Sunday, November 13, 2016

In the Lightness of the Night: Understanding our Shadow Self

Jung considered the shadow self to be those aspects of the personality that make up the entirety of the unconscious.  Because we tend to see these aspects of self as less desirable, we believe them to be negative and hide them from the consciousness of our being.  The more the shadow is separated from the conscious reality, the darker and denser the shadow is experienced as this aspect of ourself is played out unconsciously through projection with others.  The psychological projections are perceived as personal inferiority and are recognized as a moral deficiency in someone else.  Jung maintained that these aspects were neither negative nor positive as duality was believed to be a constraint of the physical world and that wholeness of the being was attained through integration of the shadow in the light of consciousness through full acceptance.  

I tend to believe that Jung was one of the most prolific contributors to psychodynamic theory, and, if you are anything like me, also one of the most difficult to understand.  Have you ever tried reading Seven Sermons to the Dead once through?  It's nearly impossible! Jung's writings contain so much knowledge even in one sentence, one can get lost trying to absorb everything he is explaining.  I am always amazed by his ability to capture the whole field of what we know and what we don't know, and, drive it down to all of its distinct parts.   The subject of the shadow self seems to be an easy enough concept to understand, but continue reading his works and one finds that it is much more complicated and all-encompassing than thought as it is referred to in nearly every one of his writings with more complex detail than the writing before it.  

So, with that in mind, what exactly is the shadow aspect, how do we tap into it, and what does it actually mean to integrate the shadow self into the whole light of the conscious being?  These are the questions that are posed today for exploration.  

What exactly is the shadow aspect of self?        

Consider this when attempting to understand the shadow self:  Imagine all the aspects of self that you tend to see as negative personality traits.  Make a running list of them so that they are very clear and definable.  Imagine them on a blackboard in your mind's eye. Extend the blackboard in all directions, covering all of the field of vision and give it depth both forwards and backwards.  Now, imagine all those aspects you have defined as undesirable receding into the depths, further and further away from your sight until each one of them is swallowed by the abyss and can no longer be identified, seen or directly experienced.  

This three-dimensional blackboard is your unconscious and all those personality traits that are unknown now to you make up your shadow self.   Shadow aspects are not those parts of the self that we are aware of and actively attempt to hide from others because we tend to dislike them or, alternatively, begin to accept and let others see them; they are the parts of self that are experienced as unknown to us.  They are the parts that we do not consciously experience with self and others.  

Now, I want you to imagine you are taking a walk into that abyss of the unconscious.  As you enter into it, you notice that there are layers upon layers and there is no end point to speak of, or at least, none that you can see.  The further you go, the smaller the image of physical self you see.   You are now journeying into the many facets of the unconscious without any conscious knowledge of what you will find or, if you find whatever it is, that you will truly understand it as it is.  If you imagined this experiential vision, you probably have a feeling at this juncture that the task of uncovering the shadow self and integrating it feels like a daunting task, at least.  "The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself " and represents "a tight passage, a narrow door, whose painful constriction no one is spared who goes down to the deep well." (The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (1996))

So, how do we tap into the shadow self?

Tapping into the shadow self is the hallmark process of self-discovery.  Each time we encounter a piece of awareness that causes a jolt to our senses, our system, we are, in effect, meeting the shadow.  Think of a time when someone identified some part of you, positive or negative, that you had no idea was even present.  Often, the resultant reaction is shock, confusion, and indecision, especially if that part of you that is being brought to the surface was far back in the recesses of your unconscious world.  If the realization is overwhelming, our behaviors often take on a different slant and flavor than we are comfortable with and it may appear as if we have no control over our actions and interplay.  I call this 'dancing with the shadow', for it is in this moment, most experientially, we are beginning the assent into light or the conscious aspect of self, fumbling as we integrate.  "A man who is possessed by his shadow is always standing in his own light and falling into his own traps." (Archetypes, p. 23).  

While we can explore our shadow self in dreamwork, often represented as the antagonist, or through the use of symbols, I find that our interactions with others is the living stage of our shadow.  Our interactions with others, especially those that we find difficult to interact with or have strong feelings toward in one direction or the other, shed light in our conscious, waking world of the shadow at play.  Interactions, such as these, act as a mirror and reflect back to us parts of the shadow we are unwilling to see otherwise.  When we remain in a witness role (non-attachment), we begin to explore nuances of the shadow in our internal world.  If the interaction is particularly charged, we both simultaneously and actively engage in the dance with the shadow.  Recently, I experienced this dance with my own shadow and after the dust settled, a plethora of knowledge and wisdom was waiting there for me to pick up.  I asked myself to sit with the experience and all of its uncomfortableness, allowing the part of me that surfaces when I feel emotionally bombarded, taxed or threatened.  Believe me when I say that this part of me is not a pretty sight at all.  I noticed first how my own externalization progresses, searching and describing every event in detail of the other person's behaviors, refusing to allow any compassion for the intricacies that make this person who she is in the world.  The closer I allowed myself to meet with her shadow though, the closer I became to my own and in that abyss, I realized something beyond what I had already known about myself and my reactions in situations like this.  I found the long strand of disconnection between my wounded child self and that of my adapted child self.  I experienced the interplay between the two and understood that the feelings of the wounded child use adaption in my conscious world to further repress deep feelings and experiences of emotional neglect of the type that I cannot afford to bring into conscious awareness in any direct, socratic way. Only after the adapted child self exhausts in her attempts to meet the needs of another and accepts the failure as such, the wounded child in me bites back rapaciously in cruel exaction and unknowingly delivers a verbal blow that knocks the wind out of the other person.  In a moment of realization, I experienced what Jung explains as the "primitive animal instinct" in his "Answer to Job" (Psychology and Religion:  West and East. (1952), the baser instincts to which we all inhabit.  

What does it actually mean to integrate the shadow self into the whole light of the conscious being?

Integrating the shadow self, bringing it out of the night into the light of day alongside the light self allows for us each individually as well as collectively to bring about change with compassionate spontaneity and regard for the differences in others that without this awareness amounts to a warring of factions, both inside and outside the self.  Not only do we have the capacity and potential to end our own internal warring, but we can reach out into our community, our society and the global world with the same type of resourcefulness.   

For me, this recent experience in my awareness amounts to a personal achievement in developmental self-integration as I have been subtly reminded with the witness self in my life of the difficulties in connecting with the primal animal instinct.  The connection to this part of my self is particularly powerful in light of the current societal environment we are all witnessing now as I can more compassionately understand and make sense of a people's reactions to our world's ever-changing political, social and global structure.  We have all seen what primal human instincts have served to create in our world when unleashed without conscious knowing.  I wonder what would happen if,  for instance, we each owned our own primitive animal instinct, treated it with compassionate acceptance and let it spill forth in a rush of directed and focused compassionate spontaneity.   Can you imagine what our humanity would look like if we did that with each shadow aspect of ourself?  I suspect that our individual and our world would experience a peace unparalleled to anything we have experienced thus far.