Ego, Shame, & Cognitive Dissonance

by Jessica Moore, licensed DEI Trainer and Consultant

In today’s polarized social and political climate, it can be hard to maintain integrity and empathy in our interactions with those who don’t agree with us. One of our most helpful allies in this is the much-maligned and often-misunderstood emotion of shame. Even though shame isn’t the easiest emotion to feel and work with, it is invaluable in guiding our actions in the world.

One way to grok the importance of shame is to consider its impact on the ego. While the ego has commonly become associated with an inflated sense of self-importance, in psychology it simply means our sense of self. Like the Latin word for “I” that it was originally derived from, the ego is our identity, which exerts a stabilizing and “status quo” effect on our psyche.

So the ego isn’t itself a bad thing. Having a healthy ego is important, because it means having a strong sense of self, which is essential for us to stand in our power and be sovereign over our selves and our lives. However, with the ego as with most things in life, too much or too little can cause problems for us.

If our ego is too fragile or too small, we can end up with low self-esteem or an unclear sense of who we are. We might have a hard time standing up for ourselves and enforcing our own boundaries. On the other hand, if our ego gets too solidified or too big, we can take up too much space and inadvertently cross the boundaries of others. We might think a bit too highly of ourselves, and have a difficult time admitting our own mistakes.

Let’s think about that last piece for a minute. In DEI, we consider Shame to be our inner watchdog, monitoring our behavior and motivating us to live up to the standards we have set for ourselves. Shame allows us to be the kind of person we can be proud of – the kind of person we want to be. And it arises within us as a red flag, letting us know that we are in danger of failing to meet that standard – or that we have already done so.

When we make a mistake and feel guilt or shame, it feels uncomfortable because it is essentially putting a check on the ego, deflating it a little bit. We realize that perhaps we weren’t quite as nice of a person as we thought we were, or as good at that thing we thought we excelled at. Shame causes us to re-examine our ego, to recalibrate our sense of self, and that is inherently uncomfortable. The ego is all about stability and the status quo of who we consider ourselves to be, and it doesn’t like having to change!

This ego-contraction is a good thing in moderation, keeping us humble and willing to admit when we are wrong, which makes us able to take others’ perspectives (a crucial aspect of empathy) and see ourselves accurately. But if the ego-contraction is too much – if the shame arises too often in response to unreasonable standards – then we might simply feel bad about ourselves all the time. Not only is that not fun, it also isn’t fair!

But what if our ego is a bit too big for its britches? The opposite will happen; it’ll be hard for us to accept the perspectives of others (to empathize) when it contradicts our own perception, and we won’t have an easy time hearing the message of shame – that we haven’t lived up to our own idea of who we are, or that an idea we have about something is wrong.

This last bit may seem like a stretch, but consider that while our ego is our identity, we each have many things woven into that identity. Our ideas about the world around us are essential for us to know our place in it, so they can become integrated into our sense of who we are. So when those ideas are challenged, shame can arise, enabling us to re-evaluate them and re-organize our sense of self around different ideas, if necessary.

But this re-organization isn’t comfortable or easy. Whenever we are unable to reconcile our idea about something with evidence that contradicts that idea, our psyche experiences cognitive dissonance. Essentially, the discomfort becomes too much for our egos to handle, so our minds find all sorts of creative ways to resolve that dissonance without having to give up our cherished ideas. The eye-opening book Mistakes Were Made…But Not By Me (by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson) does a great job of describing how this happens.

But the more we work with our shame and become comfortable in its discomfort, the better able we are to resolve this cognitive dissonance the right way. Shame enables us to correct the errors in our thinking, just as it helps us to correct errors in our behavior.

Jessica Moore

Jessica Moore is a licensed Dynamic Emotional Integration® Trainer and Consultant. She lives in Sedona, Arizona, and leads DEI workshops and trainings throughout the Southwest. She also travels frequently to the Pacific Northwest, where she leads workshops in the Seattle and Portland areas. Jessica has a lifelong love of learning, and in addition to her Bachelors of Science in Forest Ecology, she has years of training in dressage and shamanic skills. She practices a variety of self-healing modalities, and her passion for personal empowerment fuels her learning and teaching. Visit Jessica’s website: The Unlocked Heart.

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