I always worked hard to quell any negativity I felt until a Jungian analyst told me it was time to befriend my Shadow. “Can you take a look at all that you disapprove of in yourself?” he asked.
If you were a good guy like me, who tried never to express negative feelings, you might cringe at the thought, as I did. But while we can deny our feelings, they live on deep inside us. What’s more, it’s our own energy we are refusing to accept, so discovering where we have hidden them away could help fuel our conscious life
I began to read psychiatrist C. G. Jung’s comments on the shadow side of each human being, which he said develops very early, from a sorting process that continues all through our childhood and youth, as the ego decides what’s appropriate for our picture of ourselves and our identity-in-the-world. Aspects our parents, teachers and peers disapproved of as well as urges that made us uncomfortable are usually stored deep in an inner vault, far from conscious awareness.
Anyone who explores the Shadow soon learns that how we think of ourselves isn’t all of who we are, that our self-image is largely based on what our society and our immediate family valued or criticized. We either tried to “belong,” to be liked, to avoid conflicts with the world’s norm or, on the contrary, rebelled against it. In either case, much of what’s real in us has been devalued by our conscious sense of self, and stored in an unconscious Shadow-world within. Those energies are never lost, just hidden away to live an emotional, possessive, autonomous life of their own.
My first reaction was, “This shadow side has got to be bad!” After all, it was full of subjective personal judgments, animal urges, antisocial reactions, pet hates, “shameful” thoughts and violent emotional reactions. I desperately wanted to clump all that dark stuff together and get rid of it. Yet Jungians insist that there are valuable parts of us also deposited there, along with long-ago infantile demands. As Jungian analyst James Hollis writes in Why Good People do Bad Things: “Working with the Shadow…is working toward the possibility of greater wholeness. We will never experience healing until we can come to love our unlovable places, for they, too, ask love of us.” But unless and until we accept that a scary part of ourselves exists, we remain convinced we’re the person our ego-self has chosen to be, along with the personal set of prejudices we absorbed from family and society.
Thus challenged, I began to pay careful attention each time I discovered a new aspect of my Nice-Guy attitude. Since I’d always thought pleasing others was a virtue, it was difficult to accept that it had a dark side. However, once I did, an inner door opened to a new view of myself. I began to wonder whether some of my other assumptions might be wrong as well. This questioning is important because the more we deny the shadow’s existence, the more power it has to subvert our conscious intentions. But if we are able to embrace what we think of as the ‘bad’ in us, big changes can happen. As Jungian analyst Donald Kalsched, author of Trauma and the Soul, says, “When the banished parts of us return and we can hold them with compassion, a sense of the divine often enters our lives as a sense of wholeness.”
There are plenty of clues to help us scope out the reality of our dark side. For example, whenever I reacted with unnecessary vehemence or felt shamed by what someone said, a shadow figure had almost certainly been touched. Any strong emotional judgments and reactions with which I defended or reassured myself also became suspect. Soon an inner warning bell began to buzz whenever I did something I didn’t really mean to do, or heard an undertone of vehemence in my insistence that “I’m not like that!” or “That’s not me!”
If you want to join the Shadow Dance, you could start by asking yourself what your inner convictions about yourself are. And do you become tense when others fail to accept your picture of yourself? If you make a list of when and why you get annoyed at others, you can mine the visceral reactions that you project onto other people. Whatever makes you uncomfortable or produces anxiety can lead you into Shadowland.
On another front, the study of dreams has been called a royal road to that unexplored world. Jung said dream figures of the same sex as the dreamer are shadow figures. They are more easily recognized than our deeper projections because they live in a layer he called the Personal Unconscious. Using his Active Imagination exercise, I initiated dialogues with figures from dreams or fragmentary personas I caught sight of in daily life. I learned that they represent enclosed energy systems with the power to produce emotional reactions and provoke irrational responses. The good news is that as we discover them, they lose some of their power. Not that they disappear. Fact is, we’ll continue to be confronted by what we’ve devalued and discarded until we can embrace it as a part of us. (For more about Active Imagination, read Taming Your Inner Tyrant: A Path to Healing through Dialogues with Oneself.
The first shadow figure I met in dreams was the Blonde Bombshell…a loose woman with a cigarette between her over-rouged lips and a provocative sway of the hips. She represented all I consciously despised in my own sex as slut-like. At the same time I had to admit I was fascinated by such freedom from strict (and safe) morality.
Another major shadow figure, who visited me in the plain light of day, I dubbed Mrs. Rigid, a persona who liked to have things “one way and no other.” She first joined me on a visit to my birth father at his beautiful home-on-the-Gulf in Florida, where I planned to recuperate from some highly stressed, 12-hour days on the job. But my psyche had other ideas. I took off my shoes to stroll barefoot in the warm sand, listen to the sough of the sea and perhaps even catch a beautiful sunset. But Mrs. Rigid got in the way, forcing me to glance at my watch every few minutes to calculate how long I’d walked in one direction and when it would be time to start back. This organizing demon was on my case all week, incessantly preoccupied with what time it was and what activities were “good” for me. She seldom let up her stern intention that I was to use my time well, insisting on when I should take walks, go swimming, write, sit in the sun, or have a cup of tea.
