Trauma coping methods are on display all around us, but we often don’t recognize them for what they are. Instead, we tend to focus on the negative behaviors that these methods produce, then we start using labels like jerk and bully to indicate which people are unpleasant to be around. While it’s reasonable to be frustrated by negative behaviors, ignoring the fact that such behaviors are usually being driven by pain and fear causes us to become rather vicious judges of character. Humans are complex little creatures, and no one is all bad. Even the biggest jerk will have his positive qualities, and it’s a wise practice to intentionally look for the good in people who annoy us. Looking for the good in people we dislike helps us be more patient with them and remember that all humans have an intrinsic value which no one can take away.
While trying to see the good among the bad helps us gain a more balanced view of each other, compassion is an even stronger antidote to forming unfair stereotypes and making merciless judgments. To gain compassion, you need to become more educated about how other people think and feel. There are two main ways to gain that education. One is to gain it firsthand by being forced to “walk in another man’s shoes” for awhile. God will often arrange these kinds of lessons for us by sticking us in circumstances that we have spent a long time scoffing at so that we will gain a new understanding of just how challenging those circumstances are. It’s the difference between standing on a dock mocking the fellow who isn’t catching any fish, and having to sit out on the lake yourself, struggling to understand why fish are ignoring every kind of bait you throw at them. After you have grappled with a problem directly, your perspective of it drastically changes, and you will often become a lot more compassionate towards those who are still dealing with it.
Now having to personally experience misery is a tough way to learn, especially if God has it in mind to get you tooled up with compassion for a wide range of issues. Whenever possible, it’s much more pleasant to develop compassion without having to directly slog through a specific crisis. You might have heard people who feel misjudged angrily declaring that “You’ll never understand me until you go through what I’m going through.” Well, they’re wrong. You can actually gain understanding for a whole host of experiences that you’ve never personally had if you’re willing to listen and apply your imagination.
The life experiences you’ve collected so far have the potential to help you understand many experiences that you have never and may never have. The life experiences you’ve had so far can function like basic baking ingredients. There are so many different things you can make if you have a supply of flour, sugar, eggs, milk, flavoring, and some kind of raising agent. If you want a cake, your only option isn’t to go out and buy one that is already made. If you have the right basic ingredients, you can make your own cake. You can also make cookies, bread, pancakes, or dinner rolls. For each item, you start with the same basic ingredients, then you just alter how much of each you stir together. Developing compassion third hand works much the same way. Once you experience any kind of jealousy, for example, you now have that basic ingredient in your “compassion cabinet.” Maybe in your situation, you were jealous over another kid’s toy when you were young. Now as an adult, you have a friend who is jealous over another friend’s guy. Being jealous over a human is different than being jealous over a thing, and yet with some imagination, you can use your own experience with jealousy to extrapolate what your friend is likely feeling. You can recall the basic emotions you felt, and how miserable they made you feel. Then you can imagine having those same feelings stirred up over something other than a toy.
When it comes to compassion, the details of a situation aren’t nearly as important as the basic fears, needs, and pain that are being stirred up. Details are vital in counseling, but when it comes to expanding your own compassion skills, general principles are far more important. Any human distress can be stripped down to basic ingredients which most of us will have some firsthand experience with. So don’t be discouraged by people who insist that you can’t ever be as compassionate and understanding as they are until you’ve gone through the hell that they’ve been through. Remember that simply gaining life experience isn’t enough. You have to apply those experiences well if you’re going to benefit from them. Once you learn the trick about focusing on basic ingredients, you’ll discover that your own limited life experiences can actually be used to help you develop compassion on a vast range of issues. So don’t let anyone discourage you from pursuing maturity and trying to become a better person. No matter how “insufficient” someone else thinks your life experiences are, you can do so much more with those experiences than you realize.
The Importance of Self-Worth
I have two main reasons for writing articles like this one, in which I explain the internal mechanics that drive specific negative behaviors. The first reason is to help those who are exhibiting those behaviors to gain self-awareness, self-compassion, and an understanding of how they might start their own healing process. The second reason is to help those who are not struggling with the specific issue to gain compassion for those who do.
In this post, I’m going to explain a trauma coping method which I call ego sheltering. People generally use the term ego to mean someone’s sense of self-worth or self-importance. It is one of your core needs to feel that your personal value ranks in the average to high range of humanity in general. If something causes you to conclude that your own value is significantly less than most other people, you will become very upset and stay that way until you feel justified in seeing yourself as more worthy.
