13 Jan Owning our shadows
“To refuse the dark side of one’s nature is to store up or accumulate the darkness; this is later expressed as black mood, psychosomatic illness, or unconsciously desired illness… We must be whole whether we like it or not; the only choice is whether we incorporate the shadow consciously with some dignity or do it through some neurotic behavior.”–Robert A. Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow, Understanding the Dark Side of Psyche
We are born into the world as a clean slate – or a tabula rasa, if you were not too stoned or hungover to recall the lecture on Lockean empiricism in your Introduction to Philosophy course. Because we are entirely dependent on our caregivers as infants, we quickly learn to adapt our behavior to maximize our safety and comfort. This process continues as we develop and mature. In Carl Jung’s terminology, we develop a “persona” which he described as “a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual.” We consciously hold on to the characteristics we revere and repress those we view as anathema. Jung dubbed the portion of ourselves which we attempt to cast off the “shadow.”
As a child and young adult, I was perfect. Well, I am also perfect as an older adult, but I digress. My persona was that of the “good boy.” No, I wasn’t a heckin’ floofer, perhaps I will be so lucky in my next life. But, as a kiddo, I excelled at school, was well behaved, compliant, and sweet. This is how I believed I would receive the love and affection of my parents and those around me. This is how I stayed safe. I repressed fear, anger, and most other emotions. On the outside, I was confident, arrogant, and even brash. Of course, this bravado masked a metric ton of insecurity. My shadow loomed large, lurking around every corner, and manifesting at the most inopportune times.
I am reasonably certain those around me were able to see me for who I was. At times, I was perfect alright – a perfect pain in the ass. Passive aggressive. Needy. A total whiner. And a perfectionist. I would do everything in my power to not be perceived as having failed at something. The best way to do this, I learned, was to not take a risk. If I never stepped out of my comfort zone, I could never fail… or so I thought.
From as far back as I can remember, I was told I had to be “a doctor, a lawyer or a dentist.” These were professions, I understood, which made a lot of money. Of course, as we all know, this money would buy me happiness. At the end of my college career, I decided I was going to eschew the money, get a master’s degree and become a teacher. When I told my parents, there was a bit of a freak out. So, I decided, that path was not for me. I did, however, at least have to foresight to take off a year after college to play the bass guitar in a band before heading off to law school.
After practicing law for 10 years, at the ripe old age of 35 and right on schedule for my midlife crises, I was done with my legal career. I wanted to go back to school to study psychology. My then wife (the first one) was taken aback and less than supportive. I can’t blame her – she married an attorney, not someone she would have to support through graduate school. So, again, I decided that path was not for me. When I was 42, my then wife (the second one) decided after a few months of wedded non-bliss that she did not want to be married after all. With this sledgehammer, the Universe was finally able to convince me to live my life for myself. This time, I was resolute. I was going to become a therapist come hell or high water.
Long ago, I repressed the idea that I could live the life of a helper. I spent the better part of 20 years, and the vast majority of my adulthood, fulfilling the persona of the successful attorney. I was to live in pure ego – make lots of money, swim in the air of prestige, and win at all costs. But, I was miserable. I had not even the slightest clue of who I really was as a person. I knew little of my true Self. As Jung said, “everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.” My shadow was a vortex – the blackest of black holes, ensnaring me for what seemed like eternity.
Jung likened the shadow to “the invisible saurian tail that man still drags behind him.” But, “carefully amputated, it becomes the healing serpent of the mysteries. Only monkeys parade with it.” Our mission at midlife is to confront those aspects of ourselves – good and bad – which we have repressed to project a certain persona. Shadow work is intense and difficult, but rewarding beyond measure. I am on the path away from the parade of monkeys. However, I do not recommend the sledgehammer to the head approach. Divorce is infinitely painful. Two of them exponentially so. Yet, I would not trade those experiences for the world – they have made me who I am and allowed me to begin owning my shadow. Come, join me in this work. I’ll bring cookies.