Addressing the shadow self

I was recently struck by one of Jung’s descriptions of the shadow side of the human experience, meaning the pieces of ourselves we are desperate to repress and disown.  The shadow gains power when we split ourselves off from, for lack of a better term, the seedier side of our character.  It is difficult for our nobler selves to tolerate the idea that we also carry selfishness, ill-will, jealousy, and deviousness. But this is a dangerous game, because the irrepressible that is cut off tries to surreptitiously make itself heard.  Nothing likes to be ignored, least of all the repressed unconscious.  

The particular description that follows is in volume 9 of Jung’s collected works, entitled, Aion: Research into the phenomenology of the Self.  He writes:

“If it has believed hitherto that the human shadow was the source of all evil, it can now be ascertained on closer investigation that the unconscious man, that is, his shadow, does not consist only of morally reprehensible tendencies, but also displays a number of good qualities, such as normal instincts, appropriate reactions, realistic insights, creative impulses, etc.  On this level of understanding, evil appears more as a distortion, a deformation, a misinterpretation and misapplication of facts that in themselves are natural.” (para. 423)

Jung is saying here that it is not the shadow, in and of itself, that is the culprit of evil and injustice, but the fearful human reaction toward its messier, less socially appropriate character.

We do terrible things out of fear.  In the name of morality and justness we often demonize the “other;” we project all things murky and distasteful onto others, a much easier solution than acknowledging it in ourselves.  Fanaticism of all kinds stems from such a rejection and projection.  Jung goes on to write:

“…it turns out that all archetypes spontaneously develop favourable and unfavourable, light and dark, good and bad effects.  In the end we have to acknowledge that the self is a complexion oppositorum precisely because there can be no reality without polarity.  We must not overlook the fact that opposites acquire their moral accentuation only within the sphere of human endeavor and action, and that we are unable to give a definition of good and evil that could be considered universally valid.  In other words, we do not know what good and evil are in themselves.  It must therefore be supposed that they spring from a need of human consciousness…” (para. 423)

I believe that one of our most difficult challenges is to build relationship with our unruly and unacceptable selves.  If we do not, these aspects somehow seem to become the responsibility of others.  Good for us, but bad for them.  And of course we serve the same purpose for others.  The antidote?  Jung writes:

“It is more advantageous and more to the point to subject to the most rigorous scrutiny one’s own moods and their changing influence on one’s personality.  To know where the other person makes a mistake is of little value.  It only becomes interesting when you know where you make the mistake, for then you can do something about it.  What we can improve in others is of doubtful utility as a rule, if, indeed, it has any effect at all.” (para. 424)

Personal responsibility?  Darn it!

Sorry I’ve missed the past couple of weeks.  Have a happy Memorial Day weekend!