The downside of trying to be a good person is that it makes us self-conscious – it focuses our attention on our ego and causes us to filter our response to the world around us through our perception of our own ego. We ask ourselves whether we appear to be a good person to ourselves, whether we appear to be a good person to others, whether we will be judged as a good person by God (if we believe in a supreme being). Me! Me! Me!
A healthy response to life need not be mediated in this way. The ego is our conscious thinking self. It is the mediator between our unconscious and the world around us, but its attention need not be directed at itself so much of the time. We are motivated by self-interest. If we are always trying to assess whether we are or appear to be a good person, it is because to believe that we are not, or to believe that we will appear not to be to others, causes us pain. And it is natural for our attention to be directed to the place where we feel pain or feel vulnerable to feeling pain. But when we are not feeling insecure and vulnerable in this way, our ego is directed outwards and asks how it can serve us to improve our lot in life, how it can solve problems and realise creative potential. If our intellect and our imagination are functioning well, unclouded by the distraction of that inner pain, then we understand that our wellbeing is nested within the wellbeing of others – we can thrive best in a society of individuals who are also thriving and within the healthy life support system of a functioning ecosystem.
When we try to be good, we are always bound to miss the mark some of the time. This produces feelings of guilt – compromised self-acceptance. Our ego necessarily becomes insecure. Healthy functioning relies on the security of self-acceptance – when we feel O.K. in ourselves we have the generosity to do the things we feel are good. But the more insecure our ego becomes, the more oppressive the demand that we be a good person becomes. We may become angry at this oppression and actively defy goodness – this is the source of our capacity for malevolence. Or we may be crushed by this oppression and become depressed.
We have to accept our ego’s current state of insecurity. Our behaviour will be mediated by it. But by understanding our situation – understanding how this process works and how we have got were we are – we can begin to wind things back – we can recognise the value of cultivating unconditional self-acceptance – of letting go of our disappointment in ourself. And we can learn to have faith in our ability to be guided by a clear perception of our widest self-interest.