Self-worth is an extremely important issue for humans, but it is also a rather complex issue because it has several nuances to it. Your value compared to other humans is just one aspect. Then there is your value compared to non-human beings (such as dogs and whales), and how certain significant figures define your value.
Significant figures can be human or non-human, but their opinions of you (real or perceived) have a profound impact on your personal beliefs and sense of well-being. For example, when Tom compares himself to the general human race, he feels that he has the same value as most people. But Dan feels that he is intrinsically inferior to most people–a sort of “underdog” among human beings. Dan’s family was dirt poor growing up and he felt that he was often socially shunned because of it. After being told “you don’t belong here” and “you’re not invited” and “you’re not one of us” by many different people in a variety of situations, Dan formed the belief that he was generally less worthy than most human beings. This belief makes him feel quite inferior at all times, and it causes him no end of stress.
Now while Dan is feeling stressed, ashamed, and fearful due to his perceived inferiority, Tom sees himself as being equal to his fellow humans in the area of worth. But while Tom is quite comfortable with how he compares to humans in general, he is greatly upset by the fact that his own father talks as if Tom is very inferior. In Tom’s situation, a single significant figure in his life is causing him great distress because of the way that figure assesses Tom’s value.
Significant figures feel very powerful to us and their opinions of us feel impossible to ignore. Parents, siblings, close friends, major enemies, bosses, and accepted experts are all common examples of significant figures. You were fine with your eating habits until Dr. Nutrition, a world-renowned expert on health, writes an article demonizing one of your favorite foods. Because Dr. Nutrition is supposed to be an expert in his field, you automatically assign great importance to the things he says, and now you can’t enjoy that certain food without feeling guilty.
Significant figures don’t have to be human. For many people, God is the most significant figure in their lives, and the belief that He sees them as undesirable or unforgivable is soul crippling. The key point I want you to grasp here is that you can feel confident about one aspect of your worth yet feel extremely distressed by a different aspect of the same basic issue. It is a critical need for humans to feel that they are “good enough” in several different areas. As you go through life, how many areas you need to feel “good enough” in can change. Before you meet God, for example, His opinion won’t matter to you at all. After He introduces Himself to you, His view of you could feel like a vital issue. The same is true for bosses, friends, and lovers who come in and out of your life.
Now there are different ways to assess your own worth. When you were young, significant figures in your life modeled certain methods to you, and you probably locked on to one of those methods to use for the rest of your life. For example, in Jenna’s house, physical appearance was the primary factor for assessing worth. This method was modeled by Jenna’s mother, who always put great effort into her appearance and constantly nitpicked the appearances of her daughters. As an adult, Jenna has locked onto this method as her main method for assessing her self-worth. Because this is her chosen method, Jenna is extremely focused on her appearance and feels great pressure to look fashionable, fit and flawless at all times.
In Paolo’s house, intellectual performance was the measure used to determine worth. If Paolo got anything less than top grades at school, his father would become enraged, punish him severely, and refuse to speak to him for weeks. As an adult, Paolo feels immense pressure to keep proving his worth by excelling in his field as an architect. Simply designing “basic buildings” isn’t good enough for Paolo. He feels a need to make every one of his designs come across as groundbreaking and brilliant. He spends countless hours trying to discover new ingenious ways of constructing buildings.
So what happens when you need to be an airbrushed beauty to feel worthy, but the truth is that you’re just an average looking gal? What happens when you need to keep making brilliant breakthroughs in order to maintain a sufficient sense of value yet the breakthroughs just won’t come? When we use certain factors to calculate our personal worth, we quickly find ourselves backed into a serious crisis as we discover that the standards we’ve set for ourselves just aren’t possible to reach. But remember: self-worth is a core need for humans. Simply saying, “Oh, well, I guess I flunked the test,” isn’t an option when it comes to core needs. If you shrug off your need for oxygen and decide to give up on the whole breathing thing, you’ll soon find yourself in a severe crisis. The same is true when it comes to psychological and spiritual core needs. These are things which you feel you must have in order to stay sane, calm, and comfortable in your own skin. If they start feeling impossibly out of reach, deep core panic results and you are then forced to try to come up with a solution to your problem, and that is when things can get very ugly.
