Class 6: Beyond Ego--A New Understanding

“Seek Me daily, and delight to know My ways.” --Isaiah 58:2

Intention for this class

To help participants rise above ego so that they might enjoy states of true friendship where they seek to know one another with genuine interest.

Spiritual Foundation

The commandments that provide a foundation for this class are, “You shall not steal” and “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” These two commandments and their many levels of meaning give us important insights about our sense of self which is called the “ego.” As we penetrate into the more interior levels of these commandments, we will see how stealing is related to inordinate feelings of pride (inflated ego states). When we steal we “take what is not our own” including the credit which rightfully belongs to God. Bearing false witness is not only about lying. It is also related to deeper states in which we “bear” or carry an inaccurate or incomplete view of reality. These false views of reality often lead to states of defensiveness or despair (wounded ego states).

Taken together, these two commandments give us vital insights about destructive, self-centered states that can cripple the marriage relationship. It is incumbent upon us, therefore, to learn about these self-centered states, discover them in ourselves, and replace them with God-centered responses.  

Do not steal

Let’s look at these self-centered states more carefully, beginning with inordinate pride. This negative human characteristic is associated with humanity’s fall in the Garden of Eden. Whether we regard this story as a Biblical myth or an historical reality, the message is profound. When humanity decides to “eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” people begin to see themselves as “gods.”  Gradually they succumb to the fallacy that there is no one above them, and that they possess all knowledge within themselves. 

Theologians have long noted the link between this first theft in the Garden of Eden—eating the forbidden fruit—and the commandment against stealing. When we attribute to ourselves what really belongs to God, we have committed spiritual theft. We have taken what is not our own. If we do not acknowledge God as the source of all wisdom and love, we tend to think that we are the center of everything, and that we are the source of goodness and truth. This arrogant thinking puffs up our ego and leads us into believing that we are as “gods.”

The result is that we feel superior to others; we believe that our emotions are deeper, our ideas more worthwhile, and our lives more important. No matter how we might pretend to be courteous and respectful of others, we interiorly feel that we are superior, more insightful and more important. We fall into the pride of self-intelligence. We feel that we know better than our spouse. We have eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

When inordinate pride goes unchecked, it leads to further destruction of the relationship. Instead of respect and admiration for our spouse, we allow criticism to grow into contempt and disdain. But this is not the end; when these thoughts of superiority arise, we are flooded with rationalizations and justifications that support our arrogance. It is this false belief that carries us to the doorstep of the next commandment.

Do not bear false witness

The commandment against stealing is followed by the commandment that forbids bearing false witness against our neighbor. Literally, this relates to our tendency to lie, exaggerate, leave out important details of a story, or shade the truth in ways that protect our ego. False witness often takes the form of rationalizations and justifications—stories we tell ourselves that justify our contemptuous attitudes and condone our self-centered behaviors. These self-centered lies twist opportunities to learn about ourselves (so that we can grow and develop) into occasions to become defensive, avoid responsibility, and resort to blame. 

After the theft in the story of the Garden of Eden, it is noteworthy to see what happens. Adam blames Eve, and Eve in turn, blames the Serpent. Then they hide and cover themselves with fig leaves. This sequence still happens today whenever someone steals; there is almost always a defensive story to cover up what happened. Whether it is the lies we tell ourselves, or the lies we tell others, we “bear false witness” every time we succumb to the tendency to cover ourselves with self-defensive lies and rationalizations. No amount of fig leaves stitched together will hide our nakedness.

Going deeper

When we look more deeply at these two commandments, we realize that they are given to protect us from identifying with our ego states: states of inordinate pride which lead to contempt, and states of inordinate despair which arise from the false “stories” we tell ourselves about reality. 

It comes down to a matter of ego. While it is important to have a sense of identity, this identity must be based on our essential humanity. On the surface of our lives we all have differing degrees of intelligence, levels of ability, and kinds of talent. But when our ego gets invested in these differences, it makes up stories that tell us that we are superior or inferior to others. 

The truth is that God has gifted each of us in different ways. It is therefore important to remember that our differing gifts are to be humbly and gratefully received. They are not given to make us feel better or worse than others; rather they are freely given to us, so that we may freely use them in service to others. In so doing we experience not only the joy of selfless service, but we also begin to feel the joy of others as joy in ourselves. 

