On Dealing With Our Dark Side
Alexis Johnson, PhD
In order to help ourselves, our friends and partners, and our clients either manage or transform the various manifestations of shame, self hate, envy and other familiar demons we need the capacity to self-reflect and some theory of change and/or acceptance. For me, this latter has been quite a challenge and I have come to believe that I need a three pronged vision in order to shift these difficult aspects of self. I need the deep humility and caring that comes from the Humanistic tradition beginning for me with Buber, and his stance of an “I” meeting a “Thou”, the depth of understanding of how these aspects come to be so deeply embedded in our psyche from the various psychoanalytic traditions, and the perspective of attachment theory in order to privilege feelings and relationship over theory and techniques.
I had the great good fortune to live at Esalen Institute, in the Big Sur of California in the late sixties. Esalen is the seminal growth center in the States, bringing together alternative paths of consciousness, new forms of psychotherapy, especially humanistic and trans-personal, and in general an East-West integration of mind-body-spirit. It has been foundational in my life, my values, and my work.
Graduate school had been about either behavior modification or Freudian instincts and defenses; therefore therapy was about dismantling those defenses. Esalen was about human goodness and self-actualization. Currently Donna Orange refers to theses two approaches as suspicion vs trust. When I sit with a client, am I going to trust what he tells me as his truth or am I going to be suspicious of what he tells me as his ‘story’ mostly a defense protecting deeper realities and truths? Ideally I am going to hold the paradox of both and be open minded and open hearted enough to listen to him as telling me his truth, as incomplete as it is.
Graduate school and Esalen had both espoused what we now call one person psychology. We each are who we are inside our skin. By that model we are what I would now call ‘radically independent’ and that was the ideal of a good life and a whole person. No longer. The psychological world has fully recognized that we are social animals with an inner spirit. If our social needs are not met, if we don’t have others to live with and work with and play with, we suffer and we suffer greatly. We need people at many different levels of intimacy and our well being depends on our sense of connection and belonging.
Freud certainly knew about the dark side of human emotions. He studied inner conflicts and found guilt, murderous rage, envy, terror, and self hate. Humanistic psychology tended to minimize this dark side. And attachment theory notes that if we don’t get what we need as tiny ones, our dark side tends to dominate our lives, whether we call it narcissism, or depression or anxiety or other names. But even when we do grow up in a good-enough environment, we have plenty of dark to contend with. We compete. We hate. We envy others for having what we want. These are human universals and all self-reflecting humans have to find ways of both managing and transforming them.
I lean towards the humanistic thread and trusting the other, but as I noted before, humanistic psychology does not have enough to say about the dark side, how to be with it, sit with it, manage it, even sometimes transform it. Psychoanalysis and its bent towards suspicion and looking for the dark, has much more to offer in that way. So when working with clients with self-destructive and difficult issues, I need to bring all three, the psycho-spiritual orientation of humanistic psychology, the depth of understanding provided by the various schools of psychoanalysis and the template provided by attachment theory that reminds me that everything I do affects the other, whether it be very subtle or very obvious. We are in the caldron together.
All of us have the capacity to experience shame for it is a primary self-conscious emotion, letting us know where the edges and boundaries of our social group are. But more than that, each of us has shame buttons that disorganize us and push us into isolation in terrible ways. I was born without the capacity to grow two of my front teeth. For decades I wore what was called a removable partial, with my tiny front plastic teeth attached. Sometimes one of them broke and I would cancel everything to get to the dentist and have it repaired. I could not bear to be seen in such gap-toothed nakedness. One time the dentist was closed and he told me to go straight to the lab in the Bronx so of course I jumped in the car and headed out. I had the address and my maps. But when I arrived on the street and parked the car, I was too vulnerable in my ‘gap toothed nakedness’ to see the numbers on the buildings. I could not find the exact place I needed to be. There was a public phone on the corner so I called the lab to tell them where I was and they told me to look up and I would see them waving at me. My shame had completely shut down my capacity to see the numbers on the buildings. I could not look out to see where I was.