Now some of you might be thinking, “I can see why personal appearance is a lousy way to assess your worth as a human. So why doesn’t someone like Jenna simply change the method she’s using to grade herself? She could focus on some other area that she naturally excels in instead of obsessing over her appearance.” Yes, she could. But remember that these formulas are usually based on what significant figures model to us early in life. While Jenna’s mother was modeling that personal appearance is the most important factor in determining personal value, she also doled out rewards and punishments which were designed to coerce Jenna into aligning with her mother’s system. The same was true in Paolo’s home, where failing to meet his father’s standards of “worthy” resulted in some pretty terrifying consequences. Often early life significant figures control many resources that we need to fill other core needs that we have. We then logically conclude that we must do whatever it takes to keep those figures pleased so that we can keep getting access to the resources they control.
Remember that humans always have logical reasons for what they do. Another valuable principle to bear in mind is that present behavior is shaped by past experiences. Despite what some of her coworkers think, adult Jenna doesn’t obsess over her physical appearance because she’s just a “shallow” person. Her obsession with always having perfect hair, the latest fashions, and a thin waistline is based on countless experiences that taught her that such a focus was the only way she could gain her mother’s affection and affirmation. Plus, Jenna’s mother is still very much alive and still using the same system for assessing her daughter’s worth. As adults, we still long for our parents’ approval, attention, and affirmation, so it’s quite understandable that Jenna feels she can’t revise her current grading system without cutting herself off from important resources.
So what happens when your own grading system backs you into a “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” corner? If Paolo keeps using his current system of “I must come up with original, ingenious ideas if I’m going to maintain my sense of worth,” he’s going to drive himself into despair because the truth is he’s just not that good at architecture. He’s decent, but he’s not amazing. He’s actually much better suited to go into an entirely different line of work, but that simply wasn’t an option for his father.
If Paolo continues using his current system of self-assessment, he’s going to be forced to conclude that he is less worthy than he needs to be in order to feel calm. But if he abandons his current system, his father will make his life hell. Like all humans, Paolo’s subconscious mind is extremely intelligent, and whenever subconscious minds feel stuck in a no-win situation, they change their focus to damage control. Since it’s not possible for Paolo to actually reach his own standards for success, and since his father’s wrath is too upsetting to face, his mind scrambles to come up with a strategy that will protect Paolo from being totally devastated by the fact that (according to his own standards) he simply isn’t good enough.
Now when minds reach this point, it’s like they are standing at a fork in a road with several paths to choose from. Different minds will choose to go down different paths, and each path represents a different way of trying to cope with an impossible problem.
The coping method I’m going to focus on in this post is a form of denial. In cases of ego sheltering, the traumatized element (either mind or soul) starts pretending that they are succeeding at passing their own test for sufficient worth. The goal is to protect the person’s sense of self-worth and push away the devastating pain of feeling unworthy. How this coping method affects the person’s behavior depends on what they are using to assess their own worth.
A Real Life Example
Now I could make up a bunch of scenarios here, and normally I would. But it just so happens that right now there is a globally renowned figure who is doing a fantastic job of showing us what this kind of coping method looks like. Since I write to a global audience, a less than globally known figure wouldn’t be of much use to many of my readers. But in this case, I feel there is a lot of value to be had in watching the real deal in action so that you can see how extreme this coping method can get and hopefully gain a bit more compassion for the fellow who is using it.
Let me start with a bit of context. I’m an American who recently emigrated to Britain. That experience has been eye opening for many reasons, but one of the things that has been very interesting is discovering how non-Americans view my homeland. While growing up in America, I never thought of her as being a “global power,” nor did I feel like I was superior to people from other places because of where I was born. Fortunately for me, I was raised by people who believed all humans to be equal in God’s eyes, and so I was steered around the traps of racism and general bigotry that so many kids get shoved into by their parents. Since I did not enter Britain with an attitude of superiority, but instead with great respect for the sovereign rights and unique culture of another nation, I was genuinely surprised to discover how much Britons focus on American culture and how much American politics matter to them. Hearing how other people stereotype your own people is always informative. When you emigrate, you suddenly become aware of the fact that you symbolize your country to the people you’re living with, and therefore they start automatically associating you with the attitudes and actions that they hear about your people having in the news. If your native people happen to be acting all classy and morally upstanding, this symbolic association really works in your favor. But if instead there is headline after headline of the folks in your homeland acting rather obnoxious, you suddenly find yourself wanting to clarify that you personally don’t approve of such behavior.
