Fear. Sadness. Anger. Envy. Jealousy. Guilt. Loneliness.
The so-called negative emotions.
If you were to meet me in person, you would probably never guess that I often have these feelings roiling within me (especially nowadays, partly due to certain life circumstances), and that is because of the way in which I choose to approach these feelings.
I don’t try to change them. I simply decide not to focus on them and, instead, focus on improving my life. But improving one’s life requires taking the kinds of decisive actions that negative thoughts and feelings generally discourage. By their nature, negative feelings encourage entropy, stasis, withdrawal and worst of all, emotional and physical aggression. But of course these things ultimately make our lives, and subsequently our feelings, worse.
Various well-meaning authors, thinkers and coaches from the self-help industries have sought ways to remedy this conundrum. One idea that has really taken hold is the idea that since negative thoughts and feelings cause us to do things that sabotage our efforts to improve our lives, we must get rid of those thoughts and feelings.
Now, it’s not that I’m against positive thinking (quite the contrary), and I respect any worldview or philosophy so long as it does not intentionally hurt or discriminate against other people. Unfortunately, not only do I think the idea of getting rid of negative thoughts/feelings is inaccurate, I believe it can be downright detrimental.
I do agree that in general too many people are overly negative and that this holds them back from what they’re capable of being. The shortcomings of the idea that you shouldn’t have negative thoughts and feelings, however, are the following:
• It reduces positive thinking vs. negative thinking into an oversimplistic dichotomy, fostering misunderstanding and misguided efforts among sincere followers of these self-help circles.
• It does not have a keen understanding of human psychology and is therefore not a realistic or sustainable mode of being.
• It ironically causes further pain, suffering and confusion in the long run.
What happens when, while operating under the belief that your own negative thoughts and feelings are causing your failures, you have a negative thought or feeling? You get more negative thoughts and feelings like guilt, shame and self-resentment over the fact that you can’t seem to get rid of your negativity. This isn’t healthy.
The real problem is not negative thoughts and feelings per se. The problem is that they overpower people’s self-control and cause them to speak and behave in ways that cause further problems, big and small, for both themselves and others. And yet trying to forcefully suppress negative feelings sooner or later will lead to burnout, breakdowns and meltdowns.
How, then, to reconcile this? Well, there are a number of ways that work for me and today I’ll share one. But while I believe it is an idea that offers value, it is very complex and much like the idea of getting rid of negative thoughts itself, it is even potentially dangerous if I don’t do a good enough job of explaining it clearly, or if people misunderstand it or if they don’t use it correctly.
Due to the inherent complexity and trickiness of this idea, I have wanted to save it for a short book someday, but I am attempting to compress it into this post for two reasons: (1) I myself have been feeling particularly sh**ty the past few weeks and I wanted an outlet, and (2) I wanted to prove that feeling bad doesn’t have to mean saying or doing anything bad or not doing anything at all. In fact, I am here to claim that negative feelings, if harnessed correctly, can be an impetus for growth, productivity and success. This post itself is evidence for this claim because the primary feelings driving my writing right now are anger, sadness and loneliness.
All I can say is that this works for me. It is not my only method of addressing negative feelings but it is one of them. It might work for you too if you meet the following conditions:
(a) You love pop culture.
(b) You have a good imagination.
(c) You want to be a good person and thrive at life but you dislike positive thinking proselytizing.
(d) Like one of my heroes, William James, you don’t care so much about the objective “realness” of a mental construct so long as it works for you at the practical level and produces concrete results.
(e) The root cause of your negative feelings isn’t a neurochemical imbalance. If they are, and your feelings are persistent and severe, then I’d rather recommend you look into more direct intervention such as therapy or the judicious use of psychiatric medication as a starting point (I myself have used them in the past and no one should feel any shame in this).
Why this works
The reason I prefer this personal approach using applied, modern mythography over much of the self-help material I’ve experimented with over the years is that it does not seek to forcefully deny or reject the darker aspects of the human experience. It lets it in, accepts it (embraces it, even) then seeks to transmute it into something good.
