My first important shift
In 1981, my life was growing increasingly difficult. I struggled to make a good living, to be a good father, to demonstrate to my own father that I was a good businessman, and to prove my intelligence and competence to the world and to myself. My energy and attention were divided among my work, my family, my personal need to prove my worth, and even my pet dogs. I felt tired most of the time.
And then my first wife Claire got sick. She was diagnosed with cancer in one of her eyes and given a few months to live.
Claire and I had already been fortunate to participate in a seminar conducted by an organization called EST (Erhard Seminars Training), which had given us a deep understanding of our own capacity to create our own lives. That experience also inspired us to begin organizing personal development seminars of our own.
More than 30 years later, the organization we created continues to lead seminars in different countries. The goal remains the same: Learning how to create our own lives.
Despite her initial prognosis, Claire and I were able to travel together along our journey for the final 17 years of her life.
Soon after we began that journey, I began to think deeply about my own work as an executive in the optical industry. I always thought that I had to work, that I had no choice in the matter, and this bothered me. I was always jealous of wealthy people who could choose not to work at all. I felt I was at the mercy of my situation.
One day, I shared this feeling with Stan, an EST facilitator. He told me that, contrary to my belief, I was not obliged to work, but that I chose to work. When I strongly disagreed, he continued to challenge me, and I am grateful that he did. Because of our exchange, I began to explore my capacity to make choices.
I decided to allow myself to choose not to work. Of course I could have always made that choice. I just never seriously considered the possibility. Now, alone in my room one day, I allowed myself to stop working.
This decision brought great relief to my mind; but only for a few minutes, really.
Very quickly, I became anxious about paying my bills. I thought about my way of life and the life I wanted to build for my children. Could I really choose not to work?
My conclusion: Yes, I could. There was nothing preventing me from making that simple choice.
But did I really want to stop working? No, I don’t.
It was an important realization. Another realization soon followed.
I soon came to grasp that my work was indeed providing me with opportunities that I wanted for myself and for my family. Because I was free to choose, I began to be grateful for these opportunities
In the end, I decided to continue doing the same work as before. On the surface, nothing much had changed about this aspect of my life. But in a very deep sense, the realization that I had the power to choose was life-changing.
My work was not an “I have to” anymore. It became an “I want to, thanks.”
This change of perspective shifted me from being at the mercy of my work to having the desire and the gratitude to create it. What had felt like a burden became a joy. I had no reason to want to be away from it. Instead of feeling trapped, I felt free.
With this experience, I began to see that there is a state of mind that depletes our energy, occupies our brain and heart space and makes us feel as if we want to be somewhere else. It is a reactive state. For many of us, it is our default state.
We have all experienced the existence of another state in which we are Present, in the Now and in Joy. The shift from one state to the other may seem like a miracle but it is not. It is partly a science and partly an art.
Appreciating each moment of our life
Claire’s diagnosis and dire prognosis presented us with a different opportunity – the opportunity to appreciate each moment of our life together.
We started the seminars with the goal of sharing our experience with others. Through the seminars, we began to deepen our understandings and to share our discoveries.
It was a health crisis that triggered our journey, but we came to realize that it was not necessary to first have such a prognosis in order to shift each moment of our lives and appreciate them.
How can the model be useful?
Cohen’s model of the Ego can help you go forward on whatever personal, psychological or spiritual journey you happen to be traveling. It is intended to complement, not compete with, your journey by offering a tool to gain deeper understanding about yourself.
Like the seminars begun by Claire and I more than 30 years ago, this book aims to help you master the Power of the Shift in order to access a place of more creativity in your life, rather than being at the mercy of events.
Cohen’s model of the Ego helps explain why people often feel misunderstood, overwhelmed, lonely, unsupported, and inadequate. It suggests answers to a number of questions, including:
- Why compliments don’t stick.
- Why boosts to self-esteem don’t last.
- Why reassurance doesn’t relieve anxiety for long.
- Why, after 20 years of studies, a person would decide to get a third PhD and still feel unfulfilled.
- Why a businessman could earn millions and still feel a sense of scarcity about money.
- Why people burn out in their careers, carrying on despite being tired, unhappy, and ineffective.
- Why many relationships don’t last and sometimes end in a divorce.