Now in America, we are very into guns. Ridiculously so. Does a regular guy with a non-military job really need to own a machine gun? Of course not, but to many Americans, guns symbolize personal security, power, safety, and rights. Once you mentally link guns to these concepts, it’s easy to decide that “bigger is better.” A weenie little handgun doesn’t make you feel as secure, powerful, safe, and full of rights as some large automatic gun. Even though you’ll likely never be in a situation in which it would be necessary or appropriate to fire that many bullets at someone, it still makes you feel psychologically comforted to know you’ve got some hefty ammo in your home arsenal. Americans are used to each other thinking this way. Even though many of us think all the gun buying is quite overdone, we understand that this is just an issue our people have. So when certain Americans freak out about quarantine rules and react by marching up and down public streets waving huge automatic machine guns, it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. But here in Great Britain, guns are outlawed. Knives are the big scary weapon here, and sometimes you can’t even buy a basic kitchen knife without showing proof of age. So to Britons, it is quite alarming to see a bunch of Americans doing their mouthy little riots while waving around beefy guns that are as long as their arms. Seeing American behavior through British eyes has been very educational (and at times, rather embarrassing).
Now when you’re an American, your president is a big deal. To a point. But the way American politics are set up, American presidents are also very limited in power. Americans are essentially brainwashed into thinking that the threat of horrible tyranny is always looming over us even when it’s not, therefore we must frantically maintain a division of powers. The end result is that we keep power so divided that we can hardly get anything done. By the time we give the President, Congress, Senate, and Supreme Court the power to veto each other, we end up with a bunch of laws getting unmade as fast as they are made, endless bickering between leaders, and a permanently divided government. So it’s a mess. But trying to run a country or empire is always complicated and there is no perfect system. Styles of governing are usually chosen as reactions to certain problems that exist at the time. When those problems go away, the systems put in place usually remain, even if they no longer address current needs. We can all get behind the idea of not oppressing people. But when our pursuit of “equal rights” results in angry people waving ginormous guns at passing civilians just because they have a beef with someone who isn’t even present, something has obviously gone wrong. It’s often easy to sense when things are running amuck, but reining them back in is quite complicated.
So there’s some context. And now let’s get to our fabulous model of the issue we’re learning about in this post: ego sheltering. The model I’m referring to is President Trump, the current leader of the United States. Now Trump might be your favorite politician of all times and you might feel he’s doing a fantastic job of leading. Fine. What I’m discussing has nothing to do with Trump’s political policies. Down through the ages, there have been many world leaders who did good and bad jobs while grappling with severe personal trauma. Trump is one more fellow in that very long line, however he happens to be using ego sheltering as a coping method, and he’s doing it in such a flagrant way that he is giving us all a valuable opportunity to learn and grow in our understanding of this issue.
To date, there are reams of video footage of Trump giving various speeches and press conferences, and when you watch him in action, you will find that he frequently exalts himself to such extreme degrees that it comes across as incredibly obnoxious and inappropriate. In the last week, I’ve watched several of his press conferences in which the press is grilling him about the coronavirus situation and in each one he used ego sheltering so frequently that I was inspired to write this article and explain this fascinating trauma defense.
Now let’s be honest: for any leader, these “press conferences” often turn out to be little more than attempts to roast the leader. Reporters fire out a bunch of questions that have been carefully worded to provoke emotional reactions and con leaders into giving answers that can then be used against them later on. It’s a setup, and not a very nice one. But this is how it works in politics.
Now it’s uncomfortable for any human to get up on a stage knowing that he’s addressing an audience that can’t wait to pelt him with rotten tomatoes. If we did these things fairly, we’d allow leaders to bring their advisers with them to these affairs, so that the advisers could field some of the questions. It is utterly unreasonable to expect a single person to be have a thorough understanding of every little thing that is going on in his country, yet such an absurd expectation is often put on leaders today. When a crisis arises, leaders are expected to know the ins and outs of that crisis, and to be able to rattle off precise statistics at any time. It’s a setup to make the leader look bad, and when it works, it only harms the people who set him up. No one wants their leader to look weak and uninformed, especially in a time of crisis. Yet expecting any leader to be “all-knowing” is just setting yourself up for disillusionment. And let’s remember that by the time you’re the top guy of a busy nation, you are never getting a full night’s sleep, you are constantly being forced to make “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” decisions, and you are being perpetually blamed for things that you have no control over. As one fellow astutely observed: “Men walk into this job [of being president], but they crawl out.” The point is that no matter how bad you think a leader is, he still deserves a hearty dose of sympathy for the sheer hell that he is slogging through while in office. High level political roles are ideal jobs for developing severe trauma. If you go into them already lugging a bunch of unresolved personal issues, it’s just going to be that much harder.
