Ego defence

Maybe the most harmful aspect of ego is ego-defence. This is called resistance in psychological textbooks.

People vary in their receptivity to advice. Secure, well-balanced people are generally fairly receptive. Even if they didn’t ask for advice, they can still accept it, provided it’s phrased as a constructive suggestion. People asking or paying for advice are generally highly receptive. Often they know their work needs improvement, and ask to find out specifically what. In a writing class, it’s understood that students are seeking and should be receptive to this advice. Most are.

Nobody can mature into a professional writer without extensive constructively critical guidance. Receiving and processing such criticism is central to the process of growth. It’s uncomfortable to receive, and this is the very reason it causes growth.

Yet some people are too fragile for this kind of learning. Some cannot take critical comments even when they ask for them. They may say they want advice or feedback, but what they really want is praise. If the comment is even slightly critical, such people react angrily and defensively. They reject the advice and the person offering it. They do this regardless of delivery. Even when helpful and accurate advice is given constructively and supportively, even when they asked for exactly that, some people will still react to it angrily.

Incidentally, this covers a lot of things, not just writing.

These people’s root motivation is egoic. They do whatever they do – e.g. creative work, salaried work, or studies – in order to get favourable attention. Although we must beware of glib psychobabble explanations, in these cases it’s clear that these people received some deep psychological wound. Something in the past made them feel unwanted, unloved, or unworthy. This is a kind of pain they cannot face. Children generally cannot. Being unable to cope with trauma, children bury their feelings. It takes an enlightened parent or therapist to help them overcome this. Therefore, in many cases, the wound never healed. An impenetrable ego-armour arises to protect it. The unconscious purpose of the egoic, attention-seeking behaviour is to soothe the pain of feeling unworthy. Yet it never truly does, and the perceived lack remains.

If these people receive criticism instead of the praise they seek, this inflames their wound. It makes them feel the old pain they don’t want to feel and cannot cope with. So the ego interprets criticism as a deadly threat. It evokes a genuine fight or flight survival response. Some people will flee. They will drop out of class, drop out of your life, and you’ll never hear from them again. Others go on the attack.

Everything they say in response has these or similar synonyms for good. I am worthy, I am loveable, I am clever, I work hard, I am deserving. The ego response is proportional to the severity of the original wound. The deeper that was, the stronger the ego response. Often, in going on the defensive, sufferers blame their perceived attacker. “The problem is you, not me!”

This is a very dangerous situation. These people can seem intelligent, well-balanced and reasonable for long periods. You grow to care about or love them, eventually thinking that finally you can be honest. One has no way of knowing how vulnerable they are until one day something triggers their ego defence. If you’re lucky, you’ll just get a fight, although it’s a fight you will keep having. If you’re unlucky, you could get real hysterics, a total breakup, household objects including knives thrown at you, or worse.

Only in the most obvious cases of clear mental instability can you see it coming. Most of the time, you just slam into it. If you’re in a romantic relationship, maybe you apologise, and take back what you said. But this is false care since it doesn’t help the person. It actually robs them of a learning opportunity. Or maybe you say nothing and hope the situation will calm down. Maybe it does for a while, until next time.

You can’t respond to an ego-defence reaction with more criticism. Accusing someone of ego-defence, even if it’s patently obvious and said helpfully, only makes the reaction worse. They will deny that too. Further criticism fortifies the ego defence and increases the response.

Love and support of themselves are not enough. Maybe you can wait for these people to grow up, but this is probably futile too. Avoiding discomfort, or helping someone else avoid it, avoids growth. The person has to face their pain; if they refuse, nothing can help them.

In order to help them face it, a therapist might rhetorically ask: “What have you been trying to prove all your life, and to whom?” A spiritual teacher would suggest mindfully exploring the old pain from a safe distance, if the sufferer can even acknowledge its presence.

Google this: pain body.

2 thoughts on “Ego defence”

  1. Oh yeah, writers are often faced with criticism, both harsh or otherwise, and it’s our job to remain objective about them. In the end, that’s exactly why we do this, to let others experience our work, and in the end, it’s their right to feel however they want about it.

    We just need to know who we are as writers and keep bettering our craft. Great post, I enjoyed it!


    1. Dear Stuart

      Great comment, thank you for that and for your support.

      Yes, criticism is part of the game. It may be delivered more or less brutally, but there’s no avoiding it. If they expect to improve, young writers must be able to at least consider the comment.

      They must also remember two things. Firstly, a critical comment about the writing only means that the writing could be improved like so. Who wouldn’t want to know that? The comment doesn’t necessarily imply any devaluation or rejection of their worth as a person. Yet fragile writers often incorrectly think it does.

      Thanks again.


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