The problem with the shadow

Of all the concepts of Jungian Psychology I think The Shadow is probably the most misunderstood. I have heard it described as everything from the opposite of one’s personality to something akin to the dark side of the force from Star Wars. neither could be further from the truth and I think for our purposes here it would be helpful if I attempted to clear the air a bit.

Simply put the shadow is, as I have previously discussed, the upper most region of the unconscious. As all things tend to be, there is more than one layer or type of material located in the shadow but for simplicity’s sake I will only refer to the personal and the collective shadow.

In a general sense the shadow it the place where the aspects of one’s personality which are detestable to the ego are relegated. Now what does that mean?

You have within you, as all human beings do, all the multitude of personality characteristics. The only difference being the levels. I like to describe personality as an old school graphic equalizer on a stereo. Think of a box with many knobs or slides on it which one uses to turn up the volume on a particular frequency of sound. This was the way, back in the olden days, we would amplify our records to get the sounds just right and of course loud enough to annoy our parents properly.

Personality works roughly the same way. Everyone has within them all possible personality characteristics and each of us through a multitude of the complexities of early life have our personality equalizer set at differing levels of each characteristic. So things like agreeableness and tenderness and empathy and frustration tolerance, all the different aspects are “tuned in” different. This is why even identical twins will have different personalities even when raised together and in the same household.

There are likely incalculable large numbers of personality characteristics and I have no intention on discussing all of the ways in which the “volume” can be adjusted on some or not others (which is likely a result of cultural development) but I will say some of these characteristics are for whatever reason intolerable to the ego.

Take a characteristic such as lust for money or greed/selfishness. For many people the idea that such a characteristic could be part of their personality is unimaginable, but such a characteristic is a part of humanity and therefor is a part of everyone’s personality to some degree or another. Maybe you see no problem with your greed and live it out as an essential if not beneficial part of your personality. This is a viewpoint which is not only emphasized but encouraged by western society.

But what if you were taught from an early age that greed is bad and should be avoided in all its forms at all cost? This lesson could be taught by one’s parents or religion, or be a manifestation of the collective unconscious most readily at work in your household growing up. What does one do with such a characteristic then?

The ego’s job, if you want to think of it that way, or primary function is to rationalize one’s interaction with the world and to protect the self from harm. That protection could be in the form of fighting off one’s competition or in the case of psychic materials, defending against even the recognition such a thing exists. Think of it as an extreme version of the child who knocks over a lamp and says, “I didn’t do anything.” Denial is a fascinating defense mechanism and is the simplest form of such defenses.

In the case of one’s personality the denial is so strong, so complete that the ego doesn’t even recognize a part of the self is present in the system. To paraphrase a phrase from baseball, that trait is outta here.

The process goes a little like this.

When my middle child was still young enough to sit in a high chair for meals he would push items he did not want to eat off the tray and onto the floor. Usually into the waiting mouth of our family dog who was much more thrilled with this process than my ex-wife and I were. The process of casting these items (usually vegetables but not always) off of the tray was not as simple as flinging them out, oh no there was a complex set of behaviors involved.

My child would be happily eating until the objective material became something he was aware of. This could be that the item was just placed on his plate or it could be that he in his rush to gobble up the items he did like just hadn’t seen it yet. However the process was accomplished he would suddenly notice the object, say a piece of broccoli, and he would stop all other movement. As if he was waiting for the broccoli to strike like a snake. While he waited he would stare it down as if saying, “There is not the slightest chance I am going to be eating you.”

Eventually he would regain his faculties and after he learned that verbally protesting would not dispel the item he would begin the process of casting the broccoli out. First he would pull the other items on his plate away from the broccoli as if the mere touching of if would taint the food he did want to eat. Then he would push the broccoli slowly off his plate with his fork or spoon. This was a safe utensil to use for such a purpose as like many 18 month olds he had learned that eating required the holding of a utensil, such as a fork or spoon, but he had yet discovered the purpose of the tool. All food which made it into his mouth was shuttled there in great handfuls by his free hand.

Once the object, broccoli in this case, had been safe pushed off his plate and onto his tray you would think it would again be safe for him to resume eating. You’d be wrong but I don’t fault you for thinking it. No the offending item was not yet at a safe distance from his desirable food yet.

He would slowly and carefully push the item with his fork until it reached the edge of his tray and then he would sort of flick it over the edge and onto the floor. Only once the item had been completely cast off of his tray would his facial expression soften. Only once the item had been completely cast off his tray would he begin eating again.

This is how the ego rids itself of unwanted personality traits. First the trait is identified and then it is pushed farther and farther from awareness until it is ultimately cast out completely. This process is so very complete in nature that the undesirable characteristic is no longer recognized as part of the personality by the ego. The trait is not outside of awareness and in the shadow.

Also as I stated in yesterday’s post the unconscious is not a static place and there is not family dog waiting there to eat the unwanted personality characteristics cast off the tray of awareness by the ego. No the unconscious does not work that way. It pushes these characteristics back into awareness through a process called projection.

Projection works with people the same way it works in a movie theater. In a theater the movie is cast from a location in the back of the room and onto a screen. The projector (the thing in the back of the room) is the actual location of the movie itself but what people interact with is the projected image on the screen.

That is precisely what the psyche is doing with the personality trait which has been cast into the shadow, it projects it out in the environment until it is recognized by the ego. Once recognized the usual reaction by the ego is disgust, or what Jung called “rageful anger.”

Going back to our original example, greed or selfishness, if you have such a trait in your shadow and you see someone steal something or take two when the sign clearly states to take one, you will become angry. How dare that person? you may ask. The more angry you become the more that personality trait is a part of your shadow and the greater the need for you to consciously recognize it.

That is what individuation is, the conscious recognition of what was previously an unconscious part of you. The more conscious you become, the more consciously your decision making process becomes. To be blunt, that is the point to make the unconscious conscious.

If you do not become conscious your decision making process will remain unconscious. How does that work out in actual life? The person who has greed or selfishness in their shadow will still act, on occasion, greedy or selfish. Maybe you will rush to take the last cup of coffee or take two cookies when everyone else is taking one. You know you are doing this and maybe you try to hide the behavior from others because you feel guilty doing it. Maybe you wish you could stop hiding treats in your room but you just can’t seem to do it. Maybe you damn yourself and curse yourself and call yourself names. Maybe you are sad and alone, or feel that way, and you have no idea why. After all you have friends and family around you but your fear of fears is that they will one day discover what a greedy little pig you are and they they will reject you. They will abandon you.

When you are confronted by one of your shadow projections, that is you see someone do something and it instantly sets you off, think about how that characteristic is a part of you. In so doing you will actually come to accept this as part of you and in so doing actually become capable of changing it. Remember the first step is to acknowledge the presence of a problem for a reason. You cannot change what you will not accept. So when you see your shadow instead of giving into the desire to run away from it, to proclaim to the mountaintops that you are not like that, say to yourself there I am. That is a part of me.

and love it.

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