Charlotte and the Creatures of the Dark Forest

Uncle: Here’s a bedtime story for you.

Nephew: At my age? At midday? I’m overjoyed.

Uncle: Once upon a time, young Charlotte was in a paddock warming herself in the sun and throwing pine cones at Farmer Brown’s beehives.

Nephew: Okay . . .

Uncle: Alongside the paddock was the spooky Dark Forest.

Nephew: Ooh, scary!

Uncle: Out from the Dark Forest strode Anger. Anger was a ferocious looking creature. It was white with rage, and its huge, warty head had big, sharp teeth like breadknives.

Nephew: Breadknives? Is that the best you can do?

Uncle: It drooled venom as it stormed up to Charlotte, and she trembled. It complained bitterly to her about something and demanded she act immediately. Charlotte told it, ‘Go way! I don’t want you here! Go away!’ But the creature stayed and continued to complain, and drip venom, until eventually it strode away, back into the Dark Forest. Charlotte felt dreadful.

Nephew: I’m going to feel dreadful too if this story doesn’t get a move on.

Uncle: The next day, Charlotte returned to the paddock, and with a stick began setting off Farmer Brown’s rabbit traps. Out from the Dark Forest stepped Prejudice. The creature’s skin was mould, its head looked like a garbage tip, and its rotten teeth looked like black carrots.

Nephew: You’re really struggling, aren’t you?

Uncle: Prejudice insisted on speaking with Charlotte, and this time Charlotte just shrugged, knowing she didn’t have much choice in the matter. The creature rambled on and on with breath that smelled like fresh spew, until finally it wandered away back into the Dark Forest. Charlotte felt flat.

Nephew: Did the creature have eyes of pus?

Uncle: It did. On the third day . . .

Nephew: How did it see?

Uncle: What? Oh. Echolocation, like a bat. On the third day . . .

Nephew: It had big ears, did it?

Uncle: Yes, it had big ears! Like trampolines! Now let me finish the story! On the third day, while Charlotte was in the paddock shooting bullets into Farmer Brown’s ‘No Shooting’ sign, Sadness emerged from the Dark Forest. Sadness . . .

Nephew: Let me guess! Sadness was soggy from crying a thousand tears of lemon juice?

Uncle: Lime juice, but close enough. This time, Charlotte decided to welcome the creature, and listen to what it had to say. She even gave it a kind word and wiped a lime-juice tear from its left eye. After a while, Sadness went quiet. It disappeared without her noticing. Charlotte felt okay. Then it dawned on her . . .

Nephew: What did?

Uncle: Keep quiet and I’ll tell you. It dawned on her that although Sadness was no fun to be with – a real drag, truth be known – it had come to assist her. It had come to tell her something was wrong in her life. Charlotte then realised Anger and Prejudice had also come to assist her. Anger had come to fight for her values, and Prejudice had come to address her fears.

Nephew: And the postman had come to deliver her mail.

Uncle: Shut up. The next day, Anger visited again. This time, instead of trying to shoo the scary creature away, Charlotte welcomed it and listened to its complaints. She then worked out a way to solve its problem. Anger considered her advice and agreed with her solution. It wandered off with a mild grumble.

Nephew: Let me guess . . .

Uncle: No, I’m not going to let you guess! You’re a pest. Over time, other creatures emerged from the Dark Forest: Grief, Fear, Jealousy, Envy . . . and many others. Most of them visited more than once. All of them could see pain in her life and had come to assist her. Although Charlotte didn’t want their assistance she accepted them and dealt with their concerns. After a while she got to know them, and she came to understand their desires, foibles and fears. Although the creatures were hard to get on with, she became adept at dealing with them.

Nephew: Good for her.

Uncle: Charlotte knew that none of the creatures was bad; each was just a troubled soul trying to deal with the world – her world – the best way it could.

Nephew: Then what? When does this story get interesting?

Uncle: You cheeky blight. Over time, the creatures grew softer and wiser, until they rarely needed to leave the Dark Forest. And when they did, they didn’t stay long. They would have a quiet chat with Charlotte and return content.

