My Ego Doesn’t Want to Hear It. Why?

"You're going to want to 'peel' your feet up off the pavement more. And then lay them back down with a mid-sole strike. It'll help you make more of a circular motion with your legs as you run."

This was Laura, helping correct my running form, and quoting directly from Danny Dreyer's excellent book Chi Running. Which, oddly enough, I had her read years ago to improve her running form. Hmm.

I had a negative reaction to this comment, even considering it (wrongly, as we will soon see) vaguely condescending.

My reaction was nothing more than my ego attempting to "protect" me. And what I'd like to do in today's post is explore how dangerous our egos can be when they defensively and aggressively overprotect us.

I'll start by considering reality from my ego's deeply insecure point of view. Assume for the moment that my ego was 100% correct in its worst-case interpretation of Laura's comment: that Laura's intention was to lord over me how terrible my running form was, and by implicit comparison how amazingly perfect her form is. Her comment was intended to condescend and to indicate superiority.

Yes, I know this sounds ridiculous already (I mean, jeez, who wants to go through life automatically assuming such negative intent in everything said around you? [1]), but bear with me.

Now, we're both reasonably intelligent people who try to be "meta" about a conversation while we're in it. We're both mostly aware that it pays to say things in such a way that the other people understands the point you're trying to make. Likewise, we also try to be aware that the other person has "intentionality" in what he or she says too. In other words: I can generally assume if something is important enough for Laura to say, there's most likely a decent reason for her to bother to say it.

Otherwise, I've chosen to marry somebody who blithers at me for no discernible reason, something I really don't want to be true.

Once you start considering the real purpose of a conversation about running form (instead of your ego's insecure and false assumptions about that purpose), and once you ruminate a little bit about why somebody might offer a suggestion about something they noticed about your form, you start to see how important intentionality is, and likewise how important it is to assume positive intent in what others say to you.

Let's go back to my ego for a second, and return to my ego's negative interpretation of Laura's statement. My ego arrived at this negative interpretation in a split second, without any real consideration of Laura's intentions. The only thing it "considered" was the idea that I was likely being insulted somehow. Thus my ego reacted in order to protect itself from a potential ego injury... and this ended up preventing me from improving my running form, by insta-rejecting an excellent idea from a book I already knew and totally agreed with.

Thanks ego! Thanks a lot.

If you can believe it, it gets even worse: our ego protection reaction, if it's habitual, will condition our psychological environment (including those people unfortunate enough to be in it) to never offer us any helpful suggestions. Think about it: if I were to react this way to every idea or suggestion Laura ever makes, eventually she'll stop bothering to try and help me.

A disturbing way to look at this is to conclude that the more reactant your ego, the more your life will be bereft of help in all forms.

Yes, you and I both know the truism about never giving unsolicited advice. But at the same time, helpful suggestions exist only if they manifest in other peoples' minds, and those helpful ideas and suggestions appear in other's minds when they appear, not necessarily when we want them to appear. Thus we have to be ready for this "help" on other peoples' schedule, not on our own. It's just like being consistently ready in case a teacher appears.

There's yet another aspect of our ego protection reflex that's just as pernicious. Consider an example I read recently about trees in a biosphere project. Scientists couldn't understand why all the trees inside of the biosphere kept falling over before they matured. Well, it turns out that if you're a tree inside a biosphere, you never get exposed to wind. Wind is a type of stressor, and trees exposed to wind as they mature become far stronger and resilient. [2]

Essentially, our egos want to keep us in a biosphere, where we never face any wind. Our egos presume negative intent, they presume insult and condescension, and they do so instantly, reflexively. If all we do is reflexively ego-protect, all we'll end up with is a fragile, brittle, easy-to-injure psyche.

So I started peeling up my feet.

[1] One useful heuristic to use at all times when interacting with others: do not automatically presume negative intent in the things other people say.

[2] A fancy word for this is hormesis, or hormetic response. The tree's hormetic response to wind strengthens it over time. For further reading on the human body's hormetic response to running and how even running shoes intefere with hormesis, see also What Barefoot Running Taught Us About Expensive Sneakers (And What Nike and Others Really Don't Want You To Know)


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