Friday, January 10, 2020

[Shadow Work Series] What is the Shadow Self: Traits of Ignoring the Subconscious

In the last article, we talked about Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology and, subsequently, shadow work.  We discussed the psychologization of religion and shadow work's synchronicity with witchcraft.  We even discussed problems with Carl Jung and his work.  If you haven't read that article, I suggest you click here before moving forward.

In order to take the next step in our work, we need to take a direct look at the shadow.  In this article, we'll be dissecting exactly what the shadow self is and its effects on our lives.

Theory of the Unconscious
Archetypes of the Psyche

As we previously discussed, Jung was a Swiss psychologist credited with the founding of analytical psychology - a process that focused on the unconscious mind's effects on the conscious.  Jung believed that the human psyche was made up of three distinct components: The ego (or conscious mind), the unconscious (memories, including those that have been suppressed), and the collective unconscious.
COLLECTIVE UNCONSCIOUS: A form of psychological inheritance from our culture, our religion, and our ancestors, modified by our current society, including family and friends, as we grow. (source)
The collective unconscious was of particular interest to Jung.  He believed it was an inherited blueprint of our entire potential and that those around us brought out certain aspects or traits.  It's here in the collective unconscious that the aforementioned archetypes exist.  As we talked about in the last article, archetypes are patterns or themes, "modes of functioning" if you will, common to the whole of human experience. This means everyone has archetypes residing in their collective unconscious.  Jung identified an incredibly large number of potential archetypes but found four specific ones to be universally important.

First, Jung believed there is the self, the version of us that represents the whole of our personality and the total of our potential.  The self is a combination of our unconscious and our conscious, and it strives for unity with the other pieces of the collective unconscious so as to be actualized.  This process of unification is called individualization, as we discussed in the previous article.

Jung also believed everyone had a persona, or mask.  This is the version of ourselves we present to the outer world, our "public relations" self.  We create our persona based on the approval of others, editing our true selves into a form that is communally acceptable, commendable even.  Then, like an actor, we put this mask on and embody the persona to the world.  There is nothing inherently wrong with the persona because, like a shield, it protects us.  It keeps us communally safe by being acceptable and approachable.  For some of us who can't be our true selves in public without putting our lives in danger (ie LGBTQ+), it even keeps us physically safe.  The persona also strives to keep us emotionally safe by giving us a positive, "best foot forward" view of ourselves.  The danger, however, is in becoming so closely identified with the persona that you lose sight of your true self - like a famous star who becomes too obsessed with their fame, or an eternal student who can't apply the knowledge to a career and becomes stuck in an endless cycle of college classes.

Another archetype Jung focused on was called the anima/animus, a binary gender syzygy.  Jung believed that everyone had the opposite gender buried in their collective unconscious - for men, they had an anima, a feminine archetype, and for women, they would have an animus, or masculine archetype.  A disconnect between the gender identity of the person and their inner anima/animus could create psychological distress.  A man told not to cry or a woman told that she cannot be physically strong, for example, could undermine the psychological development of the individual.

As I said in the previous article, Jung is not without his problems.  As a product of his time, the Jungian animus/anima is a genderization of universal thought and action that leads to sexism and misogyny (ie feelings being inherently feminine).  Also, this rigid dichotomy of the gender spectrum could be an outdated relic altogether.  Modern gender is a spectrum that includes nonbinary, agender, transgender, and more.  I've provided links in the references and further reading section below if you're interested in reading more about this, but the animx is not our focus at the moment.

No, today, we're focusing on the fourth archetype Jung placed particular importance on: The shadow.

The Shadow
The Archetype and How it's Created

According to Jung, everyone is born with all personality traits blueprinted within.  At a young age, everyone expresses them all without hesitation.  You did just the same when you were a toddler: You expressed love when you hugged your parent but you also anger when you threw food you disliked at them.  You showed kindness and generosity in sharing your toys with another child but also greed and selfishness when you tried to take theirs.  All of these emotions are available to us and, because we have few preprogrammed social inhibitions, we show all of them without hesitation.

