The Kind of Person You Would be, If It Weren’t for Your Feelings & Ego

What motivates you, feelings, ego, or values?

Posted Feb 25, 2011

Part I of this post described the creation of value as the path to becoming the kind of person you want to be. This one addresses the major barriers to creating value, namely, feelings and ego.

If you act on your feelings most of the time, you will certainly violate your values. That's because feelings are stimulated by many things that run counter to values. And, of course, no one feels like being true to values all the time.

A few crucial differences between feelings and values will make the better motivational choice obvious.

Feelings are:

  • Reactive to the environment 
  • Greatly influenced by physiological states
  • Largely habituated - reinforced by the vaguest of similarities with past experience, which is why those who act on feelings make the same mistakes over and over
  • Transitory - they come and go within a few minutes, provided you don't amplify, magnify, and prolong them by "validating" or "justifying" them.

In contrast, core values are:

  • Far less reactive to the environment
  • Far less influenced by physiological states - you're not likely to stop loving or become less humane when tired, hungry, thirsty, or sick 
  • Consistent over time - more or less permanent.

Reactive feelings are not reality; they are signals about the reality you experience at a given moment. To a much larger extent, your values are who you are.

Feelings follow value investment but not the other way around. If you allow your core values to motivate behavior, your feelings will follow - you'll feel more authentic, with a stronger identity and more coherent sense of self. If you act on your feelings, you won't know who the hell you are, as who you really are gets lost in the vicissitudes of temporary emotional states.

Crimes of the Ego
The enemy of our values is not in our stars but in ourselves, particularly in our egos. Driven by ego, we are certain to violate our deepest values.

When enhancement of self-esteem is a primary motivator, the ego inflates to unrealistic levels, where it is highly vulnerable to the disconfirming impressions of others. It becomes fragile and defensive. Shame no longer serves as motivation to be true to deeper values. The inflated ego construes shame as punishment inflicted by an unfair world, requiring some form of retaliation, real or imagined. Enhancement and defense of the ego inevitably undermine the natural motivation to create value and protect the values we create. The most tragic example is family abuse, where fragile egos drive their hosts to devalue and demean the very people they most value.

Characteristics of an inflated/defensive ego:

  • I have to be right; others have to be wrong
  • I have to be more; others have to be less
  • I have to be respected more than others
    It's not my fault; everything bad is everyone else's fault
  • My way or the highway.

The Modern Cult of the Ego
The Age of Entitlement has turned inflated ego into a cult. (A book on "getting your needs met" or one that validates its readers as "victims" for not getting their needs met, will be an instant best seller.) People perceive themselves to have more rights and "emotional needs" now than ever before in human history. This makes them prone to resentment and anger when the world inevitably frustrates their entitlement demands. The more rights and needs you think you have, the more violated - and entitled to validation/compensation you will feel.

The Future Cult of Value
I remain hopeful that, as a culture, we will tire of the powerlessness inherent in the pursuit of inflated ego and superior self-esteem. It is possible to rediscover the virtue of humility and distinguish it from the symptom of low self-esteem. (In the former you're no better than anyone else; in the latter, you're not as good.) Self-value is not about superiority or avoiding the opposite side of that wretched coin - inferiority. The secret of self-value is equality.

I believe we can return to the manageable levels of ego that gave us the confidence to build civilization. With focus on the kind of persons we want to be, we can consciously make our egos more value-based:

  • Compassionate, protective, appreciative, and loyal to loved ones
  • Fair, regardless of the effort it takes
  • Responsible - looking to improve rather than criticize or blame
  • Creative - looking to build rather than destroy.

I began the previous post on creating value by urging readers to ask themselves, "What kind of person do I want to be?" I will end with an even more salient question:

"How can I create more value in my life and in the world, while remaining true to the values I create?"