Most of us genuinely want to be good people, and most of us mostly are much of the time. But many of us are unable to maintain this when things get very hard as they inevitably always do. Here then are 9 mythical and psychological archetypes given form in modern pop culture whom you can call forth whenever you are feeling bad and when forcing yourself to feel good doesn’t work. (Actually, these are not so much archetypes in themselves as specific examples of certain archetypes and sub-archetypes. But for my purposes here I’ll go ahead and call them archetypes.)
In some cases these characters are models to emulate; in others, they are cautionary tales that show us what can go wrong if we are not conscious and careful. A few are a combination of both. They will speak to you, comfort you, sympathize with you, and warn you about their own failures, mistakes and lessons. Each archetype comes with a “Gift” and a “Warning.” There are many more characters I could add to this list, and many more ways to work with them, so let’s just consider this an introductory primer.
[Caution: there may be some spoilers if you haven’t fully seen or read the works in question.]
9. ‘The Walking Dead’ survivors
They aren’t very dark in themselves but the world they inhabit is. Besides, the idea that one can imagine oneself a desperate survivor of a zombie apocalypse as a way to draw from inner reserves of strength in a difficult situation—well, that would definitely strike some people as a bit morbid and dark, or perhaps even ridiculous. But let others judge, I say. As for me, like my hero Bruce Lee I will try everything and then reject what doesn’t work and use what works. And for me this works.
Here again, I’ve already devoted a few posts on the Dark Knight, so rather than reiterate those ideas I’ll simply post the links:
7. Severus Snape
Severus Snape is a perfect case, symbolically, for the idea that a careful integration of our dark sides is not only acceptable but can actually aid our causes. Despite how he comes across to people, Snape (as fans of the Harry Potter franchise know) is a good man. But he understands his role, his abilities and how he can best help Harry, which is by keeping close to the source of evil that threatens the son of the woman he loves.
Like all the archetypes on this list, Snape will not appeal as an inspiration to everyone. Some people are more inspired by someone like Dumbledore, for instance. But he is my favorite character in the Potter mythos. After all, someone from the good side has to stay close to the darkness in order to keep an eye on it, to help people to work with it, and to ultimately protect them from it (Snape eventually and quite appropriately teaches the Defense Against the Dark Arts course).
Gift: Working with negative feelings does not make you a negative person. Rather, intimacy with the darkness will help you to understand it better and to even find ways to use it in the service of good. It’s not as good as being a saint but it is far more realistic and sustainable.
Warning: In all his posturing as an evil henchman of Voldemort, Snape does not forget his ultimate purpose and motivations. As with him, the key for you is never losing sight of your ultimate purpose for when you work with shadow archetypes in your journey towards wholeness and self-integration, it is all too easy to lose yourself in the seductive nature of dark emotions and lose the whole point of it all.
6. The Terminator
Most people habitually let their feelings dictate how they act in the moment and often how they spend their entire days. But what if your feelings didn’t dictate your actions and behavior? What if your values, principles, goals and ideals did instead? And what if you could be like a computer and program these values and goals into your mind so that you’d do whatever you needed to do, day to day, to advance towards your goals and dreams regardless of how you felt?
We can’t do this literally, obviously, but do not underestimate the power of a strong imagination.
Like everyone, there are plenty of days when I am tempted to just sit there and do nothing, incapacitated by my black feelings. Logically, I still know what my goals are, and I still know that the only way I can help myself is to keep working towards them. But I just don’t feel like it, and appealing to my loftier ideals doesn’t seem to help either.
When this happens, what I like to do is imagine myself as a machine, robot or android and that nothing else matters but my programmed goals. Like other android characters in pop culture, I may have been programmed to experience feelings but these feeling are just bits of information and no matter how unpleasant they are, they cannot override my central programming.
Recall the first Terminator movie and how much punishment the T-800 takes but just keeps on going and going, implacably marching towards its single-minded goal.
Of course, the Terminator’s goal is to kill someone and hopefully your own goals are better than that (though it’s worth noting that the programmed goal of the T-800 in T2 was to protect). But whatever our goals, we can tap into the evocative imagery, symbolism and psychological power embodied by a character like the T-800.
