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The road to hell is full of good intentions - the shadow of kindness and charity

A sombra da bondade e da caridade

A recurring issue in the psychotherapeutic process is the investigation of the intentions behind an action. In other words, acknowledging if the person who hurt us really intended to do so, or, in the case of a road accident, which requires several hours of analysis, the subject often needs to know if they were in a truly or potentially dangerous situation. This demands a confrontation between fantasy and reality, the accurate perception of facts, but above all the analysis of the emotions that this situation has triggered.

It is a common complaint that people who start psychotherapy get worse after they start the process. Since they are no longer on autopilot, they begin to observe their life in a new way and become aware of things that went unnoticed before.

People who once had seemed good and friendly are avoided. Others, who once seemed cold and distant, now appear to have a tenderness that went unnoticed before. The person’s relationships change and their vision of what is good or bad also changes through being revitalized and increasingly nuanced.

Disappointment and surprise are often part of the process, it can seem like the world’s been turned upside down and a state of confusion can set in.

What should we do after realizing that someone we think only wants what is best for us is actually manipulating us? After all, the words "I only want what’s best for you" are repeated constantly in the family and educational environment of children and adolescents, extending to personal relationships and even to professional ones.

The statement "I only want what’s best for you" is almost like a mantra, or like a method of brainwashing, as if we were conditioned to believe that it is enough to say that if someone’s intentions are good then everything else will also be correct. However, to say that one's intentions are truly good implies analysis of the outcome of the action, which abusers and narcissists often dispute. The first tip to manage this problem is as follows: if one's good intentions cannot be justified by the outcome of the speech or action, then we have at least one feeling-toned complex activated.

Appearing to be well-intentioned does not mean that the good-doer has no secondary intentions. It would be naïve of us to think so. But this does not necessarily mean that the person who has a secondary motive hasn’t done anything good, in fact, we often have a win-win relationship where no one gets hurt from the situation.

Nor can we forget that “out of evil comes good”. Often it is a situation of explicit abuse, discomfort or aggression that makes us more resilient and encourages us to pursue other healthier situations. Examples include; a new job, or to break away from harmful relationships, colleagues and family members. Essentially removing ourselves from situations where we are the victim and positioning ourselves as transforming agents responsible for our own lives. To achieve this, we need to raise awareness of our possible need for dependency and take responsibility for the perpetuation of the uncomfortable situations we complain about.

But don't let yourself be discouraged in reading this! Because of the difficulty of these situations, we have an idea of how intense an analytical process can be, since scrutinizing, observing and analyzing the true intentions of ourselves and others is no simple task and often leads to ethical and philosophical questions that we would have never considered prior to analysis.

Helping companies and charity organizations, protecting animals and the underprivileged, supporting ecological causes, and many other examples which I will not cite here, are all subject to this question. Sometimes one’s desire to help another may be incompatible with the other’s ability to receive this kind of help, or any kind of help in general. In other cases, the recipient considers that the help they have received has become an obligation and they depend on it as a recurrent part of their life, practically enslaving their well-doer, becoming envious and ungrateful. How can we solve this complicated question? It depends on each specific situation.

According to Freud, every neurosis has a secondary gain, that is, all neurotic behaviour occurs only because we gain something from it, even though this gain does not seem intelligible. Thus, even acts that are considered altruistic can have their origin in personal pride.

I remember one very charitable lady, a true example to the community for a life dedicated to philanthropic work, who once confessed (not aware that she was doing it) that she loved philanthropic work because she achieved power and recognition through it, she commanded and was obeyed, gaining many privileges for her personal life, raising her self-esteem and self-confidence.

However, we cannot disregard the good that this lady has provided to thousands of people simply because she was "paid" through the recognition, the admiration she received, and even through a certain tolerance for the bossier side of her personality.

We all know someone who likes to beat their chest, boasting about being the humblest person on the face of the earth; such people often advertise their own humility. This demonstrates a tremendous lack of awareness of one's shadow, where pride and presumption are so extreme that one must hide behind a persona that equals one's own shadow.

