Narcissism seems to be a buzzword. Narcissism blogs consistently rank at the top of most popular psychology sites, and the word itself is one of the most frequently searched across all search engines. And whether we are trying to cope with our own grandiose traits or trying to live to live with those who have them, our answers will likely be found in David Richo’s new book, You Are Not What You Think: The Egoless Path to Self-Esteem and Generous Love.
Richo, who is also the author of several other books, including How To Be An Adult in Relationships, writes, “We are not what we think we are when ego is our only identity. Egolessness is in us and when we find it we embark on the path to true self-esteem and generous love for other and ourselves.”
Drawing on concepts from neuroscience, psychology, Buddhism, and mythology, Richo explores just what egotism is, why it occurs, and how we go about learning to become free from the trapped energy of an arrogant mindset.
Hubris, Richo writes, was not just dangerous to the gods, but is also what Freud called “the true seat of anxiety.” Underlying this anxiety are the painful emotions of shame, isolation, and fear that drive the controlling, bullying, and manipulating nature of the egotist. Yet while the egotist looks down on others and thrives on ranking, he is also constricted, maintaining an ego stance that requires constantly being on guard. Not only does he push away the very things he wants — what Richo calls the five As: attention, acceptance, appreciation, affection, and allowing — he can easily lose sight of his true nature.
The goal, however, is not to abandon our ego, but to rehabilitate it.
And because many of the fears of the ego — fear of losing, of not always being on top, of not always being in control, and of looking bad — are not grounded in reality, the first step is gaining compassion for ourselves.
Compassion, Richo tells us, “is the container in which healing happens.” Here, we can begin the work of addressing, processing, and resolving our conflicts both from the past and the present. Some of these conflicts may be not having our needs met, being doted on and then suddenly no longer doted on, and being made to be special. To move to a healthy ego, Richo offers many examples of how to practice self-compassion, end compulsive seeking, overcome our fears of vulnerability, and respond to our inner critics. Finding a healthy ego, he writes, means knowing the difference between a deflated ego and an inflated one.
The process of building a healthy ego begins in childhood, with three integral components: a secure base from which we can launch out, a safe haven to which we can always return, and a sense of enduring accompaniment by those who love us as we freely travel in both directions. If we didn’t receive the love we needed in childhood, that lack forms a kind of pre-existing condition with which we face the present and engage in adult relationships.
To learn to overcome our past, Richo suggests first grieving for how we missed out on the love we needed, giving it to ourselves now, and then accepting only partners who are able to give it to us in reasonably satisfying ways. Central to this is compassion, as Richo reminds us that according to Buddhism, compassion is an aspiration, a state of mind, wanting others to be free from suffering.
“A relationship cannot survive when one or both partners are egotists,” Richo writes. Not only does an overbearing ego render us unable to love, it also makes us unable to attend to the needs of others because we are always focused on our own needs, unable to accept others because we are continually judging them, unable to appreciate others because we believe we are entitled, unable to show authentic affection because we are unwilling to be vulnerable, and unable to allow others to pursue their own needs.
To provide attention, acceptance, appreciation, affection, and allowing in relationships, Richo writes, we must be open to communication. We must practice neither seeking nor avoiding, but rather letting go.
Here, Richo points again to Buddhist teachings. “Buddhism teaches that attachment and aversion are the cause of suffering,” he writes. We can learn to let go through engagement, which “reduces ego because it originates in an acceptance of the fact that change can happen at any time.”
The ego does have positive uses, too. We often need it in competitive sports, during heroic actions, and when standing up for a victim. By abandoning the polarizing idea of good versus bad, we can find a positive dimension in what is negative. What may emerge is our true nature, something that transcends individual ego identity, unlocks our deepest possibilities, and allows us to find peace with what is. Practical, thought provoking, and easy to read, You Are Not What You Think is a treatise on courage — the courage it takes to uncover our best self.
You Are Not What You Think: The Egoless Path to Self-Esteem and Generous Love
Shambhala Publications, December 2015
Paperback, 192 pages