We tend to berate ourselves for having dark thoughts creating shame and low self-esteem, but evolutionary psychology contends these thoughts are part of our evolutionary history, and for good reason. So if your inner critic, like mine, is working overtime, you might want to check out this article, reprinted from the Jan/Feb 2004 issue of Psychology Today.
Some more thoughts below.
Seven Deadly SentimentsRead the rest of this article.
Evolutionary psychology helps us understand why we are ashamed of having forbidden thoughts that make us feel like lousy people. It tells us that these shameful feelings are hardwired—strategies that led to success on the Pleistocene savanna.
By: Kathleen McGowan, Ken Gordon
In our confessional culture, it is socially acceptable—even fashionable—to disclose your sexual predilections, your husband's problem with painkillers, your penchant for high colonics. Our hypertherapeutic society lets it all hang out.
But plenty of feelings remain in the closet. In the privacy of our own heads, we cringe with dread when we meet someone in a wheelchair, wish our aged relatives would hurry up and die, smirk over our friends' bad taste and think babies are ugly and annoying. Meanwhile, we assure ourselves—and one another—that we're really very nice people.
Evolutionary psychology holds that these shameful feelings are hardwired—strategies that led to success on the Pleistocene savanna. If that's so, then why are they so hard to admit to? "Given that these emotions are shaped by natural selection and are innate, or at least pretty deep, why do we expend so much effort in denying them?" asks Dylan Evans, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom.
It's a good question. The persistence of forbidden feelings fascinated Freud, and provided the raw material for his controversial theory of repression and the all-powerful unconscious. Both psychoanalysis and Catholic absolution are rooted in the idea that confession can strip taboo thoughts of their crippling power. Whether or not you believe in Freud (or the Virgin Mary), one thing is for sure: Our efforts to banish or explain away these unmentionables can't keep them from roaring back—and making us feel terrible as a result.
Acting on a nasty impulse may be cause for shame. But why feel so guilty about a feeling that remains a mere fancy, harmlessly stashed away in your brain? Evans theorizes that this guilt really stems from the fear of exposure. We're braced for discovery, even though we haven't really done anything. "If you're discovered doing something wrong, and you immediately feel terrible about it, the offense is mitigated," he says. "So you better be ready to display guilt if someone discovers you."
Feelings of shame trigger deeper unrest than the simple fear of being found out does, says psychiatrist Michael Lewis, author of Shame: The Exposed Self. Guilt is a response to bad behavior. Shame, on the other hand, "is so powerful because it's about a defective self," he says. In shame, explains Lewis, the very self is "rotten and no good." That's why intense feelings of shame can actually drive people into shameless behavior, such as jealous rage.
Yet a bit of bad feeling can be good. Emotions like shame or pride can serve as psychic regulators, Lewis says, and a healthy amount of shame may prevent you from impulsively doing something you'd later regret, such as slapping your bratty son. "We don't want to live in a world in which there is no shame or guilt," he says. "We want just enough to help us not do some of the awful things we could do."
So how to cope with the realization that you bitterly resent your successful friends and fantasize about your wife's yoga instructor? According to Lewis, there are three lines of attack: Forget about it over time, confess it or laugh about it. In laughter, he says, "you can move away from yourself and look in, saying: 'Who could believe it! How stupid!'"
One of the problems we face at this point in our evolution is that the neocortex is not running the show - we are still too often at the mercy of our reptilian brains (especially the amygdala) and our mammal brains (limbic system).
Understanding this allows to have a little compassion for ourselves, but also to know that if we practice mindfulness, we are no longer equal to our thoughts.
[For what it's worth, the money thing (#5, I think) still haunts me -- that I'd be worth more if I earned more, even though I earn enough right now. Strange how those family-of-origin and cultural messages can be so prevalent.]