As we grow spiritually, we begin to acknowledge how little we know as well as how much more there is to know. This brings about a state of humility and a sense of gratitude to God for whatever insights we are granted. It is this sense of humility that fosters within us a genuine interest in our spouse, a sincere desire to know their thoughts and ideas, and a willingness to be influenced by them. 

As true friendship grows and develops in our marriage, we learn to value and respect each other for the unique and wonderful people we truly are. We come to see that we are each made in the image and likeness of God, richly blessed and forever loved. This is the reality. And this is the truth that gives us the power to refute false witness. 

Paradoxically, it is this same truth—that we are made in God’s image—that  enables us to be humble, open, naked and not ashamed. There is no longer any need to be defensive, because the truth, by its very nature will defend us.  We can harness the power of truth and use it not to protect our ego, but rather to refute false witness; we can use it to open our eyes to spiritual reality; we can use it to see the blessings that surround us, particularly in our marriages. We can choose higher thoughts, give glory to God, and stand on holy ground.

Psychological Foundations

The Research Findings of Dr. John Gottman

Dr. John Gottman, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, is considered one of the leading experts in the world on relationship dynamics and marital stability. Over the past thirty years, he has studied and followed the relationships of over 3,000 couples. Gottman is now able to predict with over 90% accuracy whether a couple’s marriage will end in divorce. He concludes that it is not whether a couple argues, but rather the way they argue.

These studies have taken place through the use of the Family Research Laboratory, an apartment laboratory overlooking the ocean in the state of Washington. The laboratory is set up with five video monitors to record the couple’s everyday interactions. Each person is monitored to record blood pressure, pulse and heart rate, adrenalin levels and skin responses. These monitors provide information to determine how severe the emotional distress is while the couple engages in conversation, including arguments. All of the information is recorded and coded in order to assess the relationship and predict its outcome. 

While viewing a section of the video where the couple is in conflict, Gottman looks for determining factors that undermine and damage the relationship. If four major emotional reactions are present, he predicts that the marriage will fail. He calls these four emotional reactions the four horsemen: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

Criticism is a complaint that has turned into a personal attack on your spouse’s character or personality. It usually has the element of making someone right and someone wrong. It moves from, “Why didn’t you drop the package at the Post Office?” to “You’re so unreliable. You never remember anything I ask you to do.” When used without restraint, criticism opens the way for the remainder of the horsemen to enter.

Contempt is criticism that has been left unchecked. If differences have not been resolved in healthy ways, the negativity builds and comes out in ways that attack not only your partner’s personality or character, but their essential humanity.  It always devalues your spouse and communicates your sense of superiority. Contempt includes insults and name-calling, sarcasm and cynicism, hostile humor, put downs, and body language that conveys disgust. Other ways that convey contempt include sneering, rolling the eyes, curling the upper lip, and mimicking the words of your partner. 

Defensiveness is really a way of seeing yourself as a victim and warding off a perceived attack. According to Gottman, defensiveness is a way of blaming your partner by saying in effect, “The problem isn’t me. It’s you.” When you are being defensive, your partner doesn’t hear you; instead, it only fuels the argument. The defensiveness takes many forms such as making excuses, meeting your spouse’s complaint with a complaint of your own, retaliating by saying, “That’s not true; you’re the one …,” whining about how unfair it is, blaming, and the classic “YES, BUT….”

Stonewalling is withdrawing from the relationship as a way to avoid conflict. This sends a message of disapproval and disconnection. It can be done by the silent treatment, walking out, or changing the subject.  

Of all the factors that undermine and destroy the relationship, Gottman points to contempt as the most significant. “You would think that criticism would be the worst,” says Gottman, “Yet contempt is qualitatively different than criticism. . . Contempt is any statement made from a higher level . . . it is trying to put the other person on a lower plane than you. It is hierarchical.”  

When I say, “You are unreliable,” that’s criticism. When I say, “You’re an idiot,” that’s contempt. When I roll my eyes, shake my head, and purse my lips, that’s contempt. It is about being better than the other and conveying disdain.

There are other factors that also contribute to the health or demise of the relationship. One of these is called a bid. Gottman discovered that how couples respond to bids for connection is a major factor in determining the health of the relationship. He describes bids as “the building blocks to emotional communication.” As Dr. Gottman explains in his book, The Relationship Cure, bids can be verbal or non-verbal. Every bid is an endeavor to create a connection and open the way for positive interaction.  

