"We have met the enemy and he is us." – Walt Kelly
Introduction – What Is Shadow?
Shadow is what I don't know about myself. Shadow is the phenomenon whereby parts of my personality which are as real and concrete as arms and legs, remain outside my experience. Even if pointed out by others, I do not experience them as me, as part of who I am. In fact, such is our relationship with shadow, I am likely to vehemently and emotionally deny any connection, even if the indicated attributes are good or worthwhile. And yet, because in fact these parts are a genuine part of who I am, they influence my life in ways beyond my control. This, in spite of the fact that I have no knowledge or experience of them.
It was Carl Jung that in the early part of this century, really codified for us this concept of shadow (which has in fact existed throughout recorded history and mythology). He said, "One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious." (Zweig & Abrams 1991)
Psychosynthesis shadow theory suggests that, as a direct consequence of empathic failure from significant others early in our existence, we split significant chunks of who we were into our subconscious (Firman and Gila 1997). In order to gain the love and avoid the disapproval of parents and others, we suppressed and then repressed bits of ourselves completely out of our awareness. So completely, that we are now unable to recognise them even when their existence is proven beyond a shadow of doubt. We did this because not being loved would at that stage have been risking a loss of existence.
I was very interested recently to see an episode of Star Trek which was relevant to this theme. The story line postulated an individual who was able to trick a lover into becoming an unwitting receptacle for all of their "bad or uncomfortable thoughts and feelings". The abuser was filled with calm spiritual feelings and used this freedom from shadow to be a successful negotiator. The victim became angry, sexual, ill and rapidly aged and died. It is encouraging to note that our current myths and stories can be as aware of shadow as the older ones.
Why Is Shadow Important?
The problem with these disowned parts of ourselves is that, while they are out of our consciousness, they still have a deep and quite often negative influence on the way we behave, interact with others and experience our lives. Many, if not all of the repeating patterns of behaving and reacting that we observe in ourselves and in our clients, and over which we apparently have no influence or control, are expressions of the shadow sides of ourselves. Again according to Firman and Gila, much of the therapeutic process involves a gradual re-claiming of this shadow.
Why would we want to do this? Shadow work enables us to begin to understand and heal the wounding that caused this deep repression in the first case. Re-claiming these un-acknowledged parts of ourselves enables us to become more of who we actually are, moving back into our authentic personality from the false/survival personality which we adopted as who we thought we were (for important survival reasons) in our early lives.
This not only results in the negative benefits of no longer being victims of repeating unconscious patterns but gives us more choice in our lives ("oh... I am doing that again... now I have a choice about what to do"). The more we move into our authentic personality, and I can support this from personal experience, the more we have access to a greater depth of meaning in our everyday lives. On reflection, how could we possibly get meaning from living out of a personality that is not really who we are.
Apart from issues of feeling and meaning, Robert Bly (1991) reminds us that much energy is stored in the shadow and that embracing this also releases a great deal of energy which can then become available to us in our lives.
Concept of Dark and Bright Shadow
Psychosynthesis holds that we repress material into our higher unconscious with about the same frequency as we repress material into the lower unconscious. Why would we repress the good stuff? That we do, can be seen in our willingness to project good characteristics onto other people, often placing them on a pedestal as we do so (something very much within my own experience). How often have we heard someone speaking in awed tones of someone else when, from our point of view they could be describing themselves. I can remember hearing with some annoyance Margot Fonteyn speaking with hushed reverence of the great Pavlova when it was absolutely clear from film evidence that Fonteyn was by far the better dancer.
Firman and Gila explain this splitting away of the positive as follows. Just as the terrifying experiences of the threat of nonbeing are organised into the lower unconscious, we protect, in compensation, an idealised I-Self relationship. They go on to suggest a mutually compensating relationship between the two sectors, a balanced opposition which maintains this primal split and hides the primal wound. These sectors of our unconscious both "contain and separate the sublime and traumatic experiences that the person has deemed too overstimulating for a stable, consistent mode of being in the world".
Looking at the egg diagram, we can see that it is divided into higher unconscious, middle unconscious and lower unconscious. It is in the higher and lower unconscious that the shadow elements of our lives exist. Again, Firman and Gila would say that one effect of the therapeutic process is to expand the middle unconscious both upwards and downwards accepting more and more of the unacceptable parts of ourselves into who we are on a daily basis. As this happens, our experience becomes richer, we experience more pain but also more joy, both being essential to the rich tapestry of our lives.
