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How to Housebreak Your EgoSometimes your ego’s just an untrained guard dog

Imagine someone has had their property violated. Let’s call her Sam, and let’s say that she came home one evening to find her home had been broken into and a few things had been stolen. Nothing was irreplaceable, but it was very upsetting, naturally. Sam lives alone, and she no longer felt the sense of safety that she had, so she decides to get a guard dog.

Sam loves dogs and has had one before, but she’s never specifically had a guard dog. Still, she thinks, how hard could it be? She loves dogs. She’ll figure it out.

So Sam chooses an adorable Doberman mix and calls him Spike. He’s pretty young when she gets him, so his attempts at sounding menacing are adorable, and she’s so fond of him that she indulges his little nips & bites at her and her guests. She thinks nothing of it.

It doesn’t take long at all, less than a season, really, until Sam is inured to Spike’s annoying behaviors. While she still thinks of him as an adorable little pipsqueak, he’s actually quite big and kind of scary now. Though Sam would argue the point, the fact of the matter is that Spike has begun to rule Sam’s life. It’s not his fault — he’s just doing what she encouraged him to do. Sam wanted Spike to protect her and her boundaries. That was the only vague kind of instruction he got, and as far as he’s concerned, he’s doing a bang-up job.

The reality is that he’s become vicious. He loves Sam and he acts like a playful companion to her, but he barks loudly and more or less incessantly at any and every sound. The neighbors who once loved to see Spike and sympathized with Sam now hate to see them coming.

The first time Spike hurts one of Sam’s friends, they forgive her. She’ll work with him, she promises. He doesn’t mean any harm, he’s just a big baby trying to protect her!

Sam’s friend thinks, “I’m an invited guest in your home! I was just sitting there minding my business and Spike attacked me!” But instead, they say, “that’s ok.”

But they don’t come back over. And soon nobody wants to come over because even though they like Sam and Spike, it doesn’t feel safe to be around them anymore.

Sam can’t understand it…she feels like everyone’s turned on her. But why? She’s the victim here, after all. Her house was burglarized! They should feel sorry for her, not shun her!

And so Sam begins to resent all her “ex-friends,” as she refers to them. They betrayed her. Well, that’s alright. She’s got Spike. Big, mean Spike will keep her safe. He’s great to her, even if he’s an absolute bastard to everyone else.

But hey, she doesn’t get robbed again, so there’s that!

It’s a metaphor (if you know what I mean).

Now, consider the above scenario in a slightly different light. Instead of getting burglarized, Sam was betrayed somehow. Maybe her boyfriend cheated on her. Maybe she lost a job. Maybe one of a million other things that were totally in no way her fault happened to her, as they happen to good, innocent people every second of every day. And it sucked, and everybody knew it.

And instead of getting a literal guard dog to protect her physically, in this scenario Sam just allows her eager ego to take over the show. For continuity, we’ll call her ego Spike.

Spike’s been waiting in the wings, collecting examples of grievances to use as weapons. That’ll keep Sam safe, Spike thinks, and gets ready to lob the grievance grenades at anyone who comes near her.

Spike is not inherently bad. Spike exists to protect Sam’s interests, whether in guard dog or ego form. So while Spike the dog barks his fool head off at the neighbor hammering a nail in the wall next door, Spike the ego finds fault with every man and with every romantic relationship. When Sam’s friend Kim says her husband is going on a business trip, Spike (the ego) says, “a likely story. That’s what my boyfriend said when he was cheating on me.” Only it comes out of Sam’s mouth. And soon Kim no longer wants to be around Sam. Neither does anyone else.

But, once again, Spike has kept Sam “safe.” Spike did what Spike was supposed to do.

When my mind shifted to perceiving the ego (mine and that of others) in this light, I felt so liberated. I was suddenly able to give myself and others the compassion we deserve, even when our egos are, shall we say inflamed, which mine has often been.

