Some people who experience a stroke–the loss of blood flow to part of the brain–lose the vision and physical sensations on one side of their body. Depending upon the location of the stroke, it may also affect their awareness of these sensory losses. For example, if I place an eyepatch over one of your eyes, you will be aware of the fact that your field of vision has been impaired. You will most likely compensate for this loss of vision by looking around more carefully before you walk, trying to see what you don’t see. You are conscious of your impairment. But this is not the case with some stroke victims. For them, what they do not see does not exist. Or, we could say that they do not know that they do not know. If they’re in a hospital room, the half of the room that they see is the whole room to them. They see and read only half of a page in a magazine, yet think it is the whole page. They may even put makeup on just one half of their face (and they’re not trying to be funny). The half of their body that still has sensations is for them their whole body. Through rehabilitation they may gradually rediscover the other half of their physical being, a half that, frankly, feels no more a part of them than the table next to their bed. Even in the best rehabilitative environment their awareness and consciousness will often come the hard way–through tripping over and bumping into things.
A very similar situation plays out in our relationship to the shadow. In its broadest sense, the shadow is the disowned and undeveloped part of our personality. It is our unacknowledged other half, composed of thoughts and feelings, attitudes, instinctual tendencies, and potentialities (both creative and destructive) that have been excluded from our sense of self. For example, if I identify with my strength and adult maturity, then my vulnerability and childlike nature will reside in my shadow. (An excellent example of this dynamic can be found in the movie, The Kid.) As the denied and neglected side of our larger personality, the shadow is similar to the “forgotten” side of the stroke victim’s body. Most of the time we are not even aware of its existence until we have bumped into and tripped over it a few times.
Our shadow makes itself known to us in a variety of ways. We bump into it in our dreams, in our relationships with other people, and through our physical and emotional illnesses. It is important to remember that the shadow is the unacknowledged and unlived life within the psyche. Like the shoot of a tree that pushes up the pavement in search of sunlight, so the shadow will seek the light of consciousness through peaceful or disruptive means. One of the more pervasive but typically unrecognized ways that we encounter the shadow is through the process of projection. In projection we react to elements of our own psychology encountered in the behaviors of other people or in other outer life events. Here are some examples.
A man at midlife developed an irrational fear of driving on mountain roads. He became obsessed with thoughts of skidding off the side of the road, being driven off the road, and, on occasion, of purposely plunging over the embankment to his death. His fears made no sense to him; he had driven over the very same roads for years without any more than normal concern for his safety. He tried to reason with himself as best he could, assure and reassure himself, but all to no avail. Troubled and humbled by his powerlessness over his thoughts, he decided to get help.
When there is a change that needs to take place in our lives, a new way of living or of understanding ourselves, it is sometimes symbolized as going over an edge. We may dream of driving off a road, falling off a cliff, or hanging onto the ledge of a mountain. This particular man had to go over an edge in his own life. He needed to expand his sense of self so that other positive but unlived aspects of his personality might find expression. Because he was egocentric in his viewpoint and unconscious of his inner life, his psychological process was projected onto outer life. He developed an irrational fear of driving over edges because he needed to grow beyond the boundaries of his current worldview. His intrusive fantasies involved images of death because his psychological process involved the death of an outworn approach to life. When he understood the symbolic message of his symptoms, and made the necessary changes in his life, his fears subsided and he was able to drive comfortably once again.
A man dreamed that his wife was having an affair with one of her coworkers, a man he perceived to be very materialistic in his approach to life. Following the dream he became more suspicious and irritable towards his wife, certain that the dream was giving him information about her. Ironically, and as is usually the case with these types of dreams, the dream was more about himself than his wife. The other man in the dream symbolized the dreamer’s own materialistic attitudes. His wife was a symbol of his feelings, and her attraction to the coworker symbolized his own unconscious attraction to money and social status. What appeared to be a dream about the unfaithfulness of his spouse was in reality a dream about his unfaithfulness to his own soul. Had he realized this, he might have been able to address his issues and marriage relationship with greater consciousness. The fact that he didn’t contributed to his wife’s decision to leave him for another man. Sadly, her own unconsciousness led to the very activities he had suspected of her. Projection is pervasive and insidious in relationships. Without consciousness it is easy to fall into the roles that others project onto us from the dramas of their inner life.
Documents released by the Nixon Library in 2008 add more definition to the picture of a man obsessed with protecting his power as president of the United States. The tapes and documents show that Nixon’s minions were instructed to dig up as much dirt as possible on his opponents and critics, and to keep him informed of even the most inconsequential protests to the war in Vietnam. His behavior was typical of a man obsessed with power. Although his concerns were not without warrant–many people were against the war and his handling of it–his paranoia bordered on the extreme and contributed to the illegal wiretapping he authorized (i.e., Watergate).
When someone’s personality has been hijacked by a power-driven ego, it is not uncommon for that person to have dreams of being chased or attacked. Symbolically, these dreams show the unconscious is trying to reign in the errant and inflated ego. If president Nixon was at war with his unconscious, it is instructive to ask how his inner life molded his interpretations of national and world events through the process of projection. It is also interesting to see how his psychology coincided with the social unrest and conflict of the nation he led. Government leaders who see life in simplistic, black and white terms, tend to inflame similar polarities in the nation they govern. A social psychologist might ask, “Which comes first, the psychology of the leader, or the psychology of the nation he/she leads?” From the perspective of Jungian psychology, the two go hand-in-hand, a mesmerizing dance of complementary projections. Only through greater consciousness, ownership of our shadow, and the withdrawal of our projections, does the dance ever change. Here’s to conscious dancing.