6 “useless” emotions that aren’t useless, and 2 that really are useless.

Originally posted on July 10, 2016 on Lucky Otters Haven

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I get tired of the positive thinking brigade who tells you you always must be happy and that there’s no place for “negative” emotions.   Not only is it obnoxious to wear a pasted on smile all the time even when you’re not feeling it, it’s not natural or healthy.   Of course, being a positive person who thinks positive thoughts is a good thing, but when it’s taken to ridiculous extremes (and it certainly is in my family, where “negative” emotions are not accepted or allowed) it can be soul-damaging.   Following is a list of unpopular (or “useless”) emotions that definitely have their uses (when they’re not excessive).  There are only two emotions I can think of that have no uses whatsoever, and I’ll describe those last.

1. Guilt.

My father always used to tell everyone that guilt was an unhealthy, useless emotion, but I couldn’t disagree more.   True, excessive guilt is bad for you, but the right amount of guilt separates people with a conscience from the psychopaths. I pointed out this to my father once, and he became enraged.   Hmmm, I wonder why!   The ability to feel guilt keeps us civilized and mindful of the feelings of others.

2. Sadness.

Sadness is a normal reaction to a loss.  It also connects people in those times of loss.  We have socially sanctioned rituals that promote and even encourage the expression of sadness (funerals) but otherwise, people are uncomfortable with the sadness of another and are always trying to cheer you up.   If you’re crying, people always want you to stop. Why?  Feeling sad and crying can be healing; if sadness is repressed it can lead to something much worse–depression.   People need to just shut up and let you be sad and cry if that’s what you need to do.

3. Anger.

There are times it’s appropriate to be angry.    Anger, though toxic both to yourself and others when excessive,  helps you survive.  If you feel threatened or feel that someone close to you is threatened, you are going to fight back.  The only other survival option is to flee (which I’ll talk about next).   Otherwise you’re just going to stand there and let yourself or your loved ones get attacked or treated badly.    Excessive anger, of course, leads to hatred, and hatred is not only useless, it’s dangerous to the soul.

4. Fear.

If you can’t fight (sometimes you can’t), you can flee danger.   Like anger, fear is a survival emotion.   It can be excessive, leading to anxiety disorders, but fear in normal doses is both healthy and appropriate reactions to danger.   It’s important to distinguish whether it’s better to flee (fear) or to fight (anger).

5. Jealousy.

I’m not talking about envy here, an emotion often confused with jealousy.  But they are not the same.   Jealousy refers to the fear that someone is taking something you love away from you; envy refers to wanting what someone else has.  There are similarities though. Both are bitter, painful emotions, hard to deal with.  Sometimes they lead to people attacking the object of their jealousy or envy to “even the score.”   But jealousy has its place.   It’s another survival emotion, similar to anger mixed with fear, that warns you that something that belongs to you is in danger of being taken away.   The problem is jealousy often crops up when there is no real danger of that happening, and that leads to all kinds of problems.  Excessive jealousy can actually be self-defeating and drive what you love away from you — the most obvious example is constantly asking someone you’re in a relationship with if they are seeing someone else, or snooping in their things to find out.  That sort of behavior will eventually drive the other person away.

6. Envy.

I hesitated to put envy here, because on the surface it really doesn’t seem to have any useful purpose.  I almost put it as one of the “useless” emotions I’ll be describing last.  But envy does have one useful aspect.  If it’s not excessive, it can be a motivator, making you take action to improve your own circumstances.   When it’s used that way, it’s really more akin to admiration than envy.   The problem with envy is it can so often turn so bitter that it saps all your energy and lowers your self esteem, making you LESS likely to improve your circumstances or achieve the things you want.

The Two Emotions That Really Are Useless.  

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1. Worry.

I heard a great saying once:  “Worry is useless because if what you dread comes to pass, then you’ve lived through it twice; if it never happens, then your worry was in vain.”  I took those words to heart because of how true they are.   Worry is absolutely useless.  If faced with a potentially bad or dangerous situation, worry won’t help you.  If something can be done to prevent the situation from happening, taking action will help,  and once you take action, then there’s nothing more to worry about.   If there’s no action you can take, then worrying about it is a waste of time.  Better to plan how you will deal with it when it happens, than to sit around wringing your hands, pulling out your hair, and making yourself sick over it.

