Shadow. Photo by shikeroku.

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Embracing the Shadow: Personally and Nationally

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.
—C. G. Jung, Collected Works, Volume 13: “The Philosopher’s Tree”

Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is in embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”—Jung, CW 11:131

Each of us has a persona or identity that we present to the public and accept as our individual self or exclaim, “that’s me.” The rejected “not me” aspects of our identity are buried within the unconscious, forming what Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung named our “shadow.”

Embracing the shadow side of our humanity and bringing it to self-awareness is valuable work—a necessary chore on a path to wholeness and enlightenment, a moral imperative to prevent externalizing our inner conflicts onto scapegoats, and a liberation from dangerous blind spots and unconscious re-enactments. Jung warned us of the cost of not bringing the shadow to awareness: “What is not brought to consciousness, comes to us as fate” (CW 9:126).

How can we stalk the shadow, following its scents or tracks in our lives? I propose that we explore four areas: What irritates us about others. What is the opposite of our self-image. What stories have not been told. And, attend to dreams and other messages from the unconscious.

What irritates us about others?

Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 24

Anything that disappears from your psychological inventory is apt to turn up in the guise of a hostile neighbor, who will inevitably arouse your anger and make you aggressive. It is better to know that your worst enemy is right there in your own heart.Jung, CW 10:456

Think about someone you do not like. What aggravates, annoys, shocks, or disgusts you about him or her? For instance, someone who is appalled with those who laugh uproariously may prohibit exultations because she was brought up to be poised, prim, and proper. An intolerance of whining may reflect a parent’s response to childhood complaints or a discomfort with helplessness. The person who is taken aback by someone brazenly broadcasting opinions might consider looking into his own attitude toward self-expression. After one identifies the unique contents of one’s shadow, one may own it, maybe even personify it with a name, relate to it without letting it take over. It is a moral strength to own one’s projections rather than disparaging them in others.

The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.—Jung, CW 9:14

Sometimes these rejected traits are positive. Cinderella was cast by her stepmother into a role of drudgery, a servant to her stepsisters. Absorbing the negative opinions of others is easy to do and may destroy hopes. In a dream or fairy tale the shadow usually appears as a person of the same sex with a contrasting personality who invites another way of being. The fairy godmother, a shadow side of Cinderella’s inner self, emerges to believe in her beauty and worth and shows her how to move toward her heart’s desire. Her animal instincts go to work to create a ball gown and produce a dress that signifies her new persona, her new presentation to the world as a beautiful and desirable young woman.

What is the opposite of our self-image?

In what traits do you take pride? If we describe ourselves as kind, avoiding any hurtful words or behaviors, we may not have the talents for disagreements or confrontation. If we are always loyal, we may not know when it is healthy to reprimand a colleague or cut ties from exploitation. A generous person may not know how to set limits or receive assistance. In Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hatches the Egg, a lazy irresponsible bird named Mayzie asks Horton, a kind, trusting elephant, to sit on her egg. He is too naïve to ask her for how long. Despite undergoing many hardships—being captured, transported overseas, and displayed in a circus—Horton continues to sit on that egg in a tree, because, “an elephant is faithful one hundred percent.” One hundred percent faithful means zero percent is left for self-preservation. He is stuck in his ego identity and does not allow himself the flexibility brought about by “new information, new decisions.”

In contrast, in “The Frog Prince,” a princess promises friendship to a frog who retrieves her golden ball from a pond. When he shows up to sit in her chair and eat at her table, she obliges, reinforced by her father who reminds her to keep her promises. When the frog asks to visit her bedroom, she hurls the frog—splat!—against a wall! Setting her limits breaks the spell and the frog becomes a prince. Unlike Horton, the princess accesses her anger from her shadow and overrides the dictum to keep her word. 

What stories have not been told?

The unclaimed emotional baggage is still there in the shadows and may unconsciously influence behaviors. For instance, if grief for a recent loss is inconsolable, a previous unresolved loss may be exacerbating the mourning. For example, a woman who never came to terms with her father’s alcoholism may repeatedly date addicts and replay her caretaking role. Or, consider the effect of a man who never allowed himself to experience the pain of his father’s harsh criticism; thereby spewing insults heartlessly.

