We as humans often forget that we have sides to us that we don’t know. Our ideas about ourselves are usually incomplete, irrational or based on mere projection. We often go around with this notion that there is something inside us that is complete, perfect and knowable and that we may only see one side of it now but it will all be revealed eventually. There is a sort of rational certainty that lies in this view of a complete, perfect and knowable self. A self that always exists, absolute and eternal.
There is another camp which has views of the self quite dissimilar to the one mentioned above. The other camp declines any kind of possibility of this complete knowledge and denies that it can ever be reached or known. They negate the self as something tangible or concrete that can be ‘known’ by the mind or is something that lies deep inside us waiting to be discovered. For the ones that espouse this worldview, the self is abstract, transient and while it is present in all things, it cannot be named or pointed to. It is something that belongs essentially to the unknowable and that is where it must stay, at least from the perspective of our conscious minds.
Now, neither of these approaches can be claimed to be either true or false. They work in certain areas of life and don’t in some. I think in any way that we choose to see the world it doesn’t matter as long as it doesn’t exclude self-exploration. Why I say this is because it can be quite a disservice to ourselves if we accept any ideology or belief without passing it through our own filters and testing it and experiencing what effects it bring in us. One size does not fit all and in the same way an isolated and polarized world view will only lead us to see the world in an isolated and polarized way. We can already see the effects of this in the world today.
We might enjoy the toying with the notion that there might be a whole book to read about our lives and we have only seen a couple of pages or a chapter, this only leads us to believe that there is something to be known in some other place or some other time. This in effect is a clever strategy of postponement and I wonder what we would do if we knew that the whole book is available to us at all times. There are chapters of our available to us right now, right here and we can know something more about ourselves by reading a chapter we don’t really want to read. Let’s explore one of those chapters.
We think we are one way but then something happens that makes us act in a surprising and unexpected way, this not only baffles and confuses us but can also scare us into thinking ‘Where did that come from’? or ‘that was really not me!’ Yet the expression and the action of that side of you was so natural that in the moment it seemed normal or even that it just needed to come out. Welcome to your shadow side. A side of ourselves lurking in the shadows, seeking acceptance while remaining in the dark and seeking expression but always needing to burst its way out into the conscious mind and to express, however explosively, what it needs to express. So who put it in the shadows? We did. The best definition I have found for the shadow is: “that which one has no desire to be.”
“The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.”
Carl Jung, Aion (1951)
What is our shadow but that which we do not wish to confront. That which stays on the background, the thing behind us, the thing in the shadows, obscured by the light of our conscious awareness. The shadow has an undoubtedly characteristic feeling of alienness to one. A person’s demeanour sparks a reaction from us but the source of that spark is in the shadow. Even if we were to reconcile ourselves with the idea that the person’s demeanour or behaviour is not the problem but it is what that behaviour sparks in us that’s what’s bothering us. We can find it quite hard to see ourselves as that person or performing that behaviour. In our repulsion or rejection of the fact, we have silently identified with it.
The aspect of the shadow that is most forgotten is its inability to be suppressed or repressed. The shadow is something we demarcate, when we are young, in creating our identities. We need to have an identity and that often means to differentiate ourselves from others. In a way, if we can be sufficiently different then we will be suitably unique. We use the do’s and don’ts of society and our culture to guide us into acceptable forms of identity which can give us the acceptance and belonging from society that we seek. But in this process, we’ve hidden parts of ourselves not only from others but also from ourselves. Primarily our acceptance & love comes from our parents and then from society. Dur to our primary motive, we tailor our behaviours to achieve this end and any behaviours that don’t conform, that are rejected or that cause us to feel unloved are pushed deep inside into a dark place where they’ll stay for a long time. Later when these aspects of ourselves come up, we find that we are surprised, horrified and mystified by them as if they were an ‘other’. This otherness is a product of the non-identification with the contents of the shadow because it was not included in what we call our identity. But at the same time, it very much seeks to be integrated into one’s identity and starts to burst forth into the scene in surprising and unexpected ways.
