Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the idea of hell. I know that’s not your usual icebreaker, so stay with me here.
I’m not referring to the biblical Hell, with a capital H. I’m talking instead about hell in the metaphorical sense. The version that is individual, personal, palpable – and given the right conditions, liable to become your reality here on Earth.
What might that reality look like for you?
This isn’t to shock, scare, or freeze you into inaction. Rather, pondering your personal hell can be uniquely motivational.
In my own life, it has provided energy to lift me out of unhealthy patterns, while helping me clarify where I’m headed – and why I’m headed there.
Let me explain further.
When it comes down to it, two broad forces act on our motivation:
Attraction is the force pulling us towards a desirable future.
How to generate this force? A key focus of my personal development is cultivating a sense of inspiration. This might involve looking up to treasured role models, or tuning into an inner call to be the best I can be.
Inspiration is a profound state of being. It helps us paint a compelling picture of what the future could look like, and this vision acts as a potent attractive force. It pulls us forward, and we grow.
Repulsion, on the other hand, pushes us away from an undesirable future.
It’s that healthy dash of fear around who you could become if you basically stopped trying. This fear is a handy lens through which to sneak a peek of your own personal hell.
I’m not going to claim anyone has to do this form of inner work. I rarely take a prescriptive approach to life, and like most things, this is optional. I can only talk from personal experience.
Something I’ve found is this – as juicy and powerful as inspiration can be, it only carries me so far. It’s a formidable attractive force, but my rocket boosters really get activated when I leverage the repulsive forces within me.
So although I’ve written about the importance of contemplating who you do want to become, recognising who you don’t want to become can be just as insightful. If not more so.
Otherwise, how will you course-correct? How will you avoid complacency? In fact, how will you even know what complacency looks like?
Epitomising this idea is a wonderful quote:
“The safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
I don’t know about you, but those words send a ripple of fear through me. They encapsulate just how easy it is to take that trip – and descend into the very same unwelcome cycles and crises which I’ve seen transpire in my family system (and outside it).
Few people plan on taking this journey, but it happens time and time again. You see, there’s this slightly annoying thing in psychology called the ‘optimism bias’.
In a nutshell, people tend to overestimate their likelihood of experiencing positive events, and underestimate their likelihood of experiencing negative events. It explains why many smokers believe they’re less likely to contract lung cancer, for example.
Every moment of every day, we face seemingly tiny, insignificant decisions.
What I’m about to say is obvious, but so easy to forget: in aggregate, these small decisions are continuously sculpting us into our future selves 10, 20, 50 years from now. That’s worth re-reading.
I personally hope this ‘future me’ is someone I’ll be proud of:
- I hope my marriage will be stronger than ever, and not cracking at the seams
- I hope I’ll be contributing my gifts in a way that brings joy, and not stuck in a job I hate
- I hope my life will be full of laughter and positive energy, and not a sense of ennui or despair
We each harbour inside ourselves a dual potentiality.
We can either consciously make manifest our version of heaven on Earth, or we can take the road of apathy, and risk sliding gently into our own private hell.
For the remainder of this article, I’ll discuss a method I’ve found helpful in avoiding the latter.
Have You Met Your Shadow?
I recently became obsessed with the fantastic HBO show Succession, which depicts a nepotistic family of billionaires and their unravelling at the hands of a megalomaniac father figure.
What caught me off-guard was my sheer loathing of the eldest son, Connor Roy. I felt such an internal revulsion towards him, which was difficult to explain rationally.
I had just met an aspect of my ‘Shadow’ self.
Swiss Psychiatrist Carl Jung described the shadow as that unknown, dark side of our personality.
The theory goes that from a young, tender age, we begin partitioning off parts of our innately whole self that are deemed unacceptable by our caregivers. These parts are relegated to the hidden depths of our psyche.
As adults, we initially find it quite upsetting to look at those parts square on. To avoid this pain, we constantly go around projecting them onto other people in whom we recognise the same moral deficiencies.
Connor Roy represented deep parts of me that feel entitled, self-aggrandising and intellectually superior. Ouch.
Why am I talking about this?
Because it isn’t always obvious where we need to focus to avoid succumbing to unwanted cycles of crisis and misery.
‘Shadow work’ achieves this – it highlights areas onto which we must shine the light of awareness in order to grow. For each of us, there are so many unwanted impulses lurking quietly in our subconscious, waiting to sabotage our lives:
This isn’t to say we’re ‘evil’ deep down.
The point is, without seeing these forces and accepting their existence, they’ll eventually hijack our operating system. When we repress, we always pay in the long-run.
The upside is that recognising your shadow is a great way to define who you don’t want to be, and to avoid your own gradual descent into a personal hell.
With this goal in mind, I invite you to contemplate your shadow using the prompts below.
Note that while the payoff can be huge, this work can be gruelling. Be gentle with yourself, take a spirit of open curiosity, and schedule some self-care for afterwards.
Here are the prompts:
- Who in your life do you dislike for no clear reason? Consider how they act as a mirror for your hidden (or not-so-hidden) tendencies.
- Which famous person, or TV/film character, do you hate with irrational intensity? Again, what are they showing you about yourself?
- Who would you be if all these aspects of your shadow were allowed to run rampant? Take time to describe this reality… what does this place look like? What kind of relationships do you have? How do you spend your days? Which personal values have you neglected?
How was that? Tough, I imagine. After all, you’ve just taken a gentle peek through the gates of your own private hell.
Keep that feeling in mind as you move forward, because it’s likely no one will sound any alarm bells if you take the road towards it. The repulsive energy associated with that painful vision can be harnessed in your journey of personal growth.
And always remember: the safest road to hell is the one without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.