The Importance of Self Awareness 3: Letting In the Shadow
In this third and final part of an ongoing series on the importance of self awareness, we focus on the psychological reality of shadow. Jung originated this term, now used by many who reflect on our psychological reality.
Just what is meant by “shadow” when we think about the importance of self awareness? At one point Jung describes shadow as,
“the thing a person has no wish to be”.C.G. Jung, CW 16, para. 470
This is pithy and succinct, but Jung helps us when he tells us:
Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.
C.G. Jung, CW 11, p. 131
Jung’s point is that, for each of us, there are parts of our personality of which we are unaware. He would add that there are parts of the personality of which we might prefer to remain unaware.
Sometimes, I would rather not be aware of certain aspects of myself because my ego doesn’t feel comfortable with them. The ego is the part of my personality of which I’m conscious, and with which I identify. Many times, ego doesn’t wish to acknowledge other parts of me that don’t fit with how my ego would like to see itself. This can create all kinds of issues for us.
Saving the Appearances; Deep Six-ing the Shadow
We are often called to save the appearances, to paper over the gap between our presumptive identity and values and our actual practices. This distressing gap is what Jung called the Shadow, those parts of ourselves that make us uncomfortable with ourselves. Feeling discomfort, we repress these facts, project them onto others, are subsumed by them, or, occasionally, bring them to consciousness and integrate them into a more complex, more accurate sense of self.
James Hollis, What Matters Most, pp. 25-26
Jung and Hollis are in agreement that self awareness is not always easy! Certain parts of ourselves may strongly resist knowing important aspects of who we are, and being honest with ourselves about them. We can find it much easier, sometimes to live with fictions about ourselves.
Tolerating Our Shadow Parts
The shadow parts of ourselves may be difficult to tolerate. They may cause the ego all kinds of anxiety. Sometimes the ego may have values that it thinks are important, like being truthful. These may be challenged by things we actually do, but don’t readily acknowledge, like fudging a little on one’s income tax.
Also, we may have some aspect of our personality that we don’t wish to acknowledge. We might feel that something about us is shameful, like having a weakness or inability to do certain things. Or, there might be something about who we really are that’s at odds with how we see ourselves, One example would be an urban sophisticate who secretly yearns to perform country and western music. Or, someone might believe that it’s bad or selfish to stand up and firmly ask for what she or he actually wants—but whose shadow is determined to do it.
It’s certainly not true that everything in the shadow is dark or morally questionable—far from it! Many things in the shadow are not really “shady” at all; they just don’t fit with the way the ego sees itself. Nonetheless, we can spend an incredible amount of psychic energy trying to avoid being aware of such shadow contents.
This struggle to avoid our authentic selves can create anxiety and even depression. The struggle with avoiding the shadow part of our authentic selves often becomes acute and even excruciating at times of major life transition. The midlife transition, or the transition into our later years are examples of this. Tragically, an individual can spend much of his or her life running from who she or he really is.
Integrating Our Shadow & The Importance of Self-Awareness
Running from the shadow produces anxiety, exhaustion and distortion of the person. It’s immensely beneficial if a person can find a way to make peace with the shadow, and integrate it. This can give a renewed sense of energy for life. As British Jungian analyst Christopher Perry reminds us,
[The assimilation of the shadow] leads to self-acceptance and self-forgiveness. Grievance and blame give way to the taking of responsibility and attempts at sorting-out what belongs to whom. A fierce conscience, which tends to be self- and other-punitive can relax, and personal values can be set in counterpoint to collective morality.
Making contact with the shadow is often greatly assisted by working in a supportive relationship with a Jungian /a-midlife-transition. In the accepting environment of Jungian therapy or analysis, it’s often possible to look at ourselves with true clarity, and genuine compassion and insight. This can help us greatly to see the ways in which the shadow turns up in our own individual lives. We can then start to genuinely hear it, and to come to terms with it.
Do you have awareness of your shadow? When in the past might you have encountered it?
Wishing you every good thing on your personal journey,