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How Villains Help You

February 07, 202418 min read

How Villains Help You

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Do you feel like it would be helpful to you if someone came and removed all the villains from your experience?  Villains suck.  Whatever yours might be, life would be better without them.  Or would it?

Who are Your Villains?

 Do you have villains undermining your ability to live bigger and stronger as you get older?  I wish you could tell me what they are.  Maybe it’s something you like too much, like oreos.  Have you heard of that study that showed that oreos are equally as addictive as cocaine?  Or something you hate too much, like low intensity steady state cardio.  Boring.  Maybe it’s family members who don’t have the same healthspan aspirations as you do, or your inescapable poverty of time.

Whatever your villains are, it’s so easy to believe that our life would automatically level up if only they didn’t exist.  But what if that’s not true?  What would happen if we changed the way we see the villains in our life?  From big pharma to big agriculture to big tech to the weightloss industry, the beauty industry, the news, social media, convenience foods, comfort, and what’s considered ‘normal’.  There are so many bad guys undermining our ability to thrive into our 80s and 90s.  Is wishing they never existed helping us create the future that we want?

What can we learn from fascism, terrorism, evil, sharks and your inner critic?

Let’s talk about the villains of fascism, terrorism, evil, sharks, and the scariest villain of all: your inner critic to see if we can get some insight.  What do most people say they want from life for their children?  “I just want them to be happy.”  It sounds lovely.  It’s 100% natural to want to shelter and protect them from any bad actor that could cause any kind of negative experience.  I get it.  But to the extent that parents have been more able to remove villains from their children's lives in the last few decades, do we feel like this has improved our overall health, the overall political climate and the work ethic of the workforce?  Would you call millennials “The Greatest Generation?”

No, because that title is already taken by those born between 1901 and 1927.  Tom Brokaw has 2 books about them.  Did you watch Tom Brokaw on the news as a kid?  I did.  I have no idea who any news anchors are anymore.  But I remember him and Dan Rather and Barbara Walters.  Anyhow.  Those born from 1901-1927 came of age during world war 2.  Their parents didn’t skype into their job interviews to feed them impressive answers,  buy them everything they ever wanted, clean their rooms, threaten to sue the coach for cutting them from the team, or buy them friends.

19 year old boys experienced hypothermia, trench foot, seeing their buddies get killed and sometimes having to kill an enemy soldier themselves.  Girls made bullets and worked relentlessly breaking Nazi codes and doing the work that was usually done by both men and women.  They lost brothers and fathers and boyfriends and husbands.  They sacrificed their youth for the war effort and it was really, really hard.  


This struggle against tyranny left those who survived with the greatest sense of personal responsibility, duty, honor and faith of any other generation.  Their work ethic propelled the American economy forward and created historic advances in science, industry and politics.  Tom Brokaw calls them “achievements of a magnitude the world had never before witnessed.”  It’s really profound.  And it would not have happened without the villain of fascism to struggle against.


In his awesome book “Lessons for Living” by Phil Stutz (which I’ve listened to 3 times so far), Phil talks about terrorism and other forms of evil.  He’s a New Yorker and talks about September 11th.  He asks how can terrorists destroy America?  The answer?  By distracting us from what’s really important.  Evil usually takes us by surprise and steals our confidence, which is the end goal.  We feel safe as long as we don’t acknowledge that evil exists.  But we’re not really safe.  We’re vulnerable.

Here’s how he says it: “Victory over evil only comes when we change our reaction to it.  This is a spiritual issue.  Once you look evil in the face, it’s impossible to go forward in life without connection to higher forces.  If evil inspires in us our ability to find these higher resources, then it becomes our spiritual teacher.  This changes evil from a force that makes your goals feel meaningless to one that inspires you to achieve them.  It makes you undefeatable as a person.  If we don’t develop a positive reaction to evil, we become paralyzed.” 

Terrorism can destroy us by distracting us from what’s really important and making us feel helpless.  Acknowledging that evil exists feels distasteful.  It’s the ultimate villain afterall.  But the realization of the existence of evil leads us to connect to higher forces and draw inspiration and power from light and goodness.  Evil can lead us to becoming undefeatable.  But only if we change our reaction to it.


