We often work "at" ourselves, but how much do we work "on" ourselves?
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
"Memo to self...don't do x with y"
"Must try harder...now come on!"
"You got away with it this time, but don't slack!"
"Hey - go you, you lost weight/got that promotion/bought that new car"
...We work very hard at the image we want the world to see.
Now, before I go on, I am not saying there is anything wrong with this. It's applaudable to have ambition and drive, to be self-aware enough to want to and be able to improve, and I am always proud of my own - and others' - achievements when we get there. BUT, we can sometimes spend so long working at ourselves, we forget to work on ourselves as well.
What's the difference?
The answer to that lies in the term "the ego"...but I need to make a clear distinction between the "spiritual" ego that I mean by using the term here, and the Freudian psychological construct - they are not quite the same.
The Freudian Ego
For Freud, and certainly the use of the word that I am most familiar with, given my job, the "Ego" is one of three unconscious "systems" that drive our personality. The first part to develop (for Freud, it is because it is present from birth) is the "Id" - the hedonistic part, the one that works on what he calls "the pleasure principle"...seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. It is the element which seeks to get our needs satiated. (This makes sense as a description of the behaviours we may display from birth - we cry to be fed, changed, picked up...the "id" drives us to get our needs met.) The next part to develop - doing so from the id, is the "ego". It is the element which now serves to satiate the id eg: I don't need to cry to get fed, because I know I can reach that pot from here... For Freud the "Ego" can recognise the demands of the "Id", but is able - through learning and observation (and later reasoning), to make sure those demands are expressed in a way that is acceptable (or perhaps even most effective) within the world. For Freud, the Id was the horse, and the Ego the rider...the horse would wander freely, but the rider gives direction.
The final part to develop is the SuperEgo, emerging around age 5 when the infant becomes more aware of its environment. The SuperEgo is shaped by the cultural, societal and environmental rules (and can thus vary from person to person) providing the guidelines for the Ego to make its choices (the "Ego ideal" is the name Freud gave to these unspoken rules). Along with this, within the SuperEgo comes the conscience which contains information about what is "forbidden" or punishable along with feelings of guilt and remorse.
Now, it is worth noting that Freud's constructs have been disputed for many years, mainly because they cannot be proved, but his terminology and teaching is still practiced and used, and it is very conceptually accessible.
The colloquial ego
This is what we mean when we talk about someone being "egotistic" - in other words, seeing themselves as "the centre of the universe" or boasting and showing off...strangely enough, I would, given the above, be more likely to refer to it as being "id-tistic"...but the ego refers to the way the id may be satiated, so perhaps this term is best.
The "spiritual ego"
It is this description that I (and authors such as Ekhart Tolle) refer to in this piece. I use it not because I am particularly spiritual in my own practice - although I am eclectic using what works for me...and often, drawing from different perspectives can help me explain my meaning more clearly when I am teaching. And, also, because its usage is in any case beginning to overtake Freud's definition....and for a while I was confused with the need to "lose the ego"!
The Spiritual Ego is probably best described as "the lens through which we see the world". It is our construct of "I"...it is in many ways like the social media image we curate - the view we want others to see rather than ourselves as we really are. But, while social media has a clear distinction - one is online or "in real life" - we live alongside our spiritual ego.
There is a similarity to the Freudian Ego here also because it is the Ego which constructs our interpretation of reality - our "narrative of self" - and can be both positive (often when we have done well), and negative (often when we have done badly, or perceive ourselves to have done so). But it is probably closer to Freud's notion of the Id. It seeks pleasure and instant gratification. Unfortunately this means it can (a little like our social media avatar) draw our energy and attention so much so that we continually work at our image rather than on the person!
For the purposes of enlightenment, we must 'let the ego go' in other words, let go of things as we believe them to be...and seek to be!
For the purposes of (to my mind) purpose - making meaningful impact, feeling truly self actualised, I humbly suggest a hybrid - utilise what the (spiritual) ego has accomplished BUT - work ON yourself not just AT yourself!
Working "at" or working "on"?
If we struggle to separate ourselves as a person, from the ego, or the "character" we wish to present to others, we spend our time working at ourselves, and not enough on ourselves. It is working "at" ourselves that can improve our performance in our work (boosting and growing our adaptive self...the self we have learned to be) rather than our authentic self...the self that can be rough around the edges, because that's what people are like. Working "at" ourselves can make us defensive as we try to explain away our errors or turn negativity against us as we weave a narrative that we are at fault...working "on" ourselves may give us a chance to find a bit of headspace and address the situation objectively rather than personally. Working "at" not "on" can result in exhaustion through people pleasing because we want to be seen favourably...working "on" might make us realise that we don't need to be liked by everyone...and why on earth do we care about the opinion of those from whom we wouldn't ask advice anyway!?