There is another level of shame called toxic shame that is even more debilitating than social shame. Toxic shame is among the most difficult self-experiences to tolerate and I believe one of the most underrated and under talked about of all the negative emotions. If a person is carrying toxic shame, then things have happened very early in life to convince that person that s/he is more bad than good, more stupid than smart, more unable than able. It is as if toxic shame were an underground lake of bad feelings where all sorts of dragons and demons lurk disorganizing us in a myriad of ways. We then want to hide, to run, to pretend this flood of negativity is not happening. When in this deep shame, I am condemned to the land of less than, the land of being an outsider, the land of insufficiency. Shame says lower your eyes, hunch your shoulders, turn away, hide from the condemning eyes, the condemning words. Shame often cannot be hidden as it flushes through your system, reddening your face, broadcasting to anyone paying attention that you feel exposed when you want to hide.
Sometimes the person who has been shamed becomes the shamer, and is cruelly shaming to the people around, especially people near and dear. This is the attack strategy, Instead of feeling rejected, or hurt, or scared, the more vulnerable feelings of the True Self, the shame system sets out to protect our vulnerability and attacks the offending other. Shame disorganizes us. For some people when they feel hurt by another, they no longer see that other person as a whole person with feelings. Rather that person becomes a Non-person, a Danger, a Persecutor and must be pushed away, hard and fast. Of course, this sets up a vicious circle as once the cruelty is expressed, passions fade and then remorse sets in, activating more shame. “I really am the terrible person my mother, my father, my husband, my wife or any other says I am.”
For others, the shame system, especially the toxic shame system, leads directly to intense isolation. Our true nature needs human connection. Isolation is a terrible feeling and it is often the result of toxic shame. When early relationships have been especially terrifying, then the pain of aloneness is better than the pain of anticipating being shamed or even killed. This is the withdrawal strategy. I would rather be alone and lonely than take a risk, express a need for connection and get rejected. Toxic shame can control the entire fabric of our lives and often underlies the other negative feelings.
My client Joe suffers from this level of toxic shame. He refers to it as self-loathing. It includes his body, his intelligence, his life choices. He hides it well, having become a successful member of the tech community, making good money, with a solid marriage and kids. But he feels he is a fish out of water, never belongs, never has a place at the table. Every day is exhausting as he takes on more work in an effort to finally prove himself as OK. He knows the only judge he is trying to appease is himself or more accurately the critical mother he carries inside, but he often assumes his wife is very unhappy with him as well. When he senses or intuits this, he withdraws even further leaving them both lonely and uncomfortable.
Although shame is a primary source of emotional pain, it has several cousins to assist in our suffering. Psychology makes a distinction between envy and jealousy even though they are used interchangeably in ordinary speech. We want what others have. We can say to a good friend I have shoe envy or I am jealous of that job offer or the trip you are taking. When we can put those feelings into words, we are acknowledging our own longings: I want beautiful shoes, a better job, more travel. Like much of our emotional world, envy and jealousy are much bigger problems when they are acted upon rather than talked about. Both can be very destructive in different ways. Jealousy is a defender of the love bond; when healthy, it is a cue that I am not getting enough from my partner. When unhealthy, it becomes a source of controlling, possessive behavior. Parents can be jealous of the attention given to a child, love starved adults can be jealous of the family pet.
The concept of psychological envy includes the need to destroy, to harm, to diminish. It is based on the distorted need that if I can’t have it, no one can have it. I overheard the following exchange in my local grocery store parking lot. A guy drove in and parked a beautiful, expensive convertible. As he was getting out, another man approached him and said “really nice car”. They chatted for a while and then the second man parted with “do be careful going around curves, a good friend of mine was killed in exactly that car a few months ago”.
I would say that envy took over the exchange. Perhaps the second man unconsciously wants such a car, but can’t have it. So he “destroys” it, takes away the good of it.
Parents struggle with envy/jealousy all the time, especially if their child is obviously less than perfect, say overweight in our crazy weight-obsessed society, or dyslexic, or ‘not living up to his potential’. How to manage such feelings either internally or with a therapist is a complicated dance. The feelings themselves represent intense longings, both healthy and unhealthy. All of us want the best for our kids, want them to be happy and find a place in the world, a place in their own social group. Some of us want ‘perfect’ kids, kids who excel athletically and/or academically, a kid that will raise our own self-esteem. A ‘less than perfect’ child can bring up a lot of shame quickly followed by a lot of envy of the families who do have these imaginary perfect kids. I have worked with a lot of parents who struggle to accept the limitations in the kid they deeply love. In Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon writes that most families find their way into this deep love and acceptance for kids with grave difficulties, but I can tell you that for many it is a hard won struggle to set aside the wishes for what might have been and fully accept what is!
