Ego vs Compassion – They Don’t Work Together

I’m taking a break this week from writing about follow your yellow brick road to discuss something that has come up for me in the last few days. It’s very personal but I think a lot of people may find it relevant as well. In addition, I agree with Joan Didion who said: “I don’t know what I think until I try to write it down”. I am working through what I’m thinking and feeling about this situation and this blog is part of that process.

I’ve heard it said that we can’t control what happens to us, only how we respond to it. Recently I had a series of things happen – and I responded badly. I’m still dealing with the repercussions of those poorly chosen responses.

About four months ago two events happened which made me feel very vulnerable and which after I could do very little to help or fix. The incidents affected my older son (an accident) and my mother (an illness), two of the most important people in my life. Not being able to do anything but feeling heartbroken and scared put me in a particularly bad space emotionally.  No surprises so far. Unfortunately what tends to happen to me in when I end up in a situation like this is I try like crazy to be strong and have it all handled.

Which I don’t, of course, so what happens next? My ego comes rushing in full force to protect me. To keep me from feeling helpless it is there to prove to me and to the world that I am strong and capable and won’t take any shit. It’s a liar.

My ego is not what I or any of the relationships in my life truly need at that moment. What I needed to do was share my fears, concerns, and emotions with the people in my life who I most trust. I needed to get their support, and I needed to fall apart with them rather than spending so much energy and thought about how I was going to keep everything handled. I’ve discovered (once again) that the only person in my life who expects me to have everything handled his me.

So instead of treating myself with the compassion I needed and getting help where it was available, I armored myself with my ego. And once I’m armored my ability to be compassionate not only with myself but with others is drastically hindered. I’m in battle mode. Strong and ruthless, first to me and then to anyone or anything that seems like it might be a threat.

Guess what? When I’m in that mode – everything is a threat.

nope – I don’t look sexy in my ego armor

When I’m armored like this is if somebody reaches out to me, if somebody needs compassion or understanding, I am not necessarily going to notice it. I am more likely to believe I am being attacked – even if that’s not the case. And sadly this makes me a lousy friend or wife or coworker during these times. I am also more likely to pick at someone or nag. Just ask my husband – when I’m in this place and if I’m feeling down about my weight… I’ll bug him about his weight and appearance. I don’t have the emotional strength to look at myself yet, so I lash out. After all, pulling others down will make me higher, right?

No, of course not, but no one ever said the ego was bright.

Thankfully my husband and I not usually armored up at the same time. If he’s in a strong place, then my being in the sinkhole isn’t terrible. If I don’t shift, he notices the changes in me and either pulls me out or directs me to friends by lovingly finding a way to say “Get help.”

So here I was in this terrible place making it worse by not reaching out for help, just letting myself founder. When friends asked how I’m doing, I look to all the ways I’m doing great and tell them about that, proving to myself I’m fine. Yup – ego again. Unfortunately, one of the people in my life has also been in a terrible space during this same time and instead of being able to be there for her, I used my armor to push her away and aside.

There have been other times in my life when this has happened in my relationships – both people in rough spots. With my husband, if we’re both down? It’s not pretty and we end up staying in the hole longer. As a friend recently put it, it’s like two people drowning. You can’t help the other person because you’re still trying to save yourself. I think this is the first time in this friendship when we’ve been really low at the same time so even though I’ve been in similar situations with others, I didn’t recognize it this time, and it lasted too long. And during the course of that time, I hurt her deeply.

Was it unintentional? Yes. Does that make it hurt less? No.

Ego is the enemy of compassion, both for the self and others and apparently, this is not a lesson I’ve fully learned, because I’m having to look at it again.  Kristin Neff, a professor at the University of Texas who specializes in self-compassion, writes in her article Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude Toward Oneself,

  • “Self-compassion, therefore, involves being touched by and open to one’s own suffering, not avoiding or disconnecting from it, generating the desire to alleviate one’s suffering and to heal oneself with kindness. Self-compassion also involves offering nonjudgmental understanding to one’s pain, inadequacies and failures, so that one’s experience is seen as part of the larger human experience.”

I was avoiding and disconnecting. Ego cut me off and once that happened, I started cutting off the people around me. I was able to be there for my mom and son, but beyond that… there wasn’t much left. What I should have done was to open myself up rather shut myself away because once that happened, I was toxic and unavailable to anyone who needed me – including myself.


It wasn’t a good choice. It’s the fight-flight-flee response. Survival mode, which has nothing to do with thriving. It may feel safe, but it’s lonely and lasting. If my friend hadn’t finally told me she was hurt, I don’t know when I would have started to turn things around. Eventually, I suppose, but who knows how many more people would have been hurt by my actions, pushed away by my armor.

I’m heartbroken that I did this to her, and feel terrible about the choices I made. I write this, as I said at the beginning, to be able to understand more the string of events and my responses that lead to this in the hopes that I don’t do it again and that should she want to move past this situation, I know what I can do differently for the future. I am grateful for the new awareness about myself but sick over how it was learned, how it was gained. No matter what happens next, the cost was too high.

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