Shadow or Self: Who's in Charge?


Unknown-1“What should I do?” I asked my husband.  “This feels like a test about choosing between courage and cowardice.  Or is it between my noble and selfish selves?” We were talking about a relationship issue that was brought to my attention by a timely and bizarre synchronicity. The odds against this coincidence occurring must have been millions to one.  Because of the wild improbability I knew there was a lesson in it for me.  But what was it?

Which part of me should I act on:  the part that could see this objectively, laugh it off and let it go, or the part that took it personally, felt betrayed, and wanted to let the other know? I couldn’t tell. My habit of suppressing my truths to avoid conflicts or hurting people was still too strong. As a child and young woman, I’d seen this as a noble trait, but I was learning that keeping my mouth shut wasn’t always the right choice. Sometimes it was merely ‘settling.’ Sometimes it was not believing enough in my basic worth to draw firm boundaries and stand up for myself. At the very least it was a lack of authenticity.

Over the years a recurring dream has addressed this issue: I’m in a social situation with a mouth full of sticky mush that I have to remove and dispose of so I can talk. No matter how much I take out, there’s always more. Having people around me is uncomfortable and embarrassing. When I finally understood this was a metaphor for being afraid to use my own voice, I became determined to heal this wound that has its roots in my earliest childhood.

I grew up believing I must protect my mother from agitation or conflict. Something told me she’d had too much pain in her life and I shouldn’t add to it;  for example, by arguing with her, or expressing my disappointment that she didn’t attend my theatrical and musical performances, or begging her to drive me anywhere, or expecting special attention or praise from her.  It was too risky.  I realize now that this is symptomatic of a mother complex.

The part of me that wanted to reclaim my voice believed that expressing my truths in the current situation was the right response. But knowing it could be hurtful to the other party held me back and caused me to question my true motivation. Was there something in me that wanted to hurt this person? The thought that there probably was made me deeply uncomfortable.  So what was I to do? Suppress my truths yet again or take the risk of exposing my secret thoughts? Beneath this was a bigger question:  Which side of my dilemma represented my shadow and which the Self?

UnknownI asked my husband to help me clarify this issue, then made my decision. But we both still had misgivings.  So I asked my daughter. I should tell you she’s a level-headed person with a doctorate in marriage and family counseling. I trusted her response to be truthful and objective. After describing the situation and how I’d decided to handle it, I immediately sensed her hesitation.  “What?”  I asked. “Is this bogus?  Am I being childish?”

“Yes,” she said smiling gently. “I think it’s coming from your mother complex. Your wounded child feels neglected and wants attention and revenge.”  The undeniable truth of this resonated, a dark cavern in my unconscious was flooded with light, and a weight I didn’t know I was carrying vanished. It explained so much about parts of my shadow I’d been struggling so long to understand. A few nights later a vivid dream confirmed the truth. In it, an intelligent and accomplished young Asian woman went to her hotel room after making an important presentation, and I heard her screaming for her absent mother in anguish and anger. The youthful, ambitious, perfectionistic achiever in me still wanted her mother’s affirmation.

“In each of us there is another whom we do not know.  [S]He speaks to us in dreams.” `Carl Jung

Carl Jung believed complexes are perfectly normal. As I recall, he once said he had 13.  No matter how hard we try to think and act wisely, everyone has clusters of attitudes, feelings and beliefs that can impersonate wisdom and shadow our judgment. And when our ego is swamped by a shadow complex, it’s very good at justifying its self-serving motives. So how can we discern the truth and make the best choice?

We can bring the True Self into the picture by asking it to observe our conflict as we follow this 7-step process:

(1) Name both sides of the conflict.

(2) Listen carefully as each side expresses itself fully.

(3) Examine the beliefs, emotions and motives of both sides with objectivity and compassion.

(4) Forgive both sides for being human.

(5) Grieve our hurt fully.

(6) Create an original work wherein our ego, shadow and Self invent their own meaningful sacred dance.

(7) Ask for help if we’re still in the dark.

Then we can choose to step toward the light. Life is too precious to waste in the shadows.

Image credits:  Google Images

Jean Raffa’s “The Bridge to Wholeness” and “Dream Theatres of the Soul” are at Amazon. E-book versions are also at KoboBarnes And Noble and Smashwords. “Healing the Sacred Divide” can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications, IncHer new book, The Soul’s Twins, will be launched next year.

