Flaws – Seeing the shadowy side of oneself.

Ed Husain

Ed Husain, in his book The Islamist, describes his personal flaws. How at the age of sixteen, he, had become an Islamic fundamentalist, much to the horror of his devout Muslim parents. He had joined those who played politics with Islam, knowing how to use religion to manipulate the emotions of its followers to sympathise with terrorism and the setting up of an imaginary Islamic state.

The values of tolerance, respect and compromise had had no meaning for him. He had wanted to destroy the Western democratic world.

He had joined with others to do their best to whip up fear amongst Muslims. They disrupted peaceful religious meetings, and verbally abused those who resisted them. He had been hooked into a desire for power and dominance. This had become a major flaw in his character.

However, as he grew older he began to examine what he had got himself into. He began to question his motives and was to become ruthlessly honest regarding the errors into which he had fallen. As a result, he recovered his faith and mind and broke away from the fanatics.

Denial of our personal flaws

We may not be drawn into international terrorism, but are we always willing, like Husain, to own up to our own failings? Most of us are not fanatics but do we each have our own flaws? We know it is all too easy to try to deny any personal criticisms that come our way. No one finds it comfortable to acknowledge shortcomings in their makeup. However, when we do notice feelings of resentment, guilt, or hurt in our dealings with others, we might start to wonder if we are at fault.

Why don’t you … Yes but

We can imagine someone saying `It never works’ when trying to mend a minor fault within the home. Others start to present solutions, each starting with the words `Why don’t you…’ To each of these the person objects with a `Yes, but…’ rejecting each suggestion with some plausible reason until they all give up.

According to psychotherapist Eric Berne, this shows that a crestfallen silence has been engineered which gives expression to a flaw in the individuals makeup – his or her idea of personal inadequacy, amounting to self-dislike, coupled with a belief in the worthlessness of other people, a notion which had been privately held all along.

Other negative motivations are boosting oneself at the expense of others and expressing hostility. Underlying such attitudes is a belief that others and/or ourselves are not okay – that there is something inherently bad about them and/or us. When we express such feelings, we prevent our relationships — say with work colleagues or family members — from thriving or we even do great damage.

Ideas of other psychologists related to personal flaws

Harry Stack Sullivan spoke of the `bad me’. This is said to represent those negative aspects of oneself that we do not like to acknowledge, even to ourselves, and which we hide from others.

Carl Gustav Jung said there is a shadowy aspect that we have no wish to be. It is said to be the sum of all the unpleasant qualities one wants to hide, the inferior, worthless and primitive side of our nature, one’s own dark side.

According to Sigmund Freud a part of each us he called the ‘id’ is amoral, illogical, self-serving and ruled by desires that only give self-gratification – for example for sex, food, and aggression.

Honest self-assessment of personal flaws

Emanuel Swedenborg said that we have a rational mind. This enables us to transcend the emotions of the moment and use to better appreciate the inner truth about ourselves – including our failings and flaws. We can look at our own behaviour in the light of the values to which we ascribe. In this sense, self-assessment is also self-evaluation.

I would say that examining the `bad me’, the `shadowy side’, the psychological `games’ we may play — that is to say facing our flaws — is a crucially important first step towards personal growth. By doing this we can gain insight into the misguided nature of the assumptions we have been making and the way we have been abusing our position.

There may be times, like with Hussain when we no longer have in the forefront of our minds the clear wholesome principles that we grasped as children.

It may be easy to turn our minds away when hearing the quiet voice of conscience. Yet, I believe what stays in us is a hearing ear and an understanding heart. We can make an effort to observe what we do or say that is unhelpful, unjust, or downright selfish. We can develop our self-knowledge.

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

How can I swallow the bitter pills of life?

Bitter pills of lifePeople who moan about the bitter pills of life can get you down.

For instance I don’t like Lawrence. He is the sort of individual who you may also know. Someone who comes across as a bit of a moaner and much to my embarrassment is not slow to criticise even his own children behind their backs. He once said, “I’ll always be disappointed”. Yes, he feels hard done by about the bitter pills of life.

How different from his sister Janet who is a delight to be around — sweet-natured and full of fun. Talk about chalk and cheese.

When they were youngsters their parents’ fortunes changed and the family was obliged to move home from quite a nice town to a poor area many miles away. They both lost everything they had known — familiar haunts, places where they were known, and long-standing friends and instead ended up in a derelict neighbourhood, with locations they was unaccustomed to. Lawrence was obliged to attend a rough boys school where he was picked on as different and he never settled. He ended up in a low paid dead end job. He would never have admitted it but his negative attitude of mind is reflected in this quote:

“Ugliness turned me inside out. There was a certain satisfaction in bitterness. I courted it. It was standing outside, and I invited it in.” (Nicole Krauss, The History of Love)

Later, he was faced with the bitter pills of life including having to depend financially on his wife — who earned more than him. His frustration of failure on which he blamed a disrupted education stayed with him and the marriage eventually ended when she decided she had had enough of his embittered resentment.

His sister, Janet was a different kettle of fish. She had accepted her unpleasant situation and tried to make the best of it. She worked hard and got by okay.  Not that she had an easier ride. Desperate to get away from socially disadvantaged circumstances she left home early but found loneliness and vulnerability in the big city. But she battled on. To my mind she is living proof that it is not events that harm us but the way we respond to them. She swallowed the bitter pills of life and got on with it. This viewpoint is well expressed by Martin Luther King.

“As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation — either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course.”

And so life wasn’t easy for Janet. But she didn’t become corrosively scornful like Lawrence, despite her having one or two personal crises when going through difficult times of anxiety and loss. Like with her brother, her personal path in life was a rocky road. But unlike his storing up of anger, hurt and disillusionment with each new disappointment, she learned from her mistakes and tried again so that at each time of trouble she responded by moving on rather than staying stuck. She never became self-focused in her thinking but was always ready to empathise with the feelings of those around her never giving in to resentment and self-pity.

 “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” (Nelson Mandela)

How can you find forgiveness to replace resentment? How might you swallow the bitter pills of life without becoming embittered?

The best answer I have found is a spiritual one. I have tried to deal with part of the answer in my post How to feel less resentment.  In his book Personal Revelation, Michael Stanley offers us the view that bitter experience is often a crucial part of spiritual growth. This despite the fact that usually we read about spiritual illumination as an uplifting experience; a common view being that there is an initial sweetness of an elevated state of mind as you experience new-found hope of personal healing and meaning.

However, Stanley suggests that inner awareness can also stir up some vaguely disturbing inner feelings. He gives as a reason the way you start to see yourself in the light of a deeper ethos; more clearly recognising some previously out-of-sight individual failings. Janet was ready to admit some unflattering truths about herself — her fear of being let down, and her tendency to put off doing things. But she was prepared to look honestly at herself. She found that when getting deeper into the nitty-gritty of self-examination, things can get a bit upsetting.

In other words, the book is suggesting the deciding factor is when you realise the need to forgo complacent self-satisfaction in your good outward actions in favour of a humbler alertness to the true nature of your inner life. This is the bitter experience of appreciating to what extent your inward self-centred justifications and manoeuvrings have been actually distorting the new higher ideas and principles.

The book Heart, Head & Hands is an interpretation of Emanuel Swedenborg’s spiritual philosophy. The secret is learning how to rely on your spiritual source rather than continuing with the mistaken notion that you can live in isolation from the force and energy of love and light that created your life. According to this view you need to give up the illusion that you have the ability, of yourself, apart from this higher divine power, to become wise and do good.

Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems