The Dark Side

There is quite a lot of talk around self-acceptance in counselling, whether that be in conversations with clients or in determining the theoretical underpinnings of the therapy itself. This is often regarded as an “easier said than done” sort of idea. My intention here is both to affirm how true that is, maybe give some insight into why and put forward two ideas that have been helpful to me in understanding how to envision the journey forward.

First, I would like to think of acceptance as a process, an adaptive one and therefore, a slow moving from one way to the other, not something that needs to be, or in fact, can be “done.” This journey travels through unknown territory, as unfamiliar to any counsellor as it is to the client. With only the client’s intuition as a guide the benefit of a counsellor is simply to have someone there who is unafraid of where it might lead. For me this lack of fear is not bravado but a real belief that the client’s way of being in the world is directed towards growth, whether this feels successful or not.

There are two different ideas that I have found useful in learning to see things this way which is often so obscure and hard to follow, both in theory as well as in practice. They also shed some light, I think, on why this process of acceptance is so difficult to begin. 

In addiction work, we often talk about the payoff. The payoff is the benefit we derive from a certain behaviour. There are obvious ones such as those that give us pleasure. There are also less obvious ones that necessitate a closer look and are often quite challenging to see in ourselves. These are often behaviours which we transform into derogatory titles; victim, failure, fool, for example. Seen solely from a negative perspective these often elicit only shame and condemnation in ourselves. We find these sides of ourselves difficult or impossible to accept; what is more, we find little desire in ourselves to accept them and feel that we quite rightly would like to do away with them altogether.

The payoff is a way of looking at each of these behaviours in a way that highlights what we may be getting out of being that way. In seeing ourselves as victims we may be able to illicit pity and receive some of the care we may crave but are not receiving; by calling ourselves a failure we may shield ourselves from further attempts and with that from future disappointment. The fool may be able to avoid goals we feel unable to attain and remain in relative safety. These are moves to protect ourselves from real pain and far from condemning them this can help start an exploration of what stands between us and what we really want from ourselves and others.

Another idea which has helped me to understand these aspects of myself is the idea of archetypes which came from one of the originators of psychotherapy, Carl Jung. These can be thought of as the characters which make up the different sides of our personality. He found that humans tended to group certain traits together into certain recognizable characters. Each one, although they are inherently neutral, has both a light and a shadow side. The Queen can be benevolent, protective and assertive or by turns oppressive, controlling and demanding. There are archetypes most often thought of as negative, such as the Destroyer, whose shadow side is self-destructive and harmful to others but who also enables us to break with old habits and begin anew. The Fool may avoid responsibility but also reminds us to live in the moment.

Each of us has various sides to our personality which can be of help to us, or already are in ways which we have never recognised. Many of them have served to protect us since childhood in very valuable ways; some may continue to do so and others may be holding us back out of fear that we may get hurt. As they are parts of us and will remain so I have found it to be helpful to begin to converse with them and once we can, look to how they may help us now and ask them to do so.

Each of the hurtful names we use for ourselves has a role to play in our journey through life. Accepting that they exist in us can be very challenging and yet they can be our helpers. For that to happen we must learn to see what it is that they offer and accept their help – and perhaps, more difficult still – offer them forgiveness for any harm they may have caused.

Written by Brennan Holt

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