The angel and the devil

'Moving at a steady pace, it seems the angel and the devil on my shoulders can't ever seem to settle a debate...'

Horrorshow - No Rides Left

In the cartoons, we often see an angel and a devil perched on the opposing shoulders of a protagonist. It's easy to visualise and a pretty simple model of understanding behaviour. It suggests we face a constant struggle between selfish and selfless versions of ourselves. Your angel wants you to do the right thing; your devilish advisor wants you to do the easy thing, the beneficial thing, the most advantageous thing. We all understand this. Who hasn't found twenty dollars on the ground in a shopping centre and considered pocketing it rather than handing it in somewhere?

It's important for us to understand this dichotomy, these opposing motivations that drive our decision-making and our behaviour. I think that it's likely that most people have something like this going on in their own minds but with their own variations. I want to share what I've figured out about mine.

The majority of the time I listen intently to and obey the guy in the white outfit: the angel, if you will. That figure wants me to be honest, kind, fair and humble. I want to be those things, too, as much as I can separate myself from that character. In fact, I generally associate this voice with myself. That's me representing myself in my mind.

The other figure doesn't provide much advice per se. He mostly just follows along with the action and heckles from the sidelines. He is extremely cynical about the instructions and advice issued by his adversary. In fact, his job seems to be to simply undermine the work of my better angel.

When one of your key objectives is to be a fundamentally good person, you're always trying to be considerate and empathetic. Often this involves letting things go and putting other people's feelings before your own. These are good traits. But this is where my devil comes in.

He considers these things weak, indecisive behaviour and feels that this quest to be a good person is just a thinly veiled disguise for approval-seeking. He thinks that feeling like you are putting others before yourself is just an excuse to shy away from difficult or awkward situations. He knows it's easier to justify this behaviour to yourself if you project your uncomfortable feelings onto someone else and rationalise that by avoiding a difficult situation you are helping them rather than yourself. If that's true, you aren't really being considerate at all; you are being a coward. The whole edifice of goodness collapses. It was never really about the others then, it just was a different kind of self-involvement.

It's important for me to have identified what he's doing: he's the voice of self-doubt. He questions my motivations, my strength and my philosophies. He can be really loud. Sometimes his arguments seem persuasive. When I'm at my most vulnerable, it seems like he's the only one speaking sense.

Knowing what kind of work your own devil is doing is important. We need to listen really closely to the talk that is taking place in our heads, to at least try to understand what motivates our behaviour and decisions. The better at this we become, the better we can understand the things that we might be putting in the way of our own growth and progress. I think the angel and the devil from the cartoons are real, you just need to get to know them a little bit.