Why do priests rape children, football players abuse their girlfriends, gunmen shoot down people in a place of worship or school, addicts shoot up knowing it may kill them and why are we depressed and anxious even after years of spiritual seeking and practice? The answer, my friend may like in understanding the part of ourselves called the shadow.
“That which we do not bring to consciousness appears in our life as fate”-Carl Jung
The psychologist Carl Jung is famous for formulating the concept of the shadow, the portion of our personality which, through the course of our life, is relegated to the darkness of the unconscious.
“The shadow goes by many familiar names: the disowned self, the lower self, the dark twin or brother in bible and myth, the double, repressed self, alter ego, id. When we come face-to-face with our darker side, we use metaphors to describe these shadow encounters: meeting our demons, wrestling with the devil, descent to the underworld, dark night of the soul, midlife crisis.”
While Jung is known for bringing the concept of the shadow to public awareness in the modern day, this aspect of ourselves has long been recognized as a ubiquitous feature of human beings. In 1886, before Jung made his mark, Robert Louis Stevenson created the now famous story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In his story Dr. Jekyll represents the respectable part of one’s personality, but when he transforms into Mr. Hyde, his shadow personality gains dominance over him and wrecks havoc on his life.
Although the shadow is an innate part of the human being, the vast majority of us are willfully blind regarding its existence. We hide our negative qualities, not only from others but from ourselves. To do this we often criticize and condemn others to ensure our focus does not fall on our own faults and destructive tendencies. We go through life with a false air of moral superiority and a belief that while others act immorally and destructively, we ourselves are wholly virtuous and always in the right.
Carl Jung said “Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.”
How do we make the shadow conscious. Some aspects of our shadow are the product of our evolution. We contain, like all animals, instincts for sex and aggression that we tend to repress in order to adapt to the social mores of the day. Some aspects of our shadow are the product of our upbringing. Personality traits and impulses that elicited fear or anxiety in our parents or teachers, for example, caused them to punish or criticize us; and so we reacted by repressing these characteristics. We put up psychological defenses to ensure they were not allowed expression, and thus these characteristics were repressed into the unconscious.
When our shadow remains unconscious, it wrecks havoc in our life. Repressed contents do not merely disappear, but rather they function independently of our conscious awareness. In other words, the shadow has the capacity to override our conscious ego and take possession of our being, exerting control over our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. When this happens we can be unconsciously driven into hard times, all the while remaining ignorant that these troubled periods were self-imposed, and not the product of bad luck or fate.
The unconscious control which our shadow can exert upon us also accounts for the self destructive behaviors so many individuals struggle with and are unable to control despite consciously knowing they would be better off not engaging in such actions. Many addicts are driven by their shadow, which accounts for the internal “war” which exists within them. One moment they tell themselves they are going to give up their addiction and live a clean life, and the next moment their shadow overrides their conscious ego and they enthusiastically seek out the next drink, “hit”, or sexual release.
In order to avoid being the victim of “shadow-possession”, we must become conscious of our shadow qualities and integrate them into our conscious personality; accepting them with open arms not as abhorrent aspects of our self, but as necessary and vital parts of our being. Toward this end it is useful to realize that the task in life is not to become perfect, but to become whole. And as wholeness entails both good and evil, light and darkness, the achievement of wholeness in personality development requires we assimilate our shadow into our conscious personality.
Another quote by Jung “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.”
However, as Jung alludes to in the above quote, this is extremely difficult. Most cannot and will not admit that deep down they are not wholly virtuous, selfless, and good human beings, but instead contain selfish, destructive, amoral and immoral impulses and capacities. Most would rather deceive themselves with a blind optimism about the “goodness” of their nature, which why most remain fragmented individuals who are ignorant of their inner depths.
Again Jung says “The meeting with oneself is, at first, the meeting with one’s own shadow. The shadow is a tight passage, a narrow door, whose painful constriction no one is spared who goes down to the deep well. But one must learn to know oneself in order to know who one is.”
What is especially interesting is the idea that the shadow contains not just destructive aspects of the personality, but also potent, creative, and powerful capabilities. During our development certain traits and impulses were condemned by our family, peers, and educators, not out of care but out of envy, fear, ignorance or jealousy. Our proclivity to abide by social expectations also caused us to repress talents, innate abilities, and impulses which if cultivated and developed had the potential to make us more effective beings in the world.
For the sake of our personal development, we must, therefore, become more aware of our shadow and open our mind to the possibility that maybe we are not so friendly, righteous, and moral as we think. We must consider that perhaps there are unconscious aspects of ourselves driving our behavior “behind the scenes”. We must look down into our depths and realize that our conscious ego is not always in control, but is often overtaken by the power of our shadow.
Once we become more aware of these dark aspects of ourselves, we must honor them and find a way to integrate them into our life. In failing to do so, one will become weak and scattered. One cannot serve two inner drives without dissipating his strength and energies. The shadow must become a part of one’s conscious personality.
In Jung’s words “There is no generally effective technique for assimilating the shadow. It is more like diplomacy or statesmanship and it is always an individual matter. First one has to accept and take seriously the existence of the shadow. Second, one has to become aware of its qualities and intentions. This happens through conscientious attention to moods, fantasies and impulses. Third, a long process of negotiation is unavoidable.”
Our shadow is unique, and thus, to integrate it requires we adopt our own unique approach. So sometimes it is necessary to behave in ways which run counter to the mores of society and our own conscious moral compass. Most of our shadow qualities, after all, were repressed into our unconscious because we believed they were unacceptable, either socially or according to our family or peers. A common technique in shadow integration is to find a healthy, productive, or at the very least, controlled outlet for either repressed aggression or sexual urges. Another is to ignore customs one thought to be superficial or pointless, but previously conformed to in order to fit in. Another is to pursue a passion despite all those around you pressuring you otherwise. These tactics can help us separate ourself from the expectations of others, and allow us to look within, without judgment or condemnation, to discover who and what we really are.
If we can find a way to negotiate with our shadow, and allow it to “live” in our conscious personality rather than repressing it, we will not only attain a more secure sense of selfhood, but also more knowledge about what it is we really want in life. We will be more capable of ignoring what others think we should be doing, more able to deviate from the masses, and thus more prepared to commence on a path to fulfill our own personal destiny. The shadow, as Jung mentioned, is the doorway to our Self. The many dare not descend into their depths, but this is exactly what we must do if we are to become who we really are.
Finishing with Jung “The shadow, when it is realized, is the source of renewal; the new and productive impulse cannot come from established values of the ego. When there is an impasse, and sterile time in our lives—despite an adequate ego development—we must look to the dark, hitherto unacceptable side which has been at our conscious disposal….
This brings us to the fundamental fact that the shadow is the door to our individuality. In so far as the shadow renders us our first view of the unconscious part of our personality, it represents the first stage toward meeting the Self. There is, in fact, no access to the unconscious and to our own reality but through the shadow. Only when we realize that part of ourselves which we have not hitherto seen or preferred not to see can we proceed to question and find the sources from which it feeds and the basis on which it rests. Hence no progress or growth is possible until the shadow is adequately confronted and confronting means more than merely knowing about it. It is not until we have truly been shocked into seeing ourselves as we really are, instead of as we wish or hopefully assume we are, that we can take the first step toward individual reality.”