A few weeks ago I had a very long work day. Started at about 8 a.m. Drove to Milford DE and did 3 hours worth of teaching (workshops on managing stress and integrating spirituality into the therapeutic process). Drove to New Castle and taught a 5 hour class (Classification of Psychopathology). Got home at 11 p.m.; just your basic 15 hour work day.
The next day was better, only about 10 hours long, but capped with a drive to have dinner with my mom, my sister and her husband, and my nephew and his wife. We had an excellent dinner and a lot of table camaraderie, but the reality of my mother’s deteriorating mind as she slips slowly into dementia is always upsetting. I teach about this disease, and I understand it fully, but that doesn’t temper the emotional impact of hearing your mom say “and who are you?”
I got home that night just in time for the results show of “Dancing With The Stars.” It was about all I could handle. I was calm emotionally, but for the life of me couldn’t figure out who was most likely to be voted off the show! I know, it’s such a trivial thing, but it felt like my mind was encased in glue. I had a true case of “brain freeze,” and not the kind you get from eating your ice cream too fast!
That night I had great difficulty sleeping despite my exhaustion. The next morning, after making a pretty simple but careless error that resulted in a broken vase, I had a meltdown. A few hours later, pondering what happened, I remembered a psychological construct that I used to study closely, but that had fallen out of my awareness. I realized that I had just experienced “ego depletion.”
Ego depletion occurs following any effort to self-regulate; that is, any effort to curb an intention, a desire, or even a thought you don’t particularly care for. Humans are constantly experiencing emotions and thoughts and desires that make us feel like we must act RIGHT NOW. Some we follow, but when we don’t it’s because we’ve done something psychologists call “self regulation.” Self regulation is one of the most human of actions; it’s simply the effort we put into preventing that RIGHT NOW action. Every time we close the refrigerator door WITHOUT noshing on that leftover mac & cheese we’ve self regulated. Every time we go back and reposition the drapery hooks that turned out to be an inch too low (oy vey, what a project that was last Saturday!), we’ve self regulated. The hardest circumstances are when we have conflicting motivations: cake tastes great (pleasure motivation) but my waistline has expanded lately (self appraisal motivation). Self regulating in these circumstances is depleting; actually, it’s ego depleting. And once we’re ego depleted we’re less capable of the next act of self regulation.
Self regulation is a fancy name for what we call “willpower,” and exercising willpower takes energy. It turns out that willpower, the ability to self regulate, can be understood metaphorically as a muscle. Use it too much and it gets tired. With fatigue comes languor, a lethargy that says “I don’t think I can make one more decision.” In a word, we feel lost, as if we can’t make one more decision. We’re out of gas, there’s no more RIGHT NOW in us.
Has this ever happened to you? I’m certain it has. We’ve all worked impossibly long days. We’ve all had to make too many hard decisions, worried endlessly about someone we love, felt overwhelmed by a torrent of bad luck in our lives. There’s a lot we can do in the area of ego replenishment (next post!), but it’s helpful to recognize and name “ego depletion” when it happens. Naming what’s happening is helpful. Naming it doesn’t fix it, but naming it gives me a handle on what is going on in my body/mind, and now I can begin to consider solutions. And knowing that it’s a phenomenon that occurs naturally, and is not an indication of some defect in me, helps me to better abide the fatigue. In my next post I’ll talk a bit about how our body/mind recovers naturally, and how we can help it along. But in the meantime, keep a (metaphorical) eye on your self, notice when you’ve become ego depleted, and give yourself a break. That simple act of self compassion, of not thinking less of yourself because you’re weak (and we are ALL weak at times), is a great beginning to ego replenishment.
PS I know that the Buddhists in the crowd use the word “ego” to denote the illusion of a self that doesn’t exist. I’m using the word a bit differently here, the way psychologists refer to the energy within that unifies our conscious awareness. I know, I know, sounds like a lot of jargon. But trust me, I’m not feeding into any illusions!