Our shadow sides are very much part of who we are and not something to dismiss as other than us, or separate from us. We might not immediately get the cognizant understanding or overview of this side of ourselves in the way we are used to, but the contents are all already there and they just need to be allowed to express themselves. It would do us good to not confuse the shadow with dark or evil but rather with that which lives in the dark, that which is hidden among the shadow that the light casts. In other words, something that natural that is already there and always there and just needs to be acknowledged. Everything that is in the light, casts a shadow. Our shadow side is also very personal, subjective and unique. It can often be considered the opposite of who we think we are but it is not necessarily the opposite in a dogmatic sense of opposites but rather something like a counter-balance. E.g. A strong, well build man who commands respect, never shows fear or weakness might have a shadow side that is soft, vulnerable and insecure and highly feminine. So, not quite the opposite but it can be seen as complimentary qualities of certain aspects of ourselves.
We do not look at the sun because it illuminates all that we can see, but we do look at the moon and wonder. We fantasize and are influenced by the moon and its phases. A full moon brings out certain tendencies that feel alien to us, sometimes animalistic, primal or ancient. But is this not just the shadow of our current selves. That we wish to be civilized, modern and conscious makes us naturally preclude these opposing contents from our awareness. But we cannot forget that our ancient and primitive selves is where we come from and that these selves live on in us in a much stronger and fundamental way. That basic primal conscious that we are so ready to relegate to the shadows is what our conscious awareness is built on and in a psychic sense it serves as a ancestor to ‘modern’ consciousness. From our sexual drives to our mystical curiosities, from our darkest thoughts to our most magnificent fantasies – we have the whole spectrum. These are not things that we can attempt to shut off, tame or control in a way that they are administered to us in tolerable and easy to handle doses.
Anger for example is a common shadow side quality we have as a collective. Anger doesn’t really have place in our society today and the result is that we live with some kind of suppressed form of it. But it comes out when we see injustice, inaction towards climate issues or with the current black lives matter movement. This is all just anger and is healthy for our psyches. It is important that we express it now because that makes way for the next stage, which is the integration of this anger. This is also the process that one takes in discovering one’s shadow side, as detailed by Carl Jung in his book Aion – once exposed, the shadow aspects are to be integrated into one’s conscious psyche.
Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.
Jung states that it is important that we do not identify with this shadow aspect and become it, as that would be counter-intuitive. It is something to be discovered and brought back and not something that one should give oneself to. It is an important aspect but not a totality in itself. It’s like making friends with the devil so that he lets you borrow his powers when you need them and in return all he asks is that he is treated as an equal, is respected and loved.
The shadow can be our sexuality or lack thereof. In cultures where religion takes the forefront, sexuality is often in the shadows, not talked about, not expressed, rarely depicted and definitely not encouraged. Yet it is strange but comes as little surprise that such a fundamentally natural aspect of life is suppressed and hidden. The shadow can manifest itself in the opposite gender, in qualities of the opposite gender that we were taught not to identify with. It can be one’s attitude to work, or in our highly productive and economically driven society it can be our attitude to relaxation and non-productive activity. Where we glorify utilitarianism, we demonize uselessness. Where we glorify the individual, we fear the collective and vice versa. We can also find it in our movement away from our home culture. A fantastical fascination for a culture far and fundamentally different from one’s own is a common theme in the expression of the shadow identity. Since culture often shapes so much of our identity, it is only a natural antidote to attempt to find (and fail to find) an identity in an ‘alien’ culture.
If any help was going to arrive to lift me out of my misery, it would come from the dark side of my personality.
But what is ultimately alien to us is ourselves, our immensity, our complexity and our undeniable wholeness. Yet it is in some ways for us important to reconnect to that after having voluntarily given that up in order to operate, live and love in society. Because our shadow sides are us, disregarding them would be like focusing only on the parts of a photograph where the light falls. The shadows in a photo accentuate the light and bring it out, they also give shape and depth to the subject and the background. We can take a step to approaching that wholesome self, whether concrete or abstract, by acknowledging our shadow and maybe then, we can be more at peace with ourselves and also more able to take on the challenges of the world. It will not only benefit us but others as well as the shadow is something we share. Our selves are intimately connected and in allowing our shadow sides to come out in healthy and non-judgemental ways we secretly give others the permission to do the same. There is no reason for us to keep our shadow sides in a prison of our own creation for it is not our enemy but our ally. We must emulate an environment of collaboration, like the warrior that uses his dark side in his battle and doesn’t succumb to it. The world needs that.