To confront a person with his shadow is to show him his own light. Once one has experienced a few times what it is like to stand judgingly between the opposites, one begins to understand what is meant by the self. Anyone who perceives his shadow and his light simultaneously sees himself from two sides and thus gets in the middle.
— Carl Gustav Jung
The despised self, the disowned self, and the shadow: By any name psychology has acknowledged the dark side of our personality in many forms. It is also in literature (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and at the movies (Black Swan) we may first come to know the shadow. Psychology has long since been trying to get us to deal with it. There is a way. The ultimate way of coping with it is to eat it.
The Shadow Effect, by the leading spiritual healers of our time — Deepak Chopra, Debbie Ford, and Marianne Williamson — is one of the most recent efforts at getting people to understand this idea. They offer the recipe for taking back in the shadow aspects of ourselves. It is the popular version of what Jung talked about in the struggle to cope with a personal or a collective (archetypal) shadow. To become whole we must assimilate our darkness, or, as the saying goes, to eat the shadow.
In a 1998 interview with Scott London, Connie Zweig, author of Romancing the Shadow, explains her collection of stories from people who have integrated their personal shadow. She seems very much to follow the idea put forth by Jung that “[E]verything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
Eating Your Own Shadow
If you would like to try a taste of your own shadow, let me offer a recipe I use when I teach my graduate students. Here is an exercise I use to help them munch on at least a small part of their own shadow:
- Write down three people you really don’t like. People you despise, argue with, are annoyed by. But don’t choose someone that you can tolerate. Pick the most difficult ones you can.
- Now write down exactly what it is you don’t like about them. Their arrogance, or aloofness, or anger, or know-it-all-ness, or whatever. The more specific you can be, the better.
- Check out the worst one of the bunch. Notice what happens when you think about him or her. One of the things you will realize is that you have a bodily reaction. Your body responds to the presence of this person. Perhaps your stomach, or shoulders, or neck. Something about them lodges in your body. Figure out where that is. This will be the cue for you in the future when a shadow activator is in your presence.
- Here comes the fun part. Look at the characteristics you noted of the person you dislike immensely. What you will realize is that you have very likely devoted your life to not being anything like this person. The very characteristics you’ve identified are those that you have made a conscious or unconscious commitment to not displaying.
- You are afraid of becoming like them usually because you have had some experience with them or people like them where you were hurt. To distance yourself from ever being like the person or people that hurt you, you became exactly the opposite.
- But being the opposite means you are just as much a prisoner as if you had become like the person. You are forever compelled to be unlike them. This means you are not them, but you are also not you.
- But if you succeed in not being like them, you lose. Because in the effort to be distanced from being what you don’t want to become, you fail to become authentically you. It is not enough to not be like them. It is important to figure out who you are.
- Hold this person in your mind, and know that the thing you feel for them, the fact that your body quivers when you think of them, is because you fear something like them is inside of you. The feeling originates in you, not them. Others may see them and not feel anything like what you do. The feeling you have of them is yours to examine.
- Here is the tasty part. Review the characteristics of the person again, this time accepting that these are the features you have most guarded against in having in your life. Their arrogance, or anger or aloofness, are the things that reside in you as potentials, which is why you are so fiercely struggling against them.
- Finally, imagine what it would be like to allow yourself to accept that these elements are inside of you — part of you, not some foreign features that are in the other person. Try to accept yourself with these features — he part of you that can accept these opposites, the you devoted to not being them, and the you that fears these characteristics.
A little book on the human shadow, by the poet and author Robert Bly, is a wonderful introduction to the topic and will whet your appetite for a shadow buffet. And Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche by the Jungian, Robert Johnson, has a marvelous understanding and depiction of what happens when you can incorporate both sides of the psyche. He uses a Venn diagram of two overlapping circles to make the point that the true self emerges when the opposite features of ourselves overlap. If you imagine one circle yellow and the other blue intersecting, the resulting space would be almond shape and green. It is the graphic that helps us understand what Jung meant when he said:
Anyone who perceives his shadow and his light simultaneously sees himself from two sides and thus gets in the middle.
Eating the shadow requires a radical acceptance of who we really are, who or what we fear becoming, and what we have done to prevent that from happening. By assimilating the shadow, eating it and taking it in rather than projecting it out onto others, we become whole and authentic.