2. Shame.

Shame must be distinguished here from guilt.  Guilt refers to something you did, while shame refers to the person you are.  Guilt is useful because without it, there would be no apologies or amend-making for bad behavior.   People would just go around doing whatever they want, regardless of how it makes others feel.   Shame, on the other hand, is useless because it means feeling sorry not for something you did, but for who you are.  If you were the family scapegoat, then you were the receptacle for all the family shame, and were made to feel like you’re worthless and don’t deserve to live.    Shame is the one emotion that is at the core of all the personality disorders and every case of complex PTSD generated by familial abuse.  It’s incredibly toxic–probably the most toxic emotion there is, and it has about as much usefulness as a bicycle does for a fish.

For more about shame vs. guilt, please read Carrie Musgrove’s article about the important distinctions.

Hurts so good.

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Remember when you were a kid and had a loose tooth, how good it felt to wiggle it with your tongue, even though it bled and hurt like the dickens?  Yet you HAD to keep doing it, because it felt GOOD.

Or remember that scab you just had to pick even though you knew it would bleed and hurt?

Happy feelings can be like that for some of us.  Have you ever been so moved by something, or so touched, or so filled with joy it actually hurt and made you want to cry?

Having been so shut off from my emotions for so many years,  I wasn’t used to feeling anything other than dreary, numb despair, an unnamed dread that something terrible was about to befall me, occasionally relieved by a sudden, irrational rage.

Lately I’ve been experiencing brief moments of sublime, positive emotions.   Flickers of joy (not glee, but real joy), feeling moved or incredibly touched, especially when I’m in therapy.   My therapist helps bring out these feelings in me, and I’m enjoying exploring these unfamiliar but wonderful emotions.  But sometimes they are just so intense and that intensity hurts.   Sometimes even the beauty of them…hurts.

Why would something so human and life-affirming make me feel almost sad?  Is it because I don’t trust these feelings, or don’t trust being vulnerable to feeling them?  Or is it because I know how fleeting such feelings are, and will only be replaced with the unpleasant feelings I’ve grown used to?   Or do they hurt because my soul is unfolding, and in so doing, is breaking down the walls that bound it for so long?  Are these just growing pains?   Will I ever be able to experience these sublime emotions without sadness and pain?

Emotions and authenticity.

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Emotions are the first language we ever speak. Their expression is a pre-verbal language that is gradually replaced with words as we grow out of infancy. All emotions are really just energy moving through the body (though I think they originate in the soul). This movement is expressed through various physical reactions as the emotion moves out of us–laughter, crying, sighs, various non-verbal sounds, wiggling or jumping up and down with joy, trembling, and various expressions of anger (of course we need to be mindful of this one). This idea of emotions as a language isn’t my own; it’s been suggested by others, but I think I would have come to that conclusion on my own sooner or later.

Babies and animals (especially higher level mammals like dogs or monkeys) don’t have words, but they are very good at communicating their feelings and needs. In fact, they are better at this than adult humans, because there is no pretense and no words to mask or obliterate visceral emotion. With a baby or an animal, what you see is what you get.

We don’t begin to have problems with this until adolescence or sometimes later childhood, when spoken language has become fluent. You don’t see a toddler or a dog presenting a false self or hiding their real feelings. Unless abused early on, there is no shame in their emotional expression. An animal or an infant will not lie to you, manipulate you, or tell you they are happy when they’re anything but. That’s because they don’t have the language behind which it becomes possible to hide.

