The Shadow Self

I confuse myself sometimes. I long for peace and quiet, for love and compassion. Yet, there’s that part of me that’s also drawn to darkness, to morbidity, gothic stories, horror movies. I’ve noticed this more about myself since I’ve been in recovery and I’ve done intensive psychotherapy.

I’ve come to realize this is fairly normal. Most of us are a unique blend of contrasting tastes and characteristics. In each of us, we contain the capacity for pure love and also hatred. That’s what makes us human, right?

I’ve been thinking the past few days about what Carl Jung, the famous Swiss philosopher-psychologist, called “the Shadow Self.” I only have a little acquaintance of his theory. From what I understand, he means that dark side of everyone – the side that lashes out at people, that’s prone to anger and greed, or any of the other deadly sins.

In early sobriety, I wanted so badly to be good, to be a force for good. But my perfectionism drove me to this idea that I had to be saintly.

Jung advised people to face and embrace the Shadow Self. I don’t think he meant to deliberately do evil, but rather to acknowledge we all contain the seeds of badness, along with the good. I think this makes sense.

For a long time, I was repulsed by those certain parts of myself. The parts that wished harm on others or did “bad” things. Then the guilt would come on – perhaps the Catholic guilt of my upbringing.

I believe I’m an inherently good person, that I have a good heart. But I also believe it’s important to realize I have parts of myself that are the shadow side. I try to express this part of myself in my writing and creative outlets – it helps me to release it. When I got sober, I learned to not release this negative energy on others; I learned to find an outlet for it.

The nuances of life

Recognizing the Shadow Self has also, ironically, helped my spirituality and mental health. In early sobriety, I wanted so badly to be good, to be a force for good. But my perfectionism drove me to this idea that I had to be saintly.

Each time I fell short of my high moral standards, I’d chastise myself, almost like a medieval monk. I began to learn this extreme view was causing me to become self-righteous about my sobriety and judgmental of others and the way they lived. I was becoming a recovery zealot, and I was seeing the fertile seeds of fundamentalism.

I’ve learned that when I embrace my Shadow Self, then I can embrace all of me – not just the parts I like and the parts I want to show to people.

This trajectory changed when my father died. I saw that even if I willed myself to hold this high moral standard, I couldn’t wash myself totally clean. I also saw there are gray areas and nuances in life – people aren’t all bad or all good (at least most of them).

My father was a prime example of a person who, I think, had mostly good intentions, but did bad things. If I could not accept my father and his defects, then I could not accept myself. I had to make a choice.

My father had a Shadow Side, and so do I. So do all of us. Perhaps this is why iconic movies like the Star Wars franchise are so popular. Luke Skywalker, the hero, is part of the rebellion – but his father is (spoiler alert!) Darth Vader, the king of Intergalactic Darkness.

I’ve learned that when I embrace my Shadow Self, then I can embrace all of me – not just the parts I like and the parts I want to show to people.

(Photo by Isai Ramos on Unsplash)

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