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The Shadow: Facing up to disowned parts of us

“The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognising the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge” Carl Jung (1951).

Therapy is an opportunity to reflect upon the part of ourselves that we are unwilling to acknowledge as part of us, or perhaps even unaware of. It shines a light on such areas, encouraging us to honestly look at them, and therefore increased self understanding and integration is an inherently uncomfortable and challenging experience. By acknowledging and accepting aspects of your shadow you can become less harmful to yourself and others and can choose which parts you engage in. When unacknowledged they take on a life of their own and cause havoc, with you often feeling confused at why you may be behaving in a certain way, with a sense of being out of control and not understanding yourself.

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The rules do not apply – Ariel Levy

On the need to place blame when a tragedy arises, in order to keep up the pretence that we can control such things and to deny the ultimate fragility of life. We don’t want to believe that tragedies are just part of life, life is hard and nature can be cruel without explanation. We create a sense of stability around us so that we can pretend that we are in control to some extent. It is often the case that it is only when one is faced with a loss or illness that they become shocked at the amount of life admin we fill our days with to distract ourselves from what is meaningful. We so often pass up opportunities to really be with family and friends for all of these very very vital errands or work or who knows what else. But when tragedy arises and shatters these structures we are faced with the uncertainty inherent in life, as well as our own fragility and temporality, with our impending deaths being the only real certainty in life:

“When I hear that someone has LUNG CANCER, DID he smoke? comes into my head midway between the syllables can and cer. Obviously I don’t say it out loud, but I want to know, because I want to believe that if only my lived ones and I refrain from smoking, we will be ineligible for lung cancer (and, ideally, every other kind of cancer). “Have they figured out what happened yet?” people keep asking me about my own medical defeat. “Yes,” I tell them. “I had bad luck.” That is not what they want to hear. They want to hear that I had a bad obstetrician. Or that I took something you are not supposed to take, or didn’t take something that you are. They want to hear that i neglected to get an ultrasound. Or that I have some kind of rare blood disorder that can be fixed with the right medicine or surgery or iPhone app. They want to know what they have to eat to keep from being me. And since i have done something that sounds bad people – even people who really love me – persist in saying things like “Next time, you’re not getting on any planes.” It doesn’t matter if I tell them that every doctor I’ve consulted has said unequivocally that there’s nothing wrong with flying when you’re five months pregnant. They want to believe that everything happens for a reason”(p.198).

It also covers her experience of an affair and on living with an alcoholic and the importance of acceptance and working on oneself, as opposed to focusing solely on controlling the other, as well as understanding what is going on for the individual, so as to have compassion towards behaviours that may not make sense to you:

“Just for today, I will adjust myself and not try to manipulate the situation” – “I think about all the time I spent vigilant, preoccupied, trying to decipher my mother’s relationship with Marcus, Lucy’s relationship with alcohol. It had never occurred to me that both situations were whatever they were, whether i figured them out or not. And it had certainly never crossed my mind that my reaction – my suffering – was mine: something I had come up with, not something I needed to blame on anyone else. My job is to interpret, and to communicate my interpretation persuasively to other people. The idea that in life, unlike in writing, the drive to analyze and influence might be something worth relinquishing was to me a revelation” (p.188).

“She punished me by routinely getting inebriated at the worst possible times, which I hated but know i deserved. (It did not cross my mind that this might not be all about me.) You have an affair because you are not getting what you want from your loved one. You want more: more love, more sex. more attention, more fun. You want someone to look at you with lust – after years of laundry – transforming you into something radiant. You want it, you need it, you owe it to yourself to get it. To live any other way is to be muffled and gray and marching meaninglessly toward death. You want what she gave you at the start (but what you hoped would expand and intensify instead of shrinking until you find yourself so sad, so resentful, you barely stand to be you). You have an affair to get for yourself what you wish would come from the person you love the most. And then you have broken her heart and she can never give you any of it ever again.” (p.101)

“But I understood, now, her dilemma. I wanted what she had wanted, what we all want: everything. We want a mate who feels like family and a lover who is exotic, surprising. We want to be youthful adventurers and middle-aged mothers. We want intimacy and autonomy, safety and stimulation, reassurance and novelty, coziness and thrills. But we can’t have it all”. (p.90)