Face your Dark Side and Move On. You are not the Sum total of Your Imperfect Thoughts.

DARKSIDEPHOTO

Our ten-year-old is singing Kelly Clarkson’s “Dark Side” at a camp performance this week, which means I have the song cruising through my head most of the time.  Earlier this summer, she was in a performance working on “Omigod You Guys” from Legally Blonde, and I was tormented.  If you have any doubt about how easily that song will set up shop in your internal music player and wreak havoc on your functioning, listen to it here.  Fair warning: it may be days before its remnants are gone and you are back to your normal self.  “Dark Side” is a far better fate; I actually really like the song, and as I listened to my daughter rehearse this week, I got to thinking about the lyrics and the message.  Here’s a portion (From azlyrics.com):

Oh, there’s a place that I know.  It’s not pretty there and few have ever gone.  If I show it to you now, will it make you run away?

Or will you stay?  Even if it hurts.  Even if I try to push you out?

Will you return? And remind me who I really am.  Please remind me who I really am.

Everybody’s got a dark side.  Do you love me? Can you love mine?

Nobody’s a picture perfect, but we’re worth it. You know that we’re worth it.  Will you love me? Even with my dark side?

I agree with Kelly Clarkson and her writers.  I think we all have a dark side, or at least aspects of ourselves we show to few, for fear of being rejected or found out.  For the most part, these dark parts don’t make us bad people or define who we are.  They are simply parts housing feelings and experiences we don’t often share with others.  They are the parts of ourselves we sometimes wish didn’t exist, and we often try to suppress.  They are home to feelings of envy, disappointment, anger, and frustration.  They may come up during competition, experiences of loss, or moments of vulnerability and low self-esteem.  They are likely to cause discomfort, a sense of conflict, and disgust at their worst.  We are likely to want to run and hide from our dark feelings, afraid that they will be discovered by others or somehow mask, even from ourselves, the totality of who we are.  This is why I especially love the following line in Clarkson’s song: “Remind me who I really am.  Please remind me who I really am.”  It’s as though we are afraid that the existence of dark emotions threaten to take over the rest of ourselves.

With the “dark side” on my mind this week, I thought it would be helpful to address how and when our darkness might manifest, using sport as a springboard, as usual.  The hope is that we might become less afraid of our “bad” feelings and more able to accept them as part of the full picture of our being human.  Of course, if our dark side—our negative feelings, our anger, our bitterness, our sense of loss—is so prominent that our lighter side ends up consistently on the back burner, professional help is likely warranted, or at least some significant self-reflection and analysis.  In extreme cases, dominance of a dark side might be a reflection of serious pathology, such as a personality disorder or other psychological malaise.  Such cases are not the focus of my work here.  Rather, I am addressing the darker side of our mostly bright and pleasurable experiences as well-intentioned and relatively high-functioning human beings and athletes.

Competition:

Like many of you, I recently watched the CrossFit Games, a highly competitive forum where fitness and mental fortitude are tested in spades.  I was as impressed as ever by an aspect of CrossFit that has become one of its great hallmarks:  competitors cheering on each other in massive and enthusiastic displays of support, once each is done with his/her own workout.  The camaraderie among athletes and level of respect for each other is both refreshing and unique among elite athletes at that high a level.  Still, there were times when I wondered: how many of the athletes at the CrossFit Games ever hoped a competitor would fail a lift or would need to slow down on a run or would struggle with a skill?  These are athletes who have trained for months and years to reach the pinnacle of their sport, who were tested in ways most of us will never be tested.  They were laying themselves–their hearts, minds, and bodies–on the line workout after workout for five days running.  Might it be possible that even these very gracious, supportive, and community-oriented athletes entertained a negative thought in the heat of the battle?

No matter the level of support and community among these driven athletes, I’m guessing there were some impure thoughts along the way–maybe something like, “Please don’t make that 205-pound clean-and-jerk when I only made 200, and I need to do better than you on this event.”  Does this mean they are flawed, overly competitive people, or that I am overly cynical?  Possibly, but I don’t think so.  I think the reality is that competition at that high a level with that much on the line involves a wish, however fleeting and subtle, that something might not go perfectly well for one’s competitors, especially when something hasn’t gone perfectly well for oneself.  Do the Yankees ever hope that the Red Sox pitcher has a bad day?  Has the coach of the United States Olympic gymnastics team ever secretly rooted for the Russian phenom to miss a vault?  I’m guessing the answer is yes to both.  Are they all monsters?  No.  They are human beings involved in competitive situations and have sacrificed endlessly to do well.  The stakes are high and the outcomes significant.

Next time you’re competing, allow yourself a thought or two that isn’t one you’d like transmitted on your forehead.  Of course, if those are the only kinds of thoughts you have, then a greater amount of self-reflection is in order.  Is it better to focus on yourself and do the best you can in a competition, rather than hoping for errors by your opponents?  Absolutely.  My point is simply that the occasional wish that your opponent not have the day of his/her life does not a villain make you.  If you are anything like the CrossFit athletes we watched last week, you are forgiven for having had an impure thought about the fate of your competitors, and you should give yourself a break for the minor deviation from your mostly supportive and well-intentioned way of carrying yourself.

Envy:

Envy is an ugly feeling.  Melanie Klein (1984), a pioneer in the psychoanalytic field of Object Relations theory, defined envy as “the angry feeling that another person possesses and enjoys something desirable – the envious impulse being to take it away or to spoil it (p.176).”  For Klein, envy is innate; it is part of being a human being in relation to others.

It is common for our “dark sides” to be filled with feelings of envy.  Maybe you were heading into the final event in the CrossFit Games or the final match in a prestigious tennis tournament, sitting pretty in third place.  Maybe you ended up being knocked off the podium in that final event and then had to watch and cheer during the awards ceremony, while fans and other competitors looked on and photographers captured your facial expressions.  Maybe you are single and 48, but you always wanted to be married.  Being a bridesmaid for the eleventh time meant that you were envious of the bride on a day when you were supposed to be nothing but supportive and thrilled, looking pretty doing so.  Maybe you are married and always wanted children but were unable to get pregnant.  It would make sense that you might be envious of your friend with three beautiful children, even while you wrapped cute little baby clothes into precious little packages for her third baby shower.  Maybe you envy your buddy who has landed a career that affords him financial stability and a sense of power for which you have yearned your entire adult life.  Maybe for you it’s your golf partner, whose talent and ability is unmatched on the club circuit and is something you wish you possessed.  Maybe it’s your friend who is beautiful, has a perfect body, and eats whatever she wants, while you have struggled for years with unwanted extra pounds and a food obsession.

The examples are endless.  The point is that envy is a natural human emotional experience that is understandable and acceptable in many situations.  It is important to acknowledge these feelings and have compassion for ourselves when they creep in.  Denial of them may be fine in the moment but is unlikely to be a great strategy long-term.  People who do not allow themselves to recognize darker emotions like envy may end up with pent up irritability and angst that is far more insidious and disruptive than a friendlier kind of envy that is acknowledged, addressed, and integrated into one’s whole being.  Along these lines, some research has demonstrated that one kind of envy–“benign envy”–can be used to motivate us to reach our goals and optimize our own experiences (Van de Ven et al, 2009, 2011).  This is the kind of friendly envy you might feel watching a training partner lift with ease a weight with which you consistently struggle.  It’s not that you want him or her to fail.  Rather, the envy becomes a source of motivation for you to improve, yourself.  In contrast, if your envy is pervasive and destructive, constantly making you feel like you want others to fail and you need to belittle their accomplishments, it may be a good idea to seek help.  This more destructive and negative form of envy has been called “malicious envy” and does nothing for your own progress or self-optimization.  There may be significant and unexplored psychological underpinnings to this type of envy, and ignoring these will not make them go away.  Like holding on to a deep-seeded grudge or other destructive feelings of resentment, living a life filled with malicious envy can be self-defeating at best, and unbearable at worst. 