Gift: The next time you have important things to do but don’t feel like doing them, try this out. First, force yourself to sit or stand tall (there’s evidence to suggest that this alone can affect your psychological state). Close your eyes and vividly imagine that the physical body you feel is not the usual body you are used to. Imagine it is a gleaming, powerful machine. And then say: F**k these thoughts. F**k these feelings. They are just bits of data. My principles, values and goals (i.e. my “program”) will guide my actions today, not my feelings. For I am a machine and machines do their work whether they feel like it or not and I will do the good work that I have chosen to do on this day just like any other day.
Warning: First, if this works for you, only use it when you need to do important, urgent things but don’t feel like it. Feelings are valid and sometimes you really do need to stop and address them in some way. But the world, as we know, doesn’t stop on our behalf when we feel crappy so this method is useful when you don’t have the immediate luxury to stop and ponder your feelings. Second, this works best when you want to block out your emotional pain so that you can do high-priority tasks. Physical pain, on the other hand, is the body’s way of telling you that something’s genuinely wrong. Trust me, without the body in good health you can’t do anything, so respect its signals.
Even machines need maintenance.
5. Reuben Golding/The Morphenkinder
I have always been extremely drawn to the werewolf archetype in its richness of symbolism, but had found its representative range in books and movies to be very limiting—that is, until I read Anne Rice’s The Wolf Gift which, for me, was the first work I’d encountered in which a werewolf protagonist finally uses his dark and savage powers in the service of good. (The character Wolf in Stephen King’s The Talisman does this as well but he isn’t the main protagonist.)
I could easily write a very lengthy essay on my interpretations of werewolves insofar as how we can apply and use them in our real lives. But since I lack space here, the simplest point I want to make is that the more primordial, bestial aspects of our being, which are often the cause of much cruelty and brutality, can be redirected and channeled as energy for doing good work.
The primal feelings of hunger, lust, thirst for violence—these are simply natural energies that seek expression and release, and there are many ways to use them. When coupled with misguided thoughts and beliefs or a lack of discipline, these energies are often expressed in hurtful ways. And in that moment of snapping at someone or yelling at him, you might feel strong but you are actually being weak.
True strength involves learning to bridle your inherently animalistic nature and to use it for loftier purposes than hurting people.
Gift: There may be times when, symbolically (or even literally), you feel like tearing off the vestiges of your life and running off into the forest to hunt prey. Or you may feel like resorting to merciless tactics and ripping the adversaries in your life to shreds. Don’t repress that primal yearning; give in to it. But instead of hurting people, go wild creatively. It is choosing creation over destruction. Create something, anything—a poem, a drawing, a lesson plan, a Facebook meme, a sock puppet—with savage passion and abandon. Damn the rules and what other people may think. And as you go about creating, imagine that you are ripping apart your enemies (remembering that your only true enemies are your own inner demons).
In the beginning, this won’t always lead to creative works of merit, but there is a side benefit that makes this worth doing anyway. You see, what you are actually doing when you do this is training your subconscious. Gradually, your animal nature begins to realize that primitive feelings like rage, hatred and lust don’t necessarily have to be used in pursuit of their obvious goals (i.e. violence and sex). They can be used to create beautiful things that benefit others.
Warning: Like Reuben Golding you need to learn when to unleash the wolf within and when to curtail it. Uncaging it while you’re at your customer service job trying to placate pissed off customers would be a time to curtail it, for instance. Later, when you’re home, you can let the wolf out and write a hilarious blog post about the crazy inanities of working in retail.
Also, once you have summoned your beastly feelings for creative purposes, refrain from reacting to external interruptions or anything else that might happen as you’ll most likely react unpleasantly. Stop, cool down and “shapeshift” back into a civilized human first.
In the Marvel movies, the fact that despite Thor’s robust build and warlike prowess, Loki has usurped him as the dominant sex symbol among fans of both genders proves a timeless truism: dark and mysterious guys are sexier than chunky buffoons.
Of course, Loki is not a character to emulate at the surface level. He is selfish, opportunistic, deceitful and knows nothing of loyalty. But when we probe deeper, we find that there is much to learn from him nevertheless.
