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Just How Dark Is Your Dark Side?

It’s time we looked at our so-called “dark side” from a whole new perspective.

Magog2/Wikimedia Commons

When we talk about having a “dark side,” we’re generally calling attention to our most aggressive, or lustful, anti-social instincts. Or the mean-spirited, bloodthirsty belligerence presumably lurking deep within us. Or our acting out impulses that would disrupt others’ lives—if not outright decimate them. Rape; mutilation; murder; unconscionable acts of thievery, betrayal, treachery, sadism, masochism; unbounded greed; incest; and so on. But what I’d like to suggest here is that perhaps your darkest fantasies shouldn’t be understood as all that demonic. Or at least that they can be much more compassionately appreciated as audacious, disinhibited, primitive, grandiose, or hedonistic—as opposed to, say, degrading, disgraceful, or nefarious.

Freud, in his classic Civilization and Its Discontents (1929), postulated that being part of civilized society safeguards us from personal chaos, from being dominated by our amoral id. So as civilized beings we appoint communal authorities (e.g., police) to protect us not simply from others’ baser impulses but also our own. Yet to Freud this necessary protection also culminates in our “discontent,” for we’re thereby required to subdue our pleasure-seeking instinctual drives. To live harmoniously with others, we must subdue our otherwise impetuous desires.

I believe most people would agree that (although it's somewhat reductive) there’s something profoundly true in Freud’s assumptions about the human psyche. At the same time, I think that while we may be wired to at least imagine what it might be like to boldly and unabashedly follow our inborn predilections (and without the slightest regard for how they might affect others), just envisioning ourselves engaging in such behaviors hardly means that finally we’d choose to enact them.

After all, in so many ways we need, literally, to rely on others for survival. Additionally, we’re a gregarious species, and so wouldn’t want to do things that might offend others and alienate them from us. Though we might not be able to resist fantasizing various acts that might enable us to freely pursue our (altogether personal) “pleasure principle,” the overwhelming majority of us are strongly motivated to restrain ourselves from actually carrying out such clearly sociopathic behaviors.

Given these “natural” internal constraints, we need to question whether our dark side is, ultimately, all that dark.That is, we’re generally cognizant that whatever fantasies we may have of power, revenge, conquest, or reckless expression of libido are just that—fantasies. But by permitting ourselves to at least “daydream” about them, we can afford ourselves some kind of compensatory gratification. At a safe remove from reality, we can offer ourselves the alternative of imagining what, in actuality, we wouldn’t really choose to do . . . or, for that matter, be.

And in that sense, our dark side can be seen as, well, rather “innocent.” Permitting it to surface in daydreams represents a measured indulgence, offering us an escape from the pro-social behavior that almost all of us regularly elect to participate in. For we do want, and need, to keep our social ties safe and secure. And though we may have a competitive streak in us, we also place a high value on interpersonal cooperation. So voluntarily, we monitor our impulses and take care to keep them in check. And, as a respite from all our self-discipline and forbearance, we periodically permit ourselves to fabricate a world in which our desires—however outrageous or anti-social—might nonetheless reign supreme.

Given that our dark side embodies our more primitive, pleasure- or power-seeking instincts, must we zealously avoid disclosing it, or reject it as despicable—something other than respectably human and therefore to be shunned and repudiated? In the end, such “dark” predilections really can’t be seen as intrinsically culpable, in that most of them merely represent “appetites” or “urges” innate in all of us.

So might we, finally, honor them, appreciating our most aggressive or erotic fantasies, daydreams (and many night dreams, too) as a psychological safety valve? The, to me, unsatisfactory alternative is to view them shamefully, as depicting a part of us so abhorrent that it must be hidden from others—and, if possible, from ourselves as well.

Many psychology researchers have written about the practical utility of daydreams. For, as already suggested, they can function positively as a much needed outlet for our frustrations, enabling us to give at least covert expression to impulses and inclinations we know would be foolhardy or hazardous to act out. And so our simply “entertaining” such fantasies doesn’t really reflect any disastrous potential that must thereby be viewed as dark or depraved. The reason that horror movies are perennially popular (especially among the young) is that they, too, enable us to experience a safe release from—or vicarious expression of—our more primitive, anti-social instincts. And the same is true for many tv shows (e.g., "Dexter").

We are, finally, all animals, and what helps us to transcend the raw instincts of our more primitive, less evolved, ancestors is that in our highly developed interest in pro-social behavior almost all of us freely consent to forego id-related pleasures—the pursuit of which, we realize, would hurt others and almost certainly come back to haunt us.

For both inner and outer balance, we have a fundamental need to express (however indirectly) our whole being. And we hardly need deny our “forbidden” thoughts. For they're only a relatively small segment of what’s—naturally—inside us. Fully accepting our basic humanity actually necessitates that we acknowledge, and make peace with, our so-called “dark side”—which, finally, is far less dark when we see it for what it is. As Carl Jung said, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”

Moreover, Jung believed that “in spite of its function as a reservoir for human darkness—or perhaps because of this—the shadow is the seat of creativity.” And it makes perfect sense that if creativity entails a certain freedom from our customary constraints in thought and feeling, then giving ourselves the license to create also involves granting ourselves the privilege to inwardly explore and outwardly express the darker side of our latent tendencies and impulses.

It may well be that what makes a work of art great in the first place is its universality. And what makes it universal is that it addresses so much of what resides deep inside us—the unprincipled and ignominious, as well as the wholesome, praiseworthy, and noble.

I’ll close with a set of four brief quotes. All of them suggest in just a few words much of what I’ve labored to express in (alas!) so many more:

“I think the healthy way to live is to make friends with the beast inside oneself, and that means not the beast but the shadow. The dark side of one’s nature. [So] have fun with it and . . . accept everything about [yourself]”. ~ Anthony Hopkins [who distinguished himself in the cinematic role of Hannibal Lecter, a charismatic—but cannibalistic—serial killer]

“Evil is a source of moral intelligence in the sense that we need to learn from our shadow, from our dark side, in order to be good.” ~ John Bradshaw

“We all need to look into the dark side of our nature—that’s where the energy is, the passion. People are afraid of that because it holds pieces of us we’re busy denying.” ~ Sue Grafton

“The more we deny that we have a dark side, the more power it has over us.” ~ Sheryl Lee

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* A somewhat condensed version of this post appeared earlier in

© 2014 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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