Ego Strength, One of 16 Essential Ingredients in Healthy Relationships.
This is part 7 in our look at 16 characteristics that help define mental health, and in turn lay the foundation for healthy relationships. When psychologist, Dr. Nancy Williams, first shared her list with a group of us several years ago at a conference it prompted me to consider how our personal expressions of these traits (including our failures to express them) impact the health of our intimate relationships.
I was recently reminded by Dr. Roy Barsness why I have felt called to do what I do. In his book, Core Competencies of Relational Psychoanalysis, he puts it this way,
"I understand our vocation as an invitation into the sacredness of the human encounter where change and healing occurs by calling to the depth of each person within the encounter."
This is also why I'm drawn specifically to marriage therapy and find great pleasure (and, at times, considerable aggravation) in working with couples who are struggling to find and hold on to both the "self" and the "other" in the sometimes stormy seas of their back and forth relatedness.
I long for and pursue this type of "transcendent state" within my own marriage. This is not something that comes easily for any of us but I have come to realize the starting place is in an honest evaluation of our own "health," not in the criticism of our partner's limitations. This is the ultimate purpose of this series, which I have stated before but, due to its importance, do not hesitate to repeat again. Use these brief articles to think about yourself and what kind of "health" you bring to your relational encounters.
Today, I want to write about "Ego Strength," a trait that is easily misunderstood. Before beginning to touch on what it is, let me start with a few things it is not.
Ego strength is not the same as having a large ego.
Some people suck all the air out of a room when they walk in. There is no space granted for others to coexist. All attention is either implicitly or explicitly demanded by them. They don’t seek to know others or pay attention to how their own needs or interests dominate the day. Many large egos exist in our culture. Think of politics, sports, entertainment, business, etc. Quite often, these large egos are a decoy hiding a true self state that is far from robust.
Ego strength is not the same as thinking highly of yourself.
Those that are working hard to project an image of strength or confidence are often using that as a cover for feelings of inadequacy. This is a narcissistic coping strategy that exists primarily to cover feelings of shame. The more inadequacy a person experiences, the greater the need to distract others from it, or simply hide it.
Ego strength is not thinking of yourself as less than others.
This can be a false humility that draws as much attention to the self as those who are overtly self centered or prideful. Thinking about yourself less because you are intentionally serving others is different than thinking you are less. (We will talk about this distinction more when we discuss discuss "self esteem" in the next article.) The former can come from a strong sense of self while the latter never does.
Finally, ego strength is not the same as defending the self strongly.
While effective coping defenses are essential to a strong ego, being defensive when confronted by others or by the truth is often evidence of a weak, fearful, or easily threatened self.
Ego strength is really about resilience.
A strong and healthy ego is evident in one who has the capacity to respond to high levels of stress adaptively. Those with good ego strength are not easily undone when faced with the inevitable trials and travails that life throws at all of us. As Jordan Peterson in 12 Rules for Life, writes, "The apocalypse is always upon us." Rightly, he reminds us,
"It is necessary to be strong in the face of death, because death is intrinsic to life. It is for this reason that I tell my students: aim to be the person at your father’s funeral that everyone, in their grief and misery, can rely on. There’s a worthy and noble ambition: strength in the face of adversity. That is very different from the wish for a life free of trouble."
My first year in graduate school I hurt my knee badly in a basketball game—the same knee I had hurt 11 years earlier that aborted my anticipated baseball career. At the time of the first injury I became discouraged and depressed for a period of time but eventually found other things in which to invest my energy and give purpose to my life.
The second injury proved more troubling. Without going into all the details, I became convinced that a bone cyst which showed up on an X-ray was actually cancerous. I had read in a medical book symptoms which seemed to mirror my own and the recommended treatment regimen included radiation, chemotherapy, and/or amputation.
Up until this point in my life I had been feeling pretty confident. I had earned a masters degree in biblical studies, and had begun my doctoral program in clinical psychology.
I had a wife and three kids I loved and who loved me. We were all healthy and I believed I was pursuing the ministry God had given me.