Join 5,851 other subscribers


0 Responses

  1. Hi Jeanie, In pure synchronicity I found myself reading your most excellent post today and it’s really got me thinking! Earlier today I posted a poem on my blog all about the darkness of my own abusive childhood (it’s a difficult read) and now I’m left wondering ,,, was is it the wounded Shadow child or the Self who posted? Or could both be working, and integrating on this my creative expression … could the Self be helping my wounded child?
    I recognise that the wounded child in me needs to speak, and the very act of writing ‘Once upon an Ordinary Day’ felt right and necessary in order to heal yet I’m aware that it was ‘indeed’ the wounded child who picked up the pen, feeling betrayed and wanting revenge ‘yet’ desperately wanted to share her life experiences so that others felt less alone, more understood … is this where Shadow and Self work together? I would love to hear your thoughts on this way of being. Blessings, Deborah. 🙂

    1. Hi Deborah, you’ve beautifully expressed the kind of dilemma I’m addressing here. Yes, the wounded child most definitely needs a voice, and giving it one is a gift of wisdom and healing from an ego that wishes to connect with the True Self. Any kind of creative work that addresses our inner lives can be a medium for healing if our ego will allow it, listen carefully to the shadow—whether it’s a hurt child, angry woman, critical bully, or any number of characters—and forgive it. Writing poetry is one of the best healing mediums i know, along with dreamwork. The shadow then becomes a point of entry wherein the ego and Self can communicate. Persisting in this process gradually lessens the toxic power of the shadow and eases the pain.
      By the way, your comment was very helpful to me. I’ve slightly rewritten the last paragraph to clarify this issue even more. Thank you.

      1. Thank you so much for coming back to me Jeanie on this topic, truly appreciated. I love what you say about the Shadow becoming ‘a point of entry’ … I have never thought about that in regard to my poetry before yet I can see that it is perfectly true! Indeed it is a place where ego, self and shadow meet … oh my goddess I love that, what a dance they all have!!!
        Many thanks for sharing that poetical insight, I shall endeavour to persist breaking down more toxic power with the power of my pen! Thank you.

        1. You’re very welcome! And while you were writing this lovely comment, I was editing the last part of my post once again in the hope of providing more clarity and insights! Like poetry, writing my blog posts helps me as much as I hope it helps others, especially when I receive valuable input from like-minded readers! Thank you.

    1. Yes, isn’t it the best reward ever when we see the consciousness of our children surpassing our own? I can’t imagine what could be a better contribution to the world!

  2. The synchronicity of this post is amazing. The other night I dreamt that I was in a room, but no matter what I did the person guarding the room wouldn’t let me out or they let me think I was in a different room. No matter whether I fought the person or tried being sneaky I could not get away from this situation. I awoke in tears with my heart palpitating. I think I have not taken charge of my life nor spoken up about my life sometimes. It is interesting to see what my mind has been processing. In my childhood I couldn’t do what I wanted, always what my parents directed. Someplace I have fallen back into this mode of operation. Taking charge of my happiness is up to me. Thanks for the reminder.

    1. What a marvelous insight this is. I’m so glad this post confirmed it. I see synchronicities like this as evidence of the underlying benevolence of the Mystery that governs every aspect of life. I think this may be an important crossroads awareness for you that points to a new and fuller way of thinking and being. I hope you’ll let me know if and how you take steps to enter it more fully. You didn’t ask for advice so I hope you won’t mind if I tell you that if this were my dream I’d begin with some sort of creative expression that could help me clarify and firm up my resolve….. Blessings, and thank you for writing.

      1. I assumed it would be inappropriate for me to ask for advice from you… but I’d LOVE it! In fact, I have found a new opportunity to volunteer which will also give me the opportunity to meet more people. My husband is a TYPE A +++ personality and NOT social. So I am looking for more ways to make me happy and to find joy in life. I am running into more women in the same boat. I am learning to stand up for me. Thank you for your comments!!!!!

        1. It’s not inappropriate, but it’s very thoughtful of you to be mindful about not imposing! I appreciate that, but I don’t mind at all when someone is genuinely looking for insights related to one of my posts. Good luck with your new volunteer opportunity. I hope it brings more clarity about what you need and how to acquire it.

  3. Thank you Jeanie for this … I still puzzle over a betrayal that happened in early July in a group of which I’m no longer a part – and while I think I’ve consciously let it go it still rears its ugly head. Your post addresses my issue in a very meaningful and constructive way ..

