Why Good People Do Bad Things

An excerpt from Debbie Ford's latest book, Why Good People Do Bad Things: How to Stop Being Your Own Worst Enemy.

We’ve all heard the stories; they show up on the evening news, on the front page of newspapers, and as headlines in the weekly tabloids: the Olympic sports hero who falls from grace after being accused of injecting steroids; the TV evangelist who gets arrested for soliciting prostitutes; the schoolteacher who carries on an affair with one of her students; or the baseball star who gambles on his own games. These are the public demonstrations of good people who have gone astray, and they have become our national obsession.

But countless other acts of self-destruction and unthinkable acts of cruelty take place, unbeknownst to us, in our own backyards: the successful eye surgeon who gambles his kids’ college tuition away; the public official who takes a bribe; the PTA mom who is having an affair with her best friend’s husband; the hospital administrator who commits insurance fraud; or the financial manager who embezzles money from his clients. These are people whom most of their peers would consider good people, not common criminals, psychopaths, or sociopaths whose histories might predict their unscrupulous behavior. These are people like you and me, people who started out with big dreams for their future. But despite their good intentions, these so-called good people did some very bad things, most often without even understanding why.

Our society is rampant with acts of self-destruction that leave most of us perplexed and asking, “Why did he or she do that? Why did I do this? How could this happen?” Self-sabotage is the proverbial hammer over the head that finally wakes us up, demanding that we pay attention. For most of us, it takes something devastating to crack us open, to get us out of our minds and into our hearts. It takes the pain of a broken heart and shattered dreams to push us beyond the limited realities we have created for ourselves.

We are spiritual beings whether we want to admit it or not, and inherent in our DNA is a design to return us home—home to our true essence, our greatest self, our limitless self. One of the ways we unconsciously ensure our return is through pain. Pain is the greatest motivator for change. It is the spiritual crowbar that pries open the door to new realities. Would we look into our deeper selves, dwell in them, grapple with them, inquire into them, and initiate change in our lives if everything was perfect? More than likely we would just continue living day by day in the comfort of our familiar worlds.

Self-sabotage is a catalyst that can change our world in an instant. We can go from arrogant and blind to humble and open— in just a matter of seconds. The pain we cause ourselves is a tremendous spiritual gift. When explored and understood for its true purpose, the pain of our own self-sabotage reveals new and uncharted territories that can change the course of our lives.

In denial about your dark side?

The underbelly of the human psyche, what is often referred to as our dark side, is the origin of every act of self-sabotage. Birthed out of shame, fear, and denial; it misdirects our good intentions and drives us to unthinkable acts of self-destruction and not-so-unbelievable acts of self-sabotage. Shame and denial feed our dark side for one simple reason. If we accepted our weaknesses, flaws, and shortcomings as a natural part of our humanity, we would have the ability to ask for help when we are confronted with an impulse that we don’t know how to deal with. We would recognize that these dark impulses—such as the urge to have sex with people other than our spouse, to take money that doesn’t belong to us, or to lie in order to better position ourselves—are a natural part of our humanity that needs to be understood and embraced.

But because these urges are left unexplored and unexamined, they get wrapped in shame and denial and kept hidden in the dark. And it is there that our shadow self, the unwanted and denied aspects of ourselves, gathers more power until a blowup is inevitable.

Every aspect of ourselves that we’ve denied, every thought and feeling that we’ve deemed unacceptable and wrong, eventually makes itself known in our lives. When we are busy building a business, creating a family, or taking care of those we love, when we are too busy to pay attention to our emotions, we have to hide our dark impulses and shame-filled qualities, which leaves us at risk for an external explosion. In a matter of minutes, when we least expect it, a rejected or unwanted aspect of ourselves can pop up and destroy our lives, our reputations, and all of our hard work. This is what I call the Beach-Ball Effect.

The Beach-Ball Effect: It hurts

Think of the amount of energy it takes to hold an inflated beach ball underwater for an extended period of time. The moment you relax or take your attention away from keeping it submerged, the ball will bounce back up and splash water in your face.

The Beach-Ball Effect is at work when you have suppressed something deep within your psyche, stored it in the recesses of your subconscious, and then, just when you think everything is going your way, something happens: You send a slanderous e-mail to the wrong colleague. You get lured into betraying someone you love for a night of meaningless passion. You get behind the wheel of a car after having three drinks and get arrested for drunk driving. You get caught dipping into your family’s trust fund. You fly off into a rage in front of your new lover. You make an inappropriate comment that costs you your job. You blow an important deadline right before your big review. You haul off and hit your child in a moment of frustration.

In other words, the beach ball—your repressed urges and your unprocessed pain—pops up and hits you in the face, sabotaging your dreams, robbing you of your dignity, and leaving you drenched in shame. How many more blatant acts of self-sabotage do we have to witness to understand the devastating effects of denying and suppressing our unprocessed emotional garbage?

Don Imus is a perfect example. Here is a man who worked hard to become one of biggest radio and TV celebrities in the country over the course of thirty-five years. His entire career was based on communication. And in less than one minute the career he had spent years building was destroyed. The beach ball bounced up and hit him in the face.

Mel Gibson built the persona of someone who takes a moral and ethical stand for others and creates movies with strong spiritual messages. And although he vehemently denied accusations of anti-Semitism in his movie The Passion of the Christ, in one drunken tirade the attitudes and beliefs that were hidden in his shadow couldn’t be held down. When pulled over and arrested for driving under the influence, he shamed himself with a barrage of outrageous statements.

