‘To own one’s own shadow is to reach a holy place – an inner centre – not attainable in any other way.’
Robert Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow, Harper San Francisco, 1971, pg 17
Carl Jung was an exceedingly influential member of the early psychoanalytic movement. His ideas about the Unconscious have shaped how we think about ourselves. The ‘Shadow’ is also one of his ideas and he discusses it in a particular way.
For Jung, the Conscious Self is how we prefer to present ourselves to the world and how we like the world to see us. We know about, and are readily aware of, those parts of us that are conscious. The conscious part of ourselves could be called our ‘Persona’ or mask. It describes our sense of identity and the way we relate to the world.
Part of our Unconscious
The Shadow, however, is part of our Unconscious. It is made up of the aspects of ourselves that we don’t acknowledge or don’t want to accept – the parts of ourselves we struggle to keep hidden from our awareness. The Shadow can be negative feelings about ourselves, behaviour we don’t like or unhappy experiences we don’t want to remember.
The families we grow up in and the wider society we inhabit value certain kinds of behaviour, certain beliefs, certain ways of being and certain personality types. As children we learn what is and what is not acceptable and we create a Conscious Self that conforms to these expectations and works for us. Unacceptable behaviour, thoughts and feelings can be pushed down into the Shadow.
It’s important to remember that the Shadow has what isn’t acceptable to us. And it isn’t all negative; some people find it harder to accept positive aspects of themselves than negative ones.
Why can it be useful to explore the Shadow?
Firstly, acknowledging the Shadow can help us start to integrate it and become more whole in ourselves. If we want to develop and grow we need to recognise, accommodate and celebrate both the positive and negative parts of ourselves.
Secondly, the Shadow can both generate and absorb a lot of energy. Keeping the unacceptable out of consciousness requires a lot of effort. Imagine a boiling pot. It takes energy to keep the lid on. If we can free ourselves from the energy required to maintain vigilance and suppression of our Shadow, we can use this energy in other ways.
If we don’t acknowledge the Shadow it will make its presence felt anyway. It will antagonise, manipulate and trip us up. We may think, say and act out feelings that we wish we hadn’t. We can act out the character and feel out of control.
Robert Johnson talks about personality being like a see-saw. If we put all our effort into maintaining the Conscious Self, the Shadow will erupt to balance things out. One of Johnson’s examples is how he coped with hard-to-please guests who came for a weekend and stayed longer than he hoped. He managed to stay hospitable throughout his ordeal. When his guests left he then went to a nursery to buy a plant to reward himself, only to find that he picked an argument with the manager.
Sometimes the presence of ‘Shadow behaviour’ works as a warning sign that we are emotionally over stretched; tired, stressed, burnt out. Our normal coping mechanisms may be depleted, our resilience is down and what happens? The Shadow begins to gain the ascendancy.
Lastly, accepting the Shadow side of ourselves can prevent getting our feelings tangled up and confused with those of others. When we blame other people for feelings that come from us we experience the Shadow working via projection. That is, what we don’t want to recognise in ourselves we attribute to someone else. This works at an individual level but stereotyping, scapegoating, and creating categories of ‘us and them’ can be seen in community and international relationships as well.
Using Shadows to explore the shadow
Shadows is a tool that can help people identify and name elements of the Shadow that aren’t conscious or are just becoming conscious.
- Can you choose a card that has a message for you?
- Is there a card that ‘speaks’ to you in some way?
Asking such questions as someone scans the array of cards (or studies them one by one) invites the person to get in touch with thoughts or feelings that he or she may not have been conscious of previously.
It is important that the person makes their own choices, does their own sorting and articulates their own meaning. It may be useful to sit in silence for a while, giving valuable time for the person to reflect on the significance of the picture before he or she speaks. Be aware of when the person is ready to start.
Some questions that might open up conversation are:
- Can you tell me a little about the picture you selected?
- What does it mean for you?
- Is there anything happening in your life that makes this picture particularly relevant?
- Is there anything in the picture that scares you or makes you uneasy?
The pictures may also suggest relationships where shadow issues have arisen and these might be explored by asking such questions as:
- Tell me a story about you and this picture.
- Are there other people who are in the story who should be in the picture?
- How are they like you? How are they different?
Because exploring the Shadow can touch on buried thoughts and feelings that are very sensitive and painful, such conversations should be entered into carefully. The person themselves should always be able to determine what they want to discuss and when is the most appropriate time. Being respectful means one is always cautious about making assumptions and inferences, being provocative and drawing conclusions.
All the above suggestions are made with the understanding that such questions would only ever be used within relationships of trust between the people involved in the conversation.
From the booklet that accompanies the Shadows and Deeper Shadows card set.