If we are not careful, we will spend so long working at ourselves - and who we believe we need to show to the world that our inner self, our authentic self, our potential soon stops trying to be heard...and in a reverse "Dorian Gray" becomes old and withered whilst the cultivated, curated, constructed self finds it's doing well, but doesn't really feel it.
It IS possible to do both!
Much of the teaching in spiritual enlightenment writing seems to focus on "Letting go" of the egoic self...recognising that we are valuable and powerful with a purpose simply as we are. I would agree with that in principle ie: if this approach helps you let go of barriers or anxieties that were holding you back; if it allows you to forgive so that you can move forward rather than feel controlled by old wounds and aggressors - this can help a great deal. However, I do believe that the Egoic, or perhaps my preference would be the "adapted" self has many positives too. What I believe the secret (actually...for those who might get the reference!) is, is to do both together...appreciate that our adaptive self or egoic lens may have enabled us to learn things that authentically we may not have wanted to nor felt necessary, but we need to apply that learning to our authentic self to ensure it is also nurtured.
This means listening to the inner voice/higher self/authentic self...or simply listening to you answering, honestly, the question...what do I want from life?
3 ways to work on yourself
The reason I would suggest that we can be adaptive and authentic is because most of us want to make some sort of practical impact on the world. However, when we are authentic in our pursuit (although we may use the skills and abilities we have learned), we will be happiest, and (spiritually) the universe gets out of our way...or psychologically - we feel fulfilled when we do it!
Therefore, try the following to connect with, and then blend who you have worked at, with your potential, authenticity and personal desire:
1. Identify and live your values
You can do this by thinking of past achievements (thanks egoic self) BUT reflecting on what YOU found so important about them...not what others said, or how it made you look in the eyes of society.
For example, I am proud of achieving my PhD...yes I like to use the title "Dr", but most important to me was the experience I had getting there. I was expected to complete it in 2.5 years because of my academic record...I ended up completing in 5 because I simply couldn't master the style of writing. But I learned, I listened, I worked to support myself when my grant ran out - and I got there...and it is that...my effort of which I am most proud.
As such one of my values is effort. I recognise it when I see it in others, I really appreciate determination and hard work when you want something, and the desire to learn. In turn a focus on this value has helped me when students question me and make me think in lectures - I had one even apologise to me for "Putting me on the spot" - I told him "It's students like you that make me better at what I do for you and for others...never apologise for wanting to learn more."
It is also a benchmark I measure the environments I work best within and the people with whom I am the most comfortable...I really love being around people who put effort into what they do (regardless of their ability or standard), and I also am blessed with friends (at least now I've streamlined my approach) who put the same amount of effort into seeing me as I do with them (I was, at one point, so desperate to be liked that to stop myself offering lifts which was exhausting me, that when I changed my car I bought myself a 2-seater sports number so I HAD to say no!)
Identifying and living my values (through reflecting on them and the situations I choose regularly) has certainly helped me find a great deal more enjoyment in life and I am less exhausted! BUT I also recognise that being kind and generous - as my egoic/adaptive self drove me to be is not a bad thing, I just channel it to those that matter to me!
2. Separate your skills from your strengths (and use the latter regularly)
We work at skills - we work to become good at things which earn us praise, but it doesn't mean we love doing them. But when we use our strengths, things we are naturally good at, we do not feel exhausted...if we can then apply our strengths (as well as) our skills in our work, we can feel greater satisfaction.
Again a personal example is that I am an excellent organiser. In my quest to want to play roles that a SE Asian actress was just not getting in am dram (I did play the princess in Aladdin 3 times in a year once though!!) I learned to produce my own shows...and for 20 years continued to hone that skill. However, I don't like organising nor producing. I'm good at it, my observable track record certainly demonstrates that - as does the positive response from the casts I have worked with, but as I have found other things fulfil me more than playing a character, I have also said no to organising for others (regardless of the "opportunities it might offer for my CV"!!) BUT, what I DID and do still love and have a strength in - is in performance, and as such I write and edit my own radio show, teaching videos and podcast - the skills of my adaptive/egoic self are used, but are nurturing my authentic desires...and the love I get from regular performance off-sets the times when I feel "...I've got a whole day of editing ahead!"
3. Schedule in time to do so!!
Firstly, if you look after yourself, you have more energy for everyone and everything else, but working ON yourself is important because it speaks to your very soul.