- Why sometimes we sabotage our well-being and that of others close to us.
- Why sometimes we hurt ourselves.
- And more
The experience that made this awareness possible
Crisis in Chinese is written with the ideograms:
Risk and Opportunity
How can a dramatic event be an opportunity?
My journey’s context
Like many people, I have always been attracted to developing a more profound understanding of myself, both as an individual and in my interactions with others. Over many years, through readings, religious practices, group seminars, personal introspection, and daily experiences, I have tried to deepen my understanding of who I am.
In my early 30s, as part of this quest, I started organizing and facilitating short personal development seminars with my wife Claire and our friends. We had no particular timeline and no sense of urgency. Then one day, in 1982, everything in our life suddenly and dramatically changed.
Claire was diagnosed with a very dreadful form of cancer, a melanoma in the eye, and was given a few months to live. This shifted my quest in a profound way.
Do you remember being a student and receiving a short deadline to submit a paper? Do you remember the mixed feelings that kind of situation created? On the one hand, you feel deep anxiety, stress, and even dread about your ability to meet this looming deadline. On the other hand, the situation can spur creativity, efficiency and a renewed sense of determination and purpose.
Claire’s prognosis generated similar feelings in me, but infinitely more powerful than those I felt as a student. My wife was told that there was no treatment that could cure her, and I did not know what to do. But the pressure of her imminent death in such a short time put me in a state of creative stress. It gave me a sense of urgency deeper than I had ever experienced.
For a short period of time, I did not believe the news, but after checking, double-checking, and triple checking, I had to accept that, at that time, medical science had no cure for her.
Claire was devastated, which is easy to understand. How could anyone avoid a state of extreme anxiety when told she only has a few months to live? On top of that, we were told that negative ideas were detrimental to her health. So not only did Claire have these negative thoughts, but on top of it, she felt guilty about having them.
I finally accepted the diagnosis, but I did not accept the prognosis. And Claire trusted me.
It became the most important journey of our life. I was not aware, right away, of the type of journey that this situation was creating for us. I had no idea where it would bring us. I never really thought that it would bring us anywhere.
At the time, I would never have guessed that it would lead me to explore the question of who I am.
The quest began very pragmatically. Claire was experiencing huge anxiety attacks, and it became obvious to me that she could not get well without first dealing with these anxieties and fears. So this became my main concern.
It took some time to connect to the fact that she had experienced many profound anxieties well before being diagnosed with cancer. Many of these anxieties were linked with childhood events. Claire was a hidden Jewish child in France during the Second World War. Her father had been deported to Auschwitz, and killed there by the Nazis.
Was there a connection between the anxieties caused by Claire’s deep childhood traumas and the anxieties she suffered when faced with a devastating threat to her health?
With the most critical of deadlines looming, we embarked on a search for the answer to that question. I soon realized that Claire had a pattern of events that kept repeating over and over again in her life with different people, in different settings.
For example, Claire always made a great effort to be the perfect friend. She was always available to her friends, day and night, even at the expense of spending time with me.
Despite this, and at different times and different settings of her life, she felt profound sadness about criticisms she received when her friends made her feel she was not doing enough for them. Their expectations were often too high, maybe because she was so generous with her time.
Claire and I had the same friends, of course, and I was much less helpful a friend that she was. But they never criticized me, maybe because their expectations were different for me. But, for Claire, the pattern kept repeating itself.
This troubled me. I am an engineer, so I am drawn to statistics. If something happens once, it is a random part of life, twice much less so. But if it keeps repeating with different people and in different settings, then we have to consider very seriously the role of the person at the center of the situation. The probability is very high that the repeating pattern is a consequence of that person’s actions.
I noticed that the anxiety-producing situations that kept repeating in my life and in Claire’s life were different and specific to each one of us. Mine tended to be related to work. Will I succeed in this new project? How can I prove that I am smarter than other people? How do I prove to others that I am successful? Claire’s anxieties were more about being perceived as a good mother or a good friend.
The fact that these anxieties seemed so personal suggested a strong avenue of investigation to follow.
Since Claire and I were already involved in organizing and participating in personal development seminars, we understood their strengths and benefits in improving our quality of life by gaining personal insights.
