Unfortunately, there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it…But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected. (The Wisdom of Carl Jung, p. 60.)
If the repressed tendencies, the shadow as I call them, were obviously evil, there would be no problem whatever. But the shadow is merely somewhat inferior, primitive, unadapted, and awkward; not wholly bad. It even contains childish or primitive qualities which would, in a way, vitalize and embellish human existence, but—convention forbids. (The Wisdom of Carl Jung, p. 60.)
Most people I follow on social media are interested in psychology, especially Jungian psychology. One particularly hot topic in this time of political divisiveness in which hostility and bitterness approach epidemic levels, is the shadow. Our shadows create conflicts within and without. I long for peace, kindness, and harmony. I want to know how I contribute to the disturbing spirit of our time. I want to correct the aspects of my shadow that wound and cause distress. People like me want the same. In that spirit I offer four tips on how to work with your shadow.
1. Learn about your personality type. Taking the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator (MBTI) assessment at the age of 38 was a life-changer for me. Not only did it help me understand and accept my tendencies to think and act in certain ways, it also made me more aware of my shadow. Jung said the shadow is:
“…a personality component usually with a negative sign. This ‘inferior’ personality is made up of everything that will not fit in with, and adapt to, the laws and regulations of conscious life. … [T]here is at least one function in it which ought to collaborate in orienting consciousness. Or rather, this function does collaborate, not for the benefit of conscious, purposive intentions, but in the interests of unconscious tendencies pursuing a different goal. It is this…’inferior’ function which acts autonomously towards consciousness and cannot be harnessed to the latter’s intentions.” (Jung, 1969, Psychology and Religion: West and East).
The MBTI says I’m an INFJ. Here’s how one website describes the strengths of this type, sometimes called the Mentor, sometimes The Counselor: “INFJs are creative nurturers with a strong sense of personal integrity and a drive to help others realize their potential. Creative and dedicated, they have a talent for helping others with original solutions to their personal challenges.”
As an INFJ, my conscious cognitive functions are opposed by a strong unconscious function called extraverted intuition. This inferior function manifests in defensiveness, anger, or stubbornness when people don’t see things my way. A second inferior function is called introverted feeling. This causes me to doubt and suppress my true feelings and criticize myself for perceived mishaps. My awareness of these tendencies helps me recognize and correct them when they manifest in my attitudes and actions.
2. Listen to and take seriously the criticisms and complaints that people who care about you have about you. INFJs are well-intentioned, scrupulous people who want to be helpful. But I, like everyone else, have a shadow which goes against my conscious intentions. So sometimes, my desire to help backfires on me.
For example, years ago over dinner on a family vacation I thought I was being helpful by gently pointing out a manifestation of a problematic shadow I recognized in one of my loved ones. I assumed they’d be as glad to understand their shadow as I was to understand mine. But they weren’t. My fault, right? When it became obvious that I couldn’t see how I’d contributed to the ensuing conflict, my daughter leaned over and quietly murmured, “Mother, not everyone wants to understand their shadow!” That’s an insight I’ll never forget.
Another time I offered to help a family member prepare a meal in my kitchen, but my offer was rejected. When I asked why, without a touch of attitude they said calmly and frankly, “Because you’re bossy.” What I saw as being helpful, they saw as intrusive and perhaps even implicitly critical of their efforts. Could’ve knocked me over with a feather! At one time I would have been deeply hurt and offended by comments like these which I would have considered completely unfair. Now I let them go because I see them as constructive criticism I would do well to learn from.
3. List five negative qualities of someone you have a problem with and/or actively dislike. Try it now, but don’t read the rest of this paragraph until you’re done. Finished? Okay. Here’s the lesson: the qualities you dislike in others are aspects of your own shadow. Truly. I found this shocking and deeply embarrassing the first time I tried it, but with some effort I’ve come to see the truth of it. My daughter was right. No one really wants to acknowledge their shadow. This makes perfect sense when you realize that you began to create your shadow as a child by disowning every attitude, thought, emotion, and personal quality you did not like or want to have.
4. Try the same exercise with the people and creatures in your dreams that you fear or dislike. Then ask yourself what part of you is like each of those qualities. Your answers will surprise you. But they’ll also help you grow in self-awareness and balance, and that’s an immensely satisfying reward for doing the difficult work of owning your shadow.
How do you work with your shadow? How has accepting your shadow led to a more fulfilling life?
Image credit: Pinterest, www.themindsjournal.com
Paper and E-book versions of The Bridge to Wholeness and Dream Theatres of the Soul are at Amazon. The Wilbur Award-winning Healing the Sacred Divide can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications.com. Jean’s new Nautilus Award-winning The Soul’s Twins, is at Amazon and Schiffer’s Red Feather Mind, Body, Spirit. Subscribe to her newsletter at www.jeanbenedictraffa.com.