Next, we have everyone’s favorite villain- sharks.  When my youngest boy was around 5 or 6, maybe, he had a stuffed shark named Tiburon.  (Well he still has it, but he used to sleep with it and bring it everywhere with him).  And my sister and her family invited us over to watch “Jaws” at their house.  We had our popcorn and Kip had Tiburon with him to hug during the movie, and he cried at the end when they’re bludgeoning the shark and eventually kill it.  He said it was so mean of them and the shark was cute.  How could they?  Poor kid.  He was mildly traumatized.  He was rooting for the shark.

In his book “10 Rules For Resilience,” Joe De Sena talks about how he watched “Jaws” with his dad when he was 10 years old.  His reaction was more of what Steven Spielburg was going for.  He was terrified.  He completely avoided the ocean and even other forms of water.  He would even stand as far as possible from the drain when showering just in case a shark might be able to get him from the drain hole.  Hahaha.  He was petrified of sharks.

As a young adult in 2000, he and his buddies showed up to a relay race in Nantucket that they hadn’t even preregistered for, so they hadn’t planned who would do what.  They decided Joe would do the beach run with a heavy backpack portion.  When he tagged his buddy after his beach run, he was so relieved that he wasn’t the one who had to do the next part, which was to ocean swim across the Nantucket bay.

But because he had trained himself to see fear as a go signal rather than a stop sign, he felt the terror and decided it was go time.  He ditched his shoes and jumped into that water that he knew full well was a place sharks were regularly spotted.  He was terrified, which was precisely why he decided to do the next leg of the race, too, even though that’s not how the race is supposed to work.  

He was embracing his fear of the worst possible villain in life, and he says that’s when his life  “made a beeline for awesome.”  He says he didn’t stand there evaluating the situation or making a cost -benefit analysis, he just felt the fear and went for it.  He was scared the whole time, and when he got safely to the other side, heart pounding, unbeknownst to him, one of the spectators standing at the edge of the sand was his future wife.  That’s how they met.  If he hadn't run toward his villain, they never would have met.  It was the fact that he had this lifelong villain haunting him that put him on that Nantucket beach at that exact moment in time.  In the book he says “The universe sent me the best reward on the planet for facing a huge fear, and the rest is history.”  Cute, right?

How are villains helping you? 

They’re not fun.  They don’t make our life comfortable.  But without them, we can’t become the person we want to be.  That the world needs us to be.  I don’t know much about Hercules, except the cool story of how he became so amazing, but apparently he had to strangle a lion (don’t worry, the lion was terrorizing a village - although my son would still probably be unhappy this), slay a 9 headed hydra, capture a red deer with golden antlers and bronze hoofs, snare a man-eating wild boar, clean manure out of a barn, drive away a flock of carnivorous birds, capture a rampaging bull,  capture 4 man-eating horses, steal an armored belt, steal the cattle from a 3-headed 6-legged monster, steal a set of golden apples, and kidnap a 3-headed dog. 

In “Discourses,” Epictetus says: “What would have become of Hercules, do you think, if there had been no lion, hydra, stag, or boar?  And no savage criminals to rid the world of?  What would he have done in the absence of such challenges?  Obviously he would have just rolled over in bed and gone back to sleep.  So by snoring his life away in luxury and comfort he never would have developed into the mighty Hercules.  And even if he had, what good would it have done him?  What would have been the use of those arms, that physique, and that noble soul, without crises or conditions to stir him into action?”

Who would Harry Potter have become without Voldemort?  Luke Skywalker without Darth Vader?  Marty McFly without Biff?  Are you like Hercules?  Minus the wacky animal kidnappings?  Would you be as strong as you are today without the villains you’ve faced so far?  Will you be able to become as strong and capable as you’d like to be without having to face more villains?  If you were somehow able to, what good would it do the world without a problem you are called on to solve?

 In the hero’s journey, the heroes need villains just as much as the world needs heroes.  The challenges from trials and rivals make us grow and become better.  The power and strength of the villain determines the necessary power and strength of the hero.  If the villain is weak, there’s no need for the hero to rise to greatness.  The biggest opportunities for greatness come from the most sinister villains.

Your Villains

Lucky for us, we have some doozies in the world today.  Big food, big pharma, big tech, the weightloss industry, the beauty industry, divisive political groups, the normalization and glorification of the insatiable desire for more, the way our medical system is set up, discrimination and economic disparity, the list is really long.  How can you use some of them to become more of the person you hope to be?

