Guilt and shame over past behavior is a major stumbling block to our continued growth and development. We have all done things that we regret and wish we could undo. Of course, this is impossible and we need to find a way to cope with our personal histories. At the very least, we want to get to a place where we are not paralyzed and can function adequately in our current lives. Optimally, we want to go beyond “adequate functioning” and learn how to actually transform our negative experiences into vehicles for growth – to become great, not in spite of our past failures, but because of them. We can do this by exploring the fundamental character traits that underlie our actions.
Chassidic philosophy teaches that a person may be born with an innate fascination for blood and cutting flesh – it is part of his fundamental personality. He has no freedom in terms of how he feels. His only freedom lies in what he does with it. By nature, he may become an ax murderer or… a surgeon. We are all born with inherent tendencies and dispositions that push us toward different types of behaviors. To try and deny these traits would be tantamount to running away from our selves. Rather, we have to embrace them and learn how to use them for the good.
One of the best ways to discover our own innate characters is by exploring the roots of our most undesirable behaviors. Let’s take anger as an example. Each of us has an innate fight-or-flight instinct that can trigger various reactions. Anger is a type of reaction that fits into the “fight” category. Children who find themselves in vulnerable situations at home - whether it is a disruptive event like a divorce or an ill-timed cross-country move, an abusive or neglectful caregiver, or just a bad fit between personality and environment - have little power to change their scenes. They can’t just get a job and move out. Rather, they are stuck and need to learn how to survive. A child may turn to anger because she finds lashing out to be the most effective way of keeping herself safe and getting her needs met. The anger becomes habitual if the situation that triggers the feelings of vulnerability lasts too long.
This child reacts with anger rather than other behaviors because it is what comes most naturally and easily to her - and has the biggest impact. Another child may turn to more passive strategies, which are in the “flight” category. This child may learn to disappear – physically, by running away or just blending into the wallpaper – or emotionally, through disassociation or drug use. Again, this can become habitual.
The use of anger as a habitual coping strategy is a sign of an aggressive nature. It is a window into the angry person’s soul. The challenge lies in her ability to direct that aggressiveness away from anger and toward more healthy and adaptive behaviors. There is fierceness inside an angry person – an assertive drive toward changing a situation – that can be quite effective, for example, when applied to improving an unjust world. When an angry person directs her innate aggressiveness toward something positive like political justice or fighting for the rights of children, then she grows as an individual and impacts the world in a positive way. She has transformed the darkness of this particular trait into light. She can move past the guilt and shame over past angry outbursts because they have actually shown her something fundamental about herself – and she has learned how to channel her nature in a more healthy and appropriate way.
There is only one way out of our problems – we have to grow through them. A client of Carl Jung’s had a recurring dream where she was sitting in the middle of a stinking garbage dump. She looked up and saw Dr. Jung floating above her. She reached out her hands – pleading for him to take her out – but instead, he indicated to her that she needed to start walking and to not stop until she got out of the dump. She was devastated – but, she starting walking. Forward movement is all we need to get out of our own personal “dumps.” But in order to do this, we have to get past debilitating guilt and shame. This is accomplished most effectively by recognizing that our past behaviors have meaning when they provide the vehicle for our future growth.