Why “Letting Go of Ego” Doesn’t Work for Survivors of Trauma

Iris teaching

Iris being herself.

We often hear that we need to overcome what is called “ego”, to abolish it. This doesn’t make sense to me because then we have no core, no self, no internal cohesiveness.

The word “ego” has too many meanings and is used in too many ways, often negatively, to be truly helpful.

I think a better word for the sense of “who I am” is self. There is self that is the core of who we are in this body, this being, this life. And there is Self that is our soul, the larger part of us that transcends this current life.

We can see what is usually called “ego” as that accretion around the self–what coats and covers that core self and accumulates over time, throughout our life–and can blur what is necessary and blind us to our best self.

“Ego”, then, can include those things that we consider negative–pride, self-aggrandizement, jealousy, malice, know-it-allness, etc. If we see these as additions or add-ons to our core/true self and as layers that make us immune, perhaps,  both to hurt, and also to growth and learning and ultimate happiness, then we can see how peeling back the layers of “ego” can make us “better” people, or at least allow us to start to see the world more clearly and act more in accordance with kindness, compassion, and consideration (for others, for ourselves, for the world).

I think this accretion is the “ego” that is meant by the Eastern religions–or at least the Westernized, translated versions of them–that urge us to purge ourselves of the ego.

But I see also that some of these religions or traditions urge us to peel away everything that is “Us”, until we lose our sense of self and become one with God/Buddha/Krishna/All That Is/ Whomever.

That has never appealed to me.

My sense of being a self was too smashed in childhood for me to find the thought of giving up my “self” appealing.

I don’t believe that while we are in this body, this life, we have to.

We each have a kernel of the Divine within us, which is that self, and that is who we are for our time in this world.


If we have had that sense of being a valid being–a person who exists as their own sovereign body, mind, emotions, set of experiences–demolished, then we have no sense of self, which is what is meant by “ego” in a general sense.

If we have struggled to find any iota of what might be truly a part of our own unique, sovereign self so that we can figure out that we actually exist in this world, that we may have a few rights to have our needs met (never mind any wants!) and we have rights not to be used, abused, tortured–then, then, THEN,  the thought that we have to give up that tiny sliver of knowing we are allowed to exist and feel and make our own decisions and choose what is for us alone–is intolerable, and is a torture in itself.

For many survivors of trauma and abuse and neglect and torture, the challenge is to gain an “ego” and a sense of self, of self, and to know that they deserve, have a human-being right to have all, all, ALL of their feelings, no matter how “wrong”, “stupid”, perverse, “selfish”, scary, and uncomfortable they are. That they have a right to get their basic human needs for shelter, food, water, safety, love and connection met. That they matter simply by being alive on this earth, in this life, right now.

Carrying Grief

statue of Kwan Yin“Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.”
Sheryl Sandberg COO of FaceBook

Grief is a burden that many of us don’t even know we carry. It is simply there, like a part of us, the air we breathe, inseparable from our deepest being.

We mostly don’t know that it is there,  welded into our bones, because it is so ancient that it cannot be seen.

We’ve been carrying it since birth, since before birth. We’ve been carrying it from earliest childhood, from middle childhood, from teenagehood, from adulthood. From the first time one parent or both failed us, from the first time we were abandoned, abused, hurt beyond repair, raped, scolded, hit, shamed, ignored, not seen. This is more than the usual childhood travails, though maybe those do us in as well. I don’t know, because I was thrown into the deep end before I was born.

The first grievous event happens and then  we grow up into the world and all the grievous happenings pile onto our core of grief and make it heavier, push it further into our bones, make it more solid and impermeable.

It is a pain that we carry in our deepest hearts, and that stains our being like dye poured into a mixing bowl, completely coloring all.

Sometimes we are able to see it. When we can we may be able to chip away a little tiny bit of it, maybe just enough to take away one iota of the pain. And maybe take away another chip of it before the next grief hits us.

What I have discovered is that grief is mostly always there when I look for it. But I have also discovered that when I have been able to take it out and look at it–look into my bones and the long hallways of my life where grief lurks, sometimes it can start to evaporate, shrink and shrivel. It doesn’t hit as many nerve endings. It doesn’t consume me.

As Sheryl Sandberg says, sometimes what we feel and have experienced can only be carried. And sometimes knowing what we carry can be good enough.