In the comics, where his relationship to Thor is developed in greater detail, it’s apparent that part of Loki’s resentment of Thor early on came from the fact that Thor far surpassed him when it came to the qualities that Asgardians typically value, things like brute strength and “manliness.” Yet Loki quickly discovered that he had his own unique skill set: he was intelligent, shrewd and gifted at magic (magic = creativity). In general, his were qualities that might be said to be the feminine yin to Thor’s masculine yang. Yet these were qualities not as valued by the world he lived in and his anger and jealously led him to use his gifts to manipulate and deceive people in his vengeful pursuit of power.
In the real world, mundane equivalents of Loki’s descent down the dark path happen all the time and are often motivated by the same kinds of feelings: envy, jealousy and a sense of one’s unique qualities having been unjustly overlooked for other qualities that are more valued by society.
Gift: If you ever find yourself in a Loki-Thor kind of situation, resist the temptation to vindicate yourself by hurting others or by seeking dominion over them in some way. Do the unexpected thing. As undervalued as your qualities and talents may be, use them nevertheless to offer something good and true to the world. Loki, as we saw momentarily in Thor: The Dark World could be an amazing hero if he applied his gifts toward good. Imagine you are he and further explore the enticing world of possibilities of a Loki who uses his intelligence and magic to serve people instead of trying to conquer them.
Warning: Deceit and manipulation are Loki’s primary modus operandi. You will often be tempted to resort to them. Do not. There is a reason Loki is perpetually unhappy. Deceit and manipulation may get you what you want in the short run but breed unhappiness in the long run, always.
Pride and the desire to right grave social injustice are what drive the sometimes villain-sometimes hero Magneto. But unlike other dark heroes like Batman or anti-heroes like the Punisher and the Crow, the injustice done to him was not the result of some random, impersonal crime. It was very personal. He and his people were persecuted simply for who they were.
In this way, Magneto, more than the X-Men or other mutants in general, can be an even more appealing character to those who feel the same way.
If Loki represents indignation over being unrecognized or unappreciated, then Magneto represents the rage of being outright maligned and ostracized for who you are.
Now, if you are one who is routinely unpleasant and unkind to people and they reject you for it, then I say that is simply a natural consequence of your behavior and the Magneto archetype does not apply to you. Your unpleasantness is not your “uniqueness” but your conscious choice for how you act towards people. Either accept the fact they don’t like you or change the way you interact with them.
But if you feel cast out or rejected simply for who you are, and not for unpleasant ways of behaving towards others, then fight the urge to lash out in revenge. Instead, work harder (or smarter). Find a way to get people to recognize the qualities or talents you have to offer. It is not their responsibility to see your value; it is your responsibility to get them to see your value.
Gift: Even as you struggle to get yourself accepted and recognized by others, take pride in who you are. On occasion, even allowing yourself to briefly indulge in the extreme form of pride—feelings of superiority—can be useful. Whether they admit it or not, people do this all the time and it is totally fine unless they speak or act out on those feelings (which they often do, unfortunately).
Of course, a saint would not let himself feel superior or even be tempted by the notion, but remember we are not trying to be saints. We are looking for viable, sustainable (and fun!) ways for ordinary humans to deal with very difficult emotions and to translate them into positive action. And we take action better when we feel empowered than when we feel powerless. So if imagining you are superior to others makes you feel empowered, then do what you have to do. Just keep your outer actions positive.
Warning: The danger is clear. While indulging in feelings of superiority can feel empowering, if you are not crystal clear in your own mind that it is simply a temporary psychological coping mechanism, you will eventually fall for the self-made illusion and actually believe that you are superior at the objective level. And that’s when you become a Magneto in the villainous sense rather than the heroic sense.
2. Walter White / Heisenberg
There is a reason that, despite the corrupted, ruthless man he becomes, Breaking Bad’s Walter White has captured the hearts and imagination of the television-viewing public.
First of all, he is an archetype who affirms the truth that bad things surely do happen to good people, and that when they do our social institutions will not save us. This is something we all fear, and seeing it happen to a fictional character allows us to vicariously explore this dark area without our own lives being on the line. Secondly, his rise to wealth, power and the temporary recovery of his health is an inspiring model of a human being’s innate ability to empower himself with his own intelligence and creativity within a system that has screwed him over.