Now let’s say that a man is already struggling with feeling that he simply cannot meet his own definition of “good enough.” Not really. Not if he’s honest. Why not? Because he’s demanding the impossible from himself. His expectations are simply unreasonable. This pitches his mind into a severe crisis because feeling that you are good enough is a core need. How can a fellow get through the day if he honestly feels that he is terribly flawed? Well, perhaps his mind decides to choose a denial based defense.
In ego sheltering, the mind actively creates a false reality for itself to believe in. Whenever a person’s flaws are thrust in his face, he simply refuses to accept them as real. Perhaps he claims “I never said that” when there is a bunch of video footage proving that he actually did. Perhaps he tries to invalidate his critics by calling them all fakes and liars. Perhaps he tells himself that he is the victim of a massive, evil conspiracy that is constantly painting him in a more negative light than he deserves. And while he’s busy blocking out the evidence of his own mistakes and demonizing anyone who criticizes him, the man also works hard to keep up the illusion that he is reaching his own standards for worth. He does this by frequently making self-exalting statements which he can then hear himself say and try to cling to as actual facts.
Now I don’t usually bother much with the news. But the combination of changing countries and having this virus outbreak has motivated me to pay more attention to how the leaders of the United Kingdom and America are handling things. There are many psychological principles for how to manage large masses of people well in the midst of a major crisis, and it’s rare to see them well-applied. But sometimes I get pleasantly surprised, and wise leadership is a blessing to see. So I’ve been watching a lot of Trump’s press conferences, and what immediately stood out to me is that the man can’t get through even a short speech without exalting himself. The more pressure mounts against him, the grander the self-compliments become. In the last week alone, he’s claimed several times to have done more work than any president in American history (all 44 of them), to be solely responsible for keeping America out of war with North Korea, and to be more persecuted than any president that came before him.
Now 2020 is also the year of a presidential election, and there’s no doubt that being slammed with this virus mess near the end of his first term is adding monumental pressure to an already stressed out mind. Trump’s grandiose comments tell us who he needs to see himself as: the brilliant, incredibly successful president who is singlehandedly keeping America intact and globally awesome. This week he claimed that if his opponent wins the election, Americans won’t have a country anymore because apparently Canada, Mexico and China will launch some kind of triple assault and divide the U.S. among themselves like slices of an apple pie.
While he was campaigning to become president, Trump chose the mantra “Make America Great Again,” and he still uses it as a standard that he promises to meet. As he continued to preach throughout his campaign, it became clear that his idea of America being “great” meant publicly grinding other nations under her thumb like the bully who needs everyone to know he’s the king of the block. One of Trump’s earliest efforts to grind someone was his declaration that he would have a physical wall built on the border between America and Mexico to keep Mexicans out. Oh, and Mexico would pay for it because he’d make her.
Now regardless of what you think of Trump’s ideas, when you listen to the kinds of things he claims he’ll do and has done, it becomes glaringly clear that this man constantly demands the impossible from himself. That wall idea alone was really reaching. Regardless of what you think about the whole notion of building such a wall, the fact remains that that would be a massive architectural feat for any president to pull off in a mere four years. Add the sluggish reality of American politics, plus the fact that public response to the idea was very mixed, and it becomes clear that building any wall of that size by the deadline Trump set for himself was going to be extremely difficult and highly improbable. But he didn’t stop there, because it isn’t good enough for Trump to accomplish the improbable. He consistently pushes himself to accomplish the impossible, which is why he then went that ludicrous extra step in declaring that he would make sure Mexico would pay for the construction of a project that she already found highly insulting.
What causes a man to put such incredible pressure on himself? By his own voluntary declarations, Trump continuously sets a bar for himself that no human could hope to reach. But what possible good can come of such behavior when he’s so obviously setting himself up to fail? Well, like so many trauma coping methods, there is a major gamble happening internally with this form of ego sheltering. Certainly by promising over and over to do what no man can do, Trump sets himself up to be a complete failure in his own eyes and everyone else’s. However, IF–and that’s a big if–he can somehow manage to convince himself and others that he has managed to pull off superhuman feats, then there is the glittering hope that he will experience immense psychological relief. To understand this kind of thinking, you have to remember what the root crisis is. In Trump’s case, there is clearly a belief that certain critical core needs will go unmet unless perfection is attained. A man simply doesn’t behave the way that Trump behaves unless he is under immense internal pressure. In humans, great internal angst is always linked to pain, fear, and unmet needs.
