Carl Jung was the first psychiatrist to propose the theory that our minds are split into two very different archetypes: the persona and the shadow self.
The persona is derived from a Latin word that means ‘mask’ and it means the person we present to the world, the person we want the world to think we are. The persona is rooted in our conscious mind and it represents all the different images we submit to society. The shadow self is a completely different beast.
In fact, we are not even aware of it. As we grow up we quickly learn that certain emotions, characteristics, feelings and traits are frowned upon by society and as such we repress them for fear of negative feedback. Over time, these repressed feelings become our shadow self and are so deeply buried that we have no notion of its existence.
How the shadow self is born
Jung believed that we are all born as a blank canvas, but life and experiences start the color this canvas. We are born as complete and whole individuals.
We learn from our parents and people around us that some things are good and others are evil. It is at this point that our archetypes begin to separate into the persona and the shadow self. We learn what is acceptable in society (persona) and bury what is deemed not to be (shadow). But this does not mean they have vanished:
“But these instincts have not disappeared. They have merely lost their contact with our consciousness and are thus forced to assert themselves in an indirect fashion.” Carl Jung
These buried feelings can lead to many physical symptoms in the form of speech impediments, mood swings, accidents, neurosis, and also mental health problems.
Typically, a person will compartmentalize a shadow self so that they do not have to confront it. But these feelings will keep building and building and if nothing is done, they can eventually burst through a person’s psyche with devastating results.
Shadow self and society
However, what is acceptable in one society is quite arbitrary as cultures differ vastly around the world. So what Americans might deem as good manners by making strong eye contact would be seen as rude and arrogant in many Eastern countries such as Japan.
Likewise, in the Middle East, burping after your meal is a sign to your host that you have greatly enjoyed the meal they prepared for you. In Europe, this is seen as particularly offensive.
It is not just society that affects our shadow self, however. How many times in spiritual teaching have you heard the expression of ‘reaching for the light’ or ‘letting the light into your life’? Light reflects emotions such as love, peace, honesty, virtues, compassion and joy. But human beings are not just made up of these lighter elements, we all have a darker side and to ignore it is unhealthy.
Instead of ignoring our darker sides, or our shadow self shall we say, if we embrace it, we can understand it. Then, we can learn how, if need be, we can control and integrate it.
“The shadow, when it is realized, is the source of renewal; the new and productive impulse cannot come from established values of the ego. When there is an impasse, and sterile time in our lives—despite an adequate ego development—we must look to the dark, hitherto unacceptable side which has been at our conscious disposal.” (Connie Zweig)
What happens when we embrace our darkness
As many people say, you cannot have the light without the dark, and you cannot appreciate the dark without the light. So really, it is not a case of burying the dark and negative emotions but accepting them.
We all have a light and a dark side, just as we have a right and a left hand, we would not think to only use our right hands and leave our left hands hanging useless. So why would we dismiss our dark sides out of hand?
Interestingly enough, in many cultures, particularly Muslim and Hindu, the left hand is considered to be unclean, as the left is thought to be associated with the dark side. In fact, the word sinister comes from a Latin word that means ‘on the left side or unlucky’.