Babies cry to communicate. We may not like it when they do, but it’s the most important way they communicate. It’s really just a pre-verbal language that helps them get their needs met. Of course they could be crying because they’re uncomfortable or in pain, but they also cry when they need nurturing and just need to feel attached to Mom. Most of us are naturally drawn to comfort a crying baby, but really, they are just telling us about their physical and emotional needs that in a few years might be expressed by, “I’m hungry” or “I’m angry” or “I need a hug” or “I feel lonely.” It’s not always “bad” when a baby cries, although it seems so to us, and we want them to stop. Babies also use their whole bodies when they cry. As the emotion moves through them, their entire body responds. They kick their legs, punch the air, and howl. When an adult expresses strong emotion, such as crying (and sometimes laughing), they tend to hold themselves back to some extent, only letting part or none of their body respond to the emotion. Babies also wiggle when they’re happy. Do you know of any adult who wiggles or jumps up and down with joy? It’s something we outgrow as adult, but is that really necessary? What’s really wrong with wiggling or running around the room with happiness or sobbing with abandon?

When a dog sees its owner, it will bark excitedly and jump up and down with joy. If it has misbehaved, it will show its guilt (and I’m convinced that dogs DO feel guilt and shame). If it’s sad or afraid, it whimpers and its whole body trembles. It doesn’t need to say “I’m sad” or “I’m happy” or “I feel ashamed.” Its body and face says it better than any words ever could. That’s why I think people relate to dogs so well. Dogs represent our own emotional natures, that to a greater or lesser extent, almost all of us keep behind wraps most of the time.

I’ll never forget the time I was helping a friend pet-sit. The owners had a dog and a cat, and while we were there, the owners came home. When the dog heard the key in the lock, he began to bark excitedly and jump wildly at the door, intermittently spinning around in circles, wagging his tail crazily and practically tripping over his own oversized feet in his excitement. When the owners came in, he practically knocked them to the floor, licking both their faces happily. Even the cat went nuts with happiness, rolling around ecstatically on the floor in front of them. He also ran up to the owners, purring loudly and meowing. Do you know any people over the age of 6 or 7 who act like these animals did during a reunion?

Of course we don’t want to become babies or pet dogs and cats, but they have a lot to teach us about authenticity and the courage to be emotionally vulnerable.

I’m in no way trying to imply that language isn’t a good thing. We evolved it for a reason. Language makes it possible for us to use more of our minds and make new discoveries. It’s the reason we can write a symphony, a novel, or make new scientific discoveries. Good language skills are an indicator of high intellectual ability. Words can also be great tools for genuine emotional expression. But when we grow up and start to use language completely in place of bodily emotional reactions to communicate, we throw out the baby with the bathwater. I think schools are responsible for a lot of this. Schools–like work environments–discourage the honest expression of emotions. We begin to hide our true feelings.

Of course, bad parenting that fails to mirror a child’s true feelings does the same thing and is even more damaging because it happens when the child is still pre-verbal.  A child whose emotional needs have not been met and who isn’t mirrored when very young becomes ashamed of their emotions and tries to hide their vulnerability.  In some cases the damage is so great the person develops complex PTSD or a personality disorder.  We need to find ways to be emotionally honest without reverting to a preverbal, infantile state. I think we’d also be not only more emotionally healthy, but also more physically healthy if there weren’t so much shame attached to emotional expression.  Numerous studies have shown that chronic illness later in life is linked to repressed emotions.  I think what happens is when they’re not allowed to move through the body naturally, they get trapped in the body and can make you sick.

To help us get there, I recommend watching anything by Brene Brown, an author and public speaker who thinks that vulnerability and authenticity are things we modern humans need a lot more of. Her most popular video is “The Power of Vulnerability.” Many people have said it has completely turned their lives around.

Come closer…go away.

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I finally saw my therapist last night, after two very long weeks that felt almost like two years. But our session was anticlimactic. I don’t feel like we had a very productive session, but that wasn’t his fault, it was mine.

I had sent my therapist an email containing a poem I wrote last week (“The Gift,” which is about growing up with narcissistic parents) and it was one of the first things he brought up. He seemed to want to talk about what it meant and what I was feeling when I wrote it, which makes sense, given that I had sent it to him. But when confronted with it face to face, I felt too exposed and vulnerable so I kept trying to deflect attention away from it. I giggled nervously, talked a mile a minute and said I didn’t remember it too well, which is partly true, but not completely. I just didn’t want to talk about it because talking about it was making my old shame feelings come up for some reason. I know I need to deal with those feelings but I just…can’t. Not yet.