So timetable yourself in every day – making that commitment to yourself as important as your commitments to others. Whether you use that time to meditate, take a class, read, or simply have a cup of tea (while it’s still hot) the act of protecting time for you - or perhaps you and your loved ones (eg. a "date night" where you can spend quality time together), reminds you that you are at least as important as work, and other responsibilities (which will also help you make a positive mindset shift if you don't feel of value unless being externally validated through pleasing others), AND in using that time you might boost your energy through doing what you know you like, but may even discover new skills, desires or goals. Through spending time working on you, you not only nurture yourself, your true, wonderful self...just for being you, but you might also unlock potential that our fast paced world of working "at" ourselves - our "image - may not have given us space to find.
Similarities with self compassion v self esteem
Some of you may have recognised that the act of working on yourself is all about valuing you simply as you - without any trappings of success. Whether you take a psychological approach or a spiritual approach - it amounts to the same outcome - you learn to love you just for the being you are.
While psychologically you may follow a process of parenting your inner child, or ensuring your practice self compassion statements eg: "It's hard and I'm struggling, but I've got this", or "I know this feels awful, but that's ok" rather than self esteem ones ie."At least I didn't come last", "At least x messed it up as well"...because self compassion is always present, self esteem leaves when you lose; and spiritually you may use affirmations and meditations to learn to "let it go" or "get out of your head" - that is still working on yourself.
Working ON you helps you develop your ability to buffer or withstand stress, because you know it's not personal, or you know you will cope (or at least know where to turn), it helps you restore your state of equanimity after a difficult time so that you are able to move forward effectively, and it frees your mind (where the egoic/adaptive self was once overwhelmed with thinking about "how this looks", "what others will think", "whether this makes me seem good enough", you - your authentic, inner, higher self...can now fill that space with joy of simply being and experiencing.)
Some quotes to reflect on
I wanted to leave with some quotes that summarise this piece, and in many ways - what I teach - whether it's psychological or spiritual. I want you to appreciate yourself and recognise that you (simply you) are of value measured not by your external achievements, but by simply being. I always say "who you are far outweighs what you have"...and that's what I mean by it. But this isn't new...and I hope that if I don't resonate with you...one of these authors will.
William Shakespeare: The Quality of Mercy Speech from The Merchant of Venice
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
Paulo Coelho: The Alchemist
"It describes people's inability to choose their own Personal Legends...at a certain point in our lives, we lost control of what's happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That's the world's greatest lie...
...Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is...But as time passes, a mysterious force begins to convince them that it will be impossible for them to realise their Personal Legend...It's a force that appears to be negative, but actually shows you how to realise your Personal Legend. It prepares your spirit and your will, because there is one great truth on this planet: whoever you are, or whatever it is that you do, when you really want something, it's because that desire originated in the soul of the universe. It's your mission on earth."
Erika J Chopich & Margaret Paul: Healing your aloneness: Finding Love and Wholeness Through Your Inner Child
"The Inner Child functions in the right-brain modes of being, feeling and experiencing as opposed to the Adult who functions in the left-brain modes of doing, thinking and acting..."Doing" is an outer experience while "being" is an inner experience...
...A desperately lonely and frightened Inner Child is often impulsive, self-involved with little control over its behaviour. The deeper the internal abandonment, the more desperate the Child is to alleviate the pain and the more it will act out in destructive and self-destructive ways....Another way the Inner Child may try to control is through compliance and caretaking. The child becomes the "good" boy or girl, putting aside his or her own needs in favour of others...This Child acts like an adult taking over the job of fixing things for everyone, or becoming overly nice or seductive...
When the Inner Child was loved as a child by its caretakers, or has been lovingly re-parented by the Inner Adult for a long time, it is soft, sensitive and very loving.
...Our society has long diminished the importance of feelings, worshiping logic while downgrading the wisdom that comes from feelings...And this has created a terrible imbalance - the power of logic without the power of wisdom. Wisdom is the accumulation of all our experiences stored as emotion. When you cannot feel what is true, then you cannot utilise your wisdom."
Napoleon Hill: Success through a positive mindset
"...the president of a large and successful organisation...appeared in a favourable light in every large newspaper in the country for the food work her did while holding public office. Yet...he was most unhappy. "No-one likes me! Even my children hate me!"...Actually this man is a person of good intent. He gave his children everything that money could buy. He deliberately kept from them the needs that forced him as a child to gain the strength he developed as a man. He tried to protect them from things that were not beautiful....He experienced happiness in making them happy without teaching them to be happy...But...if he shares himself as liberally as he shares his money with them, he will experience the rich reward of having them return love and understanding to him...He has simply assumed that they would understand. And he had not taken the time to help them do so."
No matter how you reach the understanding of the importance of you and working on yourself to truly thrive...I hope you find it...and flourish.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt