How to Eat Your Shadow, Before Your Shadow Eats You

by | Oct 14, 2020 | 0 comments

When I switch to a Jungian orientation in therapy with a patient I tell them that I believe that there is a dormant “acorn” in each of us. I tell them that the “acorn” knows exactly what kind of oak it wants to be, but needs sunlight, water, and soil to continue becoming an oak tree. We are supposed to listen to our acorn across the life journey but most people stop at some point. Most people will die a sapling, never having discovered what it was they were supposed to become. We often become too scared, too overwhelmed or too resigned at some point in life to listen to our acorns.

I believe that there is a map in each of us that is pregnant with the potential of what we want to become. Much of this map is not available to us in early life, because we cannot yet distinguish ourselves from the world around us. We are “parts” of things as children. We are a part of a family, a part of a school, a part of the stories we see in books and on television. Children cannot tell you what makes “themself” different from their family. They cannot tell you how they are different from their first friends. They are part of these things and view themselves and fundamentally connected. Children cannot separate their own story from the fiction that compels them. Children use fiction to help themselves understand themselves and the world. At the time of this writing we are under quarantine from the COVID virus and my two year old daughter has seen the lion king 30 times this month. She has started referring to our pond as the watering hole, and told my wife that she was “messing up her mane” last night.

Adolescence is the process of learning to separate the self that is “you” from these parts we have been given. Adulthood is the process of replacing the parts that you want to replace are not yourself. We have to learn what we have inherited from our families and cultures that we do not want to know who we are. Once we have done this we have to replace the parts that we do not want with something else we invent.

>We are not able to “choose” the parts of who we are as children. We are told that “boys don’t cry” and “bedtime is seven oclock”. We are forced to accept through rewards and punishments that we cannot pee when wherever we want and that rocks are not to be thrown. These “rules” that shape us go against our natural state and so they are traumatic reshapings of what our “self” is allowed to be. Later we have grown more used to this process and we can be shaped more readily.

We come into life being given so many rules, traumas and constraints by our families. These traumas are inevitable and do not necessarily represent neglect or abuse at the hands of our caregivers. Personality development itself is trauma. Our parents tell us who God is and what he wants for us, or they do not. They teach us what a “responsible” adult does, or they do not. They tell us what is “good” and what is “bad” or they do not. Many patients are impacted more by the rules that they are NOT given than the rules that they are. These patients are ashamed they do not know how to budget, have self respect, or be independent. I tell all of them that “we only have the tools that our families give to us or that we find”.

We are born with no ability to make rules, no ability to know who we are separate from the tribes and systems we inhabit for the first part of our life. We must take the rules and constrictions that our parents place on our identity even if we question them. Sorting through these rules and deciding which are us and which must be replaced is the privilege and the project of later life. The people who ignore this process never get to become their oak tree, never get the results of the experiment that the universe is running with their life. Growth begins when we find rules that are NOT who we are. Then we are faced with the challenge of designing our own rules and deciding the restrictions that we choose to place on our own life. The choices about our identity are absolutely restrictions. Each choice to become something is a choice not to become a hundred others.

We begin to sort through the rules of our families, and sometimes our society as teenagers. We do not do it mindfully then. We do not consider what rules are “us” and which rules are not. We break all of them just because there is a rule. We defiantly expand ourselves just because there is a constriction on what we are allowed to be. Patients with neglect and abuse in their families are often deeply overwhelmed by the task of listening to this acorn, because they must throw out every rule their families ever, or never, gave them. When our families gave us little or nothing that is useful for finding our identity, then we begin the project, deeply disadvantaged, entirely from scratch.

This project doesn’t end. It is supposed to endure throughout the course of our lives. At anyone moment we all contain what Jung called our “archetype of the self”. It is our tree. It is the organizing principle of who we are. It is all the things that we have decided that we “are” and “are not”. There is nothing wrong with the self that we are right now but it should be different from the self we are two years from now. Oftentimes during periods of emotional abuse, addiction, or mental illness our tree stops growing. These patients are immediately recognizable when they present to therapy years or decades younger than the age on their drivers license. This delay in growth can be overcome. With recovery and therapy an addiction becomes nothing more than a drought or harsh winter, affecting but not ending our growth.

The major implication of this tree and self metaphor is that we are never really getting it right. We are always in the process of growing and we are always a little bit wrong about “what” we are. The archetype of the self that we have at any one moment, the idea we have of who we are, is always threatened by all of the parts of ourselves that we have not yet been able to integrate and understand. The self image that we have, the self that we want to believe we are is never quite completely honest about the self that we actually are. The identity that we claim is always in denial about, and threatened by parts of ourselves that we do not want to claim.