You’d think I could argue myself out of this creature of intense habit but try as I might, I couldn’t make comfortable, relaxed choices based on how I felt at the moment. Even more disturbing, I half recognized myself in Mrs. Rigid’s limited, narrow-minded approach. But I wasn’t ready to go there yet. Some part of me refused to entertain such thoughts because I didn’t like where they led. No way would I dialogue with her!
A year later she reappeared at my father’s beach house again, locking me into a suit of armor as she programmed every moment for sterling usefulness. But this time I reacted. Hey! I was on vacation! Why was she there, and why was she so darned RIGID? Hmm. Was there a panicked person in me who needed to learn to be able to shift plans in midstream? If Mrs R. wasn’t there to tell me what to do, who would make decisions for me, caught as I was in a jungle of oughts and shoulds?
Such questions burned in me the next morning as I walked along the beach. Suddenly my inner state shifted. It was as if I were walking hand in hand with Mrs. Rigid on one side and a young child on the other. Some unknown energy passed from one to the other through me, connecting them. For a moment I was free of the demands of both. That was when I first realized that I could serve as a bridge between different aspects of myself—in this particular case, the disapproving adult and the fearful child. They seemed perpetually at odds, but as soon as I attended to both of them at the same time, something shifted. A prayer infused my heart: to remember that communication between my child and my critic could only happen if I managed to be present to both of them at once.
In Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung called this simultaneous awareness of conflicting sides of oneself, “a movement out of the suspension between two opposites, a living birth that leads to a new level of being, a new situation.” Although it can be a painful experience, a new level of consciousness emerges as we integrate the tension between two opposing parts of ourselves. And, as James Hollis reminds us in Swamplands of the Soul, “invariably, the task involves some new level of responsibility, some more honest encounter with the shadow, some deepening of the journey into places we’d rather not go.”
Want to explore more? In Owning Your Own Shadow, a short and very useful book by Robert Johnson, he points out that “Our shadow costs nothing and is immediately—and embarrassingly—ever present. To honor and accept one’s own shadow is a profound spiritual discipline. It is whole-making and thus holy and the most important experience of a lifetime.” Or you might be interested in an excellent source of writings from many therapists about our shadow side: Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature, edited by Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams.
And here are a few experiments you can make:
- STUDY YOUR PRIVATE REACTIONS
Shadow aspects have a strong emotional quality. Ask yourself what they are trying to tell you. What irritates you in your daily life? Which emotional reactions are out of proportion? When does a friend’s gibe induce a volcanic response? Whose traits make you uncomfortable? Who in your life is unbearable? All of this may well be related to something hidden behind the screen of your ego adaptations.
- WHAT DO OTHERS SAY OR THINK ABOUT YOU?
And how much does their opinion matter? Focus on your public picture of yourself and the price you pay for keeping it up. Is your life a continuing performance in order to feel good about yourself, as mine was? I was doing my darnedest to be the perfect wife, the perfect mother, the perfect daughter and the best of all journalists, as well as the helper of anyone in trouble. As I write that, it sounds exhausting!
- GET LESS COMFORTABLE
Why is it so hard to commit to seeing reality? Because so much of what set our habits in place long ago still lives below our awareness. The old ways are comfortable and change isn’t. But as we begin to realize what we lose by not making the effort, it becomes easier. As T. S. Eliot said in The Four Quartets, “The way in is the way out.” To make changes, we must first delve deeply into what’s going on right now.
- THE PAUSE THAT PERMITS CHOICE
These days, when my mind insists but my body or feelings object, I try to stop for a moment. Quite simply, to pause. That allows me time to make a choice or renew an intention. Only after I’ve reviewed a situation can I consciously select what to do next and act on it. Perhaps I’ll discover my stomach is upset or my body aches, a pain that could be a direct result of my head’s greediness for all my attention. Or I may well decide to continue concentrating on what I’m doing, but only after a drink of water, a call to a friend or a walk to the store.
- EMOTIONS HAPPEN
While we usually think we are expressing ourselves, according to Jung, emotions “are not an activity of the individual but something that happens to him” (Aion, Collected Works #9). This helpful discovery takes the onus off our responsibility for some of our Shadow activities. Often we just can’t help ourselves since unbridled emotions usually appear “where adaptation is weakest.” However, although we will probably act in the old way again and again, we gradually become aware of what’s really going on. At first it may be hindsight, but that hidden energy can return to us as soon as we face the (probably painful) truth. Seeing the truth cannot be overvalued. It is the Master Key to change.
- “HOLD THE TENSION OF THE OPPOSITES”
Jung recommends that we become aware of both sides of ourselves at once—for example, the humble and the arrogant—and accept that they both exist in us. When we act without choosing too fast or reacting too quickly, when we allow time to take in both sides of any situation, we can scope out our hidden shadow side and make more informed decisions. Living our dividedness is a painful but transformative experience.