“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular. ~Carl Jung, CW 13: Alchemical Studies, par 335.
Opposites. A basic theorem of Jungian psychology is that for everything we know about ourselves—beliefs, values, attitudes, emotions—there is a corresponding unconscious opposite. This is because we see everything in terms of either-or, good-bad, and automatically disown and repress the less desirable option.
For example, your family stressed the importance of love and kindness. Growing up you emulated these values and were affirmed for it. You think of yourself as a kind and loving person. Yet, there have been times when you were filled with anger and hate and your good intentions flew out the window. Nevertheless, because being anything less than “good” according to your family’s standards doesn’t fit your image of yourself, you’ve justified your “lapses.” After all, you know how hard you try, how well-meaning you are, so it had to have been the other person’s fault. You were right/good, so they were wrong/bad. Right?
But, guess what. Your “negative” emotions and thoughts don’t go away just because you deny or ignore them. They merely sink beneath your conscious awareness to a place where your ego can’t see them. We call this dark realm the unconscious. As your ego is the center of your conscious self, your shadow is the center of your unconscious self. Since you’re a reasonable person, your ego is probably willing to admit to a few shadow qualities here and there. But for every “flaw” you acknowledge, there are many others of which you have no conscious knowledge.
Projection. This leads to a second basic theorem of Jungian psychology: Whatever we disown in ourselves we project onto others. Those onto whom we project our shadow have a “flaw” similar to one of our own. Jungians say they have a “hook” onto which we can hang a disowned quality of our shadow. The hook can be a minor personality trait that can be easily overlooked or a major one that consistently causes problems for them and others. Either way, we are easily offended by people who remind us of our shadow. This gives us a simple way to see our shadows if we’re willing to look, and provides us with a handy scapegoat if we’re not.
“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” ~Carl Jung, Memories Dreams and Reflections, Page 247.
Entropy. A third psychological reality Jung stressed is that when opposites remain isolated from one another, any disorder lurking within them remains constant or increases. Thus, the longer we ignore our shadow, the more apt it is to cause trouble. Refusing to acknowledge it when it shows up is therefore not only psychologically ignorant, but dangerous. Unfortunately, the Western world does not recognize the shadow, either in individuals or in collective consciousness, and our ignorance perpetuates our prejudices, hypocrisy, broken relationships, self-righteousness, crime, war, and destruction of our planet.
“Only an infantile person can pretend that evil is not at work everywhere, and the more unconscious he is, the more the devil drives him. It is just because of this inner connection with the black side of things that it is so incredibly easy for the mass man to commit the most appalling crimes without thinking. Only ruthless self-knowledge on the widest scale, which sees good and evil in correct perspective and can weigh up the motives of human action, offers some guarantee that the end-result will not turn out too badly.” ~Carl Jung, Aion, ¶ 255.
This election season has pitted two candidates who couldn’t be more different against one another. Never, in the history of our country, has the divide between two potential presidents been wider. Never have so many citizens of the United States or the world been so shaken by this ugly polarization. Never has the collective shadow of America been so obvious to all.
Beneath all our conscious beliefs and rationalizations we are being influenced by our shadows. The less self-aware among us are defending the candidate who most represents their ego’s self-image and who promises to serve their self-interest; and they are projecting evil onto the “other” candidate and anyone else who carries hooks for their repressed shadows.
“Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.” ~Carl Jung, Letters Vol. 1, Pages 236-237.
The only lasting contribution any of us can make to world health and planetary peace is to know our own shadow well enough to restrain it without projecting more darkness into a world that already has enough to destroy us all. One pair of opposites has the power to determine our fate. Love is the most powerful healing and unifying force in life. Hate is the most divisive and destructive.
Hating our shadow and seeing it in others instead of ourselves will set us on a path of conflict and destruction. Owning our shadow will activate compassion, ethical behavior, wholeness and enlightened consciousness.Will we choose to see and befriend our shadow and the people who carry it, thereby serving love? Or will we choose to ignore our inner darkness and hate the people who remind us of it?
Which way will your vote go?
Image Credits: The Good and Evil Angels, Blake, Wikimedia Commons. Sending Out the Scapegoat, Wikimedia Commons. Witch Hunt, Wikimedia Commons. The Red Button, Wikimedia Commons.
