By Nicola Albini, J.D., M.A. -This article originally appeared on April 25 2017 on huffingtonpost.com
In leadership we can come from our essential nature, where we are open, curious and trusting. This is a stance of enoughness, sufficiency, and abundance.
We can also come from our ego, which is a place of defensiveness, fear and the feeling that we are “at the affect of life.” This is a stance of scarcity, fear and struggle.
Identifying when we are leading from ego can be tricky. This is because the ego has an incredible talent for hiding in plain sight and mimicking qualities of divine impulse, or essence.
Think of the ego as the conditioned part of human consciousness. Ego is the one that gets beat up by the world. Ego reacts to the appearances of life and thinks it has to control its outer circumstances in order to be safe.
Essence, on the other hand, is the part of our consciousness that is unconditioned and unfettered by vagaries of life. It is connected directly to Source, and is informed by intuition and a knowing that is fueled by the unification of the heart and mind.
A defining aspect of the essential self is that it has the power to create reality, whereas the ego thinks reality exists only outside of itself.
Ego thinks that its power comes from controlling what it perceives.
Essence conceives of ideas and impulses through its connection to Source and creates worlds.
When essence is at the helm, it is informed by an inner wisdom telling it where life wants to flow. Doors magically open. Resources avail themselves. More inspiration follows.
When ego is running the show, it does so through strife and difficulty.
The more we work on ourselves spiritually, the trickier the ego gets at masquerading as essence. A perfect example of this is a story about a client I once coached who had a brilliant idea for an app with the potential to change the way we communicate.
Things didn’t unfold the way he wanted them to at first. His approach was very dedicated, his vision was clear, but there was a quality of attachment to his energy that created a lot of stress when things didn’t happen the way he thought they “should.”
Finally, after many months of stress, effort and the feeling of banging his head against a wall, he surrendered. This doesn’t mean he abandoned the project; in fact, he kept working on it just like always, but the quality he brought to his work was different. In his surrender, he was more in his essence than ego. He no longer led with a need to “make it happen.” Rather his was the energy of allowing, which made room for the Universe to enter and work its miracles in its own timing, unfettered by “shoulds.” Ultimately the project was funded and launched.
So how can you tell the difference between when you’re coming from ego and when you’re coming from essence?
Identifying Your Authentic Self
Have you ever found yourself in a creative process -- such as painting, playing music, writing or dancing -- when you lost track (even for a moment) of time and space? When you forgot about the pain and injury you carry from your human experience? When you were moved by something bigger than your need to eat, sleep and be loved?
This is because you were connected to your essence. You were being moved by the part of yourself that is connected to the infinite. When you are coming from your essence, you recognize that while you are having a human experience, there is much, much more to who you are than a body that is born and then dies in approximately 80 years. You are a divine, eternal being having a human experience on a planet called Earth, and you have more power to create than anyone has ever taught you.
That awareness is the main differentiating factor between taking action from ego versus taking action essence.
And yet, while this explanation might seem utterly simple, identifying “What’s What” takes practice. Living from you essence is truly something that each person must experience before they can discern the difference.
Awareness within the body is a wonderful place to begin cultivating discernment of impulses that are ego or essence driven. This is because the body, unlike the ego-driven mind, is incapable of subterfuge.
A pleasurable way to begin this process is with food. Ask your essential self to give you messages about what your body most requires to function optimally. Notice the sensations and messages you receive from your body when you touch or even think of certain foods. Notice how you feel when you follow those messages, either way. This will give you a visceral and immediate sense of what it’s like to live through essence versus ego.
The Nine Personalities of the Enneagram
One my favorite tools for learning to lead from essence is the Enneagram. It offers a wonderful personality mapping system with nine ways of functioning in the world. In a way, the Enneagram is a dissertation about the way the unchecked, unconscious ego manifests. Understanding the nine Enneagram personality types is helpful for navigating your own ego and the egos of those you’re interacting with, and it also gives the antidote for shifting out of the ego and into essence.
Within the Enneagram system, each personality number has its own “vice” or “passion” considered to its the main driving quality. Common egoic qualities, such as pride, envy, gluttony, lust, avarice, wrath, and sloth coincide with a balancing quality, such as humility, equanimity, non-attachment, courage, serenity, consistency. By understanding this system, we get instruction as to how to recognize the former and embody the latter.
One of the most profound gifts for leaders working with the Enneagram is that by understanding the way our egos act out through our personalities, we are given an opportunity to bring awareness to what’s happening. We are able to observe more and react less.
This shift from reaction to witnessing allows us to become more present with our self and others. Presence alone will immediately shift us into our essence. Self-destructive, and self-defeating actions have the opportunity to dissipate when we are willing to show up for our lives all the way and become aware of why we’re doing what we do.
When we get distance from egoic patterns and make room for more essence to emerge, authenticity has a seat at the table. True impulse, divine inspiration and right action are all strong possibilities. And when we operate from a place of essence-fueled authenticity, we have the ability to lift ourselves and those around us to a higher place.
The Altruism Myth
Leading from essence means creating healthy boundaries, even if you appear selfish. Honoring yourself means knowing when you’ve been pulled into situations that don’t feel good or right on some level. In other words, another way the ego can masquerade as essence is by making you look better by saying “yes” than by saying “no.”
There’s a saying that goes something like “If you expect something in return, it ain’t love; it’s a business transaction.”
When the act of giving comes from a heart-based impulse to bring more joy and ease and grace to the world, it is an offering of devotion to life itself.
When it comes from approval-seeking, importance-hunting, or the status-hunger, it might still look good, but it’s actually quite ego-based. And if it’s ego-based giving and you’re not aware of it, chances are, your “generosity” will backfire.
To identify where your act of service is coming from is to make way for the possibility of giving freely without an expectation of receiving anything in return. Conversely, it’s an opportunity to say no to what does not align with your essential self, because if you’re giving from a place of ego and do not realize it, you will feel drained and depleted rather than energized and empowered.
Walking the Line between Ego and Essence
Some days you’re going to teeter into ego’s territory; others, you will stride freely in the authentic self’s domain. Living from your essence doesn’t happen all at once, and it’s not supposed to.
The secret to effective transformation -- to life itself, really -- is to bring awareness to what’s happening. That’s why we’re here: to cast our light upon the shadows.
Honoring yourself and others means looking at the holistic picture and making room for it all. Understanding how you create and express is a wonderful exercise in deepening your leadership abilities, and will allow you to engage more fully in this beautiful life that you have been given.