Get Moving

If your villain is someone or something that inspires fear, like a literal or figurative shark, Joe DeSena says: “Everybody feels fear.  It’s the response to fear that varies from person to person.  How do we become a person with true resilience who uses fear as high-octane fuel rather than experiencing it as a paralyzing tonic?  Here’s your answer: get moving.”  Fear is a go signal, not a stop sign.  If you’re afraid of something, do something.  Take any kind of productive action.  There’s so much good stuff we could talk about about fear.  We’ll have to save that for another day, but it really can become your ‘high octane fuel’ that will cause your life to ‘make a beeline for awesome.’

Give it a name

Dr. Laura Pence says that the best thing to do when you’re scared is to realize that it’s an emotion and give it a name.  When I heard that, I thought she was going to say give it a name like “fear” or “dread” or  “trepidation” or “distress.”   There is actually value in that.  Getting more specific about what exactly you’re feeling.  We talked about it in episode 89 “Your Vocabulary Affects How You Age.”  But what she meant was give it a name like “Brian” or “Sheila.”  It can be the name of a bully you once knew or anyone you were scared of for some reason, or just a name that seems right for the particular situation.  

Kate Winslet named her son “Bear Blaze.”  That could be a name of one of your villains.  Musician Frank Zappa named his kids “Moon Unit”, “Dweezil” and “Diva Muffin”.  Those seem like good names.  Sylvester Stalone named his son “Sage Moonblood.”  David Bowie named his son “Zowie Bowie.”  Gwen Stefani named her son “Zumma Nesta Rock.”  Then, of course there’s Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter “Apple.”  That one doesn’t seem quite so villainish. What about Jermain Jacksons’ son “Jermajesty?”  

Then when you can feel your body starting to have a fear response to a villain you can say “Hi Jermajesty.  I feel you.  I can see that you’re here to veer me off course.  Thanks for the input, but not today.”  Dr. Pence says that high performance elite level athletes often use this naming technique when they feel self-doubt creep in.  They just tell Bear Blaze to bugger off and get on with what they were doing.

Self Doubt

Elizabeth Gilbert (who wrote “Eat, Pray, Love” and one of my favorites, “Big Magic”) does the same thing.  She says that when she’s writing, she often is overcome with panic and shame and doubt about how terrible her work is, which prevents her from being able to create anything.  So she uses the fear energy to imagine this frightening self doubt as a person.  She allows the fear person to come on the writing journey with her.  Even welcomes her.  But she never ever lets her drive the car.  She can be a constant passenger, even a welcome one, but she’s never in control.  Pretty cool, right?

Jim Kwik says ”As long as you believe that your inner critic is the true you, the wisest you, it’s always going to guide you.  If you can create a separate personna for your inner critic - one that is different from the true you- you’ll be considerably more successful at quieting it.  This can be enormously helpful and you can have fun with it at the same time.  Give your inner critic a preposterous name and outrageous physical attributes.  Make it cartoonish and unworthy of even a b-grade movie.  Mock it for its rigid dedication to negativity.  Roll your eyes when it pops into your head.  The better you become at distinguishing this voice from the real you, the better you’ll be at preventing limiting beliefs from getting in your way.” 

Which preposterous name would you like for your inner critic?  I invite you to think of one now.  Maybe Moon Unit?  I like Dweezil.  Don’t forget to thank Dweezil.  She gives you the opportunity to see the meaning in your own life path and helps you get to know the true you better.  You wouldn’t be as strong without her.  You can and should welcome her in,  but never give her license to drive the car.

Other Villains

Those are a few ideas for dealing with scary villains.  But what about evil doers who don’t feel scary?  Like comfort.  We talked about comfort in episode 99 ”The Side Effects of Comfort”.  The pursuit of comfort makes total sense, but comfort is a villain that can snatch your health away without you realizing it.  It doesn’t feel scary, though, it feels….comfortable.  Wow.  

Learning to work with the villain of comfort in any of its forms can make you more heroic.  Let’s say you’re deliberately going outside every day even when the weather is less than pleasant.  That makes you more resilient to temperature extremes, might give you the hormetic benefits of heat shock or cold shock proteins, enhances dozens of physiological metrics via vitamin “N” (which is nature), but more importantly, it teaches you that you are good at doing uncomfortable things.  Which unlimits your life.  If you’re no longer afraid of discomfort, the possibilities for your life explode.

