Jungian Psychology Series: The Shadow

My previous post in this series (http://bit.ly/1aNfyez) looked at the persona. The persona is our “public face,” the role that we play in social settings and society at large. The persona shines a light on those aspects of our personality that we want to be associated with. For example, if your conscious identity is that of an “entrepreneur,” your persona might project an air of confidence, worldliness, and financial savvy. But, like the umbra of the earth on the face of the moon during an eclipse, the persona casts a net of darkness over what lies behind it. Carl Jung aptly named this hidden and mostly unconscious dimension of the psyche the shadow.

The relationship between our persona and our shadow tends to be reciprocal. The more rigid, embellished, or one-sided the persona, the larger the shadow it casts upon the remainder of the personality. (This dynamic is illustrated in the story, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.) The shadow is the reservoir of our rejected, neglected and disavowed self. It is our awkwardness, “retardedness,” and immaturity (our “Borat-ness”). It is our greed, lust, and thirst for power.  It can be the emotion, such as anger or love, that we refuse to acknowledge and stand up for.  Sometimes it is the ancestral ape that rattles the cage of our overly rational, “civilized” mind. It can also be the child we once were, but have lost touch with; the inner artist, musician, dancer, writer, explorer, healer, hippie, student, bum, comedian, warrior, etc. that we have locked in the “Not Me” dungeon of our unconscious. Jung put it simply when he said that the shadow is who we are, but refuse to be. In our dreams the shadow is generally symbolized by a dream figure the same gender as the dreamer.

A woman dreams, “I want to take a nap, and my sister-in-law lies down practically on top of me. I’m really annoyed she’s even come in, and try to push her away. She ends up kicking me in the forehead with the pointed toe of her high-heeled shoe.” Our ego likes to think that it is the center of our personality; this is our egocentricity. When it comes face-to-face with the shadow, it typically tries to deflect the intrusion and banish the shadow back to the unconscious. This is symbolized in the dream by the dreamer’s desire to take a nap–she wants to be unconscious of something. But the shadow, symbolized by her sister-in-law, will have none of this and forces a confrontation. What is it that the dreamer does not want to see? Her association to her sister-in-law was that her sister-in-law was a very superficial person. Through the dream her psyche is challenging her to take a close look at her own superficiality, to see her sister-in-law in herself.  This is a painful and disagreeable task, well symbolized by a high-heeled shoe (in this context, a symbol of her elevated/superior attitude in relation to others) striking her forehead, the site of the “third eye,” or “eye of knowledge.”

Jung once stated that “the shadow is ninety percent pure gold.” By this he meant that much of what we have rejected in our own nature can be a great asset to us if properly developed and integrated. The emotion of anger is an example. If the awareness and expression of anger has been excluded by your persona–perhaps as part of the way you were raised–it remains undeveloped. It tends to surface at the wrong time, or to the wrong degree, or, perhaps worse, it does not surface at all. Its continued repression might cause you to develop panic attacks or depression, digestion problems, high blood pressure, migraine headaches, etc. Your dreams might become populated with angry people, monsters, or even a vampire, for your repressed anger is sucking the life out of you. On the other hand, if you are on good terms with anger, you are able to experience and express it as it arises, and without undue stress or drama. You are more willing to stand up for yourself, and your anger can help provide you with the energy and motivation to make necessary changes in your life. It is helpful to understand that many of the negative qualities attributed to the shadow derive less from its inherent nature, and more to the rejecting attitude we have directed towards it. The shadow’s influence upon our lives, whether positive or negative, depends greatly upon our willingness to recognize and make peace with it.

A man dreams, “I am in a house where a lot of partying and sex have been going on. I realize that I can no longer live there and want to leave. When the guy whose party it is finds out I want to leave, I get scared. He doesn’t like it when people try to leave. I pretend to enjoy smoking pot to fool him, but it’s making me terribly ill.” Not all aspects of the shadow have a nugget of gold at their core. Some are frankly destructive and feed like a fungus upon the healthier fabric of the psyche. The young man in this dream has come face-to-face with this destructive dimension of his own personality. His road to recovery will be challenged not only by external pressures, but by the resistance of the rogue government that has been ruling his soul.

In addition to our dreams, another important way that our shadow is made known to us is through the process of projection. Projection occurs when we perceive attributes of our own personality as present in other people, rather than in ourselves. For example, the woman in the dream above projected her own superficiality onto her sister-in-law. Her dream challenged her to withdraw this projection by finding its prior origin within herself. A good clue that you are projecting some aspect of your own unconscious onto another person, is when their behavior triggers an abnormally strong reaction in you–a reaction not experienced by those around you. When we encounter in someone a positive but undeveloped aspect of our personality, we tend to highly esteem them. When we encounter a negative but unconscious aspect of our own personality, we tend to greatly devalue that person. A good portion of all marriages originate through the projection of two people’s souls upon each other. (And a good portion of divorces from the projection of their negative shadow.)

Dealing with our shadow can be painful, humbling work. It takes moral courage to face and take ownership of our “lesser” self. But the gifts that accrue from our efforts benefit not only ourselves, but those around us, and the world at large. The persona and shadow are not just elements of an individual’s psychology, but of groups as well. Every nation and culture, every political party, church, organization, business, and family has a persona and a shadow. They identify with the former and deny the latter, which they then project upon some other group. Divisiveness and polarization between countries, or between the people of one country, relies heavily upon the process of projection of the shadow. Jung wryly observed that “the center of all iniquity is invariably found to lie a few miles behind the enemy lines.” Through projection, the world becomes the “acting-out-ground” of so many blind egos with their disowned and angry shadows. To the extent that we are ignorant of our own shadow, we are easy marks for these unconscious, collective forces. We are less susceptible to such forces when we have faced our own dark side, know some of its ways, and have earned a portion of humility.

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