However, everyone also has basic needs, ranging from safety to a sense of belonging.  There's absolutely nothing wrong with this - they're programmed into us by biology, meaning that they're instinctual and essential to our wellbeing.  As children, when we expressed our various traits, we received positive or negative cues from our social environments.  When you hugged your parent, you were hugged in return but, when you threw your food, you were reprimanded.  When you shared your toys with another child, they smiled at you but, when you tried to take theirs, they cried and you were scolded.  This continues throughout our first 20 years of development, with everyone from parents and teachers to friends and classmates showing us what is socially acceptable and what is not by giving us direct cues.  Any of these cues that may have threatened our basic needs, from our sense of personal security to our self-esteem or need for familial love, are seen as "bad" cues.  Any traits associated with "bad" cues then become "bad" traits.  As we adjusted our behavior to secure our personal needs - a necessary adjustment to adapt to the world around us - the "bad" traits were then "tossed aside."  But we can't truly delete traits that are part of our blueprint.  We're not an unthinking, unfeeling computer.  We're humans.  So instead, we stuff these "bad" traits into our collective unconscious.  Like Robert Bly's description of putting these unwanted parts into an invisible bag, we drag this heavy burden around with us for the rest of our lives.

This bag in our collective unconscious is called the shadow.

If the persona is a mask we wear that embodies our perceived best qualities, the shadow can be seen as its exact opposite.  The shadow self is a collection of unwanted personality traits we would much rather ignore.  We typically see the shadow self as negative because many of its traits are not socially acceptable on the whole: Greed, extravagance, selfishness, envy, and so forth.  The shadow also encompasses traits like racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and other such prejudices.  It can be a very difficult part of our collective unconscious to explore because we're forced to look at some of our most uncomfortable beliefs and actions.  This is why many see the shadow, and thus shadow work, as something intimidating.

Not all of these traits are inherently "bad," however.  For example, many were likely punished for throwing tantrums in their youth instead of being shown healthy ways of expressing anger.  In order to be accepted by their social circles, they moved the feeling of anger to the "bad" category.  Anger is not bad, and being unable to express anger properly is psychologically damaging, resulting in outbursts and abusive behaviors as an adult.

Even our best traits can be deemed inferior and adopted by our shadow.  Perhaps you were a creative child but were reprimanded for your creativity. Maybe your family told you that your drawings would never make you any money, or maybe a sibling made fun of your singing voice. What if you were bold and outspoken, a born leader, but your social circle placed emphasis on obedience? Maybe you were scolded by a teacher for taking charge or were told by a classmate that you were "bossy."  Whatever the case, we take those as "bad" social cues and thus associate the trait as "bad," even if it's inherently not.  Once we decide a trait is "bad," we move it into our shadow.

In summary, the shadow encompasses everything we've decided is evil, bad, unacceptable, inferior, or unworthy based on social cues from those around us.  Anything we chose to ignore, to throw away, in our youth becomes absorbed into this archetype of our collective unconscious.  The shadow is, in the end, our disowned self.

Traits of Ignoring the Shadow Self

Developing the shadow isn't all terrible.  In fact, this development is necessary for true growth.  In the same way that a good novel includes conflict to show character development of an interesting protagonist, we too need the shadow.  We don't want to be an annoying Mary Sue, a walking embodiment of the persona, right?  A well-developed shadow that is properly examined balances the persona, creating a mature and self-aware human being.

