I want to introduce you to a friend of mine. Her name is Ms. Holly Wood. I’ve known her since birth, although we haven’t always been close. She has a killer wardrobe that hangs perfectly on her tiny, borderline-unhealthy frame. She is well-educated. She has a beautiful home in the hills of L.A.
Yet despite all the trappings of a perfect life, she lives in a constant state of fear. Fear of not being enough…not smart enough, not pretty enough, not thin enough, not wealthy enough…and the list goes on and on. Who is this Holly person? She’s my ego.
And what is the ego that I’m referring to? Well, if you’re human, chances are you’ve got one. I’m not talking about a sense of self-importance and vanity. I’m referring to the part of your mind that is responsible for creating your sense of identity.
Our egos live eternally in comparison mode, constantly asking whether we are better than or less than those around us. And they desperately need to identify with external things. Eckhart Tolle notes that most commonly, the ego grasps onto the work you do, your social status, education, physical appearance, special abilities, relationships, personal and family history, belief systems, and often also political, nationalistic, racial, religious and other collective identifications.
So now you might be wondering why on earth I would name my ego. The idea actually came from a wonderful exercise developed by Dr. Martha Beck. She has her clients and coaches name the reptile portion of their brains.
If you’re not familiar with it, the reptilian brain is a part of our brain that developed millennia ago and whose job it was to broadcast survival signals that kept us humans alive while outrunning saber tooth tigers and hustling to find food. These endless survival fears can get a bit distracting in our current modern lives, though. They usually show up nowadays as thoughts like “I’m going to run out of money!” or “You can’t trust anyone!”
This practice of naming our reptilian brain is actually rooted in neuroscience, as it puts you in the position of the watcher or observer (which also happens to be a primary goal of most mindfulness and meditation practices). Plus, it’s a lot harder to be so worried about all those fears when you know they are just coming from a lizard in your head with a funny name and distinct image to match.
Martha calls this exercise “naming your enemy,” in much the same way that many wise, ancient cultures believed you must know the name of your enemy in order to best it in battle.
Now, back to my ego. I named it because I found its voice as distracting, if not more so, than my reptile brain. So is our ego an enemy? No. But much like the mind, it is a wonderful servant and a terrible master (frankly, it’s not always so hot as a servant either, but I digress…).
In any event, for the first 30-some-odd years of my life, Holly was my master. Every decision I made was in service of Holly and her insatiable desires and fears. Fortunately, a certain point, I realized Holly was not me, and we could share space in my psyche a helluva lot more peacefully by me being in the observer’s position. So I named her.
And why the name Holly Wood? Because once upon a time, I had a shiny, seemingly perfect life (at least by our culture’s standards, anyway). I had the incredible opportunity to give my ego everything it had begged for, including the California dreams of my youth, complete with a home in the hills of L.A., very near that Hollywood sign and all the glamour I perceived in the glossy images from my People Magazine and US Weekly.
But here’s the thing…it was never enough for Ms. Holly. With each lb. lost, with each degree earned, with each dollar added to the already sizeable bank account, she still compared and despaired. She made a lot of hollow promises that when she got the next thing, whatever it was, she would leave me alone. But that never happened, because egos, like the hungry ghosts described in Chinese Buddhism, are never satisfied.
I stepped off that crazy train several years ago to follow the calling of my heart and my Spirit. But because I am human, my ego came with me. So I named her Holly Wood in memory of that old life. And because what we resist persists, I decided to embrace her instead. She is now folded lovingly into my being.
From time to time she makes herself known, pointing out my exercise buddy’s perfect thighs, or a photo on social media of my friends who are still living the way I used to. But instead of getting sucked into the drama and graspiness of it all, I kindly thank Holly for her input and send her back to her imaginary poolside cabana to drink some Champagne.
After all, she’s just doing her job of trying to keep me safe in what she perceives as a terrifying world full of attack and scarcity. With this kind attention, she usually quiets down, leaving me as the observer to follow my soul’s path in peace.
So now I’ll turn it back on you. Do you have an ego that’s running your life? If so, it might be time to play the name game. Sure, you’ll still have an ego. But at least now you’ll know who is boss of your being.