Own Your Shadows Series (Part 2): Keeping the Balance

As we mosey on over into part 2 of our shadow series, it’s time to chat about the importance of balancing our light and dark sides. At the end of the last post, we had begun talking about how there can be no light without this inevitable darkness. Referring back to the seesaw metaphor, if we do not find the equilibrium point in our psyche, then our shadow self will ultimately come out; and as we have talked about; it can be quite destructive.

According to Robert A. Johnson, author of Owning Your Own Shadows, our shadows will claim their due in some form or other. If we do not acknowledge our darker aspects, it can result in shadow projection. Shadow projection occurs when we put all of our focus on the “right” side; the side full of our inherently “good” attributes and our positive creativity. If neglected or dismissed, out shadow will project itself out and make itself be seen and heard.

There is a reason why we hear of so many stories where artists, actors and many creatives who have odd, outlandish behavior or who are known for their “insane” antics. We also find ourselves so often not surprised to hear when it is revealed that these creative people suffer from severe mental illnesses. Because of this, we all have to be aware of how our creativity is used as well as acknowledge the inevitable darkness that comes with our gifts.

Johnson states, “To make a work of art, to say something kind, to help others, to beautify the house, to protect the family-all these acts will have an equal weight on the opposite scale and can lead us to sin.”

Now, this doesn’t mean that because this acknowledgement must be made to our darker selves by not allowing our creativity to come forth or to stop expressing ourselves fully. It merely shows how important to be conscious of this dynamic and make small contributions to compensate. For example, Dr. Marie-Louise van Franz, a Swiss Jungian psychologist, and Barbara Hanna who is also known for her association with Carl Jung (a Swiss psychologist who specialized in Shadow Work) lived together in Switzerland in the mid 40s. One of their customs while living together was if one of them came into some good fortune, the other would take the garbage out for the next week. This act might seem at first glance very small and insignificant, but symbolically, it’s a powerful act of honoring the shadow. They were physically playing out the shadow side to something positive that happened.

Carl Jung would say when greeting a friend, “Had any terrible successes lately?” And he would say this because he was aware how closely interlinked light is with darkness.

Johnson gives a prime example on how the shadow self can escape from us if we don’t do something to honor it. Johnson had a weekend where he had to put up with some difficult guests who ended up staying days beyond their welcome. He practiced great patience and courtesy however and when they finally left he felt a sense of relief. Believing he deserved something nice for his good virtue, he went to the nursery to get something nice for his garden. But he actually picked a fight with the nurseryman and made “a miserable spectacle” of himself. Since Johnson never conciously picked up and observed his shadow side, it came out and landed in full force on a stranger.

“Balance was served, but in a clumsy and stupid way.”

Projection of that shadow on something or someone else is the way the shadow will make itself heard if ignored for too long. We throw it up on somebody else so that we don’t have to take responsibility for it. This is how societies begin subconciously creating or finding a scapegoat for that shadow.

“Men lay their shadow upon women, whites upon blacks, Catholics upon Protestants, capitalists upon communists, Muslims upon Hindus.”

There are countless stories throughout history where a society chooses this scapegoat to bear the shadows of everyone else. One example is in old India, a community would choose a man to be the “bogey.” He’d be killed at the end of the year and as he died, so would all the evil deeds of the community. But if chosen as the bogey, the man would be revered and feared by the rest of the community. This is where the legend of the “bogey man” comes from.

“The bogey man will come to get you if you’re not good!”

But Johnson says the worst projections we can do is upon our own children. When parents project their shadows on their children, the kids will not only bear society’s burden we all grow up having, but those of their parents as well. And as they grow up, it becomes harder to shake off because they have an even larger shadow to cope with. How does this affect the child then? Projection onto a child can linger with them throughout their adulthood when a parent may not live up to their own full potential. Then many children end up feeling pressured to live 2 lives-their own and that of the unlived life of their parent. Johnson says this is one of the reasons it is so important to keep our own shadows in check.

This also highlights that the high creative force of our society can only be maintained by recognizing this darkness in an intelligent and focused way. We are now dealing with an entire society that has only ever worshipped its light side and shoved the dark down. Johnson says that this kind of cultural suppression leads to devastating behavior and decimating actions.

“The residue appears as war, economic chaos, strikes, racial intolerance. The front page of any newspaper hurls the collective shadow at us. We must be whole whether we like it or not. The only choice is whether we will incorporate shadow consciously and with some dignity or do it through some neurotic behavior.”

So I’m sure your big question is how can we be freely and abundantly creative without wreaking the same amount of havoc? We can acknowledge this part of us and still be our best selves, remain kind, and keep pouring out creative energy by ritually honoring our shadow. What does that mean? That to do this doesn’t have to be paid out by a “real” act. But it stills allow us to keep up with this necessary balance!

