by Jen Chau
I have been losing to my ego for years. And the scary thing is, I never realized it before today. In boxing (my exercise obsession for the last two years), you know who your opponent is. No doubt about it. He is standing before you, punching and jabbing and swinging. Weaving and sweating and bleeding all over you. It’s obvious and unmistakable, and you know what you have to do. Land him before he lands you. You know who you are fighting.
Well, I always thought that an oversized ego was this obvious – something menacing and fierce that you just had to push and punch out of the way. Beat or be beaten. Now I realize that the even deadlier opponent is the one who you cannot see. You aren’t ready because you weren’t training with him in mind. You never even dreamt this kind of opponent up. He doesn’t necessarily stand in front of you with gleaming shorts and new gloves and a smart-ass smile. He waits for you after the match and grabs you from the shadows. From behind. He takes you down quietly, without you ever knowing how or who he was. It’s subtle and quiet. And confusing. You don’t know what got you, and you even begin to question yourself. Maybe there wasn’t anyone else. Maybe you just passed out in that alleyway.
(what’s with my alley scenarios lately? J I guess I’ll have to analyze that one later)
I’ve sparred before – with that obvious opponent. And I’ve never had to convince myself to fight him. I have worked at being someone who isn’t driven too much by ego. And in the times where I noticed that ego was too much of a consideration for my comfort, I forced myself to take a hard look and stop whatever it was that I was doing. Actually, around this time last year, I made an extremely tough decision. It was a decision in which ego could have played a part. But I didn’t let it. I’m talking about my decision to leave New Demographic. It was something that I started with my friend and business partner, Carmen, and I couldn’t imagine leaving something that *I* helped to start. We put our hearts and souls into our work. It was so much a part of my life that at times, it was almost impossible to see where New Demographic ended and I began (not healthy). Well, once I realized how unhealthy it was for me, I decided to leave with Carmen’s support. I had been working myself to death – with New Demographic on top of Swirl on top of a demanding full-time job (HR Director for a growing non-profit), on top of a part-time Masters program. I thought about all of the opportunities that I had through New Demographic – the chance to share my thoughts and ideas with thousands of people each year – it was huge. And though my ego was having a hard time giving that up, I realized it, shook myself out of that thinking, and left it to the ever-capable Carmen. I wasn’t able to give my all, and it wasn’t fair to me, to Carmen, or to the work to stay. But what if New Demographic finally got its chance on Oprah or some other huge stage right after I left?! I would want to be there! God, what was I saying? As long as someone is there and someone is raising the important issues, well then that’s all that matters to me. I learned through this experience to put the goal ahead of myself. If the goal is met, that’s what is important. I don’t have to be the specific person at the finish line, taking part of the credit. I can get started, pass the baton, and then help to cheer the rest of the runners on. I appreciate that I helped to get the important work of ND off the ground, and I am excited to watch it grow from over here. It felt very freeing and empowering to begin to be able to see things in this way.
Now, the not so obvious opponent. You have been sneaky, and you have been playing dirty. But now that I know where you hang out and the times that you show up, I’ll be waiting for you. You have learned how to play on my weaknesses. I have taken blows from you when I didn’t even realize – I have been weakened by you in so many lasting ways. It is this part of my ego (the less obvious part) that has been so vulnerable. It’s the part of my ego that gets hurt when someone from work doesn’t like me or agree with me (I have come a very long way here). It’s the part of my ego that is paralyzed when it feels that a loved one or friend isn’t loving back equally. It’s the part of my ego that is utterly and completely defined and validated by others. I had no idea. Ok, well I had some. But I didn’t realize the extent to which I was ruled by this need to nurture and protect this part of my ego. I consider myself a strong person, but I realize that my Achilles’ heel is that my self-worth is largely determined by others. Like I said, I have made progress, but I have a long way to go.
Life – and boxing – is about throwing punches (putting things out there) and recalibrating. Perhaps one combination didn’t work so well, so you try another. I am an extremely intense and committed person, and when I put my mind to something, I try to go all the way. A friend gave me some really hard feedback yesterday. And it didn’t even really hit me until today. He said something to the effect of: “you can’t allow your relationships to rule your life – they are merely a part of you, but they don’t define you completely” (I say “to the effect of” because I was so upset I may not be remembering it exactly correct). I had been having a tough time with someone, and it completely ruined me – made me sad, unable to see any of the positives, and it reduced me to a hot mess all around. Things got blown out of proportion for me – it practically felt like the end of the world. He saw all of this and tried to tell me that it was actually not as big of a deal as I thought it was. He urged me to find a better balance for myself. How many times have we fallen apart when a friend betrayed us? When a parent or a sibling has said something hurtful? When a relationship ends? We fall apart. Hell, I have fallen apart. There were times when someone has hurt me so badly that I was literally unable to move from my warm space on the couch. Me. I can’t stand sitting and staring aimlessly at the tv. But that’s exactly what I did. Sometimes for days. And why?
Because I had let so much of my self-worth be determined by this other person. That when they left me (either physically or emotionally), I literally didn’t know how to function. I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t see the good in me. I couldn’t understand how I didn’t see it coming. How I was so wrong about them. It was all about me. And you know what? I am sure that a portion was about me….but I took it so harshly, that it felt like it was all about me. Me and my every-now-and-then-fragile ego. And I held this person as such a central part of my life that the blow was that much harder to take. So much so that it knocked me off my feet.
I don’t think he knows it yet, but this friend who gave me the feedback just really saved me. From catastrophic heartbreak after heartbreak. Heartbreaks so absolutely consuming that I am left speechless and powerless. Heartbreaks that heal in time (read: days and days of questioning myself and trying -- but usually failing -- to pull myself out of the sadness – usually only to be hoisted out by the obvious appreciation of something or someone else. Yuck. Sounds weak and dramatic. Well it is. I am not going to be this way).
My friend has encouraged me to find more balance – to live a more well-rounded life and not to seek happiness from my friendships and relationships alone. I can obviously see the importance of this (most of the time, I thought I was doing this!) and have of course, given this same advice to other friends who sometimes reside in co-dependent friendships and relationships. Ah, the beauty of preaching but not always practicing. Can I get a pass? Can I claim ignorance? Just this once. I didn’t see.
But now I do, and it’s a whole new thing from here on out. I will live and love fully, but I have to realize a couple of things. I cannot let other people’s ideas of me completely determine how I feel about myself (and take over in shaping my sense of ego). Hell, many times I don’t even know what they think but assume the worst and get self-conscious. On top of this, I cannot control what other people feel or do, and sometimes friendships and relationships have bumps. This is okay. And relationships don’t always last forever. This is also okay. I will of course put good effort in to ensure that all of my relationships are as successful as possible, but I can’t be reduced to a hopeless mess when they don’t work out. Also, I will learn to love all parts of my life a bit more equally – like I said, I go to extremes. I realized how little time I was spending on my relationships before – all work! And so as a result, I went to the other extreme. Instead of allowing work to define me, I have been letting my relationships define me. So I’m tweaking again….
Always tweaking. Always training so that I am ready for the next match.