We often see children being treated as objects by their parents, as if they existed merely to satisfy their desires and wishes.

Once a lady told me that since her children were hers, she could punish them whenever she wished, that they should serve and obey her, since she has complete control over their life and death. Her behaviour alternated between being the protective mother (against others) and the devouring mother (herself), in a very strong example of the polarities of the Great Mother archetype.

To say that this mother did not love her children would be incorrect; to say that she hated them would also be incorrect. However, she was identified with the archetype, really believing that she had all the power over them and that the punishments were for their “own good" so that they could become "good people”.

Some families use money as a way to extend their children’s dependence on them. What might seem like financial aid, an incentive to start a new life, often becomes an emotional bargaining chip where children become permanent debtors to their parents and must submit to their demands.

Good intentions are often used to justify invasions of privacy. Favours are offered in search of an approach or exchange of advantages. Reciprocity becomes an offence and the call for respect and for boundaries taken as a betrayal.

In the name of love, friendship and family ties, anything goes. What a dangerous mindset!

Unfortunately, even certain colleagues of mine, renowned psychotherapists, fall into the trap of recommending that one should always resolve issues with family members, ignoring the fact that many relatives are extremely toxic, and that it is not up to the therapist to decide whether the client should reconcile or end relationships with family, spouses or friends, but to point out the healthy or perverse aspects of their interpersonal relationships, and help the client to understand why they are trapped in certain toxic relationships. That all being said, the choice belongs to the client, never to the psychotherapist.

Doing good to others can be a means of narcissistic satisfaction, where the greatest beneficiary can be the subject themselves.

Some volunteer work may not, in fact, be necessary, but merely a way of fulfilling the subject's need to feel useful. Often their role is not effective, nor is the volunteer qualified for that action, which eventually becomes an opportunity for social gathering and insertion in society, and whether the “needy” benefit from it is another story entirely.

Some hospitals have their volunteers visiting the patients, alleging that some patients need to receive visitors. They enter the rooms, ask stereotypical questions, say stereotypical words of support that are often incongruous with the patient's reality, which they do not bother to investigate.

The same is true for some social workers and hospital psychologists, who seem more driven by their curiosity to know more about the patient and their family than to have a legitimate desire to help them, and on many occasions to judge and discriminate against situations that they are not fully aware of.

In such situations, we can observe that there is a feeling-toned complex activated since clearly the good action does not have the imagined effect. What we have is an invasion often motivated by a morbid curiosity, the real motive for the supposed act of philanthropy.

Indeed, curiosity is often the driving force of many so-called charitable actions. When we ask someone if he or she is okay are we really interested in their well-being or do we simply want to appease our own curiosity?

This is also a danger in psychotherapy.

Which questions are necessary to understand the case, and which are at the service of the therapist's curiosity? After all, the client has the right to keep their secrets, even to the psychologist, since psychotherapeutic treatment must respect the client's privacy limits.

Before posing an intimate question, it is necessary to consider its purpose: is this question necessary for understanding the case? I prefer to tell patients that they are free to refuse to answer if they don't feel comfortable, which often surprises them a little.

Is this surprise perhaps an indication that we are all somehow used to being invaded?

Social networks and smartphone location sharing bring another form of control disguised as a legitimate concern.

Today fathers, mothers, spouses and boyfriends all use shared location as a means of control.

I used to have one client who would receive a call from his parents every time he set foot outside the house, asking where he was going, with whom, why, and so on. Note that the client was an adult!

Smartphones have become electronic babysitters for people of all ages, curtailing people's freedom to come and go as they please, assuming that people only act correctly under surveillance.

The right to privacy is often discussed at several psychotherapy sessions, where we discuss whether or not to give the boyfriend, spouse, or whatever kind of relation, the password to one’s smartphone, laptop, and indeed all social network platforms.

