Shedding Some Light on the Shadow Side of Life

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The human psyche has a darker side and, like Peter Pan, we would do well not to lose connection with that shadow. In order to be a better person, we need to acknowledge and ‘own’ those unconscious, repressed parts of self.

It seems there’s always been a fascination with life’s darker side. Perhaps that’s because although we like to think of ourselves as civil, enlightened, and socially evolved, we’re always confronted with the reality of our seemingly endless capability to do horrendous things to one another. And over the years, many philosophers, creative writers, and psychological thinkers have proposed some unique ways of looking at, attempting to understand, and reconciling with the ‘shadow’ side of the human psyche.

In the 1930s there was a radio program based on the popular detective magazine character, The Shadow. The program announcer’s intriguing introductory lines: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” soon became hauntingly well-known. The premise of both the magazine and the radio program was that only someone with an intimate understanding of the darker side of human existence, and who could also blend in with the unsavory elements among us, could effectively expose evildoers and ultimately bring them to justice.

The eminent analyst Carl Jung conceptualized the ‘shadow’ as that part of the unconscious mind whose content has been the most deeply repressed. And he warned that unless a person allows into conscious awareness the most unseemly aspects of self, it’s really not possible to take ownership of and exercise responsible control over our baser instincts. As was subtly suggested in Peter Pan’s character, it can be pretty disastrous when a person becomes separated from his or her shadow. A shadow free to roam on its own is capable of all kinds of mischief. So it behooves us to remain connected to our shadow. But maintaining intimate contact with our darker side is not as simple as attaching it to our bodies with needle and thread as the fantasy tale suggested. It’s a particularly daunting task to acknowledge the shadow, to incorporate it, and to discipline it in order to be a better person.

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I once visited the office of a therapist friend and noticed that on the back of the door to her private reading room was a cartoon in which an analyst says to a patient lying on a couch: “I think you mistake me for a person who gives a crap!” While some might view this as an indication of this therapist’s insensitivity, it was, in fact a way for her to provide for both herself and her clients a safe venting channel for the emotional toll of dealing with people’s problems all day long. And a therapist who is not careful to both ‘own’ and reckon with their natural feelings, and instead only represses them, is much more likely to let unconscious ill feelings slip out in subtle ways and be ‘transferred’ to the client, resulting in less than compassionate care.

As big a fan as I am of Jung, it’s also important to remember that his thoughts on the shadow are mostly applicable to those among us who at least to some degree are best described as “neurotic.” In my book, Character Disturbance, I draw a distinction between basically decent people who do bad things because, as Jung suggests, they never really reckon with the baser side of their inner inclinations and so their shadow eventually gets the better of them, and those problematic characters who are well aware of their dark side and untoward intentions, yet have absolutely no compunctions about acting on them. And, unfortunately, there are increasing numbers among us who are not the least bit unnerved by their darker sides and make no attempt, at either a conscious or unconscious level, to hide these aspects from themselves. They might consciously try to conceal such things from others, but that’s primarily for the purpose of manipulation and/or exploitation. So, unlike neurotics who tend to disown or disavow their shadow, they’re already too much at peace with the darker elements of their makeup.

There’s a great old song written by Al Jolson, Dave Dreyer, and Billy Rose that in part goes:

Me and my shadow, strolling down the avenue
Just me and my shadow, all alone and feelin’ blue.

The song is meant to convey how all alone a person can feel when they are full of feelings but have no one special with whom to share them. But some of the worst loneliness in life can often come as a result of a person being so out of touch with their dark side that they unconsciously and inadvertently hurt others and drive them away. That’s why it behooves us to guard against banishing our shadow and to embrace it as a potential best friend.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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