“Sarah, that was a nice thing you did. You’re a sweetheart.”
Did you hear phrases like this when you were younger? If you’re a parent, have you said something similar to your child?
This form of praising starts in early childhood. Our parents, family members, and teachers innocently install it in us (as the prior generation did to them).
“Good boy/girl” praising gives children a sense of pride and approval from their parents.
This praising gets anchored into the child’s mind. Good behavior brings reward. Expressing negative emotions and unacceptable behavior (being bad) leads to punishment.
Sit Down, Sit Up Straight, and Mind Your Manners
All parents want well-behaved children. Yet, all children misbehave. The good boy/girl program is a tool parents use to inhibit misbehavior.
Although it works to a degree, as we’ll see, this belief in pure goodness hinders the individual’s psychological development into mature adulthood.
We all have a complete range of emotions and impulses — positive to negative. We each possess the capacity for love and hate, peace and anger, joy and depression.
Sure, we would prefer to experience only love, peace, and joy. But these qualities always come with their opposite. In early childhood, we lack the ability to repress this emotional energy. When parents instruct their children to be “good boys and girls” they’re forced to push down negative emotions and impulses their environment doesn’t accept.
This repression creates what analytic psychology calls a shadow. Children drag this bag of repressed emotions, qualities, and impulses behind them into adulthood.
How Good Intentions Turn into Poor Behavior
Psychology is beginning to understand the role of the unconscious mind.
Studies show most of human behavior is unconscious. Consider what this means: we’re not aware of what’s motivating most of our actions, thoughts, and decisions.
As an example, take Kathleen Vohs’ research on money priming. If someone dropped a box of pencils as you walked by, would you help pick them up?
Vohs ran experiments to see how exposure to money (in this case, Monopoly money from the board game) affects people’s behavior. She found that when people were “primed” with Monopoly money, they picked up fewer pencils than when they weren’t exposed to money.
No way, you might exclaim. YOU might be unaware of your behavior. But I know what I’m doing and why I do it!
The human mind’s capacity for self-deception is infinite. People who believe in pure goodness are capable of the most unscrupulous evils. Outside of our awareness, our lesser qualities express themselves through our unconscious behavior.
Parents, for example, who believe they love their children unconditionally are often unaware of their repressed hatred toward them. This hatred influences the parent’s behavior and the child’s well-being.
When parents spoil their children, for instance, they encourage ego inflation and narcissistic tendencies. How many adults wrestle with these unnecessary afflictions?
Parents and grandparents spoil their children because of unconscious guilt. They spoil not out of love, but because they fail to admit their feelings of hatred toward their children. (“I would never hate my child.”) Instead, they feel good about pleasing their children without concern for the long-term consequences of their children’s development or well-being.
It’s why the proverb says, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” In identifying yourself as a “good person,” you will consciously try to do only good for yourself and others. But your shadow side — all the unowned and unrecognized stuff in your psyche — finds a way of expressing itself whether you want it to or not.
The Good Person Program Always Turns Bad
Famed psychiatrist Carl Jung is often quoted saying, “I’d rather be whole than good.”
Individuals integrating their darker parts know about their “less-than-good” tendencies. They have a choice in how they respond to their environment. Those who perceive themselves to be purely “good people,” lack this choice. They often behave poorly while believing they act in the highest good.
When you ignore the feelings of hatred, for example, it often expresses itself without your awareness. You might shame someone with a quick glance of disapproval. Or, you might reject someone by avoiding eye contact. It may be subtle, but on a subconscious level, the recipient will feel the emotional message.
If you acknowledge and welcome the emotion of hatred, you can release it. Then, you can communicate with love or neutrality. If you ignore or deny the emotion, the feeling will express itself through you.
Trying to be a good person at all times is the surest route to depression and anxiety. Why? Because when we repress parts of what we are, those parts find ways to hijack our psyche. What we resist, grows stronger.
When You Free Yourself from This Belief System, This Will Happen
In letting go of the idea that you have to be a good person, you liberate yourself. Now, you can acknowledge and integrate all different aspects of yourself you previously denied. Doing so frees up a tremendous amount of creative energy you can direct towards your interests and dreams.
It can also heal your body, for the majority of our illnesses are caused by repressed emotions. Traditional Chinese Medicine and ancient Taoist practices like Qigong are built on this understanding. A few Western medical pioneers like Dr. John Sarno, author of The Mindbody Prescription, demonstrate this too.
Also, when you free yourself of this belief, your capacity to accept and forgive others will increase. As you observe your unconscious motivations, you’ll be more understanding of the behaviors of others.
The Good Person Litmus Test
The goal, as I see it, is total acceptance of yourself as you are.
In my process, I’ve found the “good person” programming to be formidable. As an only child, I was often praised, usually without merit. When I peer past all the false ideas of pure goodness, I often encounter resistance. But through continual self-reflection on my motives and behavior, I begin to see a less flattering, but more accurate reality.
To evaluate if you’re running the “good person” program, consider these questions:
- Are you aware of the negative emotions that arise throughout the day?
- Do you believe it’s wrong to feel hatred towards the people you love?
- When you witness “poor behavior” in others (dishonesty, judgment, self-deception), to you acknowledge those same impulses within yourself?
- Are you aware of frequent feelings of envy and jealousy (if you haven’t worked through them yet)?
- Do you see yourself as a good person without accepting the darker parts of your personality?
Be honest. This is between you and you.
How to Dismantle the Good Person Program
First, realize that “I’m a good person,” is just a belief. Evaluate for yourself if this idea serves you.
Second, if you determine this idea doesn’t serve you, let it go. It’s just an idea, a program someone gave you. It means nothing.
Third, consider installing a new belief, like, I am a whole being. I accept myself, including the darker parts. Accept that we are complex beings with opposing tensions within us. It’s okay to hate your children at times; it doesn’t mean you don’t also love them.
As Jungian Robert Johnson writes in his classic He:
“It seems that it is the purpose of evolution now to replace an image of perfection with the concept of completeness or wholeness. Perfection suggests something all pure, with no blemishes, dark spots, or questionable areas. Wholeness includes the darkness but combines it with the light elements into a totality more real and whole than any ideal.”
Fourth, watch your emotions and thoughts throughout the day, especially your the interaction with others.
To assist you with this process, mindfulness meditation is helpful. It will give you space between you and your unconscious impulses and feelings.
Shadow work exercises allow you to get to know and befriend your darker parts.
If you’re a dreamer, can you imagine a world where everyone owns his or her inner demons? How much family tension would instantly unravel? What would happen to the divorce rate? Would there be war?
When someone asked Jung if World War III was inevitable, he said, “Such a war could only be avoided if a sufficient number of individuals could hold the opposites together within themselves.”