Denial is entrenched because the shadow does not want to come out of its hiding place. Its nature is to hide, to remain outside of awareness. So, the shadow acts out indirectly, concealed in a sour mood or a sarcastic remark or a hostile act. Or it sneaks out compulsively, camouflaged in an addictive, self-destructive behavior, such as emotional eating. Or in a projection onto the Other, demonizing the trait that is lying hidden within – he’s so weak, they’re so lazy, she’s so slutty.
Therefore, we need to learn how to catch a glimpse of it when it appears. We need to sharpen our senses to be awake enough when it erupts – identifying the repetitive thoughts, feelings, and sensations that accompany each shadow.
Then we can learn to romance it, coaxe it out, seduce it into awareness – and make a conscious relationship with it. Like a coy lover, it will recede once more behind the curtain. And again, with patience, we can invite it out to dance. This slow process of bringing the shadow to consciousness, forgetting, and recognizing it again is the nature of shadow-work.
Romancing the shadow is subversive: The culture teaches us to be extroverted, quick, ambitious, productive. Workaholism is lauded; contemplation is shunned. But shadow-work is slow, cautious; it moves like an animal in the night. It moves us against the collective mandate to think positively, be productive, focus outwardly, and protect our image.
The shadow is a demanding task master: it requires endless patience, keen instinct, fine discrimination, the compassion of a Buddha. It requires one eye turned out toward the world of light, the other eye turned in toward the world of darkness.
To live with shadow awareness is to turn away from the peaks toward the valleys, away from the heights and the rarified air, toward the depths and the dark and the dense. It is to turn toward the unpleasant thoughts, hidden fantasies, marginal feelings that are taboo – our secret lust, greed, envy, rage. To live with shadow awareness is to move our eyes from up to down, to relinquish the clarity of blue-sky thinking for the uncertain murkiness of a foggy morning.
As psychotherapists we have helped hundreds of clients catch a glimpse of their elusive shadows. Seeing it — meeting the shadow — is the important first step. Learning to live with it — romancing the shadow — is a life-long challenge.
But the rewards are profound: Shadow-work enables us to alter our self-sabotaging behavior, so that we can achieve a more self-directed life. It expands our awareness to include a wider range of who we are, so that we can attain more complete self-knowledge and eventually feel more genuine self-acceptance. It permits us to defuse the negative emotions that taint our loving relationships, so that we can create a more authentic intimacy. It shows us how to reclaim our projections onto the Other and open our hearts to more compassion. And it opens the storehouse of creativity in which our talents remain hidden and out of reach – our lost creative dreams, our sacrificed gifts. In each of these ways, shadow-work permits us to find gold in the dark side.
We offer the fundamental skills of shadow-work that are needed to move from meeting the shadow to romancing the shadow as a way of life. Romancing the shadow means reading the messages encoded in the events of our daily lives in such a way that we gain consciousness, substance, soul. Romancing the shadow means meeting the shadow for a private rendezvous; eventually, it means taking it seriously enough to learn to embrace it in a long-term relationship.
Of course, some people find this shift distasteful, even abhorrent. Why not simply behave properly, they ask, shape our attitudes, cut and trim our feelings so that they fit moral, ethical, god-given outlines? Then white is white and black is black, and the struggle with grays can end.
The mind is dangerous, they say, like a tiger in a cage. Open the door and it will think cruel, inhuman thoughts. The body is wild, they say, like some unruly beast. Let it run loose and it will do terrible, perverted, aggressive things.
These people believe that we need more protection from the lures of the shadow — stricter morals, higher fences. They wish to bring back old fundamentalisms to shield us against forbidden feelings, ambiguous choices. They seek to widen the split between good and evil, between Jesus and his dark brother Satan, between the followers of Allah and the heathens, between the members of their religious cult and the rest of fallen humanity. Longing to remain on god’s side, they refuse to engage the darkness in their own souls.
But this deep-seated denial of shadow, this pervasive resistance to looking in its eye, is accompanied by a strange obsession with it. Just as we turn away from the gloomy facts of life, we also turn toward them again in curiosity, compelled in some strange way to try to understand the dark side of our nature. Millions of people read terrifying Gothic novels with great appetite, compelled to visit a domain of cruelty, lust, perversion, and crime. Or we sit for hours transfixed by films about cold, vengeful, bloody behavior that, in the outside world, would be deemed inhuman. The conventions of Gothic horror even shape our daily newspaper reporting and broadcast news programs, which tell front-page tales of hero-villains that lead double lives. The shadow is both dangerous and familiar, repulsive and attractive, grotesque and alluring.
In truth, we can no longer afford these extreme attitudes toward the shadow: we cannot afford to look away from the beast in denial, pretending that a naive, trusting stance will protect us from it “out there.” And we cannot afford to look too directly at the beast for too long, for we risk numbing our own souls. Instead, we need to cultivate an attitude of respect toward the shadow, to see it honestly without dismissing it or becoming overwhelmed by it.
In this way an encounter with the shadow might become an initiation, a call to remember the multi-faceted complexity of human nature and the fertile depths of the human soul. We need to start by acknowledging the dark side — but we do not end there. An encounter with the shadow might lead to debate about pressing social questions and even bring about change in social policy. For example, a wave of police shootings based on racial prejudice might enhance efforts toward racial reconciliation. Or a series of allegations of pedophilia among the clergy might result in a deeper examination of the role of celibacy in the lives of religious people. Or, a personal experience of the devastating effects of climate change –hurricanes, desertification, food and water shortages, mass migrations — might lead a CEO or a farmer or even a politician to question his own denial.
I suggest that for most people — that is, those without serious psychological problems — greater shadow awareness can lead to greater morality. In fact, Carl Jung, who coined the term “shadow,” posed it as a moral problem. He suggested that we need a reorientation or fundamental change of attitude, a metanoia, to look it squarely in the eyes, that is, our own eyes.