    1. I’m very glad to hear this, Susan. As I write this I’m in the middle of writing a new post for next week on the same topic. I hope it will bring you more insights about the psychological underpinnings of this experience.

  4. Ah, those betrayals and our need to understand them. To me, the interpersonal flares that tighten my belly and nag at me in the night are puzzles where I learn more about myself (after I stop reacting). Often not what I want to know about myself, but I like the relationship dance and a deep relationship means dealing with clashes. In recent years, I disappointed a friend. She can’t or won’t be specific and refuses to explore the issues with me. I suggested talking with a third party present, a therapist friend or her therapist. She refused. In time, after many tries, I backed away and stopped trying to work it out in relationship. As I’ve dug into my side of this with my therapist, I see my friend’s mother complex running the show with full cooperation of mine. Despite giving more support than any other person outside my family, I failed to fill the hole left by a neglectful mother.

    1. Oh yes, indeed. This particular flare was the one that finally helped me see my mother complex in action! Since then it’s been a zillion times easier to be aware of it and handle my feelings quickly and with more grace! I’m sorry about your losing your friend. I haven’t lost this one, but she no longer carries my mother complex which means she has no more power to hurt me and I have no need to feed hers. Aren’t we lucky to be figuring these things out about ourselves at last?

  5. Thank you. This is movingly put, and chimed with me.
    Not least because I’m just working on a post about embracing the messy soul 🙂
    In the way you write about your mother a love shines through. As children, with little or no defense against a parent’s behaviour, we are bound to carry forward a mindset based on anxieties of, for example, rejection into later relationships. And while it is a revelation to recognize a complex that might shift things in our lives, there remains, let say, the mother who was unable to overcome her own complex. Grief about mothers can linger on, does in me, anyway. Almost like a loyalty to what could have been.

    1. Aah. The messy soul. I can’t wait to read that one! Today recorded seven dreams after being away from my computer all weekend and talk about messy! Half the time my dream ego had no idea where I was or why or what was going on and it took working on all seven for most of the day to begin to get what the Self was trying to tell me. There are lots of messy losses and new births going on now and it’s not easy to sort out this mess. But I have to say, I still find it to be great fun.
      “Almost like a loyalty to what could have been.” Well said. Yes, grief about my mother still lingers on too. “Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if she had been this way instead of that way,” etc. But then, if she’d been different, who knows what kind of person I would be today? Even if I could, I really wouldn’t change a thing about her. I think I got the perfect mother for being me.
      Thanks for writing. Good luck with your next post. I look forward to it. 🙂

      1. Thank you. I agree, my mother was the perfect mother for being me. I finally, after much hesitation, I posted something on -embracing the messy soul. I included a link to your wonderful site.

  6. Thank you for sharing this ‘mindful’ & enlightening story with us.
    But please let me get back to the more general question of the title, the ‘Jungian’ question of who is in charge,
    the Self or the shadow. This might shine some ‘back light’ on the whole issue, adds a different perspective to it.
    Of course most people are left in the ‘dark’ or unconscious about their subconsciousness, and this is where
    the great misconception often begins. This ‘dark side’ of our psyche (life) is as real & ‘alive’ as the causes
    shading it from the ‘light’ source.
    This leaves the people themselves, or their Ego, standing in the way of the ‘enlightenment’.
    But again, being unconscious about this simple phenomenon, living in the dark about this
    subconscious part of them-Self, the lower ‘floor’ of their ‘house’ (so C.G. Jung), makes them
    oblivious of all the wanted or unwanted ‘stuff’ of ‘feelings’ entering thru the ‘backdoor’ of the ‘house’.
    While everybody is concentrating on the ‘intelligently’ illuminated, the obvious, public
    ‘front-side’, masses of unsorted goods as well as overwhelming amounts of ‘dirt’ are ‘delivered’
    thru the sensory ‘backdoor’.
    But since all these uncensored ‘feelings’ arouse or trigger certain emotions and people
    rather act on emotions than on intelligent considerations, this ‘dark side’ of our Subconsciousness
    becomes the ‘secret key’ to our behavior.
    Since our entire socio-economic paradigm is build on consumption & exploitation, it became necessary
    to mold the individual into a congruent & compliant consumer or the infamous cannon fodder.
    Trying to manipulate, influence or control the behavior of the people is now common practice and the
    favored ‘game’ of the media. From science & ‘education’ to political propaganda, from internet memes to
    multisensory marketing & promotions everybody is ‘hooked’ on this infantile & treacherous ‘game’ with
    the social-emotions of oneself & others.
    With an immature Self, an ‘intelligence’ stripped of its social-emotional constituent and
    an ‘arrested development’ of sapiens nobody is ‘in charge’ anymore.
    Our Self casts a shadow on the uncensored feelings triggering the uncontrolled emotions
    on which we blindly act upon.
    Thank you again

