I like the definition of the ego from Merriam-Webster. It says that it is both “the opinion that you have about yourself” and, in psychological terms, “a part of the mind that senses and adapts to the real world.”
The combination of these two descriptors makes it clear that while this part of us is necessary for functioning in the real world, it is also something so ephemeral that it is nothing more than our own opinion of ourselves.
The fact that it is necessary for our ability to function in the world, however, makes it easy for us to lose sight of just how made-up it really is. We can tend to put a lot of energy into shoring up this part of ourselves in an attempt to make it as solid as possible in our quest for security and stability in life.
The problem with this approach is that this solidification of our ego ultimately diminishes our optimal functioning in the world as it walls us off from other parts of ourselves and from any parts of our experience that do not fit our opinion of ourselves. And that process also walls us off from one another.
When my life fell apart a few years ago, one of the things that made the process so challenging is that it shattered my ego, my opinion of who I was, as one aspect after another of who I thought I was was destroyed in rapid succession. As the blows kept coming—both from within and from without—there was no piece of my self-definition left intact.
The shattering of this ego-shell left me with shards of identity that no longer fit together in any coherent way, which often made my ability to adapt to and interact with the real world around me rather precarious for a season with no solid self from which to engage anyone or anything. It also unleashed the worst of my self-critic’s vitriol to run amok in my head with what seemed to be evidence of its truthfulness in every broken piece.
Trying to function without an intact ego was a harrowing experience, and one I don’t recommend!
At the same time, this shattering—combined with my lessons from yoga—helped me find a deeper part of myself that I had previously walled off behind that shell of my ego. This deeper part of myself is what many refer to as the witness. I think of it as a detached but curious inner observer.
This part of me simply observes what I do, what I say, how I feel, what I think with no agenda other than curiosity. When an emotion arises in a situation, she simply observes the emotion and what prompted it and seeks to understand the connection. Why that emotion and not another? What is the emotion telling me about this situation? About me? About my needs? There’s no judgment of good or bad, just curiosity.
She notices the habitual patterns of thinking and behavior that show up in my life and points them out to me in a non-judgmental way. She notices when I head into rationalization or start putting some spin on a situation in my mind and points out the gap between the truth and my portrayal of it to myself. Her favorite question is asking me whether my thoughts about something are true.
Oddly enough, this inner observer routinely calls me on my shit much more consistently and effectively than my self-critic ever does, but because it is simply noticed in a non-judgmental way, I am more able to hear it and deal with it in helpful ways than I ever did with the abuse my self-critic hurls at me on a regular basis. Her curiosity engages me in a way that the attacks of the self-critic never do.
One of the most powerful benefits of learning to engage my inner critic with a practice of mental Aikido has been the space it creates for me slip below the noise and fury of my self-critic’s voice to observe what my inner observer is seeing and hearing.
In doing so, I’ve realized that my self-critic is often working hard to re-establish a solid ego-shell as a form of protection. All of her abuse is really spoken (shouted!) with the intent of getting me back in line with a solid, unmovable self-identity that can help keep the chaos of regular life at bay with its refusal to acknowledge any reality that doesn’t fit with my ego’s opinion of self.
As tempting as the reinstatement of that ego-shell often appears, one of the pieces of gold that I’ve found in the healing of this brokenness of my self-identity is that what I thought was the protection of that ego-shell was actually a prison. As I side-step the self-critic and allow myself to live with a permeable, ever-changing version of my opinion of myself, I am better able to engage with reality as it actually is.
The broken shards of my former self-identity are still in pieces about my feet, but I am learning to be content to leave them there. I am focusing instead on listening ever more closely to the quiet observations of this inner observer that I have discovered to move through life in a more open way. I think she is one of the more precious pieces of gold that has grown out my healing process, and I treasure her quiet, curious voice (even when I cringe at what she observes).
Are you in touch with this inner observer in your life? How do you engage with the observations of this inner witness?
If you’d like to receive more inspiration and encouragement for living your own kintsugi life, subscribe to get weekly notifications of new blog posts in your inbox.