I am a big fan of superhero stories. A good superhero story, well done, achieves the difficult feat of making a deeply flawed, sometimes outright unlikeable individual relatable – someone that you want to cheer on, someone that you want to succeed. In the best superhero stories, there is a very fine line between the heroes and the villains – should the story be told the other way round, the villain might just as easily become the hero. Goodness and badness are blurred – every character contains pieces of both.
If you can guess where I’m going, you might be aware that I’m going to suggest that the bad guys inside of us, the Parts of us of which we are ashamed, or that we deeply dislike – have some good in them. Turned on its head, the plot of our lives might frame them completely differently – making heroes of our least likable elements. Most people don’t love this suggestion…we want to be Captain America, not Thanos! How can we think about our deficits differently to learn to love the bad guys inside of us?
Our greatest weaknesses are often tied to our greatest strengths.
In superhero stories, it is not unusual to discover that one’s weakest element also contains kernels of their greatest power or strength. This is not an unusual discovery in psychotherapy, either. As we rework the stories that we tell ourselves about our most disliked Parts, we uncover the ways in which they have protected us, saving the day (entirely unnoticed and unsung) time and again. One’s melancholic tendencies might also allow for heightened empathy and sharp emotional intelligence. One’s anxieties might insure that a deadline is met and the job is done extremely well. One’s procrastination might make room for fun and excitement that would otherwise be missed. One’s shyness might lend itself to the cultivation of rare intimacy amongst chosen trusted friends. When we spin differently, we can conceive of the notion that our attributes are lessened, or disappear altogether, without our flaws.
Even the most difficult Parts to love have the best of intentions.
When I work with clients, we often struggle together to see the positive intentions of the Parts of ourselves that we struggle with the most – the Parts that we do not like, that we wish to eradicate, or ignore, or smoosh deep down inside of use so no one can see them.
It’s important to consider the motivations of these Parts of ourselves – what are they trying to protect us from? Phobic Parts are often desperately trying to protect us from perceived frightening situations. The Part of us that binge eats is valiantly trying to numb a particularly painful memory or emotion. The Part that keeps us depressed and in bed might be trying to urge us to turn our attention to something inside us that needs extra nurturance or support. Our Bad Guy is on our team, he’s just going about his job in a way that isn’t super useful/logical/helpful.
A Bad Guy is a Good Guy in the wrong job.
Internal Family Systems work encourages us to ask our Parts, “What job might you like to do instead?”. If an Anxious Part was able to stop agitating, what might it do instead? Aid us in remaining sharp and disciplined? Propel us towards opportunities for fun or personal growth? Who knows? When we stop trying to get rid of the Bad Guys inside us, we might find that they are incredibly useful to us in another arena of life. If we can learn to appreciate those Parts of ourselves (and stop trying to blow them into the next galaxy), they might serve us in ways we never had never considered.
We are all always going about the business of writing our own superhero stories, and casting the good guys and the bad guys. Can we shift our perspective to recognize the fine line between the heroes and the villains? Can we learn to love our “flaws”?