Super Powers or Ego Strength?
ďI have super powers,Ē the little girl said to Alex, a young intern who just started his dayshift in the emergency room. Megan was brought in by her foster parents, all battered and bruised. She had a nasty cut on her leg, which needed stitching. But when Alex examined her a bit closer, he noticed old bruises, scars and recent wounds all over her body. A long deep gash on her arm was stapled together by a staple gun. Alex felt his stomach churn, as a feeling of disgust and anger came over him. How can people do this to children, he thought to himself.
After he had notified social services, he sent the parents to a waiting room. Megan knew what was going on, and she was scared. She didnít want to leave her latest family, these people were good to her! Struck with panic she said: ďI play rough! Thatís why I have all those wounds. But they donít hurt me, I have super powers!Ē. Stressing her words, she explains that it is her duty to use her powers to help the weak and wimpy children on the playground. "You donít have superpowers, Megan, itís ok to show me it hurts. Thatís normal." And he started preparing a local anaesthetic to take out the staples in her arm. In an attempt to convince Alex of her superhero status, she takes her arm and starts taking out the staples one by oneÖ with her teeth. "See, it didnít hurt at all, Iím a superhero..." He just sat there, shocked and appalled. This wasnít normal, something like that just has to hurt. So whatís going on here?
As Megan continues to ramble on about superheroes, Alex prepares a basin of ice water. When she questions him why he wants her to put her hand in the ice water, he tells her itís to test her superpowers. "If you want to test my superpowers, you can punch me in the stomach. Just hit me!" He convinces her to do the ice water thing instead, by agreeing to compete with her on who can leave his or her hand in the longest. He tells her to remove her hand when it starts to hurt, and she responds, "What are you, deaf? It won't. Start. To hurt." She then explains her theory of superheroes, which is that they are all kids who are orphans that discover they have powers at around her age. Alex, with his hand in the ice water, is squirming. After a while Alex starts biting his lip and Megan asks him what's wrong. He holds out for a few more seconds before pulling his hand out of the water, screaming about how much it hurts. After he recovers his composure, he tells her to pull her hand out before she gets frostbite. She tells him that nobody ever believes her, which is why she's always having to demonstrate her powers. Why, just the other day she had to let a kid hit her in the stomach 25 times with a baseball bat.
Rather than being a victim of child abuse, Megan suffers from a genetic disorder that renders her insensitive to pain. This means she canít distinguish between hot or cold, blunt or sharp, because her brain doesnít get a message when something is painful, leaving her under constant threat of undetected problems. It turns out her situation is even more serious than initially assessed: she has massive internal injuries and needs to be operated on right away. While performing surgery, the surgeon shakes her head and comments: ďEverybody wants a life without pain. She needs to be on a poster somewhere to remind people pain is there for a reason.Ē1
Though this story is only fiction, it really touched my heart. For most of our lives, it seems like one of the most natural things to do: avoid pain. Whether physical or psychological, pain is bad and needs to be avoided. When we were still hunting for our food, this primitive response to ďdangerĒ was very useful, it kept our species alive. The instinctive fight or flight response mechanism being an essential tool in our survival toolbox. So, itís not very surprising that fighting or fleeing from pain is intuitive. Iím often amazed at how ingenious and creative our brain gets when it comes to filtering pain out of our awareness. It doesnít even seem to distinguish between real pain, the prospect of pain, or the ďfantasyĒ of pain. Pain is pain. And when it comes to this kind of psychological pain, we have a vast array of methods for getting rid of negative emotions (notice how weíve labelled these emotions!). Some use denial, there are those who will work insane hours, and still others will eat or drink for comfort. Weíll use smokescreens, excuses, we even engage in a brilliant concept called blaming others.
Learnt as children, all of these are strategies that used to help us ďsurviveĒ in this world. But is it still effective as grown ups?! And is mere survival still that appealing to us? Or would we rather grow to self actualisation, to living our heartís calling? What would happen if we did the counterintuitive, and just accepted the reality of pain: that it is there for a reason.
Personally I hate pain. Iíve always referred to it as something that was standing in the way of happiness. Of joy, freedom and carefree living. I donít like going to the dentist, immediately pop a pill when I get a headache, and I steer clear of having to get out in cold weather. Discomfort sucks. On the other hand I love soft and fuzzy things like Christmas, hot coco, and Iím a sucker for romantic comedies. Oh if only life was like Disneyland! Yes, another wonderful strategy to hide from pain: reverting to the land of fantasy. Of all the strategies us humans have invented, this is my favourite. Itís not all that surprising that I hate pain, especially since I know it so well.
When I was about nine years old, a friend and I walked home from school one day when an ambulance slowly turned around the corner. Curiosity got the better of me and I peeked in to see what was going on. Casually amused I told my friend that the person in the ambulance looked like my dad. It couldnít be, though, because my dad was invincible. I soon found out it WAS in fact my dad who was being brought to the hospital. You see, the car that turned the corner shortly after the ambulance was my momís. She told me to go straight home, and that my grandmother was waiting for me. I really didnít think that much of it, and figured my dad would be ok. After all, everyone was saying it was stress and he just needed to rest. Besides, it couldnít be anything serious. Dadís are invincible.
The following morning, however, I learnt a very different truth. My dad, who was 42 at the time, was diagnosed with lung cancer. The doctors said there was nothing they could do, and they only expected him to live for three more weeks. It ended up being six months. From one moment to the next, Dadís werenít invincible anymore. No, they die. And to be more specific, it was my dad who died. What do you do with a reality like that?! An reality that felt as if I was heading full speed towards the edge of a cliff and there was nothing I could do about it. What does one do with the pain the comes with it? I know what I did, I closed myself of from the big bad world outside. Reality was no longer a safe place to be. It was a place where concepts like superpowers and invincibility are really just that: empty concepts. People I love will abandon me, and therefore I canít rely on them. And reality turned into a place where my dreams get crushed and pain is inflicted on me for no apparent reason. There must be something wrong with me! It left me feeling alone, wounded, and helpless. Well, you can imagine how attractive fantasy gets when you start to filter life like that!