Loss/Negative Life Events (Life Isn’t Fair):

Maybe it was a bad call by a referee in a soccer game or a seemingly unfair “no rep” at the CrossFit Games.  Maybe you’re a race-car driver whose pit crew faltered.  Maybe the rules of the game seemed unevenly applied to the athletes in your competition.  Maybe it’s politics mixed with judging at the Olympics.  There’s no doubt about it: athletes at the highest levels can be exposed to less-than-perfect conditions of fairness.  To expect total indifference to such circumstances and absolute grace in their presence seems ludicrous.  Do elite athletes need to move on and deal with these subjective aspects of sport and other twists of fate that occur when things matter most?  Yes.  Is this part of what makes the best athletes best?  Yes.  Does this mean that their dark feelings of anger and disappointment should be completely ignored or denied?  I think not.  Once again, festering negativity is usually worse than negativity that finds a healthy expression at appropriate times.  This is likely not in the middle of a competition, but it certainly can happen at some point after the battle is over.  Does this mean holding on forever to the feeling of being screwed and announcing it publicly for all to hear?  No.  But it does mean being able to admit the feelings to ourselves, share them with those closest to us, and then move on, perhaps using them as motivation to perform better the next time.

Off the field, there’s no doubt about it: even in the face of a generally positive attitude and relative contentment, life can throw us curve balls that lead to some pretty uncomfortable, powerful, and excruciating negative feelings.  Really bad things happen.  Children get cancer.  We lose our jobs.  Hurricanes destroy homes.  Terrorists attack innocent people.  The world isn’t perfect, and life isn’t always fair.  Anger, frustration, irritability, and even rage are normal responses to extreme situations.  Even unfairness on a less grand scale can trigger feelings that one has been burned.  Maybe it’s a boss who clearly favors younger workers.  Maybe it’s a coach who just won’t give the new player a shot.  Maybe it’s the way your father just can’t seem to make time to come to your soccer games.  Our dark sides can be triggered.  This does not mean we are monsters.  Sometimes the best we can do is to acknowledge our feelings and talk about them with the right people.  This may mean we need to seek help.  Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine surviving extreme scenarios without professional counseling.  Put words to the darkness and it’ll be a lot less powerful and scary.  Don’t give it a voice, and it’ll find one eventually, with less moderation and finesse than language allows.

We humans are complex creatures.  Our psychologies run deep.  We are not all peaches and cream.  We have thoughts and experiences and feelings that can be scary and uncomfortable.  Giving voice to these darker sides will prevent them from festering in ways they might otherwise.  Integration is key.  Denial is likely to be problematic long-term.  Face your feelings head on, and they are likely to be less powerful and threatening.  Give yourself a break; dark can become the new light.

 REFERENCES:

Klein, M. (1984) Envy and Gratitude and Other Works 1946-1963. London: The Hogarth Press.

Van de Ven N, Zeelenberg M, Pieters R. (2009).  Leveling up and down: the experiences of benign and malicious envy. Emotion.  9(3):419-29.

Van de Ven N, Zeelenberg M, Pieters R. (2011). Why envy outperforms admiration.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.  37(6):784-95.

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Comments

  1. Barry Wenglin says:

    Good column. We all have such thoughts. We are all the same. No guilt should attach. How is the “singer?” How is the “dancer?” Still waiting to send money. Send info please. Dad

    Sent from my iPad

  2. meninadeangola says:

    I was confronted with a part of my dark side right in the middle of the CrossFit Games.
    This is what I had to say about it http://paleoandoverload.blogspot.com/2013/08/jekyll-and-hyde-at-crossfit-games.html?m=1
    Thank you for this post 🙂

    • Thanks for sharing, Carla! Glad you’ve got some of that behind you and can focus on being an inspirational athlete! One of my first articles on psychologyWOD.com was about how we talk to ourselves. Check it out if you haven’t seen it yet:
      https://psychologywod.com/2013/03/06/paying-attention-to-how-you-talk-to-yourself/

      Meanwhile, thank you for reading and commenting, and keep up your great work. If you haven’t already, I’d love for you to “like” my page on FB and spread the word to your friends, as I’m trying to grow my audience.
      Thanks so much, and congratulations on a great competition year!
      ~Allison from PsychologyWOD

  3. Great article – thanks to the team at crossfit Thames for posting the link on their blog.

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