There are countless ways for the beach ball to pop up and smack us back into reality. It could be something as small as picking a fight with your husband right before you are about to go out on a long-overdue date, or criticizing your child in front of her friends after spending months trying to build her trust. It might be procrastinating on updating your résumé and missing a huge opportunity, or spending a night in front of the refrigerator after dieting for three months. Maybe it manifests itself as oversleeping and missing your best friend’s bridal shower or calling your lover by the wrong name. Maybe it’s making a smart-ass comment to yourself while thinking someone had already hung up the phone when actually they had not.

As long as we are unwilling to look at the beach balls that are lying just beneath the surface of our consciousness, we will unknowingly have to live in fear of the moment they will pop up and the effects they will have on our lives and the lives of others when they do. And believe me, it is a rare case when we are the only ones who get hurt; more often than not, our unprocessed pain will hurt many people. Many lives will be inconvenienced, many hearts will be broken, and some nearby innocent spectators will get caught in the splash.

Human lava: Repressed urges need venting

Let’s think of our suppressed emotions and disowned qualities as human lava. Lava exists beneath the surface of the earth. If there are no steam vents at the earth’s surface to release the pressure of the powerful force that lies beneath, its only outlet comes in the form of an eruption. Likewise, within our psyches our dark urges and impulses build up, and unless we find safe, healthy ways to release them, they express themselves in inappropriate and potentially dangerous ways.

By acknowledging, accepting, and embracing our dark side, we create natural steam vents within ourselves. By providing an opening, we eliminate the worry about an explosion because we are allowing the pressure to be released in a safe and appropriate way. But when it is concealed in darkness, repressed out of shame, and denied out of fear, the shadow has no choice but to erupt. The mental and emotional outpouring that follows has less to do with our circumstances and who is around us than it does with our need to release the pressure.

Our psyches naturally seek a release from the internal pressure caused by the repression of the disowned aspects of ourselves.  This is why we are so obsessed with bad news, bad behavior, and especially the media’s stories that exploit the downfall of people who are at the top of their game. Each time we hear one of these shocking tales of greed, lust, perversion, stupidity, deceit, or betrayal, we unconsciously get some internal release and relief from the pressure of our own dark side. When we see someone famous who is accused of molesting a thirteen-year-old boy, suddenly our own fascination with porn seems to pale in comparison.  When our city councilwoman is caught shoplifting, cheating on our taxes seems insignificant.

This obsession with darkness and failure in the media allows us to take momentary shelter in the hope that we are not as horrible as those we see portrayed around us. Yet our fascination with their darkness tells a different story.

Consider the proliferation of reality television shows that allow us to voyeuristically observe the competitive, petty, and often mean-spirited behavior of the colorful cast of characters.  We would not be so intrigued, so engrossed, and so compelled if we did not possess the same urges and instincts. When we are projecting onto others and judging their behaviors, our own suddenly don’t seem that bad. Sometimes we look to the dark side of those around us for a sense of camaraderie and belonging. We see their shadow, and at some unconscious level we feel relieved that we are not the only ones who are acting out in that way.

How to cut off power to your dark side

If we want to ensure that our dark side does not become the driving force behind our actions, we must first unravel the inner workings of our human operating system: what’s included in the hard wiring, built in to every human being, and what is added on later as the software that gets programmed into each one of us. We must expose the two contradictory forces that exist within each of us: the force that compels us to expand our ability to give and receive love, to heed our inner voice and be a contributing member of our community—and the force that  holds us back, sabotages our best efforts, and repeatedly steers us in a direction that is inconsistent with our highest goals and deepest values.

To heal the split between our dark side and our higher self, we must learn how to forgive ourselves for our imperfections, for our conflicting desires, for our unhealthy urges, for our judgmental minds, and for our cynical thoughts. We have to make peace with the aspects of ourselves and our lives that we have ignored, neglected, abused, violated, betrayed, and hated—even in the subtlest of ways. We must forgive ourselves for all of our personal agendas and our righteous positions that have led us to believe that we are better than, less than, and separate from others.

We do bad things when we think we are separate and alone and what we do doesn’t matter. We do bad things when we are cut off from our divine essence and the grandness of our greater task here on earth. We do bad things when we are living only as a small speck of our greatest self, and we do bad things when we are hungry to return home to our spiritual core but won’t allow ourselves to be fed. We do bad things because we are disconnected, because we don’t know any better, because we have separated and are trying desperately to get some unmet needs of the past met in ways that will never meet them anyway. The unmet need that can get met right now is the need to be whole, to be both your magnificent, divine self and your imperfect, human self.

The need that hungers for your attention and drives your every move whether you want to admit it or not is the need to explore your humanity and your divinity and come to rest in the vast, limitless self that you are. The need that will force you to commit unscrupulous acts of fraud and violence is only a diversion; it is a setup, and only you can stop yourself from falling into this trap. There is a hole there, and you can find it, admit to it, and seal it up with the divine energy that wants to come to you and through you.

You, the big you, will never have true peace until the unification of both your light and your dark sides comes to fruition. And what better time is there than now? You can continue to point your finger at those who are doing much worse things than you in this lifetime, but that will lead you on a slow road to nowhere. For when you understand that you are both the victim and the victimizer, the prey and the predator, light and dark, good and bad, you will know yourself and others as the magical expressions of God that we all are. Then you can stop and observe.

Then, rather than default to the voice of arrogance that says, “I would never do that or never be that,” you have the choice to listen for the still, small voice within that quietly whispers, “There but for the Grace of God go I.”


Learn more about Debbie Ford's new book, "Why Good People Do Bad Things", by visiting her Web site.

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