An Invitation to Dance Like No One is Watching

The ugliest thing in a person is ultimately essential to preserving the beautiful thing we are becoming…

true self

Photo Credit: PhillipC via Compfight cc

My son pulls a book called Wonder out of his backpack. His face is full of resolve, and I ask him why he looks so serious. He tells me kids at his school keep returning the book to the library within the first fifty pages, because they get too emotional. I ask him if the same fate will befall him. He says, like the tough guy the world is training him to be, “Nah, I won’t cry.”

Two days later, he walks out of his bedroom, his face now full of crumbled resolve, and he puts the book in front of my wife. So she picks it up, and I lose her for a day, as she disappears into the fictional world:

Into Auggie’s world.

The story of an eleven-year-old boy born with extreme facial deformities.

The story of a boy beginning public school for the first time, venturing into the wild, where his tender heart is the prey, and his peers are the predators.

My curiosity gets the best of me and I start reading the book and the story does something completely unexpected to me: it turns some more of my hate into gratitude.

What I Hate

I hate ego—the part of our minds responsible for protecting our hearts from a wounding world.

I hate my own ego, and I hate ego in others.

Because ego is the biggest cause of suffering in the world. The protective ego keeps us isolated and alone and deprived of the one thing we all want: connection. It creates division and leads to violence. It is the fuel of arrogance. It ruins marriages and families and relationships of every kind. If there is one thing in the world I still want to label as entirely bad and irredeemable, it’s the human ego.

But reading Wonder made me wonder: how could our good, beautiful, tender hearts ever survive the perils of youth if they weren’t protected by something?

Because while few of us are born with extreme deformities, we all encounter a shame that makes us feel deformed, like we’ll never be good enough for the world around us. Maybe our egos are the necessary armor, preserving our vulnerable hearts while we venture through the wild.

When I Quit Hating

Several days after Wonder was introduced to our home, my son told us he’d been bullied at school, called “nerd” and other words in that particular constellation of fourth-grade cruelty. I asked him how he responded.

He smiled and said, “Actually, I didn’t have to respond. My friends responded for me. And that felt good.” His friends also responded in typical fourth-grade fashion, with a barrage of slurs about jocks and athletes.

I listened to his story of budding fourth-grade egos, of boys building walls, hunkering down in their own tribes and finding safety there. My son was grateful for that. And as I considered my son’s vulnerable heart, I became grateful, too.

What I’m Grateful For

I often talk about the ego as a castle with three parts:

first the walls we build around our brilliant souls to keep people out and to keep ourselves safe—walls like silence and pretending and public personas,

then the cannons we add to the walls because we’re tired of hiding and want someone else to feel wounded for a change—cannons like criticism and slander and gossip and fists and fury,

and finally the throne we build within our walls to make ourselves feel like the king or queen—thrones made of power and possessions and prestige.

But as I sat in gratitude with my son, I realized: Our egos aren’t meant to be a fortress—they’re meant to be a chrysalis, a thin membrane protecting us in our process of becoming the beauty we already are.

A membrane that can’t hold us forever.

A membrane that gives way once we have experienced the beauty we are beneath all the shame and protection and pretending.

A membrane that bursts open when our urge to get out, spread our wings, and fly free becomes absolutely insuppressible.

What I Hope For

Now, I’m grateful for the ways my ego has protected me. I’m grateful for childhood nights in bed, riddled with anxiety, calculating what mistakes I’d made and who noticed. Building walls. It gave me some sense of control over a world that felt completely out of control.

I’m grateful for the year I considered half the country a political enemy of mine—I’m grateful for the way I used ideas and categories and labels like cannons to keep people at a distance—because my heart must have been needing a lot of protection during that election cycle.

I’m grateful for the way my ego compelled me to learn and achieve, so I could put myself on a throne and keep my heart safe, well “above” everyone else.

My ego served me well. For a time.

Long enough for me realize it was reinforcing my fears, isolating me, wounding others, and keeping me chasing lofty—but transient and meaningless—goals.

Long enough to discover the heart it protected is good and beautiful and worthy of love and belonging and, because of that, doesn’t need any protection at all.

My ego served me long enough to outgrow it.

Long enough to let it go.

Long enough for it to come raging back, like a bad habit I can’t kick.

And long enough to let it go again. Over and over and over.

It’s the challenge we all face. Will our ego become a fortress? Will we rely upon its fickle facade for a sense of worth? Or will we climb down off our throne and dance in the courtyard of our ego with the good and beautiful self we’ve always been and are always becoming? Will we dance, and will we begin to dismantle those walls, making ourselves available for the very connection and belonging and union we’ve been desiring all along?

I hope we will. Because the dance is a wonder to live. And we are, in fact, beneath all the protection and pretending, wonderful to behold.

Questions: Can you think of a way you used to protect your heart? How did you let it go? What is it like to dance? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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In our next UnTangled Hangout this Sunday, we will begin a series of conversations entitled, “Dancing in the Courtyard: How to Find Your Center, Live From It, and (Almost) Never Leave It.” To find out more about our “Courtyard Conversations” and how to join, click here.