Gift: First, know that even though we are not as brilliant as Walter, we nevertheless have the intelligence and creativity to find solutions to our worst problems. Second, accepting, acknowledging and working with our darkest aspects can be a very uncomfortable process for many people, especially if they’re emotionally invested in an image of themselves as a good, positive person. Just as Walter adopts the persona of Heisenberg, then, we can inwardly adopt the personas of our favorite dark characters to help us face and cope with our unpleasant thoughts and feelings.
These personas also help us to perform certain kinds of actions that are ultimately positive yet do not sit well with our self-made images of ourselves. For example, when I first started Pop Mythology my dreamy ideal was to only publish certain kinds of idealistic articles and to avoid what I considered fluff. Now, however, I have thoroughly made peace with the necessity of posting a lot of fluff if it will make the site more popular and thereby bring greater exposure to the idealistic content, which is a good thing. It’s not quite as dramatic as a man dying of cancer resolving to sell meth, but nevertheless I mentally invoked the Walter White archetype while making the uneasy decision to do this.
Warning: Walter went wrong in choosing to create and sell a product that was not only harmful to people in itself but whose very industry was rife with violence and evil. But there was yet another fatal mistake that he made: he let his pride dictate his decision to refuse the financial help of others. Given his past history with the people who offered him this help, his refusal is understandable yet catastrophic for his family nevertheless.
As painful as it would have been, had Walter swallowed his pride and accepted the help, all that deception and death as well as the ultimate break-up of his family would have been unnecessary. The path he chose was therefore an extremely selfish one, and his one last bit of redemption, aside from saving Jesse, was admitting as much. He is therefore both a model to emulate in certain ways and, in other ways, a cautionary tale whose mistakes we should avoid.
1. Darth Vader
Despite popular assumption, most evil is not usually committed out of sadism or psychosis. That does happen, true, but more often than not evil is committed by ordinary people with dark emotions pushed to their extremes.
Furthermore, these dark emotions often arise out from what were once originally positive emotions like love, and Darth Vader is the example par excellence of this.
After all, the Star Wars prequels went to expensive (if not rewarding) lengths to show that he was once a skilled and sincere Jedi. But whereas being a Jedi is all about controlling one’s emotions, Annakin Skywalker became consumed by his love (for Padme), fear (of losing her), envy (towards Obi-Wan), and resentment (for being less-than-fully-recognized for his skills as a Jedi). And Palpatine, of course, cunningly took advantage of that emotional susceptibility.
Like Walter White, Vader is also both a cautionary tale and an inspiration. He is the former in the sense that he is what we become if we fail to be mindful of our extreme emotions and the shadowy roads they nudge us towards. But he is also an inspiration in the sense that even if we do slip down that gnarled and twisted path, it is never too late to redeem ourselves.
Gift: There is no doubt that Vader’s intense negative emotions fuel his immense power and his dynamic ability to get things done, to put it mildly.
And so contrary to the conservative Jedi dictum that you must steer clear of the negative emotions, I propose there is a middle way of living by Jedi ideals while channeling Sith rage (though I do admit this is supremely difficult to practice correctly without sinking too deep into Sith waters).
Though I don’t have space here to discuss them in detail, two characters who I feel represent my proposed balance actually better than Vader are his son Luke Skywalker and Revan (from the Star Wars Expanded Universe). Vader, however, is the character most iconic and loved and why I’ve used him as the main example here since he does, after all, return to the light side.
Warning: Vader’s obsessive love for his wife and children—and the negative emotions that arise from that love—are the cause of suffering for countless people throughout his fictional galaxy. He is therefore the great reminder that to be motivated by love in one’s actions is not enough, especially because most people’s love tends to be tainted with at least a degree of neurosis.
Learning how to love with wisdom, self-awareness, equanimity and without attachment, therefore, is how we do not become seduced by the Dark Side and end up hurting and oppressing people in the name of love, in the name of Jesus Christ, in the name of science, progress, safety, security or whatever other good in whose name we have committed so much evil.