are thinking of you.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:56 AM on June 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm having a certain amount of trouble understanding what you mean. But I'm going to take a whack at it anyway:

I think what you're trying to ask, but in very watered down language, is something like "I want to experience complex and sometimes painful art so that I can share this with other people, without feeling that pain so acutely that I harm myself in the process of experiencing it. Do you have any suggestions?"

So my answer to that question is similar to the answers for questions about any fear, which is that you have to learn about the subject matter at hand. Knowledge is the key to letting go of fear.

If you learn about film-making techniques, for example, this will allow you to watch serious films from multiple perspectives. As an audience member reacting to the immediacy of the content, but also as someone who understands the work that went into the creation of said content. Then you can choose to experience the film on a level that is comfortable to you, that separates yourself from your fear. In a trivial example, zombies scare me. But I also know a great deal about gore makeup and special effects. So I can watch a zombie movie and, when it gets too scary for me, I can concentrate on the masterful work of the artists doing the effects, trying to work out how they did things and why they made those choices. In, say, an art film about suffering, you can choose to engage directly with the film as presented, or use your knowledge to think about things like scene pacing, framing, lighting, and all the techniques the film maker is using to manipulate you. And then you can choose to be manipulated emotionally, or not.

For books the idea is the same. You can educate yourself about the subject of another book by reading non-fiction. (Although non-fiction can absolutely be manipulative and painful. Choose your subjects wisely.) You can also learn about narrative techniques and writing traditions. You can learn about the time period in which a novel is set. There are numerous options. Then, armed with this knowledge, you engage with the novel on different levels of appreciation. (Or judgement!)

Really though, being so empathetic that a work of art hurts you to the point that you're going to never read again!!! is something that rarely occurs, in my experience as a pretty dang empathetic person. And, being affected in that way is actually, as people above are saying, a fantastic thing. It will change you, but your essential self will be intact. Allowing yourself to be "hurt" by art is part of engaging genuinely with it. Other people will be able to tell if you aren't being genuine.
posted by Mizu at 12:37 PM on June 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Maybe what you mean is, "it can hurt to stretch my brain this far"? Because it does! It can hurt to have to update our brains so much, and change what we've thought for ages. I know when I read something really challenging it can give me like a mind headache incorporating all the new data and an entire new schema, even if I find it thrilling and agree with so much of it. Or I don't agree, but have to struggle with my brain to be quiet for long enough to hear it out before I start to argue with it. Or I agree, but it hurts to agree with something so painful (like the long history of sexism).

If this is what you mean, and it's something I encounter in broadening my horizons, I:

* Keep a commonplace book. I record not only quotations, but will summarize the author's arguments and then write a brief essay in response. It helps me remember key details and new phrases, and fleshes out what I agree and don't agree with.

* Argue out loud with material I really don't like, in order to respect what I think AND what is telling me.

* Take breaks between challenging material. Knowing the history of rape is important. But I don't want my whole week to be suffused with it so I'm going to reread Calvin and Hobbies after I've finished this philosophy book.

* Acknowledge that I am always learning and getting to know all this stuff which is AWESOME and yes it means there's lots I don't know but that is AWESOME because that is MORE I GET TO LEARN HOORAY.
posted by blue_and_bronze at 1:58 PM on June 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

It sounds to me like you are wanting to pursue entertainment that causes ego pain, but without the ego pain. I'm not sure there's away around that - I'd suggest the best way to ease the ego pain is to endure the painful works. It gets easier over time as you're increasingly challenged, your horizons expanded, and, frankly, you're humbled.

Also, to the low-brow entertainment point - I think people will find your interests interesting, however low-brow, if you can speak about them smartly. Why are you drawn to them? What do you notice that other people might have missed? What do they tell us about our culture? There's lots of smart writing online about even the most mainstream, seemingly "dumb" films and literature out there that could make you well-versed in the things you genuinely do love. Hell, I teach cinema at the college level and Fast & Furious 6 was one of my favorite films this year - there's tons to talk about in that film besides fast cars and hot babes.
posted by Ms. Toad at 6:01 PM on June 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Hmm. I think it would probably be good to explore what exactly it is that you find threatening about art that espouses viewpoints that are different from yours. What exactly is it that you are believing that is so fragile that it could be wiped away by an "egoically painful" book or movie?

I also think you are searching after the wrong thing in your quest to "elevate your tastes." In my opinion, the greatest art has at its heart a lot of complexity and a window into the incredible nuances of the world. It sounds like there's some belief that you're clinging to, perhaps that you've reduced your worldview to somewhat, that might be making it difficult for you to appreciate things that might seem different than what you stand for. Maybe if the quest was to examine your viewpoints and use art as to appreciate the shades of gray in the world, it would be more fruitful than a quest to sound more intellectual, which is what it sounds like you're going for.

Also, what's so shameful about liking Die Hard? If you like it, you like it.
posted by mermily at 5:28 PM on June 25, 2013

Maybe instead of looking for new things to like look at liking the things you already like in new waves? I've seen thousands of words written about Die Hard: it's construction as an action film, its social context, the prejudices embeded in it, etc. The Fast & Furious films have inspired similar meditations on masculinity.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 8:08 PM on June 26, 2013

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