The Purpose gap
How to operate in your zone of genius and give your ego a much-needed break
I remember this moment very clearly: I was eleven years old and sitting in the middle of the bus on my way home from school. I could feel the slow drip of ink on my hair and then scalp. I didn’t dare look back, react, or – heaven forbid – turn around and slap the other kid telling her to stop. I just sat there enduring the humiliation of the other kids laughing. I could feel the tears coming, but I wouldn’t let them run free. I forced shallow breaths and clenched my jaw, willing my eyes to dry up, shame burning my eleven-year old cheeks.
As I stepped off the bus, I heard them laugh and cackle as I turned away quickly and walked home. Shoulders hunched. Stomach burning. My face red with self-hate and humiliation.
I had no idea what had happened. We had all been friends the day before and suddenly I was the chosen outcast, bullied for who I was, what I thought and said, what I wore – all things that had been perfectly normal the day before.
I excavated this memory as part of my leadership training “Personal Mastery” that I started in early May. Only it should have come with a trigger warning that all 50 of us were about to unearth some very painful beliefs, thoughts and memories that have shaped our grown-up versions in more ways than any of us could have expected.
Your ego as an early warning system
I used to think that the ego is an overinflated, self-important, boisterous, gold-tooth-flashing part of ourselves that is overall undesirable and unattractive. But over the course of this training, I understood that the ego develops in order to protect us (please bear with me as this is not the most scientific explanation). If we find ourselves in situations – especially early in life – that are painful, frightening, scary or even dangerous, and we don’t have enough context to understand what is happening, we store the little bit of information we can grasp and create an early warning system to prevent this situation from happening again. We protect ourselves.
We all have an ego. And that’s a good thing.
In my case, I didn’t know why my alleged friends had suddenly turned against me, but my eleven-year old brain figured that being me as my most authentic and – admittedly – vivacious, loud and opinionated self was not desirable, that it caused people to dislike and hurt me. Henceforth, I kept my head down and quiet to ensure I stayed under the radar. That I stayed safe.
The Purpose Gap: Your real self vs. your ideal self
I was fortunate to find out what I wanted to do with my life early on: I am in this world to help other purpose-driven individuals create social and environmental impact without sacrificing themselves.
And while my purpose has remained true ever since I sat foot in Thailand 16 years ago, I have to admit – in looking back – that my ego played into HOW I tried to achieve my goals. If we recall this model from Simon Sinek’s Start with Why (read more in this 3-part series), my ego played heavily into HOW I was going to create change, which directly impacted WHAT I was striving for:
I pictured my ideal self* who would get up before the sun every day, complete a workout worthy of a Navy Seal in her backyard after drinking her cold pressed organic celery juice. I would be perfectly present (and calm and patient) with my toddler before strutting into the office, brimming with purpose and meaning to change the world within an eight-hour workday. I would take leisurely lunch breaks and meditate and be the most productive member of society the world had ever seen. I would be home in time to cook a wholesome dinner, take a bath, play with my daughter, read a book, meditate again (can’t hurt!), spend quality time with my husband, look after my plants, enjoy my nighttime routine, journal, and be in bed by nine to get a full eight hours of sleep before doing it all again.
I tried to fit a day at the spa, a family day, a meditation retreat and productive work day all into ONE SINGLE DAY.
I had created this alter ego that would ensure I was a success, that no bullies could pick on me. And I tried to achieve this lifestyle every day. And every day, I fell short in more than one area. For the longest time, that didn’t stop me from trying but I wondered why so many goal-setting workshops and concepts sounded so promising in the abstract but failed to work for me long-term.
*In psychology, the idea of a real self and an ideal self is described in self-discrepancy theory.
In my professional world, this mostly showed up as working non-stop to prove my value (Katie Hawkins-Gaar wrote about Internalized Capitalism) while making sure I stayed under the radar as much as possible. As a self-employed impact maker, this is a recipe for disaster: Creating content and an entire service portfolio that I was excited about – and yet not telling anyone about it for fear of having ink dripped on my head and being humiliated in front of everyone, aka the internet. My ego cracked the whip on my work ethic and shut down my excitement – it secretly manipulated my efforts and prevented me from bringing my purpose into the world. I, instead, clung to the idea that hard work pays off (the modus operandi I was raised with), assuming that my humility was a character strength and that surely, someone somewhere sometime would recognize my brilliance, shower me in financial reward and a Nobel price, and it would all have been worth it.
It made me miserable. My real and ideal self were at odds. Constantly.
Give your ego a break: personal mastery
This gap between our real and ideal self creates constant tension (can you hear the “I really should…” and “I wish I could…”?). We feel like we are falling short all the time. Aside from the devastating effects on our confidence, this gap also translates into a disconnect between our purpose (our why) and how we try to bring this purpose into the world (our what and how). In other words: Unless we understand what deeply engrained patterns and old beliefs influence our everyday thinking and acting, we run risk of striving for ego-driven goals rather than pursuing our true ambitions.
- Think back to some of your earliest memories. Which ones were negative? Maybe even painful?
- How did you respond in the situation? How did it make you feel? How did you react at the time? (Don’t judge as a grown-up, experience the situations as your young self)
- Where do these feelings and responses show up today? In which situations do you detect this familiar feeling? How do you respond today?
- How might you respond differently to create a different outcome that is more desirable than the usual outcome?
Uncovering and understanding these patterns took me weeks in the safety and with the guidance of trained coaches and facilitators. If you want to take this deep dive, check out Learning as Leadership’s Personal Mastery seminar (no affiliate link)!
Setting values-aligned goals
Understanding these outdated patterns made me realize that while my ego is trying to protect me, I have outgrown many of the obstacles that I faced at its creation; they no longer apply to me. Yet, without uncovering what they are, it’s hard to let them go.
Instead of pursuing this ideal version of myself, I focus on what I’m in this world to do:
It is a journey. Letting go of beliefs and behaviors that we have clung to for decades is hard, even once you’ve successfully identified them. But I’m ready to give my ego a break, she’s worked hard to protect me over the years. With all that said, I’m excited to see where my ego-free purpose takes me as an impact maker, ecosystem builder, spouse, mother and community member who is constantly seeking for purpose and meaning without playing the martyr.
Double down on ego-free purpose
If you’re tired of chasing after your ideal self (hello social media self-comparison!) and are fed up with setting goals that don’t stick, join my upcoming masterclasses:
- Rooted in Purpose, Uncover what drives you and lead with your values (June 2), and
- Burnout proof, Define success on your terms and create a lifestyle that gets you there (June 23)
In the first masterclass (June 2), we’ll hone in on your purpose before designing a values-aligned lifestyle in session 2 (June 23). Make the most of this experience and save $100 by saving up for the Impact Double!