Also, as strange as it may sound, we were helped along in our quest by the fact that there was no medical cure for Claire’s illness, When you are told that there is no way that medicine can cure you, you tend to open your mind to other possibilities.
The only possibility in front of us was to try to tap into our inner power, hoping that such a thing exists, and that changing the quality of our life would also change Claire’s prognosis.
We began investigating our past in search of repeating patterns that had strong unconscious consequences on our choices, our behaviors, and our anxieties and fears.
Very soon after, I started organizing seminars around our new insights. Claire and I had several goals, but the main one was to encourage other people to change their lives before being forced by life to do so. This passionate drive to share stayed with her until her very last breath.
It was also very important for me to create the context of these seminars because I believe that we teach what we want to learn, and I wanted to learn how to create my life, rather than being at the mercy of events.
I admit that I was also strongly motivated by my own ego when I started. I was proud to show off my new findings in order to impress people. This slowly disappeared, and was replaced by the rewards of our rich exchanges and interactions, the learning stemming from sharing.
Another motivating factor was that I am the type of person who learns best from diving right into situations and experiencing them with others. I don’t do nearly as well when left to figure things out on my own. I cherish the insights I get from engaging with other people. Facilitating group seminars taught me that the group has some kind of magic and it was giving me, each time, more avenues of investigation.
When we started out, Claire was not facilitating the seminars. She would organize them and share her story, while I took the main leadership role during the sessions. Then little by little, she would start intervening from the back of the room with specific participants, until one day she became the main facilitator at these seminars.
She was a very good seminar facilitator, better than I was in many ways. She had a natural understanding of people, and a huge love and support for them. She would know to motivate a team, take care of them as human beings. Without her, our organization would never have developed.
At the same time, the experience of going along this path improved our relationship and the quality of our life. We were happier and closer, and our exploration and personal discoveries brought an excitement to our life.
The doctors were quite correct when they diagnosed Claire with a melanoma in her eye. That diagnosis was definitively confirmed after she underwent surgery to have the eye removed.
But they were quite wrong when it came to her prognosis.
In May 1982, Claire was told she would be dead within months. Instead, she lived until March 1999. I would never wish the anxiety of a false prognosis on anyone, but in retrospect, that prognosis, and the creative stress it fostered, led us on the journey of our lives, not least because it motivated us to make the very most of every single day of those 17 years.
How I arrived at the model
Our seminars helped people begin to feel empowered in their lives. Participants told us that the seminars improved the quality of their relationships with their spouses, children and colleagues. They would appreciate their work more, or gather the courage to change. In other words, they learned to create their life, rather than being at the mercy of events.
Without intending to do so, we stumbled into many mainstream psychological ideas. Psychology was not, and is not, the purpose of our seminars. The impression of overlap comes from the subjects we address in the search of our goal: Helping people to create their lives.
For example, in one of these seminars, Claire explored the importance of perceptions to people’s identities. Without always realizing it, we spend a lot of our energy focused on how we would like to be perceived by others. In the seminar, we created an exercise in which participants perform a cost-benefit analysis of the actions they take in order to be perceived a certain way. This particular exercise led to the idea of the “projected self” that is outlined later in this book.
To explain, here is an example of my own cost-benefit analysis.
I had the need to be seen as smart. The image I wanted to project was “I am brilliant”. Being smart in a world of smarter people is not satisfying, so for me, being smart meant being smarter than others. To prove it, I would go to great pains to explain to experts my understanding of their expertise and attempt to impart my wisdom about it, whether or not I really knew what I was talking about. On the occasions when I managed to impress someone, I benefitted by gaining an ego-boost. The cost of my behavior was frequently coming across as a pretentious blowhard, and making others feel belittled and aggravated.
When you think about it, it is easy to analyze the costs of your projected self, and the pain it can cause to other people. The best way to do so is to ask yourself how you would feel if someone does to you what you do to others to prove your image.
Take a moment to analyze any image you want to project to others. Do you make an effort to be perceived as smart? Or kind? Or cool, calm and collected? Think about what you do to convince others of this image. Just imagine someone doing the same thing to you. For instance, how would it feel if someone was always trying to outsmart you? What pain would you experience?
As this book will outline, the need to prove our value to others is not a need of our “actual Self”. It is not an actual need. We can survive without it. It is a need that has been constructed.