“There is no consciousness without discrimination of opposites.” ~Carl Jung, CW 9i: §178
For some time now I’ve wanted to write about the U.S.A.’s upcoming presidential election in a thoughtful, non-polarizing way, but couldn’t find a theme. I found it last week in this quote:
“The time is ripe for the unconscious and conscious dominants to meet each other. The death of the old dominant is indicated by the fact that the king is about to die. This corresponds to the fact that the God-image, the collective dominant of the Western psyche, is moribund. In preparation for its death, it opens up an ancient tomb; in other words it opens up the unconscious. This activates the feminine principle, which had been dead and buried in the very same tomb, in the unconscious. As the tomb is opened, the unconscious is penetrated by consciousness . . . and a revitalization occurs.” ~ Edward Edinger
Carl Jung believed that resolving the problem of opposites was the major challenge of our time. The problem is that although every human inherits the full range of human potential, we separate qualities into arbitrary categories of good and evil, right and wrong, better and worse. Those we prefer and develop are projected onto our gods and leaders. Those we despise and reject are projected onto enemies and devils. When we act on our biases we often do great harm to ourselves, each other, and our planet.
In today’s world, two pairs of opposites present the greatest challenge: our conscious and unconscious selves, and our masculine and feminine sides. Since the ‘masculine principle’ of Logos, (logic and reason, objective interest), has consciously ruled politics and religion in the West for about 5,000 years, the ‘feminine principle’ of Eros (caring and relationship, or what Jung called ‘the great binder and loosener’), has been relegated to our unconscious lives, and women and the qualities long associated with them have been devalued and repressed. The more obsessive we are about maintaining masculine dominance, the more money and power males and traditional societal institutions acquire and cling to, until what was originally a fresh and healthy new development turns toxic.
The King Is About to Die
As stories about the unconscious self, myths often contain a dying king. Death images also appear frequently in dreams. In essence, this motif represents the stage in the growth of an individual or society when limiting old beliefs, attitudes, and priorities must die for continued growth to occur. This is always a time of great difficulty and often of chaos.
The metaphor of the dying king is especially apt in the political arena. Consider the rebellions, revolutions and deaths that occurred before America’s founders were able to free themselves from the control of the British monarchy. Imagine how devastating it must have been to the aristocracy which had amassed great fortunes under the monarchy to lose the New World, an unbelievably valuable asset, to the new order of democracy.
Is it any wonder the British held on so tightly? Yet in the end, our founders’ need to be free from repression won out. As a result, democracy, a brand new form of government, was born. Of course, the psychological reality that the king is about to die again does not mean democracy should die, but only that it’s time to end the imbalances and injustices which have characterized it so far.
The Unconscious and Conscious Dominants Meet
Presidential races have always been hotly contested and name-calling has always been the order of the day. And even the wisest among us are buffeted by unconscious emotions and complexes which influence our choices without our knowledge. This is why both sides in this race can have such different positions, yet each sees theirs as the ‘correct’ one that will promote democracy’s values of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
So what’s different about this race? For the first time in the history of America, the unconscious dominant of the feminine principle and all it represents—symbolized by Hillary Clinton—has risen to meet the conscious dominant of the masculine principle and its patriarchal style of governing—symbolized by Donald Trump.
The pervasive argument that Clinton is no different from the corrupt males before her simply doesn’t stand up to the facts when her record is compared to Trump’s (check the facts here), or to those who preceded her as Secretary of State (check the facts here). The fact is, symbols speak louder than words. In this case, the fact that an experienced female politician has been nominated to run against a political neophyte who happens to be a powerful, white, billionaire male shows us what’s really at stake in America’s collective unconscious.
It’s very apparent to observers of cultural change that the feminine principle has been activated in collective consciousness. The question is, will we keep trying to repress it or will we open the tomb and make way for the revitalization of America?
“Religion is supposed to teach us the way of love. Jesus even commanded it. Though I’m not sure that you really can order or demand love, it’s so all-important that the great spiritual teachers always do, saying with urgency, as it were, “You’ve got to love or you’ll never find your soul’s purpose. You’ll never find the deepest meaning of life itself.” Philosophically, you will never discover the Logos, the blueprint, the pattern, the template of all reality, what Jung would have called ‘the soul of the world.'” Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.
Do we, the majority of us in the contemporary world, do we understand what love means? Do we feel fulfilled and spiritually satisfied in the depth of our souls? To the point that we’ve found our soul’s purpose? To the point that we can feel love for others whether they love us or not? Most of us don’t. I think that’s why our world’s in such a mess. Consider how our ideas about love for God and others develop…..
AN INFANT’S IDEA OF LOVE: You satisfy every instinctual need.
