Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

25 Feb 2016

How do we create change? Understanding human nature and the split within us – Part 2

Posted by Michael Keating

By Eric Hellman

This is the fourth in a series of articles on how we can create change for sustainability by Eric Hellman, co-founder of the Recycling Council of Ontario and the Blue Box.

Think of yourself on one of your best days, when you feel alive and engaged, and things are just going right. At times like these, we have an inner confidence, enthusiasm and a belief in possibilities. It’s as though we see the world through rich, joyful and powerful eyes. Ideas and outcomes flow easily. We have lots of energy. We willingly share our time, energy and talents with others, and feel richer because of it. And, we also feel more connected to ourselves and to others, nature and the world around us.

Now, for a few moments, think of yourself on your worst day, when life feels like a struggle. Perhaps you experienced a heaviness, fear or desperation, a feeling that nothing you said or did would work, and there was no hope of change. Or maybe it was boiling anger and frustration, when it seemed as if you were losing control and everyone around you was making it worse. In these times, when we most need help or support, we often resist asking for it. Even if others offer it, we may turn it away, believing that no one else understands. We can feel lost, disconnected and alone.

You will have your own words and descriptions for these two kinds of days; I don’t mean to impose my own on you. But the reason I raise them is that they are both personal, and more than that. What I’ve learned is that we all experience these kinds of thoughts and feelings, as part of being human. And this, in turn, touches on the dual nature within us that I referred to in my previous article, and which I will explore more fully below.

Our Light and Dark Sides

Here’s how I’ve come to see the split in human nature, after working with these concepts for the past 35 years.

One mindset within us – I’m going to call it our ‘whole, loving or enlightened self’ – experiences itself as connected to life. Drawing on a calm, confident centre, it lives and works with meaning and purpose. It knows its own values and needs, yet listens to others; it takes risks, while forgiving mistakes. When we live in this state of being, we express qualities such aliveness, compassion, caring and understanding. We see our own interests and well-being as inextricably linked to that of others. And, we often experience ourselves as part of a greater whole, web or source of life.

The other side of us – I’ll call it our separate or fear-based self (which many call ego) – approaches life in the opposite way. Seeing us as separate from others, it experiences a continuing sense of lack, fear and doubt. It worries about the future, and regrets or feels guilty about the past. Believing that the source of well-being lies outside of us, it is always seeking to get more – power, money, love, possessions – in order to feel safe and happy. As a result, it is frequently in conflict with others.

This mindset believes that other people are responsible for our problems, and does everything it can to ‘protect’ itself. Even with people we care about, this mindset will use fear in one of its many forms – attack, guilt, intimidation or control – to get what it wants. Similarly, it attempts to feel secure through being right, important, better than, or putting others down – or paradoxically, by suppressing our truths, beating ourselves up when we make mistakes, or holding us back from living fully in the world.

Our whole mind thinks in terms of “both/and”: the economy and the environment; making a living and having a life; having health and abundance for itself and others; my beliefs and values and yours. The separate self sees life as an “either/or,” believing that it needs to choose between these fundamental needs, and this creates even more conflict, because it is always pitting one against the other.


A Recipe for Conflicted Living

In coming to know these ‘sides’ within myself, and watching them in other people, I am continually astounded at how often they show up in everyday interactions. For example, we value one political leader or party, and put another down. We care about the environment, but mistrust business people. We love our friends, then judge our enemies. There are times when we remember what matters most in life, then forget almost immediately. We receive money or appreciation from someone, and the next minute we’re afraid of not having enough.

The movement between these two mindsets seems almost like an On/Off switch. We regularly switch back and forth from one ‘self’ to the other, in which we are:

Aware (want to know) or Asleep (want to avoid, not know)
Focused on common interests or Focused on self interest
Accepting, understanding or Fear inducing, guilt provoking
Empowering or Controlling


This is about more than what our values are. It took me a long time to learn this one. It isn’t that some people care, about nature, family, money, security, kindness, peace, etc., and others don’t. It’s that we all do some of the time, and at other times, we don’t. When we feel threatened or afraid for our well-being, we actually switch dominant values from caring to self protection, and then act this out. What guides our behaviour is the mindset we are seeing the world through, based on our values, beliefs and attitudes. This leads to deep confusion in both thinking and behaviour. For example:

We want to Then we
Create a kinder, gentler world Attack or dismiss those who disagree with us
Live healthier, happier lives Overspend, overeat, overwork
Be more fully ourselves Try to avoid standing out or being different
Grow and succeed Resist making mistakes or taking risks
Experience more love/connection Judge or get angry at our spouses, children and co-workers
Feel more confident Tell ourselves that we’re not good enough

As a result, we end up feeling conflicted inside. It leaves others uncertain about what we really believe, or how we feel about them. And it contributes to inconsistency in the results we create in our world.


What does this have to do with sustainability?

If what I’m describing is actually going on inside of us, and others, it can give us significant insights into how to deal with problems. If human nature does operate this way – and that’s one of the reasons I’ve held back talking about these for so many years, in order to test these principles in my own life – this can help us to understand:

  • What’s driving people’s “negative” behaviours: why we consume and compete so much, or experience so many conflicts. (This was what led me to shift my thinking and approach many years ago.)
  • What’s shaping our behaviour, and the difficulties we have making progress in our own life and work. (Who among us isn’t without some problems?)
  • How we can become more effective in creating healthy, sustainable change in our world.

It’s the last of these that I want to touch on in the next article, using three practical examples from different fields of change.


Eric Hellman is a communications coach and change consultant, living in Vancouver, B.C. If you have comments or questions, please post them below, email him at erichellman@rogers.com or see his website at www.erichellman.com.


Comments are closed.