Me and My Shadow: A Look at our ‘Other’ Selves

The ancient Greeks had a word for it: pharmakon. It meant “healing poison” and carried the startling idea that the personalities humans find repulsive or even harmful might actually carry the seeds of their own healing.

Many are familiar with this idea from fairy tales. So often it is the ugly toad who becomes the handsome prince or the loathsome damsel who provides assistance or even wisdom. Psychologically, one might hear this as referring to aspects of himself that seem—from a habitual point of view—objectionable or even shameful, but in reality, need loving attention to show their true worth.

Carl Jung called the aspect of finding life and renewal in the very places one is least likely to look the “shadow”. Simply put, the shadow is everything about one’s self that makes one uncomfortable. Whether one considers weaknesses, vanities, irritations, or fears, the shadow holds those qualities that have not been allowed to see the light of day.

As children people grew as plants toward the sun—instinctively turning their “best” face to meet the love and approval of those around them. Those qualities that did not attract the acceptance needed to grow and thrive—or worse were ridiculed or punished—were pushed away, forgot, or buried.

If a family or community prized rationality, for example, one may have learned to play down an emotional side in order to appear more in control. Similarly, if one grew up in a family where anger or aggression was not valued, that person may have developed a calm, pleasing personality in order to get by.

Whatever the case may be, everyone has a shadow—a repressed, neglected side of ourselves waiting to be transformed and welcomed into the fullness of a personality. Most would prefer not to know about these aspects of themselves that do not fit their ideal notions of who they should be. Yet often these very parts can bring new life, creativity, or even healing to our souls. Our shadow sides, Jung suggested, represent our undeveloped potentialities—those parts of our personalities that are still “becoming”. These qualities take on a negative cast only because they have been so thoroughly disowned.

One of the ways in which people can catch a glimpse of their shadow selves is in our dreams. As Jung believed, the dreaming mind is more interested in wholeness and growth than in maintaining a self image. Our dreams dig up buried truths and lay them at one’s feet, forcing the person to face their unresolved contradictions and to take responsibility for neglected talents, feelings, or desires. Nightly, the dreaming mind portrays these aspects in vivid language. The shadow appears in dreams disguised as the characters and situations a person most most fears and despises.

When a person wakes from a dream with a feeling of disgust or a desire to forget the whole thing, it is worth remembering that the dreaded image might actually be a pharmakon—a healing poison inviting the person into a broader view of who they are. The image seems offensive or scary precisely because it is foreign. Humans have come to believe that acknowledging a shadow quality will cost them the love and acceptance of those around them. Even more frightening, perhaps, is the sense of shame or self-loathing that such attributes can cause one to feel about himself.

Yet there is true wisdom in these lost sides of personalities. In this culture, for example, many women believe that being selfish is a bad thing. Instead, they strive to be compassionate and loving in their relationships. Often they give so much that there is little left for themselves. The appearance of a seemingly selfish or self-centered character in their dreams can actually be a prescription for positive change. A little self-care may be exactly what is needed. What appears as an ugly toad—a shadow trait--may be revealed as a handsome prince or princess when allowed to show its real value.

Another manner in which one may encounter the shadow side is through projection. Because the shadow traits have been rejected and pushed away by the conscious personality, they often carry a feeling of “other.” People are more likely to recognize these alien qualities in someone else. When one encounters individuals who live out something of these unacknowledged qualities, one may find oneself overly reactive.
If one finds onerselves intensely irritated, angered, repulsed or even envious of another it might be worthwhile to pause and ask how that person might be carrying something of one’s own neglected self.

In “eating our own shadow”, as poet Robert Bly phrased it, we expand and enrich our notions of who we are. We may also find ourselves humbled by our own flawed humanity as well as that of those around us.

It takes a great deal of courage to meet one’s own shadow—to drink the cup of pharmakon that might allow healing and wholeness in our lives. Work on one’s shadow material can offer more genuine self-acceptance, based on a more complete awareness of who a person is. It can allow a person to feel more free of the guilt and shame usually linked to negative feelings and actions.

Finally, shadow work can offer people the opportunity to feel more authentic—releasing us from the burden of what W. Brugh Joy calls our “New Years’ resolution self” to explore untapped areas of vitality, creativity, and self-expression.

Barbara Platek is a Jungian psychotherapist who has an office in Ithaca. She specializes in work with the shadow.

© 2006 • Barbara Platek, Jungian Psychotherapist • 119 East Buffalo St, Ithaca, NY, 14850 • (607) 273-4610