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Understanding The Corners of Ourselves

July 28, 2014, 11:00 AM
Understanding The Corners of Ourselves
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“The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely” — C.G. Jung

Shadows fall. Twilight creeps toward the witching hour of late-autumn nights. Spooky things show up on the lawns, ring our doorbells and threaten tricks for treats. Darker forces surround us: news headlines shriek of the evil spells that Nature—and humans—have cast. It’s a scary time, no doubt. But what we may need to fear most has nothing to do with the time of year, the darkness around us, or even the evil-doers among us. They are the shadow forces that lurk within us. We should be afraid of our own shadows.

James Hollis, PhD, author of Why Good People Do Bad Things: Understanding Our Darker Selves, and executive director of the Jung Educational Center in Houston, says, “What we have ignored within ourselves will sooner or later arrive from outside...like a truck headed toward us in the wrong lane.” He should know. As a Jungian analyst who has counseled thousands of people, he sees “the Shadow” as a real and powerful force that, sooner or later, will make itself known.

Shadow self

“Shadow” is the term used by Carl Jung, the renowned Swiss analyst, for aspects of our own personalities—negative or positive—from which we choose to distance ourselves. The shadow issue comes into play when we ask ourselves, “What part of my life am I avoiding?” Any time we pronounce “I could never do that!” we are in shadow territory. Two thousand years ago, the Latin poet Terence wrote, “Nothing human is alien to me.” The capacity for evil, every kind of evil, is in all of us. We may never murder someone, but if looks could kill, if fantasies of someone’s doom could make manifest, we all would be guilty. We all have lied to ourselves a thousand times over, felt murderous rage, choked off our own creativity and sabotaged our own happiness. The shadow wreaks its havoc on our lives when we refuse to acknowledge its existence. Acknowledge or not, the Shadow shows up.

Says Lily, the 14-year-old heroine in Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, The Secret Life of Bees, “Every human being on the face of the earth has a steel plate in his head, but if you lie down now and then and get still as you can, it will slide open like elevator doors, letting in all the secret thoughts that have been standing around so patiently, pushing the button for a ride to the top. The real troubles in life happen when those hidden doors stay closed for too long.”

Hollis would agree with Lily. Our shadow, the collective aspects of ourselves we don’t own consciously, comes out of hiding through something troubling, like defeat. “One way to look at the shadow,” he explains in an interview recently, “is to see which places in our lives we repeatedly undermine ourselves.” The shadow can be seen in addictions, an unfinished dissertation, the string of dead-end jobs, the fifth abusive relationship we enter, and, in the extreme, psychopathic and sociopathic personalities.

‘Self, meet Shadow-Self.’

If the shadow is that powerful and important, how come we don’t know it? Says Hollis, “Certain parts of ourselves have never been introduced to the other parts, and if they had, they might not get along very well.” Specifically, the ego self is none too pleased with the shadow.

"It is much easier to deny, blame others, project elsewhere, or bury it and just keep on rolling. It is at these moments of human frailty when we are most dangerous to ourselves, our families, and our society."

The ego is who we think of as ourselves, the one reading these words right now. It’s the conscious part of us, that pays attention, focuses, has goals, is consistent. But, (cue the creepy music here) the ego is not alone. The shadow, comprised all those separate energies that operate unconsciously, and, therefore, autonomously, are ever-lurking and ready to upend the ego’s sense of superiority and shatter its illusion of being in control. Shadow work is always humbling to the ego. But it’s really, really important.

When our shadow is not owned, it remains unconscious and we remain in denial that we are or could ever do anything wrong (Met that person?) The shadow can show up as a projection of our own fears which manifests in the extreme as racism and bigotry. Or, the shadow can show up as being caught up, identifying with, and being carried away by an expressed/disowned part. Confused? Think out-of-control-holiday-office-party behavior, or more sinister, going home with someone you just met in a bar. The optimal expression of the Shadow is in integrating it, accepting those thoughts and impulses as being part of who we are, but owning responsibility for our actions.

Owner’s Manual to your shadow

In urging people to do the hard, humbling work of owning the shadow, Hollis writes: “When we do this work, we find, in the end, that the light is in the darkness itself. We will find that no feeling, even the most turbulent, most contradictory, is wrong, although we are wholly responsible for how or whether we enact that feeling, for feeling is not a choice...

“So what if we have to take on a more differentiated, more complex view of the world than makes us comfortable? Shadow work is troubling you say? Yes... and life without shadow work is even more troubling.”

One of Shakespeare’s characters observes in Twelfth Night: no prisons are more confining than the ones we “know not we are in.” Hollis adds, “Death, life, and other troubles are our constant companions.” And those companions cause a whole train wreck of trouble for others as well. Hollis cautions, “It is much easier to deny, blame others, project elsewhere, or bury it and just keep on rolling. It is at these moments of human frailty when we are most dangerous to ourselves, our families, and our society.”

Shadows in our dreams

Dreams are also a path through shadow work. We all have bad dreams, lots of them, according to Mark Blagrove, a dream researcher at the University of Wales in Swansea. He asked people to keep a dream diary and discovered that nightmares are reported once or twice a month.

Frustrating or anxious dreams are even more common, taking up three hours a night of our sleep, says Robert Stickgold, a sleep researcher at the Harvard Medical School. Since anxious dreams are so common, how do they tell us anything about the shadow?

Recurrent emotional themes or seeing ourselves do something in our dreams we could never imagine doing in waking life, point the way to the disowned part of ourselves. Some themes are universal, like the classic: panicking through a final exam in a course we never attended.

Shadow dreams may also have a cultural basis. In an article by Natalie Angier in The New York Times, Dr. Kelly Bulkeley, a dream researcher and visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, and his colleagues have found that nightmares about falling through the air are common among women in Arab nations. “There’s such a premium in these countries on women remaining chaste, and the dangers of becoming a ‘fallen woman’ are so intense that the naturally high baseline of falling dreams is amped up even more,” Bulkeley says.

Whatever the culture or unique family history, we all have shadow material that dreams can help us access. The meaning we attribute to the dream still requires the courageous work of owning those actions and feelings as a part of us. But the truth you discover will, ultimately, liberate you.

Concludes Lily in The Secret Life of Bees: “I’d traded in a pack of lies for a pack of truth, and I didn’t know which one was heavier. Which one took the most strength to carry around? It was a ridiculous question, though, because once you know the truth, you can’t ever go back and pick up your suitcase of lies. Heavier or not, the truth is yours now.”

Questions for your shadow:

A homework assignment

OK. So maybe you’re game to try this shadow work. How do you begin? In Dr. Hollis’ workshops, these are questions you would be invited to write about. There are no right nor wrong, good nor bad answers. There is only an authentic and objective search for aspects of your self that you have kept at a conscious distance.

  1. What do you consider to be your virtues? Can you imagine the opposite of your virtues? Can you imagine that they could lurk in your unconscious? Can you see some place in the present, or in your history, where those opposites may in fact be manifest in your life?
  2. What are the key patterns of your relationships? Where do shadow issues manifest in patterns of avoidance, aggression, or repetition?
  3. What annoys you most about your partner, or others in general?
  4. Where do you repeatedly undermine yourself, create harmful replications, produce the same old, same old? Where do you flee from your best, riskiest self?
  5. Where are you stuck in your life, blocked in your development? What fears, what familiar issue blocks your growth?
  6. Where do Mom and Dad still govern your life—through repetition, overcompensation, or your special treatment plan?
  7. Where do you refuse to grow up, wait for magical solutions to the raggedy edges of life, expect rescue, or someone to step forth and take care of it all for you/ Where is the guru who will make these choices easy for you?
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