Nephew: Why didn’t she visit them in the Dark Forest?

Uncle: She did! Charlotte lost her fear of the Dark Forest and ventured into it. She discovered new paths and extended her boundaries. When she met the dark creatures in there she felt safe with them. And she came to realise: they were her friends. Always had been.

Nephew: . . . Aw! Gosh, what a lovely story! I have no idea what you are talking about.

Uncle: (Sigh) I am talking, of course, about the dark forest within each of us. We can learn from Charlotte. Her message is clear . . .

Nephew: . . . to the village idiot, maybe.

Uncle: . . . we need to give ourselves permission to feel any emotion. It is natural to feel emotions such as jealousy, envy, anger, hatred and greed. They are in our dark forest and they are meant to be there. When they venture out, let’s welcome them and deal with their concerns.

Nephew: Why not just tell them to clear off?

Uncle: If we pretend they aren’t there, or tell them, ‘No, I’m not feeling you! Go away!’ they will just keep coming back, and keep nagging us. And, we won’t learn how to deal with them. They will remain ornery and hard to handle.

Nephew: Should we thank them for coming?

Uncle: What a good idea! Yes! ‘Ah. You again! Thank you for coming. What would you like to tell me today?’

Nephew: You didn’t have to take me seriously.

Uncle: We may not enjoy their visits, but those dark emotions require our attention. When we accept them we become skilled in dealing with them. And, like Charlotte, we also come to realise: they are our friends. Always have been.

Nephew: Some friends! With friends like them, who needs anemones.

Uncle: What? No. Shut up. When we learn how to deal with our dark emotions they also grow softer, and wiser. Anger, for example, has now become a friend I value highly. It is a wonderful emotion to have and I enjoy its visits.

Nephew: Anger?!

Uncle: And some creatures disappear into the Dark Forest never to be seen again.

Nephew: Like what?

Uncle: Hatred. Jealousy. Contempt.

Nephew: Have they left you permanently?

Uncle: I haven’t seen those friends for years. Admittedly, sometimes when I talk to you Homicide visits me from the Dark Forest. I have to chat with it for a while before it changes its mind.

Nephew: So . . . that’s it? That’s the end of the story?

Uncle: Yes.

Nephew: Is there a sequel? Like, with a bushfire or something?

Uncle: (Sigh) No.

Nephew: That’s encouraging.

Uncle: The point is: we are given all the emotions. They are in our forest and they are meant to be there. It’s what we do with them that counts. If we are hateful, so be it. Instead of pretending Hatred is not there, or criticising ourselves because it is there, we can simply accept that it is there, and deal with its concerns. We can look to see what’s behind it. Is it fear? If so, the fear of what?

Nephew: The fear of long stories.

Uncle: When we observe an emotion without criticising it, we get to know it better and its hold on us weakens. After a while we might even stop feeling hateful, or jealous, or whatever, because we understand the fear behind the emotion. So, let’s avoid criticising ourselves when we have an unwanted emotion. Let’s not say something like, ‘I shouldn’t be feeling this,’ or ‘I’m a bad person for feeling this way’. Let’s instead give that emotion permission to be with us. First identify it, then accept it, and then give thought to how we respond.

Nephew: Why?

Uncle: Why?! To build within us a confidence that we can deal with our dark emotions. That’s a big step towards developing the feeling that whatever happens in life, we can handle it.

‘. . . it is important to totally give yourself permission to feel. And then feel it. Strange things happen when we feel our feelings. They themselves morph into another feeling and often we have a feeling of relief for honouring our own feeling.’
Gay McKinley, psychologist

Nephew: Shouldn’t I at least try to stop feeling hateful? It doesn’t seem right to give myself permission to hate someone.

Uncle: No. Accept your hatred. Give it permission to be with you. Feel it, and observe it like a scientist would. Try to understand precisely what it is that you hate, and why. That’s not easy, but give it a go. Then, give thought to your response. You can still act wisely; the hatred doesn’t have to influence your behaviour.

Nephew: If I feel jealous?