I do this sort of thing a lot. It’s almost like a kind of teasing. I had also given him the link to my primary blog (not this one yet–yikes, not ready to do that!) but then when he told me in our last session he had looked at it and seemed to want to talk about some of the more personal posts in it, I had a similar I-want-to-sink-into-the-floor-right-now moment. But I had given him the link so even I couldn’t understand my feelings of shyness and shame over talking about it.

We did talk about that. I talked about the way I “tease” (unintentionally though) and then retreat. I desperately want to talk about a lot of painful things I don’t have the courage to actually take on. I want to get into the specifics and talk about my pain and shame an vulnerability and fears, or at least try to figure out what emotion I’m feeling (because sometimes I don’t really know), but often when the opportunity comes, I can’t do it. I want to cry in front of my therapist. I definitely can’t do that. I actually told him I wanted to do that, and he told me I could. Once again I changed the subject.

He asked me if by reading my blog he was invading my boundaries. I said no, of course not, otherwise I wouldn’t have given him the link to it (which is true), but then I asked him to please not talk about what he had read in front of me, and keep whatever he saw to himself. I joked that maybe he could find out things about me that could help him treat me, if it didn’t confuse him to death. I think what I’m doing, the “teasing,” is part of the “go away-come closer” behavior so common in borderlines. It’s not intentional though. I can’t help it. I want “closer” so badly but I get so scared when it’s right there. I always self-sabotage.

Last night was bad. I felt like I was less open than usual and holding back and “cloaking” a lot more than I have been lately. I kept deflecting attention away from deeper, painful issues onto frivolous things, like the weather, a book I’m reading, and my blog stats. I can get very narcissistic and grandiose when I’m trying to avoid talking about certain issues. I didn’t realize this until after I got home, and went back over our session and cringed at how much I sounded like I was bragging when talking about how many views I get and how quickly I mastered the WordPress learning curve. Why was I talking about this in my therapy session? I was avoiding my issues, definitely not something I want to be doing in therapy. We’ve established a strong rapport; why do I still feel so wary sometimes?

I’ve gotten good at mindfulness though and that’s made me able to look at myself objectively most of the time, even if it’s sometimes after the fact. I’m glad I realized later on how much I wasted last night’s session on bullshit because I want to stop doing this. I’m not going to ever get well if I don’t confront unpleasant or painful emotions. I think this is what I need to talk about next week.

My therapist almost made me cry.

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At the end of our last session, he told me he looked forward to our visits. I could tell he meant every word. I asked him why, and he just said, “you make working with you easy.”

I know that doesn’t sound all that impressive, but believe me, it was. I couldn’t speak, and if I had, I think I would have burst into tears. I’m not there yet though.

He saw my reaction and just smiled and thanked me. He always thanks me at the end of each session. I’m not sure for what, but it helps me a lot.
I sensed nothing but warmth and kind regard from him, nothing questionable at all.

I’m not 100% sure what his words referred to, but I have some idea (nothing inappropriate though!), and thinking about it still makes me a little verklempt.

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Deconstructing empathy.

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There’s an awful lot of talk about empathy these days, especially in regards to narcissism. Narcissists are supposed to have no capability of feeling empathy. But what exactly is empathy anyway? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. If so, then I have felt it, but for a narcissist (and probably for most people!), it does involve a conscious effort to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes.” I think having a measure of empathy does help most of us choose to not cause another person deliberate pain, because we wouldn’t want to be in “those shoes.” It’s possible to still make a choice not to hurt others even if the only empathy we can feel is “cold.”

Someone at Psychforums said that “catching someone else’s emotions” isn’t empathy. But if that isn’t empathy, then what is it? I don’t think too many people, even non-narcissists, can “catch someone else’s emotions” though under normal circumstances. Laughing may be an exception, but contagious laughter is almost like yawning. You see someone do it, and it’s almost a reflex to do it yourself. I don’t think it’s really in human nature to be able to “catch emotions.” We are all a little bit narcissistic (or should be–someone with no narcissism at all would probably not survive). But there are those few people–empaths, probably– who literally can cry WITH you, and feel your pain WITH you–apparently with no reference to themselves.