It’s common, at least in our culture, to equate “ego” with an enlarged sense of self-importance. Someone who perceives themselves as being better and worth more than everyone else is said to have a big ego. And that’s fair. That’s certainly a thing, too. But often that ego is more of a guard dog than a pompous ass. Still, that doesn’t make the reality any less annoying. A barking, biting Spike is still a drag to be around, no matter his motivation for barking and biting.

So what Is the ego, really?

More than anything, ego is a concept. Like so many other concepts, its significance depends on context and intent. “Ego” is simply the Latin word for “I,” but in the intervening millennia since the death of Latin as a spoken language, the word has taken on many more layers of meaning, as words are wont to do.

Prior to learning about its Freudian implications in grad school, I’d always thought of ego as something that was just bad. “She’s all ego.” “He’s so egotistical.” I understood it to mean arrogant. Stuck-up. But I also felt conflicted. Though I wouldn’t have said it aloud, I could see how people could see me as being egotistical. I certainly was guarded and quick to anger. But I knew it wasn’t because I thought I was better than everyone. If anything, I thought I was worse. I knew for sure I was different, and it was painful. I didn’t fit in, and I didn’t know how to make myself understood.

A turning point came for me in 2020 when I decided to finally take control of my life and my mental health and get well. Really well. I wouldn’t have phrased it as such then, but a big part of that getting well business would turn out to be taming my own Spike. Housebreaking him, if you will, but certainly not abusing him or trying to get rid of him.

A Magical Book

One of the most important books I’ve read in my whole wellness extravaganza is The Little Work: Magic to Transform Your Everyday Life by Durgadas Allon Duriel (if you’re interested in transforming your life in truly magical ways, this is the book). While I don’t believe he used the guard dog metaphor, the author did write a lot of things about the ego that changed my way of thinking.

Duriel writes, “In a nutshell, the ego is the individuating principle within us, the internal agent that distinguishes us from the divine unity and seeks to reinforce this separateness. The ego resides in the navel chakra, which is home to self-assertion and will.” He goes on to explain that trampling others at a Black Friday sale or slashing benefits so the CEO can make more profit are perfect examples of operating at ego level.

But here’s where things got really interesting for me. After acknowledging different definitions in various spiritual traditions and psychology (and he’s deeply trained in both disciplines), he explains different facets of the ego, the first being “an outgrowth of our biological survival system that seeks to keep us safe by maintaining our status quo.”

Like Spike keeps Sam “safe” by making it unbearable to be near her.

What to Do? Action steps

If this guard dog metaphor resonates for you, what can you do to housetrain that puppy? For me, simply being able to hold this concept in my mind allowed me to feel so much more compassion toward myself, and thus toward others. But here are my other “ego training” tips.

Meditate.

I know, it seems like people say it’s the answer to every problem. Maybe it kind of is. Regardless, the function of meditation in this regard is to become accustomed (ideally) to observing your thoughts in a detached manner. Eventually, you’re able to say, “oh, look, there’s an ego-driven thought!” and trace it back to its origin (in Sam’s example above, the betrayal by the boyfriend). You can see then that the “spiky” thought you had was just trying to protect you. Thank it, and let it go. Good dog.

Read material that deals with the subject.

Again, simply identifying the problem can go a long way toward solving it. Also, it’s endlessly useful to read how other people who’ve thought long and hard about this concept have dealt with it. Take wisdom when it’s offered. Don’t let Spike keep wisdom at bay.

Notice ego-driven behavior in others for what it is, mentally label it, then let it go.

It’s not your job to heal others, and believe me when I tell you that unless someone has very specifically asked you, it is not a good idea to tell them that you’ve observed their behavior to be ego-driven, no matter how much you think it will help them to know that. But it will help you to feel more compassionate toward their spiky behavior when you’re able to see it for what it is — an annoying and over-anxious mutt.

My last two years have been largely dedicated to getting myself well on every level, and that’s meant poking around in dusty cupboards of my mind that I’d rather have boarded up.

But now, two years into this quest, I’m discovering the infinite joy that was being smothered under decades of junk.

And I also discovered a cool new canine pal named Spike who’d been chained up in the junk room growling all this time. Once we got to know each other, he became a good guard dog. Really, he’s no trouble at all.



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