Many of these parts of ourselves are against our families rules or the new rules that we have made for ourselves. We do not yet know how to make a set of rules or a container that allows for all of who we are to exist yet. In many ways this is the task of the mindful life. Maybe I want to have a traditional home life but also see myself as a rebellious rambling mystery man. Maybe I want to be a good christian but also escape into the numbness of heroin addiction to avoid shame. Perhaps I need to see myself as a fearless and indifferent stoic but am terrified of my own death and meaninglessness. Maybe I feel lie a self made man but I know how much money and how many shoulders I stood on to attain prominence.

These things are the shadow. They are all of the self energy that is not yet able to be allowed inside of the container that we keep our identity in. Put in a different sort of language there are things that I know to be true about myself and the world, but I cannot let myself know them because they are too threatening to my sense of self. All of this knowledge about who I am and what I know that is too threatening to conscious awareness must be forced down into our unconscious mind.

In dreams the shadow shows up as threatening images and figures. Our reactions to these shadow parts in dreams are often our coping strategies from life. Do you run from the memory of your past failures? Do you yell at the abusive teacher from highschool to disappear? Do you freeze paralyzed when you are reminded of your past indiscretions? Many patients who have disowned or were taught to disown their aggressive parts will dream of finding rooms full of fierce beasts in their basement or attic. Patients with imposter syndrome will dream of breaking into places they are not allowed and patients on the edge of self discovery will dream of tending or planting a garden.

We often encounter the shadow in dreams where it is not always recognizable, but one of the ways that it is the most recognizable is in our reactions to our shadow in others. When we are disproportionately judgmental, angry, or afraid of others it is likely because they represent to us parts of ourselves that we judge, fear or hate. We are able to see the shadow in others, and tell it what we think of it, where we often cannot see it in ourselves. We force others to hold parts of us that we are not ready to hold ourselves. Jungians call this process shadow projection.

There are multiple parts of the shadow. We have a “self shadow” that contains all of the things that we know but do not want to know about ourselves. We also have a “world shadow” that contains all of the things that we know about the world but cannot accept. The self shadow is all of the parts of us that “break the rules” of our self archetype. The world’s shadow is vastly more tricky to confront and integrate. The world shadow contains all of the things that we cannot yet let ourselves know about the world we live in. The very largest parts of the world shadow will contain the realities of existence that we feel too weak to face.

Often we think that it is against the rules to admit that we are smarter than others if humility is a rule. We may find it hard to admit that others are smarter than us if dominance is part of our self archetype. These reactions would be part of the self shadow. One of the most common ways that the world shadow comes up in therapy is when events make us confront how little the world cares about the sense of justice that we project onto it. We may intellectually know that the world is an indifferent place where bad things happen to good people. But yet, something will happen that makes us realize, and then refuse to accept that “these things can happen to me”. These existential horrors are part of the world shadow.

The stages of grief can be seen as a way that we fight integrating the world shadow because they are ways that we put off knowing or accepting things that we already know are true. Anger, denial, bargaining are all games we play in the unconscious to try and “change” the world we live in into a different one. They are all ways that we try and put off allowing ourselves to know things that we already know are true. We cannot change death. We cannot blame it, rage it, deny it or bargain it away. “Acceptance” is what happens after we have allowed the small container we keep the world in to expand and admitted that your rules for the world we want to live in are bunk.

Often profound crises of faith are the result of the confrontation and integration of the world shadow. We are forced to confront the world’s shadow and our place within the world at every major stage of development in childhood. Growing up forces us to confront that the world does not revolve around us, that our parents are fallible, that life is not fair, and that we do not matter to the world as much as we would like. We realize as children that we are not special but often refuse to realize it again as adults. Identity is the process of understanding who we are and what the world is so that we can manage the transactions between those two forces.

In treatment with patients, I use a lot of eye movement therapies to process trauma and PTSD. Many times this will involve a patient accepting and remembering a part of a repressed experience. Patients will sometimes stop the processing and tell me “I can’t know this”. The self shadow of what has happened to them has been revealed and it has terrified them. Oftentimes when I watch a patient stop processing an incident out of the blue I will ask them what it is that they don’t want to realize, or what they know now that they don’t want to know. A patient told me once “If I let myself know that he could smile after doing this I will never be safe around people ever again”. In this moment the horror of the world shadow was on full display, and the patient was willfully banishing knowledge of a world they could not live in back into the unconscious.

Like I had said before, growth is trauma. In order to become a “bigger” self we must learn to eat the shadow. The self that we are right now is terrified of our shadow. I tell patients that wrestle with their shadow during trauma processing, “You don’t think you are strong enough to live in the world as it is but I have faith that you can”. Accepting the shadow means that we have to let go of the self that we are right now in order to construct a new self that can hold the banished knowledge of the shadow. We have to let part of ourselves die to let the rest live, like we weeding a garden. Because we are “killing” part of the ego as it is now we all have involuntary defenses to this process of growth and integration. After all, eating the shadow feels like death. Giving up some of who we are right now feels like dying. When we grow we are letting part of yourselves die so that we can become a new thing. Our ego fights this process kicking and screaming, just like it did when we were children, and at every other major part of our development.

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