In the modern era, psychologist Carl Jung popularized the concept that all human beings harbor “shadow selves”, parts of ourselves that contain impulses, thoughts, actions and emotions that we label as “bad,” destructive, unsavory, even humiliating. Archetypal psychologists reference sources from our Greek mythology to our cultural unconscious to highlight ways our “dark sides” inform our lives and the lenses through which we see the world. Most of us, though, are, at best, embarrassed of these shadowy selves and, at worst, terrified of what they mean about who we are. Even in the therapy room, both client and counselor focus on helping the client leave behind pathology, pain and bad habits. We encourage forward movement, an embracing of health, positive choices and productive insight. But much can be learned by studying, even welcoming, our shadows and the rich material that accompanies their energy.
THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL
What would summer be without winter as its counterpoint? How would we understand love and compassion without knowing callousness, fear and hatred? What we call “darkness” is a part of the continuum of human experience, and those shadows have as much to teach us as the lighter spots marked with joy, peace and freedom. Jealousy, for example, is a soul-cringing, corrosive feeling, a poison that curdles our stomachs all the while it is churning our hearts and minds into terrifying fantasies. And yet jealousy’s presence also indicates a desire to be connected to another, to be known and safe and important to our beloved, the craving for consistency and certainty in our affairs of the heart. Certainly, we know there are no guarantees in life, much less relationships. But stopping to consider what these gut-grabbing emotions signal to us can bring us to a deeper ability to experience our humanness. It’s our nature to avoid pain: touching a hot stove ONCE is enough for most of us, thank you. But perhaps not fleeing in the opposite direction every time we feel pain, shame, co-dependence or rage may be our best medicine. Accepting, even daring to embrace, the darkness within us brings us wisdom of a kind we can uncover in no other way. Our darkness will never fade. Better we learn, grow and deepen from it than continue to curse it. By acknowledging our shadows, we stretch ourselves to our true expanse — an amazing greatness graced by the poles of emotion and experience, and the knowledge of ALL that it means to be human.