Now a man might really be the best in his field at something. But once he keeps boasting about how awesome he is, it’s a turnoff to others. Boasting is guaranteed to damage your public reputation, and a president’s career hangs on his public reputation. And yet we have Trump: publicly declaring himself to be the hardest working president in American history and the one who accomplished more than any president before him. Like every country, America has had her hard times, with our brutal Great Depression being one of the most memorable ones to current generations. Now that was a bad time to be president. No one wants to try to rule over a country that is in the economic gutter, and yet some very creative ideas were put out by the Depression era administration that really helped bolster public morale. For Trump to then come along and sweepingly declare (without anyone even bringing the subject up) that he has clearly outperformed every other American president, well, it doesn’t just come across as obnoxious; it also comes across as false. So why does Trump do this? Why does he say and do things that are guaranteed to make him look bad? Well, it’s clear that President Trump doesn’t just have a mild form of ego sheltering. His behavior indicates severe internal stress, and the more desperate minds become, the more risks they will take. In Trump’s case, these grandiose statements he makes are primarily for his own benefit. He needs to keep maintaining the very shaky illusion that he is the ultimate at, well, everything.
Now maintaining false versions of reality is extremely taxing to the mind, so it is prudent for a man to leap upon any opportunity to make it sound as if someone else is also affirming his illusion. I recently watched a press conference in the which the governor of New York compared Trump to the leader of a marching band: the guy who does nothing but twirl his baton while everyone else does real work. Of course it always makes a guy look like a jerk when he makes a point to rip on someone else in public. Wise leaders know better than to stoop to such public mudslinging. But the point is that this New York governor made his disapproval of Trump quite clear in his own speech. A short while later, I watched another press conference by Trump in which he actually played a clip of that same governor. I thought to myself, “Why on earth is he playing a clip of a guy racking on him?” Ah, but the short video Trump played was carefully clipped to make it sound as if the New York governor thought he was fabulous. Can you see the logic he’s using here?
When you can’t beat an enemy, either pretend he’s a friend, or decide he’s an idiot. These are two common defenses that get used in cases of extreme ego sheltering, and you’ll find Trump frequently vacillating between the two. Whether he’s intentionally misrepresenting a rival’s view of him, or declaring any story he doesn’t like to be “fake news,” we see him frequently demonstrating defensive posture when he’s making public appearances. We also see him giving volatile emotional reactions when he is provoked, which is a major mistake for any leader to make, yet it is often an unavoidable consequence of having severe trauma.
When we’re having to spend enormous amounts of internal resources maintaining rickety trauma defenses, we don’t have much margin leftover for handling heckling from others. The problem is that being the president of America guarantees that a man is going to be constantly heckled–especially since many Americans use “the right to free speech” as a free pass to be verbally abusive. Before he even tried to be president, Trump was quite familiar with the way his own society worked, and he knew what a target for public abuse American presidents were. Yet he still went for it, despite being someone who is particularly sensitive to being criticized. Where is the logic in that?
There’s always logic driving any human behavior, and when it doesn’t jump right out at you, take some more time to think about it. Through his own declarations, Trump has told us volumes about what he expects from himself, and when we listen to the long list of tasks he is requiring of himself in order to be worthy of his own self-respect, how can we not feel sorry for the man? Even if you think he’s the worst president you’ve ever seen, it’s always tragic to see a human demand the impossible of himself, and then desperately scramble to maintain the illusion that he’s somehow succeeding.
Now if you’re panicked over people pointing out your flaws (and we all have flaws), why put yourself in the hotseat by becoming president? Well, think about it: how else can you satisfy an internal demand to accomplish epic things in your lifetime? For an American, becoming president is an extremely lofty goal that is highly improbable to reach. But of course our man Trump can’t just do the improbable; he must do the impossible by not only becoming president, but by being the best president of all time.
