Shadow and Soul in the Suburbs (or, Anywhere…)
There are parts of ourselves that we do not yet know, or that we are not yet ready to acknowledge. We have an idea of ourselves, a picture of who we are, that is mixed in with who we wish we were, and who we think that we ought to be. But the reality is often quite different than what we would like to acknowledge. It can take real courage to face those disowned and partially known aspects of ourselves. As Jung would have it,
…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, and it therefore, as a rule, meets with considerable resistance…. These resistances are usually bound up with projections, which are not recognized as such…. (Jung C.G., Hull, R.F.C., trans., Collected Works, vol. 9, part II, paras. 14-16)
Yet these resistances and projections can appear in our lives in the most dramatic and unexpected of ways.
The shadow can make a woman or man feel exhausted, burdened and thwarted at every turn. For many years, possibly for his or her whole life, a person may have had an image of him- or herself as a certain sort of person. Perhaps she has seen herself as having a certain type of morality or character. Possibly, for a certain amount of time, he may even have succeeded in being that type of person. Then things start to happen.
Completely contrary to the person’s earlier character and moral convictions, the individual may find that he or she has stolen something, often something that he or she doesn’t even need. Or the devoted spouse and family person may find that they are suddenly caught up in an infatuation that they simply can’t escape. Or the calm and reasonable person, always self-possessed, may find themselves erupting in road rage, or finding it impossible to cope with the demands of the workplace.
On the other hand, possibly the individual may have tried and tried again and again to overcome some aspect of themselves which is perceived by the ego as negative. But either something has resisted this for a long time, or something inside is rebelling now. It seems like the simplest thing in the world! Surely, the individual feels, he or she should just be able to overcome his or her fear of social interactions! Or, else, surely the detail-oriented parts of a person’s job are something that just everyone can do, aren’t they? “It seems that everybody else can!” is often the cry, “What’s wrong with me?” But it isn’t possible: something will not let it happen.
When we confront the shadow, we start to recognize the true power of the unconscious mind. The reason it is so intractable is that, again in Jung’s words,
…the dark characteristics…have an emotional nature, a kind of autonomy…. Affects occur usually where adaptation is weakest… (Jung, Ibid., para. 15)
By “dark” here, I don’t think Jung is implying any moral judgment: it is rather that, from the perspective of the ego, the impulses in the shadow are hard to comprehend. As we confront the reality of our own shadow, we come to respect those dimensions of our own unique individuality that we know less well. We are forced to take in who it is that we really are. It is in the parts of ourselves that won’t be easily civilized or conformed, that won’t fit the socially prescribed patterns of the suburban — or any other — lifestyle that we find the uniqueness that won’t be benignly smoothed away.
What we first experience as apparently inexplicable resistance to the designs and projects of the ego turns out to be the gateway to the tangible reality of our own soul.