Doing this cost-benefit analysis made it important for me to explore more deeply how these needs – constructed to prove my worth to others and to myself – were driving my behavior.
I came to see how much they were costing me in brain space and energy, and were making me do things that were not necessarily important for me to do. I began to realize how these unconscious defense mechanisms were putting me at their mercy. I was working for them.
This understanding helped me to distinguish between “who I am” and “who I am not”.
This distinction is important. Do you think that we best experience who we are when we are in a state of fear or stress? Do you think that we can fully experience who we are when we are busy proving our self worth, performing or dreaming of material, academic and spiritual successes? Do you think we best experience who we are when we are lost in our mind chatter, which happens much too often.
Another important insight came in realizing that none of the “who I am not” needs, or actions make me experience joy. They create pain and hard work, in the worst cases, and pleasure and satisfaction in the best cases. But never joy.
I owe the clarity of this insight to having facilitated many seminars and to having delved for more than 30 years into the consequences of the “who I am not” with thousands of participants. The understanding that stems from these interactions helped me let go of the needs of my culture and childhood events and start experiencing a great joy in my life. Just being. Not being good, not being smart, or whatever, just being. And I liked that state.
I was thinking about this when I was returning by plane from Chennai (Madras) to Paris. I was reading a book by an Indian philosopher, Sri Ramana Maharshi, when it dawned on me that I had to work very hard to gain satisfaction in many areas of my life – in work situations, in social relationships, and elsewhere. Despite this hard work, the results were never deeply satisfying.
Why is that? How come it is never enough? Why don’t compliments stick? Why do achievements frequently feel fleeting? This is when I came to an important realization. The truth is that I was not really the recipient of the praise that might come my way. What was being praised was the image of myself that I was projecting into the world.
Deep down, I knew this image was not my true self. I was satisfied when others appreciated my image, but this appreciation did not fulfill me. I was not really the object of the praise. It was as if I hoped to be cured when someone else took my medicine.
My image could not experience joy. How could something that only existed as an image experience joy, or any other emotion?
Despite my hard work, I was experiencing no lasting satisfaction. Fleeting satisfactions came from the fact of being right and the experience of being appreciated. But these were not feelings of joy.
It became very clear to me that only my actual Self could experience joy. I could not plan it. I could not construct it. I had to give my actual Self a little bit of space if I wanted to experience joy. I had to let myself experience my actual Self to experience joy.
This led me to a big breakthrough:
My goal shifted from expending great effort to experience joy to letting my actual Self be!
I did not know how I could achieve this. I knew that enhancing my image, pleasing other people, or seeking attention, love or praise were not paths I should continue to pursue.
The question “How do I let myself be?” led me to the question “Who am I?”
This breakthrough was essential, because I knew now where I wanted to go. But I still did not know how to get there,
The other big breakthrough came in answering this question: How can I experience who I am if I do not let myself be? I used to spend much of my energy and brain space focused on how I am judged or perceived by others, to the point that I had neither time nor brain space to let myself be.
Here is the solution I discovered:
Stop putting your efforts, time and will in constructing a pseudo self that is not you, and that nobody asked you to construct. Use your image when needed so that it serves you. ButSTOP serving it. Don’t forget its needs are endless and can cause you to lose yourself.
I can’t say that I completely stopped looking for other people’s approval, but there has been a significant shift with my children, my friends, my colleagues and of course, most of all, with myself. I stopped trying to prove myself, to test myself, to create new challenges for myself. I would rather ask myself, on a regular basis, what I want, and listen to the needs and desires of my actual Self in order to embark upon and enjoy new adventures.
I am not always good at articulating ideas. They often remain fuzzy in my mind. Without Dr. Jennifer Crocker, eminent psychology professor at Ohio University I would probably never have been able to achieve this clarity.
Once it became clear to me what was not my actual Self, discussions with Jenny allowed me to build my model, by merging what I learnt through connecting with the actual research in psychology.
The discussions with Jenny, her experience, her insights, her cleverness, her openness, and her deep learning capacity, allowed me to polish the concepts in this book.
By sharing this model of the Ego, I hope to start a conversation, to trigger research, to encourage new findings, and to enjoy the journey all together.