A blog by Louis D. Cox Ph.D.
Before I talk about the ego’s relationship to loneliness, let me recount a true life story about the experience of an unbearable loneliness.
This story involves two brothers. It is told from one brother’s perspective. He was seeking help from a weekly advice column in the New York Times Sunday Magazine called The Ethicist (7/21/19). Of course it was anonymous. But I am going to call the brother asking for advice, Lucas, and the brother that he is concerned about, Peter. The piece in the times was entitled: “My Dysfunctional Brother Was an Abuse Victim. How Do I Acknowledge His Past?” I will let Lucas’ words tell his story:
“Recently one of my siblings confided in me about the sexual abuse that our brother endured by a man when we were children. Our brother was prepubescent at the time. He does not know that I know.
Throughout our childhood, I never knew. I never made the connection between this childhood trauma and his lack of ambition or even his dropping out of school. Over the years he has suffered from mental health issues and substance abuse and has recently sought help.
I know the perpetrator because he also made a “move” on me. I was groped in my own living room when my mother stepped away for just a moment. I screamed bloody murder and kicked over a coffee table full of tea and dishes and ran away. This saved me. My mother was clueless about this man and made me apologize for my behavior.”
Lucas goes on to ask for advice about whether or not, and how, to approach his brother with this new knowledge about his brother’s trauma. Knowledge obviously vitally important to Lucas and his siblings, but the advice given is not relevant to my purpose in sharing this story.
Loneliness. Imagine the profound intolerable loneliness (besides the other overwhelming feelings) that Peter experienced as he suffered at the hands of his perpetrator. Clearly he felt he could not protect himself or speak about it, or he would have. His emotions would have naturally compelled him to do so. Horrifying, terrifying, humiliating, experiences are instinctually responded to by children with rage, fear, screams for help, flight, or fight. Lucas responded with rage, fight, and flight. For a variety of reasons Lucas could and Peter could not.
But think also of the loneliness that Lucas experienced. His mother didn’t, couldn’t, respond to him as if his reaction had valid meaning, and a purpose which needed to be inquired into. No. She did the socially correct thing. She shamed him for behaving the way he did towards an adult member of her social circle, her ‘tribe’. Made him humiliate himself for the sake of tribal acceptance. So Lucas is left alone with this grievous, hurtful insult and shamed for reacting totally appropriately to protect himself. Passing states of loneliness obviously include feeling isolated, at least temporarily. But Lucas and Peter are left in a permanent state of loneliness and abandonment by their mother. A state that requires them to live with the unbearable pain of that isolation and loneliness, permanently…..unless and until their lives take a different turn further down the road of their life paths.
This story exemplifies the ‘deals’ we are forced to make as children in order to preserve our connection to those we are most dependent on. This story presents an example of a relatively extreme betrayal of the bond between protector (parent/caretaker) and child (There are many much worse). This bond is implicit between parent and child. It includes the recognition by parents of their children’s vulnerability - to threats to their sense of safety, both large and small, and to blows to their budding sense of self. The range, depth, and frequency of these betrayals vary widely from family to family. But they happen everyday in homes around the world.
Children let us know they are feeling threatened and/or hurt through the expression of their feelings, including fear, anger, hurt, and sadness.
But kids learn early, first in their families, and then in their peer groups, in schools, and in religious institutions, which of their reactions to boundary violations, hostile behaviors, and subtle insensitivities, are forbidden and punished by the adults they are dependent on for their physical and personal safety and survival. They learn these rules when their natural efforts at self-protection, through the expression of their feelings, are shamed or ignored.
Kids are too often in the position of the wolf caught in a trap whose only survival move is to chew off its leg. The pain and fear caused by the disapproval, rejection, or attacks (verbal and physical) by the adult members of the tribe are overwhelming. That is the “trap”. That pain and fear trumps the pain and outrage of being treated as if the expression of their feelings doesn’t matter or is “bad”. So kids dis-member their objectionable, dangerous parts and bury them in their unconscious, along with the deeply felt loneliness of their true selves never being fully embraced.
Talk about lonely. “None of my ‘allies’ see and respect my predicament; there is no one safe to talk to who might help me; everyone is in agreement that I should ignore/suppress my deeply hurtful/frightening experiences and just “get on with it”. “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” “Sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you.” “Stop wallowing in the past.” “Get a life.” “Get over it.” “Stop being a baby.” “Just do it.” “Stop caring about what other people think of you.” Can you feel the pull of these clichés? How well intentioned they are? How they have a piece of the truth that sucks us into lying about our deep need for each other’s loving and respectful embrace; and into denying/hiding the pain and fear we feel when we are rejected or attacked? How they push us into a permanent loneliness at the expense of our deep need for connection, acceptance, and for being valued as our whole native selves? Being forced into these social “deals” puts the experience of that quality of connection permanently out of reach.
So clearly I am not talking about some superficial or transient bout with loneliness. Those have ready remedies. I am talking about a loneliness more profound and intractable, and also largely unconscious. And which I believe is close to universally present in our collective cultural/social reality (at least in the USA).
So what has this form of loneliness got to do with our egos?