We can open a discussion on whether a trusting relationship implies revealing “passwords” or in fact abandoning social networks, as well as any other forms of control and manipulation of one's behaviour, emotions, thoughts and fantasies, which suggest that every secret can be investigated in the name of love (or insecurity). Sad, isn't it?

An extreme example (however more real than one can imagine) about the excessive worry and care about one’s children, is shown on the Netflix series “Black Mirror”. In the “Arkangel” episode, Marie loses track of her three-year-old daughter, Sara, and decides to fit her out with the Arkangel system, a kind of chip that allows Marie to use a tablet to track her daughter, monitor her health and emotional state, and censor things she doesn't want Sara to see, like blood. As Sara gets older, Marie recognizes that Arkangel is preventing Sara from growing up normally, but the tracking device cannot be removed. Instead, Marie deactivates the tablet. As Sara becomes a rebellious teenager, Marie becomes suspicious of her and reactivates Arkangel, discovering that she is using drugs with a boyfriend that Marie does not approve of. When Sara runs off to spend the night with her boyfriend against Marie's orders, Arkangel warns Marie, and she secretly gives Sara emergency contraceptive pills, causing her to vomit at school. Sara returns home to find that Marie has reactivated the Arkangel. Sara repeatedly hits Marie with the tablet, becoming unaware of how much damage she has caused due to the censorship filter, and runs away, with Marie calling her in vain. In this way, youth and adult mobile phone tracking features can be used as a form of protective cover, where the right to privacy, or even to learn from one's mistakes, attempts to be taken away from individuals, which we know is in vain.

Government institutions, institutionalized religions, NGOs, in short, all entities that preach some value of social insertion, public or private, carry their shadow. Churches spend more money building temples than helping the most unfortunate.

Some philanthropic institutions spend a large portion of the money they raise to maintain their administrative machinery. Many good jobs are supported by money for charity, which ends up receiving only a small percentage of the amount owed.

Some institutions receive generous donations, including some in the form of very valuable material goods. In several instances, I have witnessed donated objects being diverted away from the cause to the personal benefit of the boards of these institutions, under the defensive claim that the “poor will not know their real value”. When asked if they would make a donation to replace the goods taken, the psychopathic defence takes over, stating that they "work for free", therefore they are entitled to some perks. In my opinion, receiving perks in the form of material goods is receiving payment, so in this way, the philanthropic work could be read differently.

The examples are endless, but they are variations of the theme itself. Many so-called noble causes are at the service of pride, vanity, and the social, personal and professional advancement of some individuals who naïvely believe that this shadow is imperceptible.

Nonetheless, it is clear that there are people who have a disinterested and legitimate desire to help others, but they are often discreet, as well as aware of the actual or possible secondary gains that their philanthropic actions can bring them, with the option to give them up or not.

Between being good and wanting to look good there is a big conceptual and philosophical difference. Wishing to be a good person is an admirable desire, but at what price we do it is questionable. True goodness or charity depends on the integration of our own dark aspects, whereas if we try to be good while denying our dark side and projecting it on others, then our good deeds will not have the imagined beneficial effects on the other, nor on the other in our quiet conscience.


Bibliographic References

Freud, S. - General Theory of Neurosis

        Three Essays of the Theory of Sexuality

        Studies about Hysteria 

Guggenbuhl-Craig, Adolf – Power in the Helping Professions

Jung, C. G. - CW3 – The Psychogenesis of Mental Disease

           CW7 – Two Essays on Analytical Psychology

           CW9/1 -The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious 

           CW16 – The Practice of Psychotherapy 

Singer, Thomas and Kimbles, Samuel. The emerging theory of cultural complexes In Analytical psychology: Contemporary perspectives in Jungian analysis. New York/London, Brunner-Routledge,

The Black Mirror - Episode 15, 4 season, 2017

Stein, Murray – The Map of the Soul

Text originally published in English, for the website

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