Daily, we see figures moving at the edge of consciousness that are a bit disconcerting. They are the thoughts, feelings, behaviors, potentialities, desires, and dreams that are unacceptable or that we might characterize as not me: aspects of the personality that have been pushed down for years. This is the Shadow, a term that most people have probably heard more and more in daily conversation.
Shadow, initially, is the entire unconscious psyche. Like looking out from the close proximity of the campfire into the inky darkness, we know the dangers that exist out there, or in there, that will potentially, or likely, do us harm. We remain close to the light or we take a bit of light with us, a flashlight.
The Shadow is mostly unconscious and is both personal and collective. Psychologically, we avoid the shadow side of our personality as threatening and distasteful. These elements threaten the sense of identity held onto tightly by the Ego/Persona. Rather than interact readily with these elements, we ignore them or erect defenses against them. Robert Bly, the poet, describes the Shadow as the bag that we drag behind us, into which we throw all difficult truths or possibilities that we cannot face about ourselves. We naturally ignore/repress the shadow aspects of our personality with the mistaken belief that we have them under control. They will have their say however, forcing themselves into our conscious awareness, if not now, then at some point in the future.
We receive loud hints of the Shadow’s presence daily, most frequently through the phenomenon of projection whereby we experience the repressed material as if it were exclusively true of an object in the environment. A sure indicator that our Shadow is involved in our reaction toward someone else, known or unknown, is the level of intensity of affect, of emotion. The more intense our emotional reaction or mental energy, the more we are experiencing our own Shadow, even when we have a legitimate complaint about that person or situation. After all, a projection cannot occur unless there is something on which it can hang.
Others see our Shadow much more readily than we ever will. That’s because we are oblivious to our unconsciousness and see the cause for our emotions and behaviors as externally caused.
Molly Tuby, a British psychoanalyst, suggested some typical ways all of us receive hints of our own shadow side:
- In the content of our humor
- In our exaggerated feelings about others (positive and negative)
- In negative feedback from others who serve as our mirrors
- In those interactions in which we continually have the same troubling effect on several different people
- In our impulsive and inadvertent acts
- In situations in which we are humiliated
- In our exaggerated anger about other people’s faults
I would add: “In those things that we have done and that we have left undone” that leave us or others around us perplexed.
Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.
Here is the split within the personality: the Ego/Persona instinctively seeks to defend its dominant position often feeling the struggle with the Shadow to be one of survival itself. The Ego/Persona will perceive the Shadow as inferior and contaminating, the enemy threatening to bring down everything that the Ego/Persona has striven to develop. The Shadow compensates keeping pace with the Ego/Persona in its continuing attempts to reach conscious integration. The struggle escalates proportionate to the level of repression or suppression by the Ego/Persona, as described in A Principle of Opposites.
The Self, the fuller personality, seeking the integration of the whole person, will speak through the Shadow and will be heard even if the consciousness of the individual needs to be thrown into chaos or possessed outright by the shadow quality.