Uncle: The same. Notice it and label it. ‘I’m feeling jealous.’ Then remind yourself it’s okay to feel jealous and it has your permission to be with you. ‘Hey, I feel jealous and that’s okay. I am allowed to feel jealous.’  Then look for the fear, or the should, behind the emotion. Figure out how you’re going to deal with it. In his book ‘The Happiness Trap’, Dr Harris suggests we say something like, ‘I don’t like this feeling, but I have room for it.’ And, ’This feeling is unpleasant, but I can accept it.’

Nephew: Is Dr Harris invited to parties?

Uncle: If you’re suffering, tell yourself: ‘I’m feeling this and it feels awful. But it can stay.’  Remind yourself that at some point your suffering will go away. Until then, it can hang around for as long as it likes.

‘For the most part, emotional pain has a cure – and that cure is time.’  . . .
  . . . ‘The pain you are experiencing will build, peak and then ebb. It has its own energy force and its own time schedule. You’re simply its passenger . . .
     ‘Be an observer of the process. Tell yourself, “I’m watching myself be in pain but not wasting time trying to fix it.”
Toby Green, psychologist.

Nephew: If I am sad, why would I welcome Sadness? Won’t I become even sadder? What if I end up sinking into a sadness I can’t get out of?

Uncle: Yes, sadness hurts. All the dark emotions hurt. Accepting them instead of distracting yourself from them, or pretending you don’t have them,  or using alcohol to hide from them, will make us feel even more uncomfortable, but the pain will dissipate. It’s like lancing a boil, or having an injection: in the short term it hurts, but in the long-run you benefit. By acknowledging your pain, and allowing yourself to undergo it, you give yourself the opportunity to heal.

Nephew: And if I don’t . . .?

Uncle: It will keep nagging you, like the creatures that kept nagging Charlotte before she accepted their presence. And you won’t learn how to deal with that emotion.

‘It won’t go away! And you will feel it in unexpected ways and at unexpected times – in all its glorious messiness. It takes time to heal, but feeling that pain is a crucial step towards healing.’
Gay McKinley again.

Nephew: There is one flaw in your argument.

Uncle: Just one?

Nephew: Shame. Some people feel shame daily. It keeps coming back to tell us we are bad people, worthy only of suffering. Do we really want to keep welcoming Shame into our lives? Do we really need to keep listening to its cruel and ignorant message, over and over and over?

Uncle: Ah . . . You make a good point. Shame is the one exception.

Nephew: Exception?

Uncle: The other dark emotions like anger, prejudice and contempt are feelings about how the world should be; Shame is a feeling about how you should be, and it can say some awful things, things you shouldn’t accept from any friend, no matter how well-meaning.

Nephew: Friend?!

Uncle: Yes, it’s a friend, trying to help us, like the other creatures of the Dark Forest.

Nephew: Trying to help us?! No! How?!

Uncle: I’m not saying it does help us; I’m saying it wants to. The thing is, it’s blind.

Nephew: Blind?

Uncle: It has no eyes. And no echolocation! Plus, it’s not very bright. But it desperately wants to help.

Nephew: But how? How would it think that making us feel like scum is helpful? And why do you say it’s blind?

Uncle: Because often we feel shame unnecessarily. The cruel words or actions of other people may unfairly prompt us to feel bad about ourselves, but Shame can’t see that. It is only aware of the violation, and it desperately wants to warn you about it. The creature fears disconnection, and it’s urging you to never be in that position again.

Nephew: But it’s . . . Oh, I see. It’s blind and can’t see where the problem is. And it’s not very bright. Yeah, I get it. Isn’t that a good reason to ignore it?

Uncle: The trouble is, if we don’t acknowledge Shame when it is standing there with us, we may end up believing that someone else is causing our turmoil, and treat them badly. Or, we might take drugs or alcohol to ease our unexplained pain.

Nephew: Oh.

Uncle: Besides, if we ignore it, it will only keep nagging us.

Nephew: Yeah, I got that bit. But when we listen to Shame our self-esteem plummets! People have died listening to shame. They have suicided.

Uncle: They have killed themselves to stop feeling shame. I’m suggesting we do the opposite: allow ourselves to feel it. And the first step towards feeling it is to acknowledge it. ‘I’m feeling shame.’

