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.

The Grace of Children

Iris holding babyThe birth of two nephews recently caused me to remember how utterly the birth of my daughter affected my life.

Having a child affects every parent, but I think that for survivors of child abuse, the changes are especially profound.

I’ve talked with several women who are abuse survivors with children of varying ages.

We’ve talked about the ways we changed our lives in order to care for our children. However imperfectly we did things, we know that we did better than our parents, changed destructive behaviors and started or continued healing because it was of utmost importance for the health and safety of our children.

Whether or not our parents were capable of loving us or expressing that love, as parents ourselves we found our love propelling us to different behaviors.

When my daughter was born I had no idea that I had been abused and was still in an abusive relationship with my parents.

I had strange fears for her safety that made no sense given what I thought my life experience had been. Years later when my memories of abuse surfaced my recurrent fears finally made sense.

Because I had been abused and was still involved in abusive situations, I did put my daughter at risk and left her in situations that should not have happened. When I have thought of this in ensuing years it is perhaps the hardest thing in my life for which to forgive myself. Not being in control of my life, being in a position of utter powerlessness, seems like no excuse, seems like it can’t ever be resolved in my heart. I am still coming to terms with it.

By age 22 I was a single parent. I was in great emotional turmoil and pain and acted out a lot. I was aware at the time of putting the brakes on my crazy behavior because I knew I had to care for my child.

There were many times when I was extremely depressed and wanted to die; I couldn’t see how anything would ever get better.

What still amazes me is that however badly I felt about myself, I always had the sense that I was a better parent for my daughter than her father and that I had to stay alive to care for her.

I had to learn better ways of dealing with my daughter because of how she responded to what I did. When she was four, she knocked over the Christmas tree for the second time. When I said I’d kill her she responded by telling me that I couldn’t kill her because then she’d be dead. From then on I eliminated “I’m gonna kill you” from my vocabulary.

Joining Parents Anonymous, a support group for parents under stress, helped me learn new ways of coping with my daughter and treating her appropriately. Still, it took years for me to stop swearing at her and calling her names.

The biggest changes occurred when I started remembering my own abuse. I started confronting my hugely inappropriate behaviors with my daughter, looking at the causes of my rage that were so out of proportion with anything she had ever done, and began withdrawing from my family who were abusing both of us.

The advent of my memories began a terribly painful period of my life, that lasted for several years. One of the biggest impetuses I had to keep going with the healing process, when it just seemed more than I could humanly do, was that I wanted better for my daughter.
I wanted to be a better mother, I wanted her to know that there was hope and healing for whatever she might realize she had been through, I wanted to change for the generations to come. I wanted my daughter to have a sane, loving mother.

While I don’t know how sane I am even today I do know that I have the courage, and it takes a lot in the face of my fear of her possible rejection, to tell her how much I love her, how proud I am of her, how important my child is to me.

This column is dedicated to Loy and Pietra. April 2006


Learning How Plants Heal Me

When I’ve been most depressed in my life, I’ve turned to flowers. They could reach inside my darkened spirit and touch my heart. They lifted me up just a little, enough to help me carry on.

I’ve always been connected with plants.  My earliest memories include plants: smelling gardenias (we lived in South America), eating mangoes and tangerines right off the tree, watching a miniature-cucumber vine twining up the side of my house. I adored the way tomato plants smelled. By the time I was five, my mom had taught me the European tradition of making flower garlands to wear in my hair.

All of this was really good, and important, because in the midst of what might have seemed a semitropical paradise there was very nasty abuse going on. I lived in a community that was ostensibly Christian, but their version of Christianity was authoritarian and punitive, and hid a deeper, very damaging cult within it.

Growing up as a young child in this environment was hellish. The plants that grew all around me were a saving grace. They were safe, hospitable, beautiful, and undemanding. They couldn’t hurt me (even if they had thorns) the way humans could. Their energies and their spirits were a haven for my soul and spirit.

I wasn’t consciously aware of this, of course. I just gravitated toward plants, any and all, and spent time with them. I loved walking in woods and fields, down city streets, greeting the plants and looking at gardens. I always knew the names of some plants, and in my teens I started teaching myself about them, getting to know them better.

In my teens I became aware of the power of flowers to reach inside me and change something fundamental. I didn’t even know I was depressed, I just could barely function and get about. When I walked down the street from my house I would look at all the flowers popping up in the spring; I knew where all the crocuses were, the daffodils, the tulips and forsythia, the budding magnolias. I cannot give you an explanation, but seeing them was vital to my continuing to struggle on.

In my thirties, in another city, I again would note where all my plant friends grew, following the succession of plants, flowers, seeds from spring to fall. They were dear to my heart.

When I moved to that city 26 years ago, I wanted to put down roots, both figuratively and literally. I planted a rosebush in the yard next to my building. It didn’t make it, but my gardening chops did. Well, they developed, let’s say, with a lot of coaching from the plants!

Along the way I learned how to do all sorts of wonderful things with plants. How to get colors for my yarn and fabric, how to make medicines, what wild plants are good eating, how to decorate my house with wreaths and bouquets made from my favorite plants. And I learned to listen to what the plants have to tell me, by their colors and form, by their whispers in the wind, by the energy they share with all of us. I learned how to let them bring their healing into my heart and body and life.

The ways that connecting with plants have helped me are myriad. Sometimes it’s been just lifting my spirits by seeing a plant friend. Sometimes it is the taking myself out of myself while working with the plants—preparing a dye bath, making a tincture or oil or vinegar, putting plants to dry for later use, making up a tea blend in the morning.

Other times it is the involvement with the plant world and nature. Walking in the fields or woods or down the street, greeting my plant friends, collecting flowers, leaves, roots, for medicine or dye or wreaths or my dinner-plate.

Digging in the earth in a garden is life-changing. It puts you in touch with the earth and earth energy, and brings you into your body.

When I first began gardening professionally, which meant a lot of time with my hands in the dirt!, I was terribly uncomfortable in my body while gardening. I hadn’t spent much time connecting with my body in my 40-plus years of living, and the connection with earth brought me into my body. It took time for me to get comfortable being more in my body and aware of it. I’m glad I allowed myself to do that, because I am much more comfortable in my body now, and I really love having my hands in the dirt and feeling that very visceral connection with Nature.

I feel like plants helped save my life. They certainly helped rescue and maintain my sanity. I am deeply grateful for the gifts of the plants in my life. I hope that you may find a way to bring their healing presence into your life.