Painting by Ann Wilberton
The painting above is called Devil Girl and started out as one in a series of paintings I did about my ex’s alter egos; but, the further I got into it I realized I was painting a self portrait: My own alter ego. I use this self portrait frequently as my online avatar. It is this association that confuses people. “But, you’re all about people being kind…I don’t get it.” That is a statement or some variation, that I have heard many times when people see Devil Girl.
From Buddha all the way up to and beyond the philosophy of Carl Jung, great thinkers have tackled the question of the human dark side. I’m not a big reader in the field of psychology; but, I believe Jung called it the “shadow side.” This is the side that gives us negative and sometimes disturbing or violent images/thoughts when we are angry/hurt. In the movie, Fried Green Tomatoes, there is a scene where Evelyn Couch, brilliantly played by Kathy Bates, has a parking spot stolen by two young, pretty and rude girls. She waits until they get out of the car and then rams their car with hers (several times). This is an example of when a thought and/or urge from Evelyn’s shadow side emerges and she allows it to take over. We cheered her on when she did this; but, obviously there are many dark thoughts that pass through our minds that we would NOT want to act on.
I used to not really believe that a dark side component existed in all of us. I thought that you could “better” yourself to a place where you were free from negative thinking. But, I met a Buddhist psychologist who explained different philosophies on our shadow side and I began to see that denying our dark sides is not really the way to go. I think it creates a tension where one does not need to belong. Plus, it is setting you up to feel failure because it is just impossible to erase all negative thoughts from our brains. She told me that by embracing our shadow side, examining it and coming to understand it, we will begin to be able to accept it and be in a better position to let it go instead of letting it cause suffering in our lives.
Instead of resisting these thoughts what if we acknowledged them: “Well, there is a negative thought.” Inspect it: “Where is it coming from? Why am I thinking it? What is it doing to me?” And let it go: “Okay. I had a negative thought. It doesn’t make me evil or a bad person. I’m moving on now.” You let the thought go and consciously move your mind away from it.
In my own experience, I have noticed that I hold onto the negative thinking for less time now. For example, instead of allowing myself to churn an angry thought over and over in my mind, fueling it, I acknowledge it (label it: angry thought) and then I can quickly figure out where it originated and what it’s doing to me (it doesn’t feel good that’s for sure) and let it go. In a past post I talked about road rage. I have a lot of angry, negative thoughts when people do stupid things on the highway. Labeling those thoughts and letting them go quicker and quicker will only benefit me physically and emotionally and benefit my customers who I’m about to spend the day helping.
The more practice you have doing this the more it will become automatic. I barely have to put effort into the labeling part anymore. As soon as I think pissed off thoughts, my brain is labeling: anger, anger, anger and I am already moving away from them. Acceptance that we have these thoughts also can free us from the shame or guilt over having them in the first place. It is a part of our human psyche to have these thoughts; but, we can cultivate practices that reduce the suffering to ourselves and the spreading of the negativity to others.
And for this blog, that is the important point of this post. If you suffer less, if you have less bitterness and anger (not because it doesn’t exist but because you let it go quicker), I guarantee that you will be happier, more light hearted and better able to help customers and interact with the people in your life in a kind and compassionate way.
Devil Girl is in me. If I ignore her, there is no telling what sort of trouble she’ll get into behind my back. If I acknowledge her and embrace her, I can soften the impact she has on my world.
Our happiness, our behaviors, our attitudes are all our responsibility.
I have a challenge for you. Commit, for one day, to keep track of negative thoughts that pop into your head and label them. You could do this in your head or even write them down on paper. Don’t judge yourself for the existence or intensity of the thoughts (even if it is a momentary desire to inflict pain on someone). Pretend you are completely removed and just taking inventory. What did you find out? What are you going to do about it?
Update 11/13: A Rabbi Harold Kushner quote has been brought to my attention. “Good people do bad things ….. If they weren’t mightily tempted by their yetzer ha’ra [will to do evil], they might not be capable of the mightily good things they do.” from Living a Life That Matters.