The last of the negative emotions I want to talk about is the continuum from protest to anger to rage. John Bowlby, the foundational thinker of attachment theory, observed that when securely attached kids are separated from their caregiver, they protest, that is they express their displeasure loudly. They want to be near the one who takes care of them. We now know that we have a circuit in our hind and limbic brain totally devoted to protesting separation. Additionally all babies protest when things are not going their way. This is normal and healthy. This is protecting my real needs and becomes part of who I am with a self and boundaries around that self. As adults we all need this same ability: the capacity to protest when I don’t like the way things are. Developing this ability is an essential part of the individuation journey.
But many adults have turned protest into impatience and anger, and others have tapped into an even more toxic emotion called rage. Impatience, anger and rage, like enacted jealousy, envy and toxic shame are part of our shadow, part of our dark side and at the same time are a part of our very human nature. Protest, anger and rage are attempts to control my environment, to affect things around me to make them more to my liking. But when misused, anger and rage are soul destroying, alienating us from the people around us pushing us towards loneliness. All of the negative emotions have roots in our very nature, each is there to protect and care for us, to protect our vulnerable and fragile sense of self. At the same time, our nature is much bigger than this, we are not only aggressive as some would have it, rather our need to love and be loved, to connect to the values that will sustain us, our need to self-actualize is the positive driver towards true well being.
However, once established these defensive systems are hard to undo, hard to outgrow. It takes time, patience and intention to self reflect and find a pause button, to create a space between the impulse and the action. It takes the experience of being seen as more than these defenses while at the same time not denying or avoiding those aspects of self.
Working with clients being with shame challenges both of us. I have never experienced Betty’s ‘meltdowns’in the office but according to her all of her family members and friends certainly have. It usually happens when she is kept waiting. For reasons that she does not understand she finds waiting intolerable. As we explore her experience she notes that she feels the other person somehow has power over her or even worse, she no longer exists in their eyes. She feels completely out of control similar to a panic attack but instead it is a rage attack. She yells. She throws things. She terrifies both herself and the people in her presence. As we slow down her experience to get to the stories under the rage she cries deeply, the crying of a very alone little girl. The rages still happen but now she notes that she can tolerate waiting a little longer with some people. Using rage as a defense has kept her from knowing her fears and the isolation of her original family.
When my client or my friend, my child or my partner is lost in the negative world, one of the most important things I can do is keep in contact, making sure my face is genuinely open to the other’s pain. We can read the face in milliseconds and know if the smile is genuine, if the eyes really care or if the other is offering a mask or a pretend-care. The experience of feeling shame or being seen in any negative space and looking into a face that cares sets up a contradiction in our brain. Part of us wants to contract, to get away. Part of us wants to expand toward the caring eyes, the comfort offered. With even the most toxic emotion, the contradiction set up in the brain can activate our innate neuroplasticity and we can each learn something new about rejection and care, avoidance and acceptance. The more toxic the feeling the more positive lived experiences will be required to heal it. Our defenses are a care system, set up to protect us and it will not give up its hold easily.
Personal transformation requires both our right and left brains. We need lived emotional experiences that allow us to soften our defenses long enough to experience the contradiction of feeling like a bad person and at the same time being seen by an important other as an OK person. We need our right brain to get confused and be open to a bit of re-wiring. And of course we need our left brain and our understanding of how things came to be this way and how we can practice doing things differently. We need to understand our personal story and we need the habits created by mindfulness practices to change our defensive habits little by little.
For transformation to be possible we usually need an other to see us unflinchingly. That is to acknowledge our dark, our negative,while holding us as good, as OK but not perfect, perfect enough. From the body and emotional point of view we need to create a space or a pause before an impulse is acted upon. Learning to self-reflect, we need to move feelings into words, move impulses from the right side of our brain, to the left. When we are big enough to really care for ourselves and for others, to create real attachment, to know the reality of the our own dark and the possibility of our own good, change becomes possible.
The three-year learning community of CIL offers the possibility of entering this form of ‘bigness’, a holding container where all feelings are possible and where transformation occurs. Please join us on Sunday, September 20, 2015 for a taste of this possibility for yourself. If you have already given yourself this time of growth and reflection, please pass on the invitation to others.