Nephew: We label it? Like we do the other dark creatures?

Uncle: Yes.

Nephew: Tell me again, how does labelling an emotion help?

Uncle: It allows the turmoil within us to take shape, and once we recognise the emotion it becomes less scary and easier to cope with – we know we have suffered that emotion before and survived it. Further, when we acknowledge the creature by labelling it, it feels ‘seen’, and so it loosens its grasp on us a little. We still hurt, of course, but we can feel the pain slowly evaporate.

Nephew: And then what?

Uncle: Then we deal with it. We might remind ourselves that the feeling will pass. In the case of Shame, we might remind ourselves that we’re human and destined to make mistakes. Or that the incident was not our fault. I don’t know. It depends on the reason we’re feeling shame. The important thing is, once we have acknowledged our shame, we can draw upon our resources to deal with it.

Nephew: You said it was an exception.

Uncle: Yes, when it begins to insult us we can no longer counsel it; we have to reject it. We cannot let it vent on us. That’s a step too far.

Nephew: Sometimes our Shame is justified. If we feel ashamed about bullying someone, that shame might prevent us from bullying again.

Uncle: Good point.

Nephew: I thought so. Should we reveal our shame to our friends?

Uncle: Good idea, if they’re friends you can trust. Yes, the more we acknowledge our Shame, the more heard it feels and the less desperate it becomes.

‘And sometimes saying them out loud can make them feel a little silly. I’ve found that true for myself — saying a belief out loud to another person takes away some of its power, maybe shows me how hard I am on myself.’
Leo Babauta, Zen Habits

Nephew: So, that’s it? ‘Hello Shame‘.

Uncle: ‘Hi Shame! Fearing disconnection again? Talk to me about it.’

Nephew: Not out loud, I hope?

Uncle: Loudly, but in your head.

Nephew: It will still come back.

Uncle: It will, because it’s not very bright, and it’s still desperately trying to warn you. Just keep acknowledging it and dealing with it. It will come to understand that you are taking it seriously; that in itself is a step towards appeasing it. Over time it will become softer and wiser, and visit you less frequently and less ardently.

Nephew: Let’s hope so. I notice Charlotte didn’t meet the positive emotions.

Uncle: Charlotte already felt comfortable with her friends Curiosity, Calm and Confidence, to name just three. Our warm emotions also enjoy the ear of a patient listener, but unlike the creatures of the Dark Forest, they don’t need it. Mostly, they don’t have to fight to be with us. We usually embrace them.

Nephew: Usually?

Uncle: Not always. I once heard someone say that only when they gave themselves permission to be happy did their life change. So yes, you make a good point. We need to welcome all our emotions, dark and light.

Nephew: Give each one of them a name tag?

Uncle: Yes.

Nephew: What if I were a paedophile or pyromaniac? Or anything else starting with P? Should I welcome my desires and invite them to stay with me?

Uncle: Just because you welcome an emotion does not mean you have to act upon it. Instead of telling yourself you should not be attracted to children, or should not have the desire to start a fire, acknowledge that you are feeling that way and explore it. Give yourself permission to feel those things. Tell yourself, ‘I feel compelled to start fires. So be it. I am attracted to children. So be it. Then ask yourself, ‘how can I best deal with those feelings?’

Nephew: I see.

Uncle: Those are important questions to ask, and you couldn’t ask them if you refused to acknowledge those feelings in the first place.

Nephew: What’s for lunch?

Uncle: If you refuse to let yourself have those feelings, or berate yourself for having them, you could foster an inner turmoil that might mean you have less control over your behaviour when it matters. If you find yourself holding a box of matches in a forest and have not yet learned to handle those impulsive feelings, your resistance to the impulse might be low. The first step towards handling those feelings is to accept you have them. Once you do that, you can take steps towards dealing with those emotions, and your behaviour, in times when it matters.

Nephew: Alright. So, what happened to Charlotte?

Uncle: Charlotte met Farmer Brown’s son, Tom. She held his hand and introduced him to the creatures of the Dark Forest, and he also came to realise they were his friends. Tom and Charlotte married, and lived happily ever after.