The other day I read one of Sam Vaknin’s essays called “Write Me a Letter” in which he describes a time when he was in prison (evidently the same prison stay in which he became self-aware of his narcissism) and met an old, crippled blind man there and listened to this man’s story. The old man started to cry and shared his feelings of worthlessness and unloveability, and Sam actually held the man and cried with him! That’s right–Sam Vaknin, a narcissist who supposedly has no emotions. Maybe he was making this up but I don’t think he was. So even someone without empathy, can, at unusual moments, or when their false self is temporarily disabled (as it might be for someone who’s been imprisoned and recently lost a wife, as Vaknin had) be vulnerable to the emotions others around them are feeling. Or maybe he could just really relate to the old man and was actually crying for himself, for his own losses and sense of failure? I don’t know. Empathy is a strange thing. I might add though as a disclaimer, that the old man in the story seemed to be a narcissist himself, and Sam has said that narcissists can feel (warm) empathy for other Ns. So that could explain it, I guess.

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It’s been said that empathy is a choice, and I agree with that. It takes a narcissist more conscious effort to place themselves in someone else’s shoes (because we’re always so caught up in ourselves and can’t SEE that another person is hurting, feeling pain, anger, grief, what have you). Cold empathy isn’t especially difficult, but warm empathy would require an ability to feel with another, and isn’t that the same thing as “catching emotions?” The false self–which because it is false, can’t feel emotions other than those (anger, defensiveness, fear) that are germane to its survival–gets in the way. But underneath that, somewhere, is the true self, which may from time to time be uncovered in an unusual situation–most likely, after a massive loss of supply. And that’s what those of us who want to heal from NPD need to try to access without having to suffer serious losses–cut through all the bullshit that lays on top of it, and then true empathy gets so much easier.

What about compassion? Is it the same thing as empathy or not? Personally I don’t really see the difference, although compassion may have more of a “doing” element about it. Compassion would be empathy with action. An example might be giving someone worried they’re about to be evicted money to pay their rent. Empathy doesn’t necessarily require you to do anything other than understand on a feeling level how someone about to get evicted feels. It doesn’t require you to give anything else of yourself.

I can understand the distinction between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy doesn’t require any emotional investment. To me, sympathy would be the same thing as cold empathy. If someone tells you their grandmother died, you can understand on an intellectual level how they feel and utter the right words and condolences, but you’re not required to feel anything other than a vague sense of understanding that it must have hurt to lose their grandmother. You don’t have to share the bereaved person’s sadness or grief.

What about pity? For me, the distinction is pretty clear. I hate pity. It’s condescending and insulting. “Oh, I feel so sorry for you.” Said with no real emotion there. It’s similar to, “Oh, I will pray for you” said in a condescending, morally superior tone of voice. I want to punch someone who tells me that.

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It’s hard for me to have empathy or feel with another in a real-life situation because of my shame and fear of allowing others to see my vulnerability, which empathy requires. I don’t seem to have a problem doing this online, on a semi-anonymous blog, but in person? That’s something entirely different. I’m so emotionally shut off from others in real life. Not being able to really feel with others is a big reason why I’m socially awkward and almost a recluse. I prefer to spend most of my time in solitary activities.

I think that’s another reason why I’ve opted for self-therapy. Alone, I can allow myself to be completely vulnerable, without any sense of shame or embarrassment, as I would experience with a therapist. I actually would be weirded out by being reparented by a therapist, which could possibly mean limited physical contact. I’m very squeamish about that.

Empathy sometimes requires touching or holding another. I’ve never felt comfortable having physical contact with others (with certain exceptions made for sexual/romantic relationships and when my children were babies and toddlers) and especially making myself so vulnerable in front of another person. Right now, I couldn’t do it. I would like to work toward being able to be physically close with someone in a nonsexual, emotionally vulnerable way, but that in itself would require therapy for me to even reach that point. I just don’t trust people enough. I feel the same way about empathizing with someone else in a real life (not online) situation. Sometimes I can see when someone needs to be physically touched or even held, but I hold myself back. I can’t do it. It makes me too vulnerable and embarrassed.