    1. Yes, yes, and yes! Thank you for adding this deeper dimension to the discussion of the Shadow and the Self. The dark side is, indeed, as real and alive and essential to everyone’s nature as is the light side. And our unconscious, and the collective unconscious of humanity which we all share, contains both. Moreover, we’re all driven by unconscious motivations which we fail to notice because we don’t take the emotions of our inner lives seriously. If we can’t see them, and if no one else can see them, then we believe they’re unimportant. And so we neglect the parts of us that must be consciously integrated into our awareness if we are ever to rise above unconscious conformity and into individual authenticity and integrity.
      But it’s the Ego, the center of consciousness, that’s doing all this ignoring and denying of the reality of the unconscious. Like Jung, I see the Self (with a capital S) as the autonomous, unconscious core and circumference of the personality. As such it is not the same as the small Ego self which thinks it runs the show, while ignoring all the archetypal forces that comprise the Big Self. It’s only when the Ego self can acknowledge the Shadow within that it can step aside and stop trying to ‘be in charge’ and have its way, including revenge, etc. Seeing one’s own shadow instead of trying to project it onto everyone ‘out there’ creates great suffering and humbles the ego enough that it can see that it’s not in charge at all. Only this suffering and humility have the power to tame the Ego and allow the authentic, sacred Self to manifest the integrity and love that is its true essence.
      Thank you for writing and elaborating on this important reality. It’s crucial that we acquire greater psychological understanding and awareness before we do ourselves in!!

      1. ” . . . we’re all driven by unconscious motivations which we fail to notice because we don’t take the emotions of our inner lives seriously.”
        I agree, learning to recognize unconscious motivations (and blind spots) in our personal interactions with others is important.
        And yet, this is only part of a much larger story. None of us exists in an emotional vacuum. In a connected world, there are other realities and greater truths to consider, truths beyond our own (emotional) worlds and needs. Other people’s feelings and realities are as important to them as ours are to us. Our attention and focus are guided and/or limited by what we value and are willing to see.
        Most of us are dreaming a dream shaped by our ‘worldly’ conditioning and the lies we’ve been told. Lies that form the basis of our spiritual and political communities,friendships, lives and thinking. Lies that bring comfort, pleasure, status and a sense of belonging to some, death and suffering to others. These are the lies that shape our unconscious responses. Those of us drawn to (Jung-influenced) psycho-spiritual exploration are not immune. None of us can teach or recognize what we don’t know, though our ability to expound and draw upon theory or technique may have us believing otherwise.
        Truth is the (metaphoric) sword that divides and disturbs. It makes us less certain about everything, centered only in our humblest pursuit of it. Truth breaks us open and makes us smaller, also more compassionate and forgiving, as we begin to see and recognize pieces of ourselves and our former resistance in everyone. This has been my experience. I’m still learning.
        “The hero of my tale, whom I love with all the power of my soul, whom I have tried to portray in all his beauty, who has been, is, and will be beautiful, is Truth.” ~ Leo Tolstoy

  7. It was lovely to re-read this Jeanie, as fresh today as it was then while at the same time making me re-look at when my voice is to be used or not. The person in question never remembers his awful behaviour the day after the night before – never. He would deny it even if it there were witnesses. Much as I would love to voice this to his wife who is very close to me about this particular fairly recent personal encounter, I just simply cannot. She knows about his behaviour when he’s under the influence and does not engage with him when he’s ‘out of it’. I have told one or two – it was necessary for clarity for me. It helped talking about it.

    1. I did the same thing with my situation. Talking about it openly and honestly with a few trusted friends helped me put it all in perspective and put the whole issue to bed. I’m very glad now that I never confronted the person in question. I think that in this case I was caught up in shadow issues that made her ‘betrayal’ seem a lot worse than it really was. 🙂

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Recent Posts