Last night my wife and I had dinner with our dear friends Larry and Pat. What a great night! We ate at a local tapas restaurant, with tastings of many small dishes and a few flavors exotic to our palates. A little wine, a lot of stories (mostly true, many embellished), and deeply satisfying friendship. I think I can speak for each of us when I say we left the scene rested and recreated.
For me this is the best way to replenish the depleted ego. The laughter and love that was shared for four hours lightened all burdens and reminded each of us that it’s in the giving that we receive. Later that night, a bit earlier than usual to bed, a quiet sleepy long rest, and rising early to enjoy the stillness of the new dawn. Feeling like a new man, venturing out into a world with its demands and stressors, but ready, willing, and able to face them all. Replenished, fatigue forgotten, energy renewed.
Depleted ego mind feels like a glue factory between my ears. I know the feeling. And now that I know what it is, and know that it happens naturally as the result of a tired brain with diminished energy, I can let go of any shame or embarrassment over my somewhat impaired mental state. I can more easily accept the limitation, and apply the antidotes. Let’s talk a bit about the correctives to the depleted ego mind.
First, a good meal. Solid research by Roy Baumeister (great psychologist; much research and originator of the idea of “ego depletion;” much more information on him at: http://baumeister.socialpsychology.org/publications) has shown that the ego-depleted brain lacks glucose. A healthy meal, even an unhealthy meal, begins the process of restoring needed energy to the brain. I keep a pack of peanut butter crackers or an apple or an orange or some pretzels with me most of the time. Every morning around 10 am and every afternoon around 3 pm I have a light, carbohydrate based snack whether I feel hungry or not. I’ve been doing this for decades, and it seems to help, though not as much as a few plates of good Spanish tapas! According to Baumeister’s research, I’m right about this.
Second, rest. If you can’t make a decision and you feel like you want to sleep on it, turns out you’re right. A good night’s rest restores the brain, in a sense “reboots” it. When you wake up after a good sleep (naps count, too!) your capacity to decide returns. It’s not that the problem is any simpler, it’s that your ability to decide has returned. And then things SEEM simpler.
Third, laugh. Or, more broadly speaking, experience some happiness, joy, excitement, pleasure. It turns out that “positive affect” (psychologists’ way of saying “feeling good”) also replenishes our mental storehouse of strength. Last week, the day after my meltdown, still feeling some mental lassitude, I took a 15 minute break and turned on the movie channel (TCM). A classic Laurel and Hardy movie, “Way Out West,” was on. My God! I had forgotten how funny they were. I laughed out loud watching them. If you want a good laugh right now, here it is:
Any positive feelings will help with your personal restoration project. That’s where using your support network comes in, too. Feeling the concern of a loved one for our predicament, or having a pleasant conversation with a friend about something OTHER than our problem. Don’t forget your intra-personal support network; that is, indulgence in your hobby, or a good book, some exercise, perhaps some music that brings you back to a great place (for me, a little Cat Stevens or Richie Havens!). Any of these and more that can bring some pleasant feelings will help. But the bottom line is that a simple “feeling good” time helps to restore our minds. Don’t discount the power of a good laugh at a silly movie!
There’s nothing that I’ve mentioned that doesn’t boil down to some good, old fashioned common sense. Perhaps your mother or some other source of wisdom has already told you this kind of advice. I think the most important thing to remember is that getting ego-depleted in stressful times is normal, inevitable if the demands are great enough, and resolvable with some simple solutions, but solutions that take some time and acceptance.
One final thought. Baumeister’s research has shown that sometimes people, when experiencing ego-depletion, can rise to another challenge despite their fatigue. He’s found that with the proper incentive, people can go the extra mile. He’s hypothesized that we naturally hold a little of our ego-strength in reserve in case another demand arises that we can’t ignore. The incentive could be material but often it is found in the urgency of the new demand. So when you’re feeling a bit down and out, don’t doubt that you have anything left, because you probably do. Just don’t demand that you find it and use it unless you must. Give yourself a break. Eat a healthy meal. Rest. Relax. Have a laugh, enjoy the company of a friend, or take time to be still and silent. Let your brain work its own magic and heal. Come back another day to play hard again.
Next post: Ego-Strengthening. How do we make the “muscle” of mental control stronger, so we’re less prone to ego-depletion. As you might guess, this is where mindfulness practice will come in!
Ego Resilience I
As implied by the Roman numeral in the title, this will be the first installment to considering this idea.
So far, we’ve taken a look at the conditions that lead to “ego depletion.” It’s really very simple: throughout the course of a typical day we have to self regulate our feelings and our thoughts. You can’t act on every intention or desire that arises. You have to do something with each impulse that doesn’t seem reasonable at any given time. That takes effort. When you have a day with too much need for self regulation, you get tired. But not just physically tired, you get mentally tired. That’s ego depletion. It feels like a bit of brain glue. You’ve reached your limit. It’s time to shut down for the day.
Which leads us to “ego replenishment.” How do we retrieve our energy and our clear-mindedness? It’s not that complicated. First, if we can recognize the ego depletion, then we can recalculate our involvement in our activities and prevent a worsening of the mental and physical situation. Then replenishment can start. And it’s really quite simple: rest, a good meal, and some positive affect. When we’ve been worn down, stop doing. Enjoy a warm, nutritious meal. Share some laughs, or some smiles. Prepare your body for sleep. Take a nap if you can. Natural processes are restorative; let your body heal, it knows how.
Which leads to “ego resilience.” If we’re comparing ego strength to a muscle, then how do we exercise that muscle? It’s a good analogy. When the muscle is overused (too much self regulation) we get tired (ego depletion). Rest the muscle and it’s ready to go again. Exercise the muscle regularly and it gets stronger. I’ll start off today with one approach to building ego resilience, with more to follow.
Every year I teach an “Addictions Counseling” class to our Masters degree candidates at Wilmington University (MS Counseling program). And every year, for the duration (4 – 5 weeks) of the course every student must give something up. And it has to be something that they enjoy, something that brings them some modicum of pleasure. The usual suspects are donuts, sweets, coffee, cigarettes (the more adventurous students), even getting on Facebook. It has to be something that they enjoy AND that they do daily. If I was doing this exercise (and I’m not! I’ve had to do this before!) I’d give up my morning cup of Earl Grey tea. Every year the students curse me out a bit (and not always under their breath) but by the end of the period of abstinence they pretty much have all learned some important lessons about what it takes to “give up.” They have to go to a 12 Step meeting also, to begin to understand the universality of this “giving up” process.
But perhaps the most interesting outcome from this annual experiment is that students report they become more self controlled in other areas of their lives. The simple act of restricting themselves from a simple pleasure seems to make their “willpower,” the colloquial name for “self regulation,” stronger in most if not all areas of their lives. This is consistent with the research done by Roy Baumeister, the American psychologist I’ve cited previously.
So, if you want to build up your ego resilience, your ego strength, practice self discipline in some simple area that is pleasurable for you, but not entirely necessary. Try going a day without eating anything sweet. Pour a bowl of plain Cheerios instead of Honey Nut Cheerios. Or a glass of water or unsweetened coffee/tea instead of a latte or a soda (including diet sodas; no sugar, but plenty sweet!). Turn away from those donuts near the coffee machine at work; have a light snack instead. Don’t eliminate fruit, though; just avoid the hyper-sweetened foods that the food industry foists on us.
Try something simple like this on a day that you know will be a typical day, not the day that you will be facing a lot of difficult demands. Consider it a little exercise for that ego muscle. You’ll be delighted with the results but remember that it takes a steady dose of exercise to build up a muscle’s endurance. And more is coming in Ego Resilience II: break out the exercise equipment!
PS Your ego strengthening results will be enhanced by mindful acceptance of the impulse to eat the sweet. And mindful noticing of the impulse’s emergence and decline. Yes, increasing self regulation strength can be a spiritual exercise!
Ego Resilience II
Life is challenging. Is it just me, or have you noticed that too? Things go really smooth for a while, then things fall apart. Just when you think “I’ve got it all figured out,” the banana peel of life slips under your foot and you find yourself flat on your “you know what.” The only antidote to life’s inevitable pratfalls is persistence.