But now it’s an election year, and historical trends are riding against Trump being voted in again simply because any leader–good or bad–always gets personally blamed for crises that happen during their terms. Just this morning I read an article declaring Trump to be personally responsible for all of the American deaths that have occurred due to the coronavirus. To date, the official number is over 50,000. Is it reasonable to blame any human for how a disease rolls out? Of course not. Trump isn’t God. He can’t control how viruses spread or how immune systems react. Even if you were to intentionally inject someone with some nasty germ, you wouldn’t have the power to determine how that illness affects them. When we talk about the creation and spread of diseases and the power of life and death, we’re talking about abilities that only God has. To blame any man for such things is utterly unreasonable, and yet that’s the kind of flack you have to deal with when you’re the president. Of course when I then watched a press conference with Trump, there he was trying to shift the same unreasonable blame onto the nation of China, as if simply being Chinese gives certain humans Divine power over life and death. It’s all so ridiculous, but this is an election year, and Trump is stuck in charge of a country that’s crumbling in front of him. He also has a raging internal need to pull off the impossible, and for an American president, getting voted in for a second term is seen as a major declaration of success versus failure. Trump’s need to believe that he’s been the best president in American history will be harder to hang onto if he doesn’t get voted into office again, and having your name be associated with a disease that’s being called a “plague” really doesn’t boost your chances. A clever mind would already be preparing ways to maintain its illusion of greatness even if a second term doesn’t happen. All human minds are clever, and we can already see Trump’s at work as he keeps reminding us that he is the most persecuted president of all times and that there is a huge conspiracy working to take him down. Now if he loses the vote, he can just blame said conspiracy and therefore protect his reputation in his own eyes. Then he can spend the rest of his days reminding himself and everyone else of what an incredible job he did and how he got more done than any president ever…except for constructing that darn wall, of course, but anyways…
If you are currently watching Trump in the news, or if you should happen to watch him sometime in the future, my hope is that the next time you see him throwing out some obnoxious comment about how fantastic he is, or tweeting some classless slander about one of his perceived antagonists, you’ll see more than a very bad example of public leadership. Regardless of what you think of his political policies, Trump’s public behavior is just plain rude and he often comes across like a little kid throwing sand in another kid’s face just because he can. And yet this is the common effect of severe trauma: it brings out our worst side, it pushes us to negative extremes, and it keeps us in a perpetual state of agitation. As you watch American reporters constantly trying and failing to get Trump to use the words “I was wrong” or to simply acknowledge some of his destructive behaviors, you’ll now have a better understanding of why their efforts are so futile. In severe cases of ego sheltering, traumatized people will refuse to let go of their altered versions of reality no matter how much evidence you thrust in their faces. Trump can’t be wrong about anything, and he’s already told us all why in his own way.
As I’ve said many times before, humans are often far harsher on themselves than they are on others. Trump’s declarations make it clear that he considers it inexcusable for himself to be an imperfect human being with flaws and issues that are common to us all. And once a man decides that he cannot bear the idea of having any shortcomings, it often feels that his only other option is to pretend those shortcomings don’t exist.
Now it’s useful to note that there are soul versions of ego sheltering in which the same basic crisis occurs: that of feeling like you are incapable of qualifying as good enough, yet if you don’t, horrific things will happen to you. In the case of Trump, his ego sheltering is being driven by his subconscious. This is clear by the topics he focuses on when actively sheltering. While you’ll find him frequently boasting of his career achievements, intellectual prowess, social connections and social power, you don’t hear him boasting about his moral character. The subconscious doesn’t care about morals, but for the soul, morals are extremely important and a critical basis for assessing the moral aspect of your self-worth.
For some fine examples of soul driven ego sheltering, we need look no further than the New Testament portion of the Christian Bible. There we find the apostles John, James and Paul all claiming to be morally perfect in the eyes of God. All three of these Jewish men grew up in a heavily religious society in which it was commonly taught that there was only one true God (Yahweh), and that that God demanded moral perfection from His followers. Fail to meet Yahweh’s demands for absolute perfection and He will chuck you into Hell where you will be stuck in some state of unthinkable agony for all of eternity.
Now that is a terrifying thought.
Before anyone panics, it’s vital to realize that the New Testament portrayal of what God expects from humans is grossly incorrect. When we see how negatively John, James and Paul portray the God that they claim to know so well, it’s clear that those men didn’t really know God well at all.
Now stereotypes of the Christian religion are full of ironic misconceptions. While it’s commonly believed that “the God of the Old Testament” (Yahweh) is a raging volcano and that “the God of the New Testament” (Jesus) is a gracious, shrinking violet, both of these theories are absurdly false. All one has to do is actually read the text to discover that Yahweh is incredibly gracious, merciful and patient throughout the Old Testament while Jesus is quite the snarky Troublemaker. The apostles James, John and Paul claim to be fans of Jesus and devoted worshipers of Yahweh, yet they portray Yahweh as a moody broody Nitpicker while they make Jesus out to be a bit nicer, yet still demanding the impossible.
