1. A basic principle of Jungian psychology is that we all have a conscious ego self and an unconscious “other” self. The unknown other contains the personal and collective qualities of our psyche of which our ego self is unaware or which it disowns. Jungians call the personal parts of the other—the parts unique to us as individuals—our “shadow.” Some shadow qualities are helpful, some, harmful.
Our shadow’s healthy and spiritually desirable features are our “light” shadow. Like a sunken treasure chest, it contains valuable potential we have not yet accessed. The potentially harmful features comprise our “dark” shadow. Everyone, from the most enlightened spirit person to the most disgusting criminal, has some of both. Even you and I.
2. A corollary principle is that ignoring and/or denying our shadow, light or dark, causes inner conflict and is a primary obstacle to individuation. Many people are not aware of inner discomfort or else are not troubled enough by it to seek relief. Perhaps they inherited excellent coping skills, or good parenting made them feel confident and worthy, or they made lucky choices that brought fulfilling work and supportive relationships. Others are aware of their shadows but ignore them out of habit, embarrassment or pride, or because they don’t want to upset the status quo and risk societal disapproval. Some find comfort in group membership and service to others. Some escape through addictions.
But some people cannot escape their shadows, not because they’re worse than anyone else’s, but because their egos are highly sensitive to inner wounds that separate them from themselves, each other, and the world. We all have inner wounds. They can be caused by early neglect or trauma; social, economic, or educational disadvantages; unfulfilling work; dysfunctional relationships; physical challenges; or inherited psychological traits. Whatever the cause, the luckiest among this type find relief by turning inward to face their shadows.
Regardless of how we handle our shadows, we’re all influenced by them and occasionally overwhelmed by them. When this happens we automatically know that the other person or outer circumstance has driven us to justifiable frustration. Caused us to act defensive, touchy, petulant or moody. Made us feel put-upon, embarrassed, hurt, misunderstood, angry, rebellious, anxious, vengeful, superior, disdainful, hopeless, and so on. Anyone in our situation would respond as I did, we think.
If we think about it at all. Mostly we don’t reflect on our emotions or behavior. We’re so busy gathering our defenses that we don’t hear the scathing tone of our voice or notice the pleasure it gives us to vent powerful emotions. We can’t see that our true motive is not to tell the truth with kindness and love, but to do whatever it takes to reinforce our position, win the argument, and ease our anxiety. In such moments of offended self-righteousness we believe we are the innocent, injured party, but we are, in fact, the embodiment of our dark shadow.
3. The third principle is better news: Accepting the reality of our shadow and developing a relationship with it initiates us into the inner journey to wholeness. Unfortunately, the gate to this path can only be opened by a rare and elusive key. This key is growing consciousness.
4. The fourth principle explains it: We discover our shadow by cultivating awareness of our habitual dysfunctional attitudes and problematic emotions as they occur, then choosing to change them. The repeating messages (old tapes) that amass our ego’s defenses are the trumpet blare announcing the arrival of our shadow. In the instant when our ego is conscious of our shadow we are lifted by grace from the dark realm of blind reaction into the enlightened realm of original choice.
Let the journey begin.
The beautiful image on the cover of Faint Illuminations: A Study of Shadows and Light, is used with the permission of the photographer, Rudy Castillo.