In June of 2006 Zina and I travelled with our friends Andi and Keith to beautiful Santa Fe, NM. Serene, artistic and ancient (by American standards), set between the majestic Sangre de Cristo mountains to the east and the Jemez mountains to the west, Santa Fe is a desert sitting at 7000 feet above sea level. The awe one feels surrounded by cascades of burnt color with a backdrop of Alpine forests co-mingles with shortness of breath in that rarified atmosphere. And those mountains? Another 5000 feet above Santa Fe they loom, calling for these aging legs to make the climb.
And climb we did, or at least tried. Confident in my lungs, accustomed to running long distances (but at sea level!), Keith and I began a 2000 foot ascent with the certainty of two rather ignorant fools! Two hours later, gasping for air and parched with thirst (yes, we didn’t even bring hydration for a desert hike!), we came to our senses and descended quickly. Five days later we were successful, having acclimatized to the altitude, starting the climb very early in the day, bringing sufficient energy bars and, yes, a good supply of water. Here we are at the top of a 9200 foot summit, tired, sore, but VERY happy:
We flew home a day later and embellished the accomplishment with skill and delight. The story became more bold and intrepid with each telling, but anyone who knows us just laughed, rolled their eyes, and humored us. Such is the fate of men married to women who know them all too well!
Now, the main reason we traveled to Santa Fe was to visit our son Phil, who was completing a Masters degree in Eastern Classic Studies at St. Johns College in Santa Fe. Unlike his elders, Phil kept himself in great shape and had done much biking and climbing during his year at this altitude. His graduation was coming up just 6 weeks after our visit and I decided to go, solo, to his commencement exercise. Before we left from our June visit Phil suggested that on my return we climb Deception Peak, starting from the parking lot of the Santa Fe ski basin (elevation approximately 10,000 feet) and ascending to about 12,200 feet. I decided to do it, and began preparing as soon as we returned to Delaware.
For the next 6 weeks I ran daily on the David English Trail in White Clay Creek State Park. It’s only about 2.5 miles long, but it ascends sharply, about 160 foot, in less than a mile. Day after day, two laps, three laps at a time, up and down that steep hill. Twice a day sometimes. Taking care to hydrate regularly (this was during July and August), eating a diet rich in protein to help build muscle mass, replacing lost electrolytes and carbs, until I could cover that distance comfortably. Off to Santa Fe in mid August; joyfully watching my son receive his degree; then rising early to climb.
We made it to the top of that peak! Phil and and his best friend Doug had hardly a change in their breathing. This old man? Breathing hard, but making it all the same. Stronger from the persistence of practice. Experiencing the felt sense of resilience.
Resilience. To be able to endure, to bend, to sustain. Ego resilience, not losing our sense of self in the midst of intense challenge. How can we build this resilience? It’s simple, but it’s difficult.
If we are to build ego resilience we must choose tasks that require persistence. We must organize those tasks, set schedules, understand limits, but endeavor to exceed those limits. Persistence is a virtue, a gift that we can cultivate through disciplined inquiry, commitment, and action. Every act of persistence forms a deeper and firmer foundation of ego strength. It doesn’t matter if the persistence is physical, as in exercise, intellectual, as in education, emotional, as in extending compassion to another’s suffering, or behavioral, as in establishing or breaking a habit. ANY act of persistence builds ego strength, and enables us to bring greater endurance to future events that challenge.
Back in 2008 I organized my life around building physical resilience for a difficult challenge. When I returned in mid August it was to a world in which my father was living his final 6 weeks. The work I had done preparing for that climb turned out to have also strengthened my spiritual and emotional resilience. With the loving support of my wife, my children, my family and friends (especially my fellow meditators), I sustained and endured.
