The Shadow in ourselves consists of all the emotions and thoughts we repress as being socially inappropriate. Jealousy, rage, that evil twinge that relishes the thought of your boss being called on the carpet? That is shadow material. The more we repress shadow material, the more of a hold it has on us.
An example? I think this is most easily seen in homophobic people. It is said that people who are homophobic harbor homosexual feelings themselves, or fear that they do. So they erect what a Freudian would refer to as a defense mechanism called a "reaction formation" in which feelings, emotions or impulses which cause anxiety are suppressed and overcome by erecting an exaggerated spectre of the opposite tendency. If you experience homoerotic feelings which you think are unacceptable, you suppress them and loudly and longly spew homophobic diatribes as a defense. This is why you see politicians and televangelists who have spent years decrying homosexuals or prostitutes suddenly on the news confessing to the same behaviors they spent years condemning.
For a Jungian, the Shadow works in the same way. What we repress and try to deny will come back to haunt us. Jung described the Shadow as, "everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about
himself and yet is always thrusting itself upon him directly or indirectly". Shame, sexuality, rage, fear, weakness, jealousy, hurt and resentment can be shoved down into our unconscious and become shadow material. A perfect example is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Robert Louis Stevenson does a beautiful job of juxtaposing the entirely proper and socially acceptable Dr. Jekyll with his darker, shadow side, Mr. Hyde. In the light of day Dr. Jekyll suppresses all of his shadow material and presents this picture perfect, socially acceptable model of behavior. But at night, when no one can see, his dark side comes to life in Mr. Hyde.
Robert Bly, the poet and author, describes our shadow material as "the long bag we drag behind us". In Bly’s book, "A Little Book on the Human Shadow, he says the bag continues to get bigger and bigger as we age, for it contains all that we repress and deny about ourselves and about our lives, unless we actively work to bring the shadow into the light. He writes,
Let’s talk about the personal shadow first. When we were one or two years old we had what we might visualize as a 360-degree personality. Energy radiated out from all parts of our body and all parts of our psyche. A child running is a living globe of energy. We had a ball of energy, all right; but one day we noticed that our parents didn’t like certain parts of that ball. They said things like: “Can’t you be still?” Or “It isn’t nice to try and kill your brother.” Behind us we have an invisible bag, and the part of us our parents don’t like, we, to keep our parents’ love, put in the bag. By the time we go to school our bag is quite large. Then our teachers have their say: “Good children don’t get angry over such little things.” So we take our anger and put it in the bag. By the time my brother and I were twelve in Madison, Minnesota we were known as “the nice Bly boys.” Our bags were already a mile long.
Facing Your Shadow
What Do You Hate?
How do we identify shadow material within ourselves? One really easy way is to look at people who we absolutely loathe. They represent something we loathe within ourselves, our shadow material. Example?
I once asked my mother what kind of people irritated her the most. Her response?
"People who just go on and on and on and never make their point. I just hate that. That just keep rattling on and on, repeating themselves over and over again without ever getting to the point. I just hate that. Why don’t they say what they mean rather than repeating themselves over and over again?"
(She continued on for another 5 minutes, but I’ll spare you. You get the point.) I’ve noticed this about myself. People who really annoy me are usually doing something I do. Sometimes I’m aware that I do it, sometimes I’m not, unless I pay attention to what I’m "hating" in otherwise. The more strongly I’m irritated by someone’s behavior, the bigger the shadow in myself.
Have you ever seen someone with road rage? Do you know who irritates them the most? You got it. People who drive like they do!
What Makes You Laugh?
Another way to identify shadow material is with humor. What do you laugh at? Sometimes we laugh from recognition. I think of comedians as modern court jesters; they tell the court what a lot of us are afraid to say and we laugh because we identify with what they are saying. This can be shadow material. I’m afraid that saying what Carlos Mencias says might be considered racist or sexist or homophobic, but when he says it I laugh. He has exposed my shadow. Andrew Dice Clay was popular several years ago for this reason.
Comedy can also expose some of our evil or wicked little desires that we stuff away from the light of day. There is a category of funny videos which often make it onto TV shows like America’s Funniest Home Videos which show people falling. People falling off of trampolines, off skate boards, crashing into things. It’s often obvious that this is a very painful experience, yet the audience laughs. A person with a lot of suppressed anger towards others may find these especially funny.
What Do You Project?
Like an emotional movie projector, "projecting" refers to a behavior in which we project our own internal beliefs, feelings or experiences onto someone else when we feel they are inappropriate. Shadow material is especially susceptible to being projected onto someone else. Look around you? Does you view everyone as a cheat? A gossip? A liar? Does everyone around you seem angry? Unhappy? Fearful? You may be seeing your own shadow projected onto others.
The Mexican culture has a wonderful saying which translates roughly into English as, "The lion believes that all are like him". That about sums it up.
What Do You Dream?
The Shadow can also work on your dreams and your daydreams. Just like shadows of light, psychological shadows get longer as the day comes to an end and appear in full force in the middle of the night, in our dreams. The monsters in our nightmares may be our own Shadows fighting to come into the light of our awareness.
What Do You Miss?
The Shadow is not necessarily evil. It is merely repressed. Many times we feel compelled to repress good qualities as well, such as; normal instincts (sexual feelings), appropriate reactions (i.e. anger or fear), realistic insights or creative impulses. I was reading about a psychiatrist who was talking to a psychiatric patient in an ER ward one evening when a fire truck whizzed by. The patient got up and ran out of the ER. When he returned hours later, the psychiatrist learned that the patient had always wanted to ride a fire truck, saw the opportunity whizzing by, jumped on the back and road off to the fire. Now this is impulsive and a bit dangerous, but not evil. How many of us would like to ride on a fire engine? How many of us would like to be so uninhibited that we could just jump on and go for a ride? But instead we repress it for fear of being seen as "crazy" or "immature" or "irresponsible". That childlike joie de vive often gets repressed alone with the anger, shame and jealousy. Women may suppress their masculinity, their intellect or their power. Men may suppress their femininity, their fear or their sensitivity. These parts that have been suppressed are lost to us unless we search our Shadow, find and release them.
Reclaiming Your Shadow
Humans are only complete when we embrace our darkness and our light. Our Judeo-Christian culture teaches us that darkness and light are polar opposites and that we must embrace the light and deny the dark. We are beginning to learn that denying the dark only gives it more power. Instead of us controlling it, it controls our thoughts, our obsessions, our desires, our dreams, our loves and our hatreds.
The only way to "control" the dark is to embrace it, own it and take responsibility for it. We only feel whole when we acknowledge all of our thoughts, impulses, desires, wishes and feelings. We must look into the dark to see the light.
For more articles about mental health, please visit my blog at Kellevision.com.