Now if you believe that God is as awesome and powerful as He actually is, then He can and should become your most important significant figure. This means that what God thinks of your worth matters far more to you than what anyone else thinks, because you understand that God is the One controlling the fate of your soul. But how do you stay on the good side of a God who can be extremely wrathful? According to James, John, and Paul, pleasing God is a matter of perfectly aligning with God’s moral standards. The problem is that these three men then go on to describe standards that are quite impossible for any human to reach. James says we must never doubt God or have wavering faith or He’ll have nothing to do with us. Paul says that being sinful crumbs before we submit ourselves to Jesus is excusable as long as after we meet Christ we are morally perfect until we die. Here’s Paul talking:
For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of Yahweh. (Ephesians 5:5)
As for John, well, he says that if some part of you desires to do immoral acts (even if you don’t actually do them), then obviously you’re a child of the devil and in line for eternal damnation.
Now your subconscious doesn’t care one jot about morality, and this means that there will always be a very influential part of your being pushing you to do things that are quite immoral. But John says that the presence of any such desire indicates you’re with Team Satan and on your way to Hell. Now hold on–didn’t John have a subconscious? Of course he did. He also had a boatload of immoral thoughts and desires swirling about his mind on a daily basis. According to John’s own definition of God’s moral code, John did not have any hope of pleasing God. What happens when we get backed into a corner like this? The stressing element–in this case, the soul–will give up on trying to come up with solutions and will instead focus all efforts on damage control. What we find John, James and Paul doing in their letters is clinging to the ludicrous delusion that they were morally perfect human beings. In other words, they never had any negative thoughts about God, they never wavered in their faith, they never experienced desires to do naughty things to other humans, they never let their “sinful natures” (aka, their subconscious minds) rule over them, and they kept cranking out impressive moral deeds until the day they died.
When souls engage in extreme ego sheltering, they create false realities for themselves that are every bit as ludicrous as the fantasies that subconsciouses come up with. If you really believe that your only options are to be morally perfect or eternally burn, then your soul will become immensely distressed. Your soul is not stupid; it knows deep down that you’re a conflicted mess whose amoral subconscious often succeeds at making you go along with its shady shenanigans. Cheat on that test? Irresistible. Lie to the police officer? It was better than getting a ticket. Keep that cool game that you “borrowed” from your friend and then claim that you can’t find it? Okay. Your subconscious has no qualms with any of these clearly immoral acts, but if you accept the theories of John, James and Paul, just one of these acts is enough to land you in Hell forever.
John, James and Paul didn’t just commit one teensy little sin every once in a while. These men were normal human beings, not righteous superstars. They sinned all the time. They even commit some of their sins right in front of us in their writings by lying their faces off about what God expects from humans and about how perfect they are. James spews hate all over the people he doesn’t like in his testy little letter. Hate is a sin. Paul says that he always boasts to others about what an awesome Jesus follower he is. Boasting is a sin. John claims to be inerrant in his teaching, even as he teaches a bunch of lies. Arrogance and deception are both sins. According to these men’s own beliefs, they utterly failed God’s demands for moral perfections, therefore they were already damned to Hell even as they walked the earth. Well, yikes.
What’s a soul to do in the face of such horror and hopelessness? Lie. Lie like your spiritual sanity depends on it. Invent a wild fantasy about how you’re morally perfect and then try your darndest to believe that that fantasy is true. So this is what they do. And by the time we see John signing off in his famous book of Revelation, he’s having visions of Heaven in which he is being publicly exalted and treated as if he helped make Heaven possible. John sees Heaven as a large, castle like city in which his own name is chiseled in one of its foundational stones. In other words, John and his fellow apostles helped build the place. Does John’s soul balk at such ludicrous imagery? No, he devours it. He basks in it. He is quite pleased to jot such details down to let future generations know how awesome God thinks he is. This is what happens in cases of extreme ego sheltering. We spin out of control, only instead of claiming to be the best president of all time, a brilliant economist, and the sole reason why two nuke loaded nations aren’t engaging in warfare, we claim to be the best Christian, the best apostle, the best do-gooder, and the best example of moral perfection that humanity has ever seen.
So what should you do if you are the one who is ego sheltering? If the issue I described in this post sounded uncomfortably familiar, there are two key questions to ask. First, which element is fueling your case of ego sheltering? Is it your soul? Your subconscious? Or both? Second, what is the terrifying belief that you are trying to avoid having to face? In Trump’s case, the question would be: “What do I think is so horrible about being a man who sometimes makes mistakes, bad calls, and errors in judgment? Why is it such a crime for me to be a normal human when it’s okay for other men? What terrible thing do I think will happen if I’m not always right and always being the best?” In your case, the question might be the same, or it might be a bit different, but pinpointing what the key question is will be an important first step in finding a real solution to your crisis.
Looking for advice? You can submit an anonymous request through the Ask a Question page.