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Next Post: “Marriage is Not a One Stop Shop”

Free eBook: My eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available free to new blog subscribers. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe, and your confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Marcelino Gauguin

    The headline caught my attention because my daughter is a dancer struggling with some issues that keep her from expressing all that she is through her dance. I’ll take this blogpost home and read it with my 9-year old.
    Thanks for expressing these thoughts. I think they apply to all of us.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Your daughter is lucky to have her dad thinking so intentionally about her. It sounds like she’s hitting that age of “castle building,” which is totally normal. It will be good for her to hear how much her dad thinks of her, regardless of how she dances. I hope she finds that sense of freedom you so much desire for her.

  • Christine

    My 4 year old daughter was diagnosed with a rare condition called ‘Parry Romberg Syndrome’ a year ago. This condition is also known as the more descriptive ‘Progressive Hemifacial Atrophy’. Yes, half of her face is progressively wasting away and she may end up with severe facial deformity, plus neurological consequences. When I first found out, I was devastated and I grieved. To date, it is mild, but the uncertainty is so difficult to accept. I worry and I worry about bullying. I have not heard of this book, Wonder, before. I googled it and I looked it up on Book Depository. I am so tempted to purchase it, but my ego is fearful. I am so afraid to read it. May I ask if you think I will benefit from it, or end up grief stricken by page 50?

    • Karen

      The pain of childbirth is nothing in comparsion to the emotional pain of raising a child. My son was born 32 years ago with Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome, another disfiguring disorder so I can understand on a small scale what you are going through. Believe it or not I had more difficulty with adults reaction to it then the children. Was my son bullied-yes. Did I cry and try to shield him from all the hurts I could-yes. Did he survice it and become a well adjusted adult-yes . I have no magic answers. Just start to build a strong self acceptance.and take the challenges on a daily basis-you will drive yourself nuts with all the “What ifs” for the future. I know because of his disorder that I will probably outlive him but I try not to dwell on it. Have you contacted NORD(National Organizational for rare Disorders(www. raredisease.org) They are a great resource-can connect you with other families dealing with the same disorder. My son even had a penpal for a while with a girl who had his disorder. Blessing to you as you face this.

      • drkellyflanagan

        It’s a blessing to see you two come together in this space. Christine, to answer your question, I don’t know if it would be a good idea to read it. I know sometimes when I’m going through something intense, having it mirrored back at me is helpful and affirming, other times it’s overwhelming. I suppose it depends on which place you are in. Either way, I hope you find comfort in such a difficult experience.

      • Christine

        Thank you so much for reaching out and sharing your experience, Karen.

        • karen

          You are welcome-It may be a scary road to travel but you are not alone, You will both be amazed at the the way the journey progresses-Don’t forget to laugh and just enjoy life-everything else will fall into place

  • Erica D.

    “Used to”?! I’m still on the over and over part. I want desperately to dance like no one is watching, even more to love like I’ve never been hurt. I appreciate the prompt to our hearts to live in a chrysalis rather than a fortress. Too bad the lesson wasn’t learned when I was younger, before I became comfortable in the fortress.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Erica, I hear you!

  • Colleen Shields

    ‘My ego served me long enough to outgrow it.
    Long enough to let it go.’
    An astute recognition for ego’s service well rendered. Self-forgiveness is key, as we chose the only ‘healing’ way we knew how to engage in in order to protect ourselves from the brutal blows of life, at the time. May the ‘unraveling’ and Self discovery continue, as vulnerability and authenticity are truly what it’s all about; enabling us to attract the connection we all so crave; and deserve.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Right on, Colleen. I almost put self-forgiveness in the title. Otherwise, the recognition of the ego just becomes another opportunity for the ego to beat up on itself.

      • Colleen Shields

        Yep, it sure does. It’s so important to emulate love and self-acceptance, as we’re just doing the best we can; given the circumstances.

  • Alice

    I’ve lost the ability to dance like no one is watching…it is not ego it’s hurt. I was so publicly humiliated and shamed; I don’t think I will ever be that 50+ silly woman that I once was…

  • Amy Schenk

    Loved the book “Wonder” which caught my eye in the first lines on my blog reading list. The image of the castle and the chrysalis is so true to life – thank you for laying it out that way. I am constantly trying not to live within the fortress. Taking the image a step further to the idea of a flying butterfly will help me to fly above the walls and be open to the world. Thank you again for your words.

  • Kurt Andersen

    I just happened to run across this other article on the self-preserving bias that the ego introduces: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/tzink/archive/2013/12/30/why-do-spammers-spam-i-try-to-explain-it-using-the-moralization-gap.aspx It’s an interesting complimentary view and highlights the cognitive load that the ego requires.

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  • MichaelSchart

    This is exactly what I have been needing. I have steadily been dismantling the fortress I created through my younger, youthful years. The ones that have kept me from making those important connections. I started out with few of them, very few. I had my mother, my brother, and my grandmother with a few transient friends here and there. And that was VERY painful. We were also broke, and then there was the bullying that started in, yes, fourth grade. So my fortress started to be built, and build… and build. Adding cannons, and then even a throne that I sat on for years after high school. I kept myself away from being hurt. Far from it all, sometimes even considering the ‘easy’ out.