But what happens if we don't examine our shadow?  As we become adults, we learn to both love and hate our persona.   Our persona is acceptable, good, and socially loveable, but it's also not the whole of who we are.  It feels fake.  Inhibited.  We begin to feel strangled by society and estranged from who we truly are.  If we don't look at that heavy bag we're dragging around and start to examine some of the contents, we further disconnect ourselves from our blueprint, our foundation, and thus our true selves.  Even worse, those same traits we discarded begin to turn against us.  Because the shadow operates on its own, with or without our awareness, these traits turn up in explosive ways without our control when our collective conscious takes over.  Consider the following and think back to any time you may have...
  • Lied to someone, or to yourself.
  • Manipulated someone emotionally or mentally.
  • Experienced intense bursts of anger, fear, or sadness.
  • Experienced extreme self-loathing, self-harm, or outright self-sabotage.
  • Had an extremely inflated ego or experienced self-absorption.
  • Had grandiose self-delusions - a need to be applauded, chosen as a role model, or seeing yourself as above certain groups of people.
  • Had chaotic relationships with others, especially if repeatedly a problem.
  • Said something we wouldn't normally say, especially when it hurts someone else.
  • Developed phobias and obsessions.
  • Believed/supported one thing but took actions against it.
  • Poured yourself into your work, rejecting family and friends in the process.
  • And more.
When we ignore our shadow, the traits we've shoved into it tend to come back and undermine us at the most inopportune times, often sabotaging our lives.  Unconsciously, we begin to express those unwanted traits in unhealthy ways until we're either forced to come face-to-face with them or we lose ourselves to them completely.  That's why shadow work is so essential.

But even more so than all of the above is a particular side-effect that's a clear sign of a desperate need for shadow work: Projection.

The Tell-Tail Sign of the Shadow

By far, the most common trait of ignoring the shadow is projection.  The more we face the "light" and ignore our shadow, the longer our shadow is cast and the more people fall into it.  Literally speaking, the more we ignore our unwanted traits embedded in our subconscious, the more we see those same traits in others.  For example, perhaps lazy people irritate you.  Your roommate is lazy.  Your significant other is lazy. Your child is lazy. Your coworker is lazy.  The more it irritates you and the more you find the trait in others, the more likely it is that you haven't owned your own laziness.  This doesn't mean that those people aren't being lazy.  Maybe they are.  But the frequency is a call to attention, a flashing warning sign.  They are the mirrors to your unwanted traits yet it's so easy to ignore.

The difficulty of projection is that we often don't consciously realize we're doing it. The more deeply we want to see ourselves as "good," or whatever other traits we prize like "practical," "sarcastic," "hard-working," and so forth, the harder it is for us to connect to their opposite.   The projections serve as a dense boundary, making it even harder for us to peer into our own shadow.   It's our ego, and to a lesser extent our persona if we associate too closely with it, creating a defense mechanism to protect itself from how it perceives itself.

But why do we project?  Why do we so deeply need to protect our own egos?  Because we've grown to be uncomfortable with the traits we've placed in the shadow.  They remind us of times we've felt unsafe, of the scoldings, of the social awkwardness, of the lack of love.  We subconsciously seek to punish others because we ourselves have felt punished.  We reject, hate, dehumanize, criticize, tear down and destroy, all in the name of keeping our personal egos intact.  We commit unspeakable acts of cruelty and perpetuate cycles of abuse and pain.  We have all done this. Every. Single. One. Of. Us.

While anyone who behaves poorly must face consequences for their actions, we must remember that they too are human.  Any effort to dehumanize them, to make them into "monsters," is a projection of the shadow.  If you have felt an unrelenting urge to take someone down, you might start to ask yourself why.

On the other side of that question, you'll find your shadow.

Exercise Three
Projection of the Shadow
Think about people you dislike - old classmates, coworkers, friends you've fallen out of favor with, and family members you simply can't stand.  Jot each individual name on the top of a separate blank page.  What are some of their traits that you absolutely detest?  Make a list of traits for each person you can think of.  Take a few days per person to really nail down what bugs you about them.  You’ll have two months to tackle this exercise, so don’t rush it!

1 comment:

  1. Another wonderfully informative and thoughtful post. I plan to really delve in and do the exercises contained in this series once life calms down again.

    Christmas Eve brought upon the hospitalization of a family member, and their subsequent death on the first day of the new year. That same week brought me a sudden, consuming urge to try my first spell, which was an interesting experience after all these years of reading and research but no actual crafting.

    I hope the first weeks of the new year have been good to you.