Only Your Shadow Knows


Dear Neil:  Can you help me with why I lose my temper and fly into a fit of rage whenever I am disappointed or hurt?  I don’t like this aspect of myself, and would like to change it. What happens to me?  How can I learn to control myself better?  I am otherwise really nice to people.

London, England

Dear London:  There might be any number of reasons why you lose control over your temper, but you can be sure that whatever the reasons are, you are coming face to face with your “shadow.”

The shadow is us, yet is not us.  Hidden from our awareness, it is not a part of our conscious self-image.  So it seems to appear abruptly, out of nowhere, and it feels like an unwanted visitor, leaving us ashamed, or even mortified.

When a responsible husband and provider is suddenly taken over by a dream of freedom and independence, when a woman with a health-conscious lifestyle binges on a half-gallon of ice cream in the dark of night, when a normally kind and responsive mother belittles her child, they are forced to wrestle with the OTHER within:  their shadows.

In each instance, the mask we show to the world (the persona) is different from—and diametrically opposite to—the face we hide from the world (the shadow).  The more unconscious the shadow, the more we experience it as a stranger, an alien invader.  We avoid facing it in ourselves, and become intolerant of it in others.

A woman may shake her head and say “I can’t believe I had unprotected sex with that man.  I wasn’t myself last night.”  A man may hang his head and say “I was drunk.  The wine made me say those things.  It won’t happen again.”  But the meeting with the shadow has occurred, tearing holes in our masks and leading us to quickly deny responsibility for what we said or did.

Denial emerges because the shadow does not want to come out of its hiding place.  Its nature is to hide, to remain outside of awareness.  So the shadow acts out indirectly, concealed in a sarcastic remark or a sour mood.  Or it sneaks out compulsively, concealed in addictive behavior.

We know the shadow by many names:  our dark side, disowned self, repressed self, id.  We speak of meeting our demons, wrestling with the devil (the devil made me do it), a decent into the underworld, a dark night of the soul, a midlife crisis.

The shadow is a means to get in touch with our unknown parts.  It refers to those aspects of ourselves that we fail to bring fully to responsible awareness and understanding.  Your shadow may appear as rudeness, anger, quick temperedness, nastiness or impatience.  It may come out as hatred or intolerance for people of another race, religion or political belief, or as a prejudice against people who are just different from you.  Or the shadow can turn inward and emerge as loneliness, depression, addictive or compulsive behavior, black moods, or a variety of self-sabotaging or self-defeating behaviors.

The front page of every newspaper hurls our collective shadow back at us in the form of murder, war, rape, irresponsible, disrespectful and hateful behaviors.  It also floods our Hollywood movies and TV shows.

So how do we find that elusive disowned self?  I will explain that in next week’s column.

Source:  Romancing The Shadow by Connie Zweig and Steven Wolfe (Tharcher) and The Dark Side of The Light Chasers by Debbie Ford (Riverhead Books)

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