I can’t cry in front of others either. When I was in therapy, I never actually cried. I wanted to, but I couldn’t. I’ve gotten pretty good at crying alone which is a necessary part of healing, but I know I couldn’t do it in front of anyone else and time would be wasted in therapy just to get to that point.

The healing power of the arts and creativity.

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Credit: The Connected Canvas/Soundwall.com

I’ve always believed the arts is the second closest thing to spirituality, and for a person on the narcissism spectrum (I think I’m fairly low on it, fortunately), the arts are often where our true self peeks out of the void inside us and may even shyly venture out into the light of awareness for awhile.

A few weeks ago, I posted some videos of the music of a young man who believes he has NPD. I’m not sure if he does or not, but I think he is on the spectrum. He wants desperately to heal. His music makes me very emotional; singing and writing music is obviously cathartic for him. I believe these videos show this man’s TS shining through. He says in his everyday life, he is very shallow, grandiose and entitled acting. But his singing and songwriting is anything but shallow or grandiose. They come from a deep place, his soul (which is the true self) .

Good art that resonates and stirs genuine emotions (not just manipulative, throwaway “art” that’s become so pervasive in pop culture today) always comes from a person’s True Self. Many narcissists make great art and I think that’s when they’re able to access their TS.

So if you’re a narcissist wants to heal from your disorder, accessing the arts in some way, whether it’s creating something or just immersing yourself in music, art, film or books that make you feel your emotions, is a good way to get started.

For me, writing every day for almost a year brought me to the point where I could see my own narcissism and see what I needed to do to be rid of it. It was like suddenly a roadmap was given to me. The next phase is going to be harder but I think more rewarding too. But it was through an art form–writing–I finally came to this awareness.

Journaling is extremely powerful, as long as you are completely honest with yourself (and others, if you blog publicly). Even if you are embarrassed by your feelings/experiences, write them down anyway. There’s no shame in that. You’ll be surprised that other people won’t think it’s as shameful as you do. It feels wonderful to run emotionally “naked,” sometimes in public. I promise you will not regret it, no matter how hard it is to do the first few times.

Writing works for me, but obviously that isn’t for everyone. For you, it may be painting, sculpture, dancing, or singing. Even though I’m not a very talented singer, I love to sing, and find this activity extremely cathartic. I sing when I drive all the time.

If you don’t have an artistic talent, that’s okay. Immerse yourself in music that stirs your emotions, or watch a sad (or touching) movie that gives you practice feeling empathy. Even if it’s only empathy for a fictional character, that’s still something. Eventually these feelings can be transferred to real people, or yourself. Keep practicing. It will get easier.

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I believe all narcissists have at least one thing that stirs their deepest emotions. It’s likely to be something related to the arts–a book, a movie, certain kinds of music, dance, poetry. Immerse yourself in whatever activates your feelings and allow yourself to experience the emotions these things elicit in you. Don’t judge them–just observe them with acceptance and love and let them pass through you. If you need to cry, go ahead. I’ve come to believe tears are the most effective and yet most gentle way to release the hurt and pain that led to our narcissism. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s your True Self that is feeling these things, for your False Self has no ability to feel anything except rage, shame and fear.

While your True Self is awake and accessible to you, give him or her the parenting they deserved but never received. Tell your TS you love them and are sorry you rejected them when you adopted your False Self in his or her place. He or she will listen and respond if you keep your mind and heart open and just accept without judgment whatever emotions you feel passing through you. Your TS just wants acceptance and love and for their feelings to be validated, so you need to do that, since the people who were supposed to never did.

Unless we are so high up the spectrum of narcissism that there’s no self-awareness and no willingness to change (I think there’s a point of no turning back and that’s when a narcissist becomes malignant), we are all sensitive, loving people with the capacity for empathy and joyful connection with others. It’s not too late if you are willing to do the work, which will sometimes be painful. I think there may even be some cases where a malignant can change, if they can ever become self aware.

There’s a video about the healing power of the arts that’s on the same page where I found the painting for this article. If you click on the link under the painting, you can watch it.