What projects can you take on that will build ego resilience? Any endeavor that requires persistence will do. Here’s an easy one to start with: sitting meditation. Committing yourself to 10 minutes, and when the wandering mind says “enough,” redirect your attention again to breath, to living, and persist mindfully to the end. Here’s another: listen. The next time someone natters on and on and you don’t think you can remain present and patient, redirect your attention to that person, and persist mindfully to the end. Every day of every person’s life presents opportunities to direct our attention in a way that demands persistence, and each act of persistence “strengthens the muscle” of ego resilience.
Well, just going this far reading this material about ego-depletion, replenishment, and resilience is an act of persistence! See, it’s that easy! There’s one more point to make about building resilience, and that will come in a few days. I hope these reflections have been helpful. I know that re-learning this material has helped me tremendously, and I wish the same help for you.
Any meditator will tell you to be very cautious about putting the words “ego” and “mindfulness” in the same sentence, unless there’s a negation wedged between them! So it is with great caution that I proceed, acknowledging the spiritual contradiction of working to enhance ego strength while supporting and deepening a mindful spirit.
What does it mean to have “ego strength”? It’s a tricky idea, in my opinion, because of rampant narcissism. To have a “strong ego” may imply that somehow my needs are more important than yours. We see this in many ways, some ridiculous (think the recent Kardashian wedding), some mind-boggling (think of athlete’s salaries), and some tragic (think “Penn State football”). But having a strong ego in the narcissistic sense is really a rather weak way to live. The narcissist can only see his/her own situation, has little if any perspective taking skills, and cannot form a true and meaningful relationship. What a way to suffer.
Ego strength, on the other hand, refers to being resilient. The resilient person says “I can bend but I won’t break.” The brittle ego is rigid and snaps under pressure; the resilient ego is flexible and adjusts to the ebb and flow of demands. Resilience is a state (“I get it together again after a rough day”) and a trait (“I stay calm, cool, and collected even when things get really rough”). The resilient person bounces back with skill after losing equilibrium (i.e. goes easily from ego depletion to ego replenishment) AND, at times, does not lose equilibrium even in the face of great adversity (i.e. able to sustain ego strength).
Here’s a video from ABC news that makes a great case for meditation as a way to build ego-resilience:
I love the little boy in the video who says that his sister is screaming, mom is cussing, and he’s meditating! But what’s truly impressive is that with even a little practice, the meditative brain functions differently, in ways that strongly suggest that the mind comes to a state of comfort and ease more readily, even in difficult situations.
I hope this series on ego-depletion, ego-replenishment, and ego-resilience has been helpful. I’ve enjoyed going back and reading this literature again, and have taken away several “lessons learned” for myself. First, I’m going to run out of “mental” gas sometimes; accept it, it’s natural. Second, if I can recognize when I’ve run out of gas AND accept it, then I can mindfully decide to “cease and desist” in further activity, and give my mind the rest that it needs. And if resting in that moment isn’t possible, at least I can be mindful in guarding against a total meltdown that might offend or hurt someone I love. Third, I know the antidotes: rest, nutrition, and fun. Fourth, I have a great tool to build up that “mental muscle” so that ego-depletion is minimized. Any activity that allows me to practice self-regulation, no matter how trivial, builds up my strength. Finally, my meditation practice gives me the insight to be aware, accepting, and able to act to replenish and strengthen. And the more I meditate the more my brain is readied to be aware and accepting.
The spiritual paradox in this practice of mindful ego-strengthening is that with this resilience comes the realization that what I conceptualize as my “self” is very transient. There’s an abiding “sense of self” but the actual activity of a “self” comes and goes, and changes so easily. As I let go of clinging to this “self” I find something that lasts within, something that is hard to define, but is there through each moment. I don’t know what to call it. I suppose “sense of self” will have to do for now. Perhaps that “sense of self” is transient also; I don’t know. But there’s strength and peace in the realization that I don’t have to cling to an ego that demands that life conform to my perceived needs in this moment. This painful ego state has happened before and will happen again, but it’s not permanent. It has flowed; it will ebb. In that moment I can have clarity that my “sense of self” remains untouched; this painful ego state is not about “me,” whoever or whatever that is.
Happy Thanksgiving! I hope that you’re able to experience deep gratitude this week and throughout the coming holiday season.