For instance, if Johnson had done his shadow work after his difficult guests left, it wouldn’t have forced its way out on that poor nurseryman. A 5 minute ritual, meditation, or journaling with intent would suffice. Just because it is necessary to be as dark as we are light doesn’t mean we don’t have control over how we pay that darkness. Because even just a few minutes of actively recognizing that part within yourself right after doing something creative will restore your balance. And if you do this privately, you are better enabling yourself from not affecting anyone around you while doing so.

Johnson also suggests some other ways to respect your shadow. He says you could write a cloak-and-dagger short story since character creation isn’t hard to come up with since your shadow self is now in full effect–so you’re able to tap into that energy easily. Personally, I will occasionally write some darker/more depressing poetry from time to time. Active imagination is also a great way to counter your shadow. Basically, Active Imagination is a meditative dialogue between the Ego and a personified aspect from the unconscious (dream character, dream object, personified emotion or mood, etc.)

Here’s an active imagination exercise I do when I work with my shadow self.

Converse With Your Shadow Selves Exercise:

Find a comfortable spot and take some deep breaths. Now imagine you are walking down a long corridor and at the end of the hallway there is a door that leads to the place where your shadows reside. Once you’re at the door; at least the first few times you do this to help get over the fear of confronting your shadows; imagine you have an invisibility cloak and slip that over yourself before you open the door and walk into the room. This room can look like anything you’d like but I usually picture it as a upscale bar and lounge with velvet seating and dim lighting. (In my mind, this makes sense for me to think my shadows would hang out here “after work” or something.) Once inside, since they can’t see you due to the invisibility cloak, you can just sit and observe your shadows in a personified manner. In my mind, they look like regular people with their own unique appearances and personalities. Observe how interact with one another, how they are individually, the types of things they might discuss. This helps you view indiscreetly and start to see them as just other parts of you rather than something to be afraid of. Once you’ve done this a few times ot get used to it, you can rid yourself of the invisibility cloak and begin to interact with one or more of your shadows.

Try to encounter these figure with all your senses–seeing, hearing, feeling, even smelling and tasting, if that is possible. Allow the sensations to impact your body. Now, note the places in your body that are responding. What memories or emotions are stirring? Like a camera, zoom in and experience your companion in close proximity. Feel the energy. Feel your emotions. Now, you can start imagining yourself actually having a conversation with them.

Questions you might ask them:

What is your name? Who are you and what is your purpose?

What do you like about who you are and what you do?

What do you dislike about who you are and what you do?

What do you hate or fear the most? What do you desire or want the most?

Why are you here? What do you want of me? What do you want to teach me?

What gifts can we give to one another?

The last time I did this exercise myself, I had a conversation with my personified Guilt. In my mind, he was kind of a grungy-looking chap with a cigarette in-between his lips who was more quiet around the others but easy to rile up on his own. He told me his name was Jerome and we discussed why he was popping up for me and what it was he was still feeling guilty about-which was mostly a lot of self-placed guilt that has lingered on from over the years over various situations. By the end of the conversation, we came to a mutual understanding to instead of ignoring each other, to feel when those guilty feelings spring up and try to work through them in a productive manner. You continue with the conversation for as long as you’d like. You can do this with any/all of your shadow selves to get better acquainted with them and acknowledge them as part of what makes up you. This helps keep them from forcing their way out in destructive ways.

Here is another exercise you can try–taken directly from “A Complete Guide to the Shadow” by Scott Jeffrey

Watch Your Emotional Reactions Exercise:

Remember that the shadow is elusive; it hides behind us. Our defense mechanisms are designed to keep our shadows repressed and out of view. The more you pay attention to your behavior and emotions, the better chances you have of catching your shadow in the act.

One of the best ways to identify your shadow is to pay attention to your emotional reactions toward other people. Sure, your colleagues might be aggressive, arrogant, inconsiderate, or impatient, but if you don’t have those same qualities within you, you won’t have a strong reaction to their behavior. If you’re paying close attention, you can train yourself to notice your shadow when you witness strong negative emotional responses to others.

As Jung is often quoted saying, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.

At the end of the day, it’s helpful to take five or ten minutes to reflect on your interactions with others and your related reactions. Whatever bothers you in another is likely a disowned part within yourself. Get to know that part, accept it, make it a part of you, and next time, it may not evoke a strong emotional charge when you observe it in another. Focus on what and who evokes an emotional charge in you. It doesn’t matter what the emotion is; it’s a clue you are denying something within you.

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