Come here right now! Feed me. Hold me close. Touch me gently. Make the hurt and hunger and loud noises go away. Smile at me. Make soothing sounds.
A CHILD’S IDEA OF LOVE: You give me what I want.
No! I won’t eat that nasty broccoli. I’ll throw up if you make me eat it. I want this toy! Don’t take it away from me! I won’t lie down. I don’t want to take a nap now. Come back here. Don’t leave me alone. Give me what I want and I’ll be good. Don’t leave me with the baby sitter. I’m afraid. Look under my bed. Did you check the closet? Just one more story and I promise I’ll go to sleep. Pleeeeeeease! Suzy’s touching me! Make her stop looking at me!! Thank you for giving me that (insert item) I wanted. You’re the best mommy/daddy/god in the whole world!
ADOLESCENT: You leave me alone.
There’s something wrong with you if you won’t let me do what I want to do. Why don’t you understand me? I was definitely born into the wrong family. I can’t wait to get out of here!!
YOUNG ADULT: I am attracted to you and you make me feel good!
If you love me you’ll always make me feel this good and I will love you forever! (Unless, of course, you stop making me feel good, in which case I’m outta here!)
I don’t feel as good as I used to. What’s happened to you? If you really loved me you’d …. (fill in the blank.) You don’t love me any more. I don’t love you any more either and its your fault: (Pick one:) A. But, I’ll stay (and make both our lives miserable because being with you is familiar and I’m afraid to change) or B. So I’m leaving (you’ll be sorry, but I know there’s someone out there who will love me.) There’s a C option too, but most of us never get to that…..
“I have treated many hundreds of patients. Among those in the second half of life – that is to say, over 35 – there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost that which the living religions of every age have given their followers, and none of them has really been healed who did not regain his religious outlook.”~ C.G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul
MIDDLE AGE: You’re not enough for me.
Is this all there is? I’ve done everything I thought I was supposed to do and I’m still not happy.What’s wrong with my partner? Could there be something wrong with me? How can I feel better? Would it be wrong to tell the truth and act on my honest feelings? Will God punish me if I change my beliefs and break my promises?
MATURITY: Teach me to love so that I may become Love.
“Meaty spirituality must first of all teach us freedom from the self, from my own self as a reference point for everything or anything. This is the necessary Copernican Revolution wherein we change reference points. Copernicus discovered that Earth is not the center of the universe. Now we have to discover that we are not the center of any universe either. We are not finally a meaningful reference point. Although we do have to start with self at the center to build a necessary ‘ego structure,’ we then must move beyond it. The big and full world does not circle around me or you. Yet so many refuse to undergo this foundational enlightenment.’This ultimate reality, the way things work, is quite simply described as love.'” Richard Rohr, Falling Upward
Late at night a baby cries out in hunger. The exhausted face of its young mother appears over the top of the crib. She thrusts a bottle of cold milk in the baby’s hands and hurries away. Alone, yearning for the softness and warmth of her mother, the baby greedily drinks the milk while a tiny portion of her soul’s light flickers and fades.
A toddler taking his first steps crashes into a table and breaks a lamp. “Now look what he’s done,” his father shouts at his mother. “I paid good money for that lamp,” he yells as he storms out of the room. The confused child sees the hurt and fear in his mother’s eyes and begins to wail.
A third-grader on the playground says to her friend, “Look what I can do!” and executes a dance move she saw on TV. A sixth-grader nearby rolls her eyes and says scornfully, “Trust me. You’ll never be a dancer. You’re too fat. They have to be skinny and pretty. Like me.” She leaves without seeing the death of innocence on the little girl’s face.
“Can I play?” a boy asks some neighborhood kids. When a baseball rolls his way he tentatively tosses it back. “You throw like a girl,” jeers an older boy. There’s laughter. Someone taunts, “Sissy girl. Sissy girl.” The boy runs home so they won’t see him crying.
“See my muscles, Daddy?” a ten year old girl says, flexing her biceps proudly. Her father looks away and says, “You smell sweaty. Better go take a bath.” “And brush your teeth,” her mother calls after her. “You won’t catch a husband smelling like that!” As their daughter heads for the bathroom, the pleasure she felt in her strong and healthy body is erased by shame.
“I want to be an astronaut,” a 13 year old boy shyly admits after a lesson on astronomy. “It’s time you faced facts kid,” says the discouraged teacher of this unruly class of low achievers. “You’re an average student at best. And I happen to know that the men in your family have never amounted to much.” The boy feels the place inside that was left empty by the loss of his beautiful dream filling with ugly resentment.