We are not born with an ego. Egos form in response to how we are responded to… by everyone who matters to us, over the course of a lifetime, but most especially between birth and age seven or eight. Egos are an add-on. They are not our native selves. They are a distortion and limitation placed ‘on top’ of our native selves in the interest of preserving our safety and connection to those we depend on early in our lives. They become an internal, unconscious, automatic, compulsive self-expression filtering system. Necessary for our early survival, but ending up like a form of malware in the adult human ‘computer system’.
The ego is the sum of every lesson learned about what parts of my self are safe to show to my caretakers and what parts are too dangerous to show. It is designed to put forth and promote what is tribally acceptable and valued about me, and to hide what is tribally unacceptable about me, and what is dangerous to my good standing in whatever my current tribe may be. We can shift allegiances to tribes over a lifetime, to tribes that may have different rules for acceptance and safety. But the conditions for being accepted always depend on suppressing and making unconscious vital features of our true selves. This is the source of chronic, insatiable loneliness.
Think about it. If it is true, (and I figure many of you reading this may not know or believe that this is an accurate description of our current collective social state), that I am only embraced if I fit into my tribes definition about what about me is “embraceable”, there will always be an essential part of me excluded from that embrace. And therefore in a permanent state of profound, existential loneliness. This will force me to endlessly seek conditional , empty substitutes for full embrace (e.g how many ‘likes’ I’ve solicited) but never cure my deep unconscious, ego-driven and ego-maintained state of permanent loneliness.
I opened this piece with a story of a mother failing to protect a child from an experience at the hands of a harmful adult. One which everyone would be naturally horrified by, including the mother had she known about it. I did so to highlight how children can render unconscious, and ‘forget’ over time, even the most horrifying and painful of experiences. But Peter would not have been able to do so if he was not trained and practiced in doing so before this event happened. If Peter’s normal, day to day expressions of feelings like hurt, fear, anger, and sadness, had been listened to, respected as valid, and responded to compassionately in the years before this perpetration occurred, by a mother who had not been emotionally silenced by her own ego, then the outcome would have been very different.
In that scenario, he would not need to, nor would he be able, to suppress his feelings. He would not have been able to remain silent about what was going on. Even though he was defenseless against the adult perpetrator, he would have naturally turned to his mother for protection. And she would have believed him and shown him her own outrage at the perpetrator, “friend” or not. His native self and natural self-protective responses would not be overruled by an ego driving him to obey self-negating tribal rules and regulations regarding self-expression and self-protection. Rather, he would be held in an accepting embrace that would make it safe for him to howl in pain and outrage and sadness regarding the violence he exxperienced. And in this scenario, the same would hold true for Lucas.
So my point is this. It is the “smaller” day to day moments in which a child’s feelings of fear, hurt, anger, or sadness are responded to in minimizing, shaming, or neglectful ways that result in the installation of an ego that embodies a hatred and fear of its ‘host’s’ own vulnerability and dependency on others. And when a society universally accepts a set of rules and regulations that treat a basic human need as dangerous, shameful, and/or a weakness, then one could speak of a “collective ego”. In my country, our basic human need for respectful, loving embrace (and the painful vulnerabilities that often go with it) is treated this way. So the American collective ego is one that rewards forms of independence and autonomy that are built on the denial and shame of our need for each other’s embrace. No wonder we are a chronically lonely society, addicted to one empty substitute or another for that embrace, or to some numbing agent or activity that kills the pain of its absence.
Dr. Louis D. Cox is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Organizational Consultant who has been practicing for fifty years.
High Performance Team Development:
Dr. Cox has consulted with different types of teams, such as executive teams, management teams, musical bands, and community organizing teams, around developing and maintaining high performance. Clients have included The Disney Corporation, AT&T, American Airlines, Sony Corporation, International Creative Management, Big Foote, as well as numerous successful rock and roll bands, including Aerosmith, REM, and BonJovi.
Alcoholism and Addiction:
Dr. Cox is an expert in the area of alcoholism and addictions. He is experienced in methods that are designed to enable individuals, families, and business colleagues to deal effectively with the insidious and destructive power of addictive disorders.
Dr. Cox is trained in a variety of psychotherapeutic techniques including psychoanalysis, Gestalt therapy, Psychodrama, and cognitive therapy. He also teaches Mindfulness, Meditation, and a method of deep self-inquiry. Through individual, couple, family and group sessions he assists his clients in releasing the grip of their conditioned limiting self-definitions and in re-vitalizing their experience of being and becoming. Dr. Cox also supervises other therapists in their practice of psychotherapy.
Ego: The Ghost in Your Machinery. Epigraph Books, 2018. This book explores the nature of the ego, ways to release its grip, and how to consistently access the resources of our authentic selves.
A Conscious Life: Cultivating the Seven Qualities of Authentic Adulthood. Conari Press, 1996. This book explores the nature of conscious adulthood by describing the inner operating principles of a fully present and empowered adult. It includes exercises for the development of these qualities. Emotions, Integrity, and Teams in the Workplace. Ethical Management, 1997. Somebody Stole the Team’s Brain. At Work: Stories of Tomorrow’s Workplace, 1997.
- Q&A with Paula Shields from Asia’s first gender responsive trauma-informed addiction treatment for women.