“In front of most scenes and our experience of them, light is divided into spatial zones of sureness and doubt. Vision advances from light to light, like a figure walking on stepping stones.” John Berger
What’s in the dark is unknown, unseen, and we tend to avoid it. We don’t know what to expect, where the dangers lurk, and feel safer in the light. We could think of light as a metaphor for consciousness itself. We shine our light where we direct conscious attention. Where we don’t look stays in shadow. One of the most powerful images in psychoanalysis is the image of the shadow, referring to parts of ourselves that we don’t want to see, pain and fear we don’t acknowledge. Jung used the shadow as an image for the repressed contents of the psyche, what we find unacceptable about ourselves or in our memories that is kept from the light of consciousness, but still operates unconsciously, invisible to waking life unless conscious efforts are made to retrieve them. Leaving them in darkness allows them to influence behavior and use up psychic energy repeating old patterns and keeping the banished elements out of awareness. The psychological terms externalization and displacement refer how we try to deflect the shadow elements by attaching them to outside patterns that bear shared features. An unresolved issue from the past, hidden in the shadows, will find ways to resurface, triggered by an even minor correspondence to the original pattern but carrying all the emotional baggage of the original pattern. Recognizing the pattern frees the mind from underlying conflict. When I realized that the majority of arguments I had with my husband for the first ten years of our marriage were really arguments with my father, they stopped. He would trigger one aspect of an old theme and I would jump on it as though the rest of the pattern were true. When I finally saw that my husband didn’t share the attitudes and positions of my father and that I was using him to fight old battles, I became aware of an unconscious issue that was getting in my way. Once conscious, the pattern became knowledge.
Projection calls out feelings and traits of our own in other people- positive and negative- and can be seen on a conscious level as the mind trying to recognize itself. This makes it a tool for personal insight. If you look at the things you criticize and admire in others as reflecting yourself, you gain the kind of self-understanding that can help you utilize your full being.
Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer did a fascinating study that showed that one reason people can’t change things about themselves they didn’t like was because the trait had a flip side they valued. The shy quality is also a reflective quality that takes in more of a situation than a more quickly reactive person. A person with a bad temper has a passionate nature that if not displaced or misdirected can be tapped for personal accomplishment. What could be thought of as stubborn on one side could be sticking to principles on the other. This is not an argument for the negative excesses of a trait but for recognition of its full scope so it can be integrated and utilized rather than fought. If all of the elements in the shadow can be woven into our personality, we extend our depth and understanding.
The cultural predisposition to criticism and denunciation creates barriers to accepting
patterns from the shadow that would enhance our self-awareness and understanding of others. If we view what we criticize and denounce, what we fight or lash out at, as valuable information from our shadow, we free psychic energy to use the capacities they were holding back. As Daniel Goleman writes in his book “Emotional Intelligence”, “emotional aptitude is a meta-ability determining how well we can use whatever other skills we have.” Every emotional block that keeps part of our being in darkness interferes with the clarity of our intelligence. Our shadow contains information that when brought into the light enlarges our picture of ourselves and our world.