The tool that helps you defeat villains

The tool that is most likely to help you defeat the villains in your life and to cause them to be the catalyst to unlimit you and make you awesome is the structure that attracts and holds higher forces in your orbit.  What is this tool?  Remember that we become powerful when we change our relationship to evil and start tapping into the power of higher forces?  How do we attract them and keep them working for us?  According to Phil Stutz, 

“If spiritual practices are like fruit in an orchard, discipline is the box we use to carry the fruit home.”  

I love that so much.

What fruit would you take home from the orchard?  Being from Utah, the first thing I think of is apples or peaches, but I would love for it to be pomegranates or avocados or guavas or something.  I love a good pear, too.  My family and I recently went to California, and they don’t give you disposable grocery bags there.  Well, you can, but you have to buy them.  So I remembered to bring reusable grocery bags all the way from Utah.  Then when I went grocery shopping, I forgot to bring the bags from the condo to the Albertson’s.  Ugh.   That would be a bit like learning some good practices but not having structural discipline.

We also stopped at this awesome side of the road fruit stand (twice, actually-  once on the way in and once on the way out) (Francisco’s Fruit Stand) and got some cool and different locally grown avocados, guavas, grapefruits, pomegranates, oranges and persimmons.  They were lovely.  If we had been required to build a box out of discipline to be able to take them home, we would have.

Joe DeSena says we are a species that craves discipline.  Do you agree?  He says we are constantly fighting the instinct to quit when things get hard and the way to win that fight is if we honor our craving for discipline.  Discipline allows us to defeat our villains.  

I do believe you’re being preyed upon by the villains of big food, big pharma, big tech, the beauty industry and the weightloss/fitness industry.  Because there’s no money for them in you feeling good about yourself.  Big Food battles for what they call “stomach share” and highers food engineers to make their packaged food as addictive as possible.  Bill Maher calls tech and app designers “tobacco farmers in tshirts” saying the tobacco industry just wants your lungs but the tech industry wants your soul.

We also have other villains like a medical system that uses strategies that save you from dying quickly to try to save you from dying slowly.  It doesn’t work.  Other villains are polarizing political discussions, comfort, perfectionism and our ever-present inner critic.  You can be defeated by them and become demoralized and helpless or you can change your relationship to evil.  You can use it as an opportunity to access higher forces - within yourself and outside yourself. 

Maybe it will help for you to name your villains.  I was using this website called to generate some names for my inner critic.  It came up with “Tar Burn” “Bolted Door” “Ultimate Stasis” “Landlocked” “Deep Freeze” “Holding Pattern” and “Deadweight,”  all of which I thought were good.  But then it came to me.  Her name is “Fragilina.”  

I think it’s brilliant.  When I was typing it, I was wondering why google wasn’t marking it as a misspelled word.  Apparently there’s a famous sculpture named Fragilina from 1923.  So I’m sad that someone else already thought of that name before I did.  But I am thankful for Fragilina and all the crap she tries to get me to believe.

Thank Your Villains

What are your villains' names?  Sage Moonblood?  Whoever they are, thank them for making you stronger than you otherwise would be.  If you didn’t have to deal with their nonsense, you wouldn’t have trained yourself to be able to focus your attention more intently than 99.9% of the population, which is today’s greatest and most marketable superpower.  You wouldn’t have developed the self discipline needed to avoid the ultra-processed food that’s so ubiquitous.  That self control improves all areas of your life, not just nutrition.  You wouldn’t be able to hang on to your inner sense of self worth when someone (or lots of someones) are doing their very best to take it away.  That’s a strength that young people, especially young women, can benefit from seeing exemplified in you.  

The fallacy of the quick-fix pill-for-an-ill medical model can help you.  When you see the results of that approach it can help you to create the opposite.  A life where you can age like a professional by optimizing the fundamentals that determine your wellspring of energy, strength, stamina and mental clarity.  Then you’ll be able to use that strength and energy to help others less fortunate than you.  People need you.  Let your villains sculpt and condition you into the type of person you long to be.

The 13th century muslim mystic Rumi once said “If you are irritated by every rub, how will you be polished?” 

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Christina Hackett, Pharm.D.

Healthspan Coach and founder of The Health Courage Collective

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