Why We’re Afraid of the Dark
Have you ever walked into a room for something that you know must have been important, but come out empty handed, confused and partially insane? Ever said something unkind to someone, immediately regretting saying anything, as you pick up the debris from the massacre you just caused with your words?
There are behaviours, actions, feelings, and ideas that inhabit some of the deepest corners of ourselves. Because we often fail to see them until they blind us with discomfort and shame in the light; they make up the unconscious, unconfronted part of our mind. The part that we hope our pleasant smiles, swanky clothes, and overall contagious personality will at worst, make up for, and at best completely hide from others. That part is known to modern psychology as The Shadow.
Psychologist Carl Jung, along with many others who are less celebrated, wrote extensively on the shadow and its influence on different parts of the human being. He describes it as the “...unconscious and disowned parts of our personalities the ego fails to see, acknowledge, and accept.” This is the corner where we store the rejected, repressed and disliked parts of ourselves. Think of it like an overpopulated homeless shelter, filled with all the outlandish and unsavory parts of yourself that you, and those around you have cast out of your home. 95% of our actions and behaviours are run by the unconscious. So, the unexpected twist here is that those in the homeless shelter are secretly in control, and running this society. The president and all their council are simply an ego-induced front, but that's a story for another day.
The shadow is born in our childhood. It is a bi-product of all the interactions we have had with the people closest to us, i.e. the communities in which we were raised. Think of all the times you were chastised or punished for your behaviour as a child. Every time people around you were trying to ‘correct’ you, because they 'knew better'. All the moments you were made to feel unworthy and unacceptable by others. The painful moments when your desires, instincts, and shortcomings got you in trouble with others.
Science tells us that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transferred. So where did all those damaging experiences go if scientifically they cannot disappear? Yes, you guessed it...they are stored deep in the dark corners of your mind. Because we cannot see them, we consider them to have disappeared; you know... ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ Perhaps there is a splash of veracity in that oversold saying. Maybe, ‘out of sight, out of conscious mind.’ However, now that we know that 95% of our actions, behaviours, and ideas are directed by the unconscious; we can acknowledge with unadulterated discernment that the dark is in fact out of sight, and in control.
If not, why are we so afraid to face it?
When we feel envy, prejudice, aggression, and all the distasteful sentiments that come with the human experience in secret, with the fear of scaring off others; we feed into the darkness, and obstruct its exposure to light. Our subconscious forms out of our attempts to adapt and conform to societal norms and expectations. So in essence, the more normal you are, the darker your shadow is.
The Route of Unending Suffering: Suppression
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate."
Have you ever tried to contain a rush of flowing water with your hands? How successful were you in your attempt? Think of yourself as an unending body of water. Each droplet, a unique part that makes up your whole. In a flood, water goes in corners we didn’t even know existed.
Hiding parts of your subconscious, especially from yourself, is like trying to contain water in your hands, or stop a flood. No matter how powerful we think we are, the water will always do what it does best: flow. When it is bottled up so as to not overflow, it will burst and rupture whichever container it is suppressed in. You are the water, the container is your conscious.
One of the charms of being human is that we seem to infinitely be in the process of improvement. We turn to practices such as prayer, meditation, personal inquiry, and other healthy habits to better understand and enhance our overall human experience. The social waves of positive energy and manifestation have washed over us, and we’re more excited about aligning our chakras. This work is beneficial to our lives however, just as the day waits for the light to shine, the dark quietly lingers in anticipation for the night sky.
Often we expend large amounts of energy presenting ourselves as evolved, wholesome and aligned individuals. Over-identifying with the persona of our light and positive self, and neglecting the energy of our darkness. We quietly and forcefully confine our shadows in the corners which we hope no one will see. As we work to suppress our negative emotions and experiences, we unconsciously feed and nourish our shadow. Unlike our conscious mind, our subconscious is always awake, and will find ways to manifest the energy we work so hard to conceal. Think about it like a child who isn’t given any attention, the harder we work to drown out the sound of her crying, the louder she becomes.
One of the major ways in which our shadow secretly manifests, is in our interactions with others. How often do we recognise, criticise or feel triggered by the behaviours, actions and qualities that we see in others? That my friend, is known as Projection. This is when we chastise others for things we secretly dislike about ourselves. In relationships with others we are all simply carrying each other's triggers; trying not to say or do things that we know will rock the boat.
When we disengage from our shadow, a trigger will continue to feel like someone is shining a scorching torch light on the things we didn't even know were lying below the surface. By not taking time to look into our shadow, we create an environment for ourselves, where we become obsessed with the opinions of others as a form of validation, and we move further and further away from accepting our true self. This is the likely cause of continuous suffering in the long-run. Through suppression we’re not only extending our experience of hardship, we’re also preventing ourselves from reaching our fullest potential.
Shadow Work: Falling In Love with the Darkness
Through my experience of human interactions and relationships, I’ve learnt that for the most part; people just want to be seen, heard, and accepted. We often determine the value of a relationship on whether the other is willing to help us feel these sentiments. When conflict arises, it is usually related to the fact that one doesn’t feel seen, heard, or accepted by the other. Consider the relationship between our light and our shadow no different. When we over-identity with our light, and don’t take time to get to know our dimmer crevices; they feel unseen, unheard, and unaccepted.
In my experience, the most effective form of conflict resolution with others comes through compassion. When the other attempts to understand why we feel the way we do. Resolving the tensions we have caused through the continuous suppression of our shadow, can also come through what addictions and trauma expert, Dr. Gabor Maté calls; ‘Compassionate Inquiry.’ This is a psychotherapeutic method that reveals what lies beneath the surface by attempting to recognise, understand, and accept. This approach is completely different to how many of us are taught to self-correct through applying guilt and shame. Simply put, it is the difference between, “Why did I do this!” and “Why did I do this?” We can even take it a step further by asking, “Why did I feel I needed to do this?
Compassionate inquiry creates a paradigm where we can understand and recognise the unconscious dynamics that have run our lives up until this point. It helps us liberate ourselves from the behaviours that we have buried in the dark.
There are a series of ways in which we can integrate this into our lives. Inner-child healing, therapy that focuses on the subconscious, open and honest conversations with loved ones and so forth. The approach that is currently taking center stage in my practice is consciously showing gratitude and appreciation to the darkness. Thanking your Shadow for showing you all of the qualities that you were conditioned to dislike and suppress.
We thank our shadow because we understand that it is made up of all the things we felt we needed to do to survive: to be seen, heard, and accepted. This approach looks like is showing loving kindness to all the versions of yourself. Thanking the anger, the greed, the addictions, the self-sabotage; in the same way you would thank an Uber driver for a good ride, give them five stars, and release them to continue with their journey, while you focus on yours.
Shadow work is about getting to know this figure that hides in the corner, reassuring her/him/them that it is safe to come out and reveal itself in all of its forms. It's not about taming the beast. It's about recognising it in all of its glory. Appreciating it for its work, and simply releasing it with love and utmost respect.