With all the energy I had, I pushed my emotions back to where they came from. Whenever Iíd feel it popping itís ugly head, Iíd force it back. And I did that for years on end, until I convinced myself I grew out of it. In truth, I wasnít healed at all. I just couldnít feel it any longer, just like the little girl in the story. In the meantime, the ďinjuryĒ I sustained got neglected. Wounds that arenít taken care of will get infected. It will start to spread out, presenting itself in the for of symptoms. My symptoms became visible in the way I related to men. Every time I have fallen in love with a man in the past, he has been unavailable in one way or another. Strong and independent as I was as a single woman, I lost my sense of self when in a love relationship. The bigger the signs of unavailability, the bigger my persistence in trying to convince him otherwise. Without any luck, might I add. Boy, how that frustrated me!
So how come I was frustrated? I expected a knight in shining armour to come and rescue me. That men really will conquer anything to be with me. Not like my dad, who deserted me. I wanted someone to restore my faith in life, so I could believe good things do happen to me. That people donít just up and leave me. But the reality was different. So there must be something wrong with reality! I figured forcing someone to meet my expectations would help me get rid of my frustration and pain. Contrary to my expectation however, the more I did that, the more I drove them away. And that fuelled my frustration and disappointment even more, because it meant that there really was something wrong with me. Little did I know that the expectations I carried with me for all those years were the problem, not the men in my life. Somewhere along the line I forgot to make that distinction!
All this wishing and hoping didnít exactly make for a great way to cope with what is. It didnít create a solid sense of self, or help face whatever life threw at me and take action accordingly. In reality, it held me back from experiencing what I truly desire in life: A healthy, loving and nurturing relationship.
What did I need to deal with what life was throwing at me? What would have served me better than the filter through which I looked at things? Superpowers? Invincibility? No, what I needed was something else. Something that is referred to as Ego-Strength. In his article ďSuper-Charge your Ego-StrengthĒ, Michael Hall describes this as the inner personal strength by which we tolerate stress and frustration. It allows us to look reality in the face without being overwhelmed and having to fall back to infantile defence mechanisms. Or reverting to magical thinking or wishing and confusing it with reality.
In the process of building ego-strength a first and crucial step I had to take was acceptance of where I was. Welcoming in my sense of self, and the attitude with which I approached love relationships. Acknowledging that proved quite a challenge and went against all my natural instincts, but it was extremely liberating as well. Perhaps the biggest struggle was to accept my unrealistic expectations, the illusions I had created in my mind. My attitude towards life was invisible to me, because I was ďlivingĒ my attitude. Once I was able to enter a state of acceptance and apply it to myself, it was as if a blindfold was lifted from my eyes. I could take a step back and all those things that were blurry before I could see more clearly now. Really owning up to those expectations it opened the doorway to adjusting them in order to build a more accurate map for navigating through life. I realised that I canít force others to fulfil my expectations, especially not if I expect ďknight in shining armourĒ devotion. Especially not when the relationship is not based on mutual love, but on me wanting to prove that I am good enough and that people wonít leave me.
Another aspect of ego-strength I lacked is having an optimistic explanatory style. The way I filtered things was through the three Pís of pessimism: making it Personal, Pervasive, and Permanent. My dadís passing became about me (there must be something wrong with me!), about all the people I care about (everyone you love will eventually leave) and it became about life and reality (thatís how life works). Again, once this became my attitude, I became unaware of the fact that itís still just an attitude. It felt like the truth, that this is the way it is. Yet itís just a way of explaining things. Nothing more, nothing less. Martin Selgiman identified that the way for putting a positive spin on things is through indexing an event as being about the event (non-Personal), that it is in this situation and context (non-Pervasive) and it is today (non-Permanent). What this does, is that it isolates and contains the ďpainĒ because it is only related to one specific event, at a certain point in time.
For me this has been quite a process, where I often got knocked down and had to get back up again. Losing my dad was very traumatic for me. I wasnít in the least bit prepared for something as huge as this. I didnít have the skills to deal with the heartbreak I felt. I was a daddyís girl, I looked up to him. And in a very real way my identity was still tied to his. So this was very personal to me. Right now, after twenty years, I am a grown person, an individual. I didnít die, so it doesnít have to be personal any longer. The most powerful and paradoxical thing I took away from it, was the revelation that I still have a dad. In making it not about me, I was afraid to lose him altogether. I experienced something completely different from what I expected. He died, but I didnít stop being his daughter. And I didnít stop loving him. To think all those years I thought I had lost something I never truly lost! That helped me to feel whole again, healed, peaceful. It made me believe a healthy, loving and nurturing relationship is indeed possible in life, that it is possible for me. If I want to create that, Iíll only have to let love guide me on my way. And now, looking back on it, fantasy is not so attractive after all.
Storyline from Greyís Anatomy, episode ďSometimes a FantasyĒ
Hall, L. Michael (2002) ďSuper-Charge Your Ego-StrengthĒ (www.neurosemantics.com)
Hall, L. Michael (1999). The Secrets of Personal Mastery. Wales, UK: Crown House Publications
Femke Stuut is an internationally certified NLP trainer and meta-coach (neuro-semantics). She has an extensive background in international business and specializes in organizational change as well as personal and professional leadership. She is founder of "Completely You - The human quality headquarters" in the Netherlands. Her vision is to facilitate in connecting people with their core so they can live the purpose of their existence. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Courtesy of dreamstime.
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