    But, I couldn’t do that to those in my life I cared about. I could not hurt them in that way, so I continued to suffer from lack of deeper, more meaningful, end even risky, connections to my family and friends, but would never take the ‘easy’ out. Then, a friend came into my life, as well as some more transient ones, that stayed there and started the long process of opening up, taking down the wall. But, my cannons made it VERY difficult, and more than a few people were hurt. But that one friend stayed through it; even when I purposefully lost contact with them while I learned about photography in another country.

    When I came back, he was more than willing to still be my friend. To this day, he is one of my closest friends and deepest connections. And, now, I am making more connections like that. Risky, beautiful, deep, meaningful ones. Your blog is one of the tools I am using to transmute the fortress into the chrysalis, and then melting that. You have given me imagery to use to make any other tools have to be more potent and easier to use. The latest tool, and very effective one, is the ancient Hawaiian practice of Ho’oponono. I love you, I’m sorry, please forgive me, thank you.

    Thank you, Kelly, for your insightful posts and thank you for taking down that troublesome ego to share such a beautiful gift with us. I wish you many awesome days. Thank you.

  • Seth

    This… this understanding – that the ego is meant to be a protective shell that we learn inside and outgrow is something that I learned a few months ago, but am still struggling with. I had let go of that shell – most of it at least – after high school and being free of the bullies there. But relationships and friendships – or the falling apart thereof – left me seriously wounded and I wound up going back into that fortress and barricading all possible entrances. So now that I understand why I went back there and that it was to regroup and then rejoin the world, I’m still struggling with how to take that step. In the heart of me I want to open up again, but I kind of feel like not only did I bar the entrances but I also locked myself inside…

    • drkellyflanagan

      Well put, Seth. That’s the problem: in our effort to protect ourselves from rejection (and thus loneliness), we lock ourselves inside and end up lonely anyway. My best to you as you seek to courageously open up again.

  • Mj

    My granddaughter will be going into the 6th grade. All her elementary school years have made her fortress a mighty one. She is scared of being rejected so she spends the majority of her recess and lunch hours in the bathroom or helping teachers. She has told me that she hopes she will get to enjoy her recesses and lunches in middle school as much as she enjoys class time. Girls can be especially mean little creatures at times and she has had some really ugly experiences with some of them throughout her years. I purchased the book ‘Wonder’ because it is helpful for someone going through this type of thing to know that others go through it as well.
    I also experienced the rejection from classmates as a child but have since let down the walls of my fortress. Thank you so much for this post!

  • Marsha Craig

    Wow…thank you. What a great way to see the ego and the ways it has us – until it doesn’t. It is so easy to blame, project, make something right/wrong and the ego is a great place for judgement but then it keeps us stuck and at the mercy of it. I so appreciate your insight into how it is really just a tool for our becoming. What a beautiful, loving, gentle and accepting approach. Thank you for sharing yourself so generously. One way I protect my heart is by withholding or not sharing what I’m feeling. I feel things pretty deeply and am very sensitive to others thoughts, opinions and words about my feelings, insights and perspectives. I experience so many complexities that I struggle articulating myself well in the moment. I struggle with identifying my needs when in the company of others and then share with out clearly stating what I need and before I know it I’ve opened myself to fixing, advice giving or platitudes which hurt and immediately cause me to withdraw further. There are a lot of ways I’m learning to be with this – identifying my needs, so then I can articulate them in the moment, share my vulnerabilities with people who naturally offer what I need with out having to ask for it – are a couple. But the biggest and most transformative way has been willing to go into the deep, sensitive and vulnerable areas of myself and bring those out and allow myself to be seen – really seen, by my therapist. By practicing with him and allowing myself to be really seen, I’m learning what it is I need to feel safe enough to let myself be seen. I’m learning how to really see myself and then I’m learning how to carry that into my other relationships. It is such a beautiful process of healing and it’s incredibly fortifying. I’m in awe and humbled by the process and the way we both show up. I’m so grateful for the therapeutic relationship and process. Thank you for this question. I so appreciate what your blogs elicit in me, the insights, the healing, the new perspectives and the profound sense of hope, possibility and compassion they engender. You are source of inspiration!

  • Brandy Bowman-Ruggiero

    There is so much in your article and everyone’s comments that resonates in me. The epiphany that, I too, have outgrown my ego and~oh~how the walls start tumbling down! The issue I seem to have though; not everyone is in the same place at the same time. I struggle with friends (who are dear to me) who (clearly) still have their walls and ego in tact. It is not hard for me to be sincere and express myself, but it IS difficult for me when that is not reciprocated because “they aren’t there yet”. I find myself thinking, perhaps,my expectations of them are too high..? Just because I would prefer to treat someone a certain way, I shouldn’t expect the same from them..? Honesty is simple, right? Does the ego prevent someone from being honest and sincere? I thoroughly enjoy and look forward to your to your discussions! Good job!