Modern psychology as co-founded by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung describes the shadow as those aspects of our personality that we choose to reject and repress. Perhaps it is society and our loved ones that don’t give us permission to be ourselves. But sometimes, it’s we who don’t give ourselves permission to be ourselves.
We cage away the parts of ourselves that we don’t want to see or look in the eye. We bury them deeply within the concave of our soul. It is a dark place where no light is allowed to enter. But once even a little light begins to reach it, we begin to see ourselves in an entirely new light.
To initiate oneself into the workings of our shadow requires a guide. It could be a flesh-and-blood guide, like a therapist; or it could be a book, an intimate relationship or an external event that brings us face-to-face with the aspect of the Self that has been neglected and negated.
This neglect, this shame, this humiliation–cries out to be heard. When we finally hear it, our hearts are overwhelmed with a deep pain that has always been there but that we have never dared to feel. At this stage, we begin to feel and express the five emotions that we have kept tucked away as we went about our daily lives and chores.
The anger that has grown into a rampant rage. The debilitating fears that have taken root as self-doubt. The grief that has created unending sorrow. The weary worries that have kept us in a state of standstill. The anxieties which have caused us much paralysis.
Even though everyone experiences these emotions as a part of their being, each person usually has one emotion that predominates. An emotion that is felt that strongly is a movement, a flow and a force of nature that is seeking to be seen. As long as we are alive, there are forces of unknown origin which move within us. When it moves freely and in harmony, there is health. If it does not move freely and it gets stuck–there is pain, disease, and ultimately, death.
These feelings, these overwhelming emotions which seem to attempt to annihilate us; are rooted in our deepest instincts and desires. It is not so much about stripping away our conditioning as it is about becoming stronger and more resilient. If we do not face up to what our instincts are asking us to do, we can end up living lives that are pure shadow.
Just stop for a second and think of something that you truly want to do. It doesn’t matter what that something is. Now think of someone who has gone ahead and done it. I’m sure you can come up with a name or two.
So, it can be done and it has been done, right?
The unconscious control which our shadow can exert upon us also accounts for the self-destructive behaviours which so many individuals struggle with and are unable to control despite consciously knowing they would be better off not indulging in such behaviours. What is especially noteworthy here is the notion that the shadow contains not just destructive aspects of the personality, but also the potent, creative, and powerful capabilities that can flourish if given the right circumstances.
Each soul’s shadow is its own. It is also where we feel most alone. It is also where, in intimate relationships, we make others feel the most alone.
This is ‘the good husband’ with the wife and two kids who comes home to find his wife sleeping with his best friend. He shames her for doing such a disgraceful thing, only to have her retort, “You have never satisfied me once.” She tells him that it is humiliating for her that her husband never sees her in that way; but only gazes upon her as a societal and personal obligation he must fulfil.
This is ‘the good wife’ who discovers her husband is seeing prostitutes and having multiple affairs. She breaks down when she finds out. Her grief and anger a potent force which could trigger a separation. He cannot admit that he was just seeking a cheap thrill to get his mind off all his anxieties. He tells her it didn’t mean anything, but she is too distraught and will never trust him again.
There are many other areas where our shadow can rear its head; but I feel it comes to the fore in places where we are the most vulnerable and the most powerful. For some of us, it’s in our relationship with our significant other, for others it’s their career, and for others it’s their relationship with money.
Perhaps ‘the good husband’ could try to understand his wife’s deeper desires–her need to be seen and satisfied as a sexual being; and perhaps ‘the good wife’ could make room for the possibility that it was all a meaningless cheap thrill that got out of hand.
My own journey has taught me that honouring the shadow is about balancing it. We can’t let it run amok. This is what causes those secret dalliances we dare not admit and are terrified by the thought of any of it coming to light. Perhaps it takes a certain amount of courage to admit what a jerk you’ve been and how much your own behaviour has hurt yourself as well as others. I used to think that by owning up to my flaws and failings, I was somehow becoming more integrated as a person. But through that journey, it was like I had become the darkness itself. It was no longer a part of me. It had become me.
Whatever calamity we create in the world has a way of coming back to us, at some point. As history repeated itself, and as my history repeated itself, I found myself finding new answers that I had not considered. Claiming your shadow is only the first step in understanding it.
Then, we need to let the light need creep in. The light which is saying, “Hey, while you were hiding in that dark cave, the world has gone on spinning… It’s time to come out now.”
I try to cry when I feel sad, but I can never seem to. Even when my grief is terrible, it is endurable. Over time, I have discovered that I can survive and endure anything. I don’t cry. I have never seen the need to. My response has usually been to fight. I’m good at that. I used to think it was because of societal conditioning; men don’t cry blah blah blah, but it isn’t that.
I finally managed to cry last week. But it wasn’t because of my own grief. It was because I finally managed to feel someone else’s grief. We can only feel grief if we feel we have lost something or someone that was important to us. I have never felt that way about anybody or anything. When faced with any sort of crisis, I fight. I endure. I keep going. I don’t give up. I’m not a sensitive person. I don’t pick up on the unspoken and I don’t always understand the nuances and depth of human emotion.
But I know the emotion of fear. I know it well. It is an old friend who has taught me resilience.
When someone cries, our instinct is to offer that person comfort and care. Sweetheart, what is wrong? It is the same reason why people comfort babies or hand you a tissue if you’ve inadvertently burst into tears.
When someone is in rage, our instinct is either to fight or to flee. I tend to fight. And no matter how many disgraceful experiences life throws at me, I tend to react the same way.
But for some reason, I have a vague memory of a commitment I made a long time ago. I have been trying to keep that commitment. I want to keep the commitment I made but it is not easy; for it is the one place I flee and where I tend to flee. Even when I am physically there, I still flee.
Becoming a better person is not about being a good wife, a good husband, a good child, a good whatever-it-is. It is about seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and walking towards it. It is about learning to see yourself and all-too-familiar situations in a new light. It is learning to react and respond differently this time.
For once you do, a new choice and a new opportunity will finally await. And at long last, you will be free–not to do what you want–but to glide effortlessly like the eagle without exerting much effort.