As an illustration of what might be termed bright shadow, I find that the more I operate out of a deep (and new) sense of personal value, the more compassion I have for those around me, the easier I find it to relate and the easier to contribute to the groups and societies of which I am a part. This has been a recent experience and appears to have arisen as a direct result of the growth work which I have been doing. Interestingly, I did not set out to find this valuable part of me because I didn't know that it was there. Instead, I found out about it, at least at first by the different responses I was getting in relationship with people I met, especially people who had no previous expectations of me. Turning and embracing my shadow changes it, healing the woundedness which keeps it out of my consciousness. The process dissolves my bondage, creates space and a greater depth of awareness and meaning.
How Can We Tell Which Is Bright Shadow and Which Is Dark Shadow?
We can't of course. Let's look at some examples.
Someone who works with their rage (which might be thought of as dark) can find that this is simply an energy which becomes available to them for life enhancing activities. On the other hand, if we have split off an idealised and elevated spirituality, we can think of ourselves as morally superior to those who lack our standards. The more one looks, the more it becomes obvious that elements of the lower unconscious can transform to become life enhancing assets while non-integrated spirituality can become corrupt and abusive.
How Do We Recognise Shadow?
Just as the microscope, the telescope and the x-ray are useful tools for looking at things which we would not otherwise be able to see, there are many ways of becoming aware of shadow material, especially that which is near the surface and ready to emerge.
One of the most important mechanisms is that of projection. That which we are unwilling to accept within ourselves, we project onto other people (and of course they onto us). A personal experience of this has been my awareness that selfishness in others, especially selfish driving makes me quite abnormally and unreasonably angry. Taking the cue from the extreme emotion and making the assumption that this was a projection, working in therapy, I was able to find a lost subpersonality called "selfish pig". Working with this I am beginning to discover a need for self care which I have previously rejected as selfish and which is in fact not only beneficial to me but makes me less angry with others.
Another way of recognising shadow is to ask other people. Others can very often see facets of our personality of which we are unaware. I can remember being deeply distressed at being referred to in my early twenties as "a well-meaning prat". If only I had had the maturity then, I would have become aware of my pleaser which others found distasteful and manipulative. An exercise that we are trying in our current men's group is that of, in a supportive environment, voicing mutual judgments and then exploring the feelings that come up.
It is useful to realise that a partial awareness of shadow in others can have a very negative effect on relationship. People unaware of the concept of shadow are quite likely to assume that the negative personal aspects which are so obvious to them are also obvious to the other. Therefore, the other is being immature, irresponsible and obtuse in not owning up to them! Accusations follow which are quite reasonably received with shock, hurt and anger – and more projection!
My experience of and training in Imagework – a way of exploring and dialoguing with the unconscious via the medium of images and imagination, has shown it to be an extremely efficient way of finding out what is in the shadow. Time and time again, I or my Imagework clients have had the realisation that "oh – that is true and I didn't know that before!" I have less personal success with painting and drawing but realise that others find this a useful route as well.
Shadow can be found in dreams – I had a dream in which I was involved in a nuclear disaster and, finding myself safe but in my underclothes, I returned to a dangerous area to get my clothes and money and died from radioactivity as a result. This is extremely suggestive of my reluctance to accept support even when not doing so could mean my death!
It is obvious that the concept and models of shadow and of dark and bright shadow can be extremely helpful in understanding our relationship with our unconscious, how it affects our lives and how we can take action to change and transform ourselves by facing up to the shadow and the wounding which lies beneath it. Not only is the shadow not all bad, dirty and dangerous, containing gold and jewels as well, but we actually don't know which will be the good bits and bad bits until they emerge into the light. In fact, the concept of good and bad is not particularly helpful here. Beside the fundamental pain of the primal wound – whose awfulness we do need to face, reclaim and heal, everything else, dark or bright seems quite bearable.
Finally, I think I need to warn that, grasped too firmly, these models can become confusing. There is, for instance, some discrepancy between the egg model of higher valuable attributes and lower drives and the practical realisation that there is good and evil to be found both top and bottom.