Sitting alone in her room on prom might, an introverted honors student writes in her diary: All my friends have boyfriends. Why don’t I? What’s the matter with me? Am I too serious? Too boring? Will any man ever love me? Fearing to test her divorced mother’s emotional fragility, she suffers silently.
“When will I be loved?” asked Phil Everly of the Everly Brothers in their 1960 hit song.
I’ve been made blue, I’ve been lied to
When will I be loved
I’ve been turned down, I’ve been pushed around
When will I be loved
When I meet a new girl that I want for mine
She always breaks my heart in two, it happens every time
I’ve been cheated, been mistreated
When will I be loved
When will I be loved? If we’re like that lonely honors student, musically gifted teen-aged boy, or any of these wounded people, we probably believe the answer to that question is, “When I make people love me by showing them the false self they want to see.”
Unfortunately, that’s the wrong answer. The correct one, the one that leads to a love-filled, self-fulfilled life, is, “When I become the true self I’ve been denying and discard the false self I’ve created.”
The hungry baby deserved her mother’s full attention, but the mother was too wounded by her own inadequate mothering to give it to her.
The toddler’s first steps should have been celebrated with looks of delight, but when he gazed into the mirrors of his harried parents’ faces he saw only anger and fear.
The dancing girl could have been appreciated for her enthusiastic efforts, but the mean girl was too insecure and intimidated by the perfectionistic standards of the adults she knew to feel compassion for someone who clearly fell short of their ideal.
The more experienced kids could have shown the tentative boy how to throw a ball, but in their desire to impress each other and the adult males in their lives they imitated their demeaning and disrespectful attitudes toward girls and less athletic boys.
And so it goes. Many of us cover them up quite well, but all of us, children and adults alike, suffer from secret wounds that make us feel unlovable. And unfortunately, the less lovable we believe we are, the less able we are to love.
When will I be loved? When I stop showing others a false self, they will see my true self. When I listen to my true self, others will listen to me. When I respect myself, others will respect me. When I love myself, I will be loved. And I will love.
“Consciousness can only exist through continual recognition of the unconscious…” ~Carl Jung, Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, Par 178.
What does it mean to be unconscious? It doesn’t mean we’re dull, socially clueless or lacking in intelligence, creativity or passion. It simply means we are so used to thinking and behaving in habitual ways that we’re minimally aware of inner forces that move us every day.
These forces include our shadow (potential our ego actively disowns, both positive and negative), our anima and animus (untapped feminine and masculine potential), and a wealth of other archetypes (inherited psychological patterns and images) including the Self (our core and circumference and our connection to sacred Oneness).
All these entities influence our thoughts, attitudes, and behavior; sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. If we don’t notice and reflect on why we’re thinking or acting the way we do, we miss valuable opportunities to develop our fullest potential.
For example, you and I are having a calm, civilized discussion about politics and you bring up your candidate’s take on a certain issue—say emigration, abortion or gun control—and suddenly I become indignant. So what brought that on? you wonder as I aggressively spout opinions about the rightness of my position and the wrongness of your candidate’s position.
The more I talk the more justified and self-righteous I feel in my indignation. I might even get frustrated and angry at you. My position feels perfectly reasonable to me. How could you not see things the way I do? I wonder. How could you vote for that terrible candidate? Meanwhile, you’re mystified by the heat of my response. You might have strong opinions too, yet you have no problem discussing them calmly.
I’ve studied and thought about this issue. I think I know exactly why I believe what I do and I assume any rational person would feel the same way. But the truth is, I don’t really have a clue because I’ve never explored the inner forces that moved me to adopt my position in the first place.
So what has happened? Something about the mention of this issue activated an unconscious complex of associated memories, attitudes, and emotions. Maybe my complex arose from an early wound—a parent’s cruel neglect, a dismissive attitude or unjustified accusation, a traumatic experience at school or church, a cruelty I suffered at the hands of another, a secret shameful act I once committed. Or maybe the issue reminds me of painful conflicts I’m currently suffering.
My ego doesn’t want to admit to anxiety or self-pity or suffering. I associate these feelings with weakness and victimization, so I ignore them. But now the pressure cooker into which I have stuffed my complex has boiled over. The floodgates separating my ego from my unconscious self have opened, my ego is swamped with emotion, and every cell in my body wants to fight or escape. This time, my instinct is to fight.
I don’t stop to wonder why. I’ve gotten so good at dismissing my anxiety as unimportant or unacceptable that I barely notice it. Nor can I see that my agitated response to you is uncalled for and hurtful.