Nephew: Aw! Pardon me while I puke. But you still haven’t answered the big question.

Uncle: What’s that?

Nephew: What’s for lunch?

‘Allow yourself to be unhappy. When we’re feeling bad, feeling in pain, all we want is to get away from it. Ignore it, pretend you’re fine, comfort yourself from the pain, shield yourself, lash out in defensiveness, numb it with drugs, distract yourself. This is a very human response. But actually, wanting to get away from the unhappiness doesn’t make it better. It usually just prolongs the pain, makes problems worse. Instead, tell yourself that it’s OK to feel unhappy, it’s OK to feel pain. Pause and allow yourself to feel it, to fully be immersed in that unhappiness. See that it’s OK, and be curious about it, explore it, become intimate with it. It’s not pleasant, but it doesn’t kill you. And in fact, it’s where the healing starts, where growth happens.’
Leo Babauta, Zen Habits

Let’s avoid expressions like: ‘I shouldn’t be envious of her. I’m shallow.’ Try instead: ‘I feel envious of her . That’s fine. Although I’d rather not feel this way, it’s what I am feeling. So be it.
  We might choose to add: ‘What do I fear that prompts me to feel that way? What is my deeper concern?

Let’s avoid: ‘I shouldn’t get angry. I’m supposed to be serene and mature. Only losers get angry.’ Try instead: ‘I feel angry. So be it. What’s the best way to express this anger to make changes, and not make things worse?  Or, ‘It’s okay for me to feel angry, but is it worth getting angry about?

Let’s avoid: ‘I’m afraid, but I shouldn’t be. Other people are have gone through worse.’ Try instead: ‘I feel afraid. I’m allowed to be afraid. I will be afraid!
  We might choose to add: ‘What can I do to solve the problem?

Let’s avoid: ‘I hate that person. I must be a bad person to be so hateful.’ Try instead: ‘I hate that person. That’s interesting. Why do I hate that person? Is fear prompting me to hate them? Or envy? The fear or envy of what?  If it’s neither fear nor envy, what is prompting me to hate that person?

When we give ourselves permission to feel what we are feeling, we give ourselves an opportunity to grow.

Do it now. Officially give yourself permission to feel any emotion from now on.

(Say it out loud, and mean it.)    
     ‘I ,      – – – , officially welcome any emotion that arises within me. That includes anger, fear, hatred, self-loathing, envy, doubt, jealousy, contempt, resentment, despair – any dark emotion that might arise within me.
     If I feel any dark emotion, so be it. It can stay for as long as it likes, and while it visits I will listen to it and aim to understand what it is telling me.
     I also give myself permission to feel joy, peace, serenity, humour, happiness – and any other warm emotion that might arise within me.
     All my emotions, dark and warm, will always be welcome.
     Furthermore, I will protect that emotion for as long as it chooses to stay.
     Officially, each and every one of my emotions has my unwavering permission to be. Period.’

It’s official! From now on you are obliged to notice what you are feeling and welcome it. On no account can you criticise yourself for feeling an unwanted emotion. When you feel an unwanted emotion, don’t say to yourself, ‘I shouldn’t be feeling this way’, or ‘Why am I upset over something so trivial?’ No, those statements are now banned. Instead, be like Charlotte and let the emotion be. Welcome it. Observe it. Label it. Listen to its message. Then, if you like, shrug.

          ‘Have the courage to be imperfect.’
          Brené Brown.

Change the following sentences to give yourself permission to feel.

Example: ‘I feel ashamed., but I shouldn’t feel that way. I did nothing wrong.’
Try: ‘I feel ashamed, and that’s okay. Whether I should feel it or not doesn’t matter; I feel shame and so be it.’
You then might ask: ‘What beliefs do I have prompt me to feel this way?’

Your turn:
(1) ’I can’t stop crying. I’m hopeless.’
(2) ‘I can’t stand working with him. I shouldn’t be like that. I should be more patient, more tolerant.’
(3) ‘I feel hurt, but that’s my problem. If I get upset over something trivial like that, it serves me right.’

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