Now this! I couldn't sleep for days and dealt with a level of intense anxiety that I had never before faced.
I went for a bone scan to check for cancer and could see on the technician's screen a large dark blot at the distal end of my femur. I had no medical training but if ever there was something which looked like "cancer" this had to be it.
Of course, now all I could do was wait for the inevitable results to be reported to me that I was going to lose my leg or my life. I remember having a vigorous internal debate as to which seemed preferable.
With the coming apocalypse hovering on the horizon, I was sitting in a classroom just minutes before I was supposed to call the doctor for his report. My professor, who knew nothing of my condition (I was too afraid to tell anyone) spontaneously told a story of a friend’s daughter (my age) who had just been diagnosed with bone cancer and was going to have her leg amputated. (No, I’m not kidding).
I honestly didn’t hear anything he said after that. I barely made my way home three blocks away to make my phone call. My "self" felt disconnected from my body. It was a moment of what psychologists call "decompensation."
I can remember being in our kitchen trying to get up the nerve to even touch the phone. Finally, I dialed the number and a nurse answered and told me she would get the doctor. During those few seconds, time literally seemed to slow to painful crawl. I was in utter agony. I'm not sure if I was breathing.
However, even now, I remember the doctor's words with such clarity. When he finally picked up the receiver he blurted out, “No galloping cancer.” I actually made him repeat it. Then wave after wave of indescribable relief overcame me.
But I also remember being shocked at how decompensated I had become. In fact, it took me months to fully recover. Every ache and pain I had for at least a year seemed to me to be a sign that I really did have cancer and they just missed it. I was still wracked with panic and anxiety.
Prior to this incident I had thought of myself as strong minded and invincible in most respects. The truth was I had never really been challenged in my short 31-year life. I had never faced severe family conflict, trauma, divorce, unexpected deaths or even financial difficulty.
This potential illness was a direct attack on my self resilience and I failed pretty badly. It set off unexpected and unfamiliar anxieties and caused me to catastrophize every imaginable symptom.
On the plus side, it gave me a far greater compassion for those dealing with anxiety disorders; and that remains to this day.
But it also revealed to me a simple truth:
Many of those who exhibit the greatest ego strength are those that have been challenged the most.
Of course, it's not enough to just be challenged by life. Many who have been traumatized have egos that have been fractured and they are hyper sensitive to any stimulus that gives rise to fears or memories of the original trauma. We call that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But for those who have successfully faced and worked through those fears we find an increased capacity for genuine strength in the face of adversity.
My daugter, in the introduction to her second book, Indestructible, quotes one survivor of significant trauma, "When the worst thing that has ever happened to you happens, you will realize you don't have any reason to be afraid anymore."
Listening to those who have been victimized throughout their lives uncovered for me hidden stories of courage, resolve, determination, and perseverance. I am awed by what people have endured and am quite sure I would not have fared so well if I had faced what they faced.
Of course, the marriage relationship brings with it many stresses and challenges, including the need to persevere in loving the unlovable and seemingly unchangeable things of our spouse. True lifelong commitments don't allow for simply leaving or continuing to avoid such things. At least, not without a significant cost. Marriage magnifies the opportunities we have to be confronted with difficulties and obstacles in our endless pursuit to satisfy our own needs.
We are forced to face what is so much easier to avoid when we live alone—our sinful, prideful, aggrandizing, and shameful self.
Like all of the traits I am describing, ego strength is just as necessary for our relational health as it is for our individual mental health. When both partners have learned to face life’s difficulties and respond with grace and courage, it lays a strong foundation for the wisdom and truth contained in Solomon’s words:
“Two are better than one,... for if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion.”
I’ve shared part of my story. Share yours with someone who will safely hold it for you. What examples to do you have of your own ego strength? When has it been shaken? How has it helped or hurt you in your marriage or important relationships? What fears do you need to face to become a better relational mate?
In Part 8, this series on mental and relational health will continue with a look at what it means to have a realistic and reliable self esteem. I hope you’ll keep reading.