In the fairy tale “The Robber Bridegroom,” the bride secretly witnesses a brutal scene in which robbers—including her fiancé—kill and dismember a woman. The trauma is too horrific to speak of, but at the rehearsal dinner, she shares it indirectly “as a dream” and shows as evidence a severed finger. Through the telling of the dream, she admits the horror to herself and others and renounces the wedding.

Attend to dreams

Because the shadow is unconscious, it may send messages to us in dreams, Freudian slips, or intense emotions. Imagine that a shy dignified woman has a dream in which Lady Gaga offered her one of her dresses. Which outfit would she choose? Lady Gaga embodies outlandish style, stellar creativity, and boldness. Which of these characteristics would she don in her life?

Carl Jung shared the following dream with a shadow figure in his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections: I was alone with an unknown brown-skinned man in a lonely rocky mountain landscape. As the sun rose, the Norse God Siegfried sounded his horn and drove a chariot made of the bones of the dead from the mountain crest down a precipitous slope. They must kill the Norse hero. Because rain wipes out traces of the dead, the murder will never be discovered. His shadow, the unknown brown-skinned man, who was not enamored by the ego power principle, participated in this sacrifice. Jung interpreted this dream to mean that “my heroic idealism must be abandoned, for there are higher things than the ego’s will and to these one must bow” (180; dream on 12/18/1913).

I have given examples of finding the shadow in dislikes of others, the opposite of our self-image, untold stories, and dreams. This is important individual work. These strategies can also be applied to embrace the shadow of our nation.

Seeing and Embracing the Shadow in Our Nation

What irritates us about others?

The United States’ current two-party system is intensely polarized. On each issue—guns, immigration, healthcare, environment—these opposing points of view clash. If we hold the tension of the opposites without malice and dialogue about these issues, a synthesis may arise. Jung in his essay “The Fight with the Shadow” considered this shadow one of our nation’s greatest strengths, “The marked tendency of the Western democracies to internal dissension is the very thing that could lead them into a more hopeful path” (CW 10:457).

What is the opposite of our nation’s image?

Our nation takes pride in freedom. The opposite of freedom is prohibitions, and sometimes our laws do restrict freedom for the common good—such as banning smoking in hospitals or requiring masks in public places. The pandemic slogan “We are in this together” upholds the community to counterbalance the prevailing individualism of “Don’t tread on me.” As much as the United States honors free speech, that too is limited by laws that prohibit incitement to violence, fraud, slander, defamation, or perjury. From the tension of the rights of the individual versus the needs of the community, mutual respect may emerge.

What stories have not been told?

In recent years we have begun to hear many untold stories. The “Me Too” movement broke the private silence of extensive sexual assault and harassment. These survivors of violence overcame isolation, shame, and intimidation to reclaim their voices and seek justice together. The untold stories of the sexual assault perpetrators are yet to be heard. When ego inflation, fame, power, money, or anger make men feel omnipotent, their shadow contains the repressed religious instinct, submission to a power higher than themselves, respect for laws and ethics, and empathic attunement toward others—that, as Jung said, is “to these one must bow.”

The Black Lives Matter movement speaks out against police brutality and systemic racism. In North Carolina, suppressed history, such as the 1898 Wilmington Massacre described in David Zucchino’s Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy are being taught. Facing the atrocities of the past is painful, provoking horror and grief, but awareness frees us from unconsciously repeating harm. Jungian analyst Fannie Brewster wrote in The Racial Complex: A Jungian Perspective on Culture and Race, “We bear suffering in order to transform consciousness. This is our work as 21st century creators, thinkers and those who can tolerate the dark in order to emerge with that which can be transformative, not only for ourselves, but also for our collective” (96).

Attend to dreams, parapraxes, and complex reactions for these are the ways the unconscious communicates. After World War I, Jung noticed common motifs in all the dreams of his German patients. Although the outward spirit in Germany appeared depressed and restless, Jung observed that their dreams “expressed primitivity, violence and cruelty” and predicted from these stirrings “that an outburst was not impossible” (CW 10:447).

Perhaps, the best incentive for doing the painful, humbling, transformative work of integration of our personal and national shadows into conscious awareness is Jung’s admonition, “What is not brought to consciousness, comes to us as fate” (CW 9:126).