I have always been fascinated by theories of personality development. In thinking about my clients, I have wondered many times, “Why would they do that?” I spent my childhood trying to understand the people around me, how to survive safely by studying and anticipating the moves of others in my life.
The theory that makes the most sense to me is an offshoot of Freudian psychology. It has to do with the development of something called the Observing Ego or the Ego “I.” In the theory, the function of the Ego is to evaluate and choose. When decisions need to be made by the individual, the Ego needs to calculate the cost/benefit ratio and choose the best option for success and survivability. As it grows and learns to do this more effectively, the individual steers his/her life in the direction of growth and expansion. This is the rational, executive decision making part of your personality. Part of this complicated, but interesting matrix, involves the motivation of the individual, their world-view (cultural frame) and capacity to analyze. It is a game we all play.
When I was a child, I lived in a violent, alcoholic family. I learned early in life that in order to be safe and to even survive I needed to become hyper-vigilant, to be constantly aware of those in my surroundings and of their level of anger, their sobriety and their expectations. I had to navigate those waters on a daily basis. I remember when I was about twelve, laying on the couch in the living room reading a book while my father and four or five of his friends sat in the yard outside drinking and showing each other their guns. One of them accidentally fired his pistol and the shot went through the wall of the house, then through the wall behind me, and broke a 4’x4’ mirror hanging over the couch on which I lay. I was standing with the book in my hand, trying to brush all the broken glass off my head and clothes and figure out what had happened when my Dad and his friends opened the door to see what damage had been wrought. My dad took a long look at me and said quietly, “Clean up this mess,” then they all went outside to continue their drinking.
No one asked if I was okay, no one held me and calmed my fear or anxiety. It was a non-event. Clean it up and move on. On other occasions, I would be asleep in my bed and wake to a feeling of warm wetness surrounding me. My father would be standing over me urinating in my bed, thinking he was in the bathroom. I would yell out, he would blink a few times and say, “Clean up this mess,” and stagger off to bed. Those are only a few of the examples that explain why I became hyper-vigilant, slept very little (I probably averaged about four hours or so a night for most of my adult life) and was constantly assessing my surrounding environment. I had to develop nuanced radar and antennae, which would warn me in times of risk or danger. I learned as a child in an alcoholic family that one should never ever let anyone know what they wanted or liked or needed. This information would be used as leverage to control or manipulate you into someone else’s agenda. As a result, I often did not know what I wanted or felt. (There may be those who still think that of me.)
I learned early that my script to follow was to be a laborer without an education, to work a job with a shirt that had my name on it. However, through the encouragement of teachers, I learned that although life’s circumstances may write a script for you, you don’t have to follow it. You can change it through the operation of the Ego I. You can look for a better way and acquire the materials to try to write a different script and move yourself into a different drama. It became my goal to do well in school and to get an education that would help me move away from the southern, drink ridden, uneducated world that Pat Conroy writes about so well.
Through the years, I have learned to moderate this script as my observing ego has developed. It has processed the input, analyzed the data and made choices. Some of those choices have been good, some bad, but all have been in service of the learning curve. I am now sixty-six years old and sleep the night through. I am not hyper-vigilant (although, still constantly aware and observing.) I am not afraid and I have spent a life-time trying to learn and understand more and more about how personalities form and people grow, as well as how they can make choices that help them overcome or change the life scripts that were originally written for them. I have spent my career as a therapist trying to help individuals who were fighting these kinds of battles.
In the course of my journey I have learned many things. I have learned about repetition compulsion and flight into sickness as ways we sabotage our success. Both of these defenses are counterproductive and hurtful. We have to learn not to do them. They tend to be driven by the Ego’s unconscious efforts to moderate anxiety and have us back away from the fearfulness of the unknown. It tries to keep us on the same known, albeit, dysfunctional path that is so comforting to us, even when it we know that we will be hurt by following this path. Our Observing Ego needs to consciously learn that we are responding reflexively from a primitive defense and we need to work to override it. That is the beauty of the Observing Ego. It can do that. That is its job. As data comes in and we reality test the patterns of our lives, we have an opportunity to see the patterns that exist. We can assess the costs and the benefits of our choices, even when it is hard for us to recognize that we are making choices.
For many of us, the reflexive position is to be the victim of circumstances. Some of us culturally are conditioned to attribute that to religion or God. We hear people say when they want something to happen or not happen, “If it is meant to be, it will be.” “If it is God’s will, then it will be.” “God has a plan and it is not mine to understand, but to accept.” These scripts are cultural ways for us to avoid the concept of personal responsibility, or as I prefer to say “response-ability” (the ability to respond.) We can accept the power to choose and make a choice. We may not get what we want, but I do not believe it is the planned conceptualization of a higher being that I don’t get a new car, or heal from my cancer or win the lottery. I have a responsibility to steer and guide my life towards the things I want and to avoid the cliff that is clearly there for me. I cannot just be the passive lemming whose fate is determined by an “other,” even when that “Other” is a benevolent, loving God. I am here to play, to fight, and to move myself along the trail. I do not control my destiny, but I have a role in determining it and of structuring my life as much as I can, even though I live in a random world. My belief is that God has given me the tools and strengths so that I can make the correct choice and be response-able when it is time to pay the piper or accept the rewards. I do not deny the existence of God, I challenge the belief that whatever happens to me for better or worse is predetermined according to some agenda of a supreme being.
As a therapist and as a person, I believe in the importance of reality testing, of obtaining honest and relevant data upon which to base assumptions and choices. I want to face the truth, as it can be known, even if that is painful and frightening. I do not want to be a passive recipient of fate, or a person who simply endures life. I want to put my chips in the pot and play the hand. I am not a victim of fate. I embrace life and want to live it every day to the end. I don’t want to bury my head in the sand. I want my Observing Ego to be conscious and aware, even as I am dying, to try to know and understand the process. There is a line in the movie the “Shawshank Redemption” where one of the prisoners, Red, says: “You got to get busy living, or you got to get busy dying.”
I think that is the job of the Observing Ego, the Ego I. Life is not always happy and wonderful, and we are not always victorious as we struggle to make optimal decisions regarding the patterns of our lives. But, it is a great ride and it is not over yet!
Life is difficult, pain is inevitable, but misery is choice.