Gottman has discovered that these bids for connections happen at a higher rate in happy couples, as many as 100 times in ten minutes. What makes them so significant is how they are made and how they are responded to. Responses may go from ignoring the bid entirely, to offering an acknowledging grunt, to responding with a word or two, all the way to expressing an enthusiastic interest in what the spouse is saying or offering. Couples who value one another respond positively to one another’s bids for connection. Responding enthusiastically to our spouse’s bids for connection demonstrates a willingness to be genuinely interested in our spouse and in their world. Even beyond this, Gottman says that in a good relationship partners are willing to be influenced by each other.

In a long term study of 130 newlywed couples, Gottman found that “men who allow their wives to influence them have happier marriages and are less likely to divorce.” However, in relationships where a man resists his wife’s influence, “there is an 81 per cent chance that his marriage will self-destruct.” (The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, 100)  

The conclusion seems clear that respect for one’s spouse, being genuinely interested in their life, and curious about their inner world can open the way not only for effective communication but to a deeply satisfying and enriching marriage. Another approach to discovering and appreciating the rich, inner world of our partner is provided by Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology.

The Research Findings of Dr. Martin Seligman

Dr.  Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, is moving psychology away from the mental illness model to the mental health model. The emphasis, he says, should not be on our weaknesses but rather on our strengths. 

In his book, Authentic Happiness, Seligman devotes an entire chapter to discovering what he calls the twenty-four “signature strengths.” These are arranged in six categories (Wisdom, Courage, Love, Justice, Temperance, and Transcendence) and include basic virtues such as curiosity, valor, perseverance, kindness, leadership, humility, self-control, gratitude, and hope.  Seligman encourages his students to share stories about themselves that demonstrate a time in their lives when they exhibited one or more of these strengths.

It is noteworthy that these strengths are not related to external personality characteristics such as how high a person can jump or how many pages they can read in an hour. They are related, rather, to our essential humanity. This kind of a focus lifts us beyond ego concerns and into the spiritual dimension of our lives. At this level we all have equal and unlimited opportunities to discover and develop our signature strengths.  

At the heart of Seligman’s research is the importance of focusing on signature strengths rather than weaknesses. He reports, for example, that optimistic people have 19% greater longevity; that people who focus on signature strengths have healthier habits, lower blood pressure, and better immune systems; and, most interestingly, that the more aware we are of our partners signature strengths, the happier and more romantic our marriages will be. (Authentic Happiness, 200)

Seligman’s research reminds us that it is vitally important to be true witnesses to our lives, paying special attention to how signature strengths have shown up in the past and continue to do so in the present.

Putting it Together

We began this class by describing the commandments against stealing and false witness. When we look more deeply at these two commandments, we realize that they are given to protect us from identifying with our ego states— whether they take the form of an inflated or a wounded ego.  These self-centered states which manifest as pride, contempt, defensiveness, and despair, are supported by false witness, the stories we tell ourselves that justify our negative attitudes and rationalize our self-centered behaviors. 

These spiritual realities are confirmed by the research findings of leading psychologists. The in-depth studies of John Gottman illustrate that when relationships are permeated with criticism, contempt, defensiveness and withdrawal, the marriage is headed for divorce.  Especially significant is Gottman’s conclusion that the single greatest predictor of marital unhappiness and divorce is contempt. 

Martin Seligman adds the important observation that marriages flourish when we focus on one another’s signature strengths. These strengths are, in essence, God’s qualities in your spouse. The more we focus on these strengths, recognizing, supporting and encouraging them in our partner, the happier and more romantic our relationships will become.

It takes work to move beyond ego. We must pray to be delivered from self-centeredness, to come from love, to strive to know our partner, and to be influenced by them. As we do this, moving beyond ego, we experience states of deeper friendship and greater love in which we continually seek to know and be known by each other.  

The Assignment

Beyond Ego—Seeking to Know Each Other 

“Seek Me daily, and delight to know My ways.” --Isaiah 58:2 

Respond to “Bids.”  Be aware of any “bids” for connection. Respond with genuine interest and curiosity. Ask questions like, “Why is that significant to you?” or “That’s interesting; can you tell me more?”

Be Influenced. Be willing to be influenced by each other. Replace contempt with humility and respect.

See God in Your Spouse. Give a True Witness about how God’s qualities continue to show up in each other. Notice and discuss signature strengths.