If you bring this to my attention, I’ll deny any wrongdoing and believe the fault is yours. Later on I might wonder if I came across a little too strong, but unless I’m unusually reflective I’ll soon forget the incident and lapse back into unconsciousness. Sadly, my ego’s dualistic resistance to my unconscious self has once again won the day. And I’ve lost another opportunity to learn, grow and heal.
“The contemplative stance is the Third Way. We stand in the middle, neither taking the world on from another power position nor denying it for fear of the pain it will bring. We hold the dark side of reality and the pain of the world until it transforms us, knowing that we are both complicit in the evil and can participate in wholeness and holiness. Once we can stand in that third spacious way, neither directly fighting nor denying and fleeing, we are in the place of grace out of which genuine newness can come. This is where creativity and new forms of life and healing emerge.” ~Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer, pp. 169-171.
Our world is in crisis because of the absence of consciousness. We need to explore new ideas of who we are.
Image Credits: Terence McKenna quote, Thesyncmovie.com. Never Stop Exploring, Quotesgram.com
“Obviously we do not know how the ego arose in man. We have certain myths showing how ancient man thought about this problem, and we can observe the phenomenon in very young children today. Just as the individual child must undergo training and discipline, so too the primitive nature of man had to be housebroken and domesticated, restrained and adapted, if he was to advance in culture and in ability to control his environment.” Esther Harding, Psychic Energy, p. 197.
Since we learned to talk, humans have told stories around the campfire about the inner life of the psyche and the mysterious archetypal energies which indwell it. We call these stories myths. With borrowed images from nature that instinctively aroused strong emotions like fear, awe, passion, wonder, greed, hope and gratitude, myths presented characters, settings, plots and themes that attempted to answer humanity’s most universal and fundamental questions: Why are we here? Who made us? Why do we act the way we do? How can we stay safe? What are we supposed to do and be?
Most of these images—like the sun, the moon, mountains, trees, bears, snakes, unusual stones, springs of fresh water, thunder and lightning—still have emotional power over us. Early humans would not have understood what their fascination with these images said about them. Nonetheless, they resonated so deeply that the stories are still being told.
“Myths are concerned with origins, the fear of death, and the hope for the overcoming of death in another world.” A.S. Byatt, Introduction to Maria Tatar’s “The Annotated Brothers Grimm,” p. xix.
Let us imagine how the Bible’s account of our origins came about. A storyteller wonders where the first parents came from and imagines them being created by a superhuman Father God. Fondly recalling his/her own early carefree days when every need was met by doting parents (Epoch I of self-awareness), our storyteller memorializes this idyllic time in the image of the Garden of Eden, a paradise where humans and animals co-exist in harmony…. as long as everyone obeys Father God.
Early humans would have understood this rule completely. Life was hard, and children who strayed away from camp would be in peril. Parental obedience was essential to their survival.
Other images also called to mind their instinctual need for safety. For example, a gigantic tree could be climbed when danger threatened, and its thick canopy of leaves provided cover from rain. So it made sense to situate a Tree of Life in the center of the Garden. Sometimes tribal rituals were performed around special trees to show gratitude for their protection. So far, so good.
“The further development of the individual can be brought about only by means of symbols which represent something far in advance of himself and whose intellectual meanings cannot yet be grasped entirely.” ~Carl Jung, CW 4, Para 680.
As humans gained more control over their environments, travel and communication with other tribes exposed them to other myths with different images and new symbolic meaning. Whose stories were right and whose were wrong? Which god-images and rituals were good and which were evil? Dualistic thinking had entered the picture.
This advanced the plot further. Enter the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Enter Eve who is fascinated by the luscious ripe fruit, symbolizing the psyche’s readiness for a new level of self-awareness. Enter an evil snake who represents a powerful temptation to challenge the status quo. Enter a new problem: seeing and having to choose between opposites. Enter the consequences: after Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden, the dire implications of the problem of opposites for the future of humanity was anticipated with the symbolism of Eve giving birth to twin boys, one of whom killed the other.
The symbols speak for themselves. Disobeying the Father God by eating the fruit marked a revolutionary advance in the psyche. What Eve would not have known, and her storyteller probably barely intuited, was that in departing from the collective mentality, she became the mother of Epoch II Ego Consciousness.
“When the ego begins to develop and gains some autonomy—some power, over against the might of nature, to determine and control itself and its environment—it gradually acquires a feeling of being a separate entity. The individual learns to differentiate between the I and the not-I, with an ever increasing emphasis of the value of the I. That is, he becomes aware of being a self. This awareness is accompanied by an intoxicating sense of selfhood, an inner expansion of the I. Unchecked, this will produce an inflation…
“In the outer world the ego seeks to dominate its environment and to subject all things, persons, and conditions alike to its interest. In the inner world, as many psychic contents as possible are brought under its control, and those which cannot be dominated are suppressed.In this way a threshold is built up between the conscious and the unconscious part of the psyche.” Harding, p. 241.
I’ll have more to say about this second phase of self-awareness next time. Meanwhile, keep in mind that the story isn’t over and “happily ever after” is nowhere in sight. If we are to reach our fullest potential we will need to agonize over more conflicts and ask new questions like, What new thoughts, impulses and images are arising in me? Where are they coming from? Who or what do I try to dominate? Which aspects of my inner world do I try to suppress?
Image Credits: Google Images: Garden of Eden, Lucas Cranach. Quote Image courtesy of Lewis Lafontaine.
A few months before my father died, we went to visit him in another town where he was working. I was outside with several other girls and boys having a carefree time diving, racing, and showing off in the motel pool when my parents called me inside. They had been watching and talking about me, and now they had something to say. Receiving personal attention from either of my parents was rare enough, but to be called into their joint presence was like being summoned to an unexpected audience with the Queen and King. I knew the matter must be of utmost importance, and I listened intently.
I was a natural leader with gifts and talents many children lacked, my father said. I should be careful, he warned, about not showing off, being bossy, or dominating situations. A little girl out there by the pool was having trouble keeping up with the rest of us. She seemed shy and maybe lonely. I should notice her, think about her feelings, try to include her and make her feel better about herself.
This was a crucial moment in my development. My eyes were instantly opened to an entirely new way of looking at myself and others. Suddenly I knew people were watching me, perhaps even feeling bad about themselves because of me. I should think about their feelings instead of my own. I should hide my own strengths so as not to intimidate them. I was strong enough to make these kinds of sacrifices for others. Believing I had received a valuable piece of wisdom, I left the motel room a very different little girl from the one who had innocently pranced in. For a moment I deliberated carefully, then casually walked up to the little girl in the faded brown bathing suit and tentatively lied, “I like your bathing suit.”
She grinned widely and said something like, “Really? This old thing?” Then she bounced off happily to the diving board while I sat quietly in the nearest chair to avoid notice. At the age of 11 I was stunned by my new awareness and uncomfortable about what I had just done. I had said something that wasn’t true, but apparently with very good effect. The things I said and did could make a difference to others! I could help people or I could harm them. What if in my ignorance I had spent the whole day out here playing with these children, innocently enjoying the competition, being such a good swimmer and diver that I made some of them feel terrible about themselves?
My God! The mistakes I could have made. As I sat musing, my self-consciousness inflated to encompass the universe. Suddenly the world was filled with eyes, and I knew that all of them, including God’s, were watching me. I felt as if I were being dissected, cell by cell, beneath a critical, cosmic microscope.
Practically everyone becomes self-conscious by the teen years. Like all psychological potential, it can be healthy in some ways, harmful in others. As social animals, we need to be able to see ourselves through the eyes of others. Noting our behavior, hearing our words and tone of voice, seeing the expressions on others’ faces, reflecting on how they’re responding to us, then altering our behavior in more suitable ways help us create loving relationships and a social conscience.
But there’s also a down side to self-consciousness. For whatever reason, perhaps it was partly genetic, after Daddy died my self-consciousness morphed into self-flaggelation. I remember sitting next to a date in the choir loft at church around the age of 18 worrying about bad breath and trying to stifle the sound and frequency of my breathing until I got dizzy. Oh, God, don’t let me faint, I prayed as I pictured scandalized ladies and leering old men staring up at my exposed underwear as I was carried down the stairs!
Yet, my youthful torment was redeemable. Mindfulness and self-reflection are keys to personal transformation. Only now does it occur to me that my painfully self-conscious adolescence might have predisposed me for an adult passion for self-discovery and practices like meditation and dreamwork that would aid it……or maybe it was only an early symptom of a soul born to walk that path. Either way, knowing myself better has brought not only great relief, but great joy. Growing into a more conscious being is not always fun, but it’s well worth the suffering.
Do you have a story about painful self-consciousness or growing self-awareness?
The Wilbur Award is given by the Religion Communicators Council for excellence in communicating religious faith and values in the public arena and for encouraging understanding among faith groups on a national level.