We banish those aspects that we hate about ourselves and that we never want to expose. If ‘shaded’ aspects nevertheless come to light, we ‘lose face’. We react with shame and fear, or go on to counter-attack by fending off the shame with anger and rage and possibly with a ‘shadow prescription‘. That means we suggest or claim that the uncoverer of our shadowy side has something to hide.
Carl Gustav Jung described as ‘shadows‘ precisely those foreign, repressed personality traits, that are projected in ressentiment onto the scapegoats. “Strange is not simply something we do not yet know, strange is something that is unknown and often scary, but which concerns us in an undeniable way. This also concerns the shadow.”1
The bright side of the personality stands for the self-image that one shows to others. C.G. Jung calls this idealized self-image, which is intended for the public, the ‘Persona‘ (Greek: ‘the mask‘). The persona protects the intimacy of the individual but also protects other people from too much intimate detail and sudden mood swings. Everything we do not (yet) accept, however, can become a shadow.
Let there be light?
“If we consider the metaphor of light and shadow, it becomes clear that it is not so easy to deal with shadow, that in any case light cannot simply become where there was a shadow, because every new light source casts a new shadow. In dealing with the shadow, it will be a matter of developing a basic acceptance of shadow, of understanding that light and dark play together.“2
We often compensate for an aspect we deny with the opposite. We create a certain persona to prove to ourselves and others that we are exactly not like that aspect we deny. So this aspect dominates our lives, everything is just about hiding it. If, for instance, in the past, we were often accused by others of being frivolous, we might go to the opposite extreme in trying to hide this tendency. We burden ourselves with too many tasks, or too much responsibility until we finally collapse under it.
When we suppress a perceived emotion, we usually also suppress its polar opposite. A shadow aspect that we have learned to accept must therefore be integrated into our lives so that no new shadows fall on our relationships. In addition, if we want to confront one of our shady sides, we should, first of all, realize and connect with our strengths.
“It is also about leaving behind a part of us that does not need this shadow confrontation. In other words, it is a matter of […] taking precautions so that we do not remain forever in the shadow realm.”3
Recognizing one’s own shadows
But how do we recognize that we reject a certain aspect of ourselves? If a particular trait of others provokes strong emotional reactions in us, we can assume that we reject this trait in ourselves as well. When we consciously find ourselves in a situation where we are acting out a shadow aspect, compassion for this aspect of ourselves can cause us, not to repress this aspect of ourselves, but to accept it without evaluation.
Often an aspect of ourselves that we cannot accept causes us problems because it breaks out uncontrollably and in the most inappropriate situations. Perhaps the same ‘shadowy‘ quality that has so often got us into trouble can be useful in certain situations.
Denial and projection
The insidious attacks of feelings that want to be acknowledged often hinder us in precisely those areas that are most important to us. If we can acknowledge or reinterpret a shadow aspect, we find that it is suddenly easier to ‘dose’ it and express it appropriately.
“Discovering the gifts of even the most hated qualities is a creative process for which we need the deep longing to listen and learn, and the will to let go of outdated judgments and beliefs.“4
However, the more we deny the unloved shady aspects, the more clearly they come to the attention of others:
“When we feel oppressed by our emotions or unacceptable parts of our personality, a protective mechanism comes into action, which leads us to attribute these qualities to other objects or people. […] So whatever we have not accepted from ourselves, we project onto others.“5
If we perceive our own shadow aspects on others, we often react to these people with particularly strong aversion, which we cannot always explain to ourselves. However, we cannot avoid the other person either, because s/he exerts an uncanny fascination on us.
This fascination, which the shadow causes in us, as the strange aspect in us, seduces or even forces us to go beyond the limits of the familiar. The Latin ‘fascinare‘ means ‘to enchant‘, ‘to bewitch‘.
“Fascination thus takes us out into the strangeness of our personality. Its aim is the transformation of identity […] Fascination helps us to overcome the fear of the foreign, which is always present to a certain extent, by first ‘jumping over’ this [fear].”6
This strangeness within us can be a repeatedly repressed emotion, but also a potential that has not yet been unfolded. If we fearfully repel the shadowy stranger, again and again, we may never be able to uncover the potentials slumbering within us.
Fear of the foreign
However, when the fear of the foreign becomes stronger than the fascination or when it questions us too much, it becomes ‘evil’. Consequently, when we project our shadows onto others, we can no longer deal constructively with our problems. In other words, the projection shifts these aspects to the ‘outside’, where we cannot influence them so easily. This in turn leads to the feeling of powerlessness that is so characteristic of ressentiment. In addition, we can no longer perceive the ‘shadow-bearers‘ (those onto whom we project our shadow) in their uniqueness. We can merely perceive that aspect of them, which disturbs us. The projection makes us biased and devalues the shadow-bearer.
Appropriation of one’s shadows?
Carl Gustav Jung assumed that shadows can be integrated and that this could bring people closer to wholeness.
“The shadow must be taken into account. Acceptance of the shadow makes us more self-confident, more authentic […] but also more ordinary.”7
A shadow aspect is ‘appropriated‘ when we no longer evaluate this aspect exclusively negatively. When we acknowledge that it belongs to us. With each appropriated, affirmed shadow aspect we become less sensitive. Our self-esteem is no longer as much at stake as it is when ressentiment arises. Therefore, when we acknowledge shadow aspects and no longer project them, those energies, that were previously bound in repression, are now released.
Points of contact
Criticism hits us hardest when it relates to one of our shadow aspects. If we acknowledge the shadows and accept them as aspects that belong to us, criticism that concerns this acknowledged shadow aspect can no longer affect us so deeply. It is like when electrical contacts lose their voltage.
“Every contact stands for a different quality. The ‘contacts’ that we recognize and have accepted are not electric, they are ‘safe’. But the qualities that we reject in ourselves, that we have not yet acquired, have a charge. So when other people act out these qualities, an electrical voltage is immediately created; they put their plug into our contact.”8
That’s a live wire!
The more ‘contacts‘ are electrified, the more vulnerable we become to anger and ressentiment. When the repressed shadow parts in the unconscious merge into a complex, the individual shadow aspects become even more difficult to perceive. The projection of the shadow complex transforms the environment, depending on which shadow aspect we project.
“If we repress a shadow of power, we are suddenly surrounded by people who seem to be overpowering. […] By projecting the shadow, we experience ourselves as victims of the person carrying the shadow […] and can no longer shape our lives autonomously. The victim role also generates a lot of fear and prevents fruitful conflicts.“9
Mirror-like, we are constantly confronted with those aspects of ourselves, that we reject. We always attract people who live out these aspects. Until we have developed ‘shadow acceptance‘, we cannot see what we have in common with these persons we despise so much and that we are consequently not meeting these persons without a reason.
When we are not living out our potential, we often project them onto other people who exactly do this. Therefore we have to take back these idealizing projections so that we can reappropriate these positive aspects. What prevents us from recognizing our shadow projections is the false identification and the clinging to our limiting self-image.
“The ego is, therefore, the absence of the true knowledge of who we really are and the result of this: a fatal cling, whatever the cost, to a […], makeshift self-image, a charlatan-self.”10
What we fear enters our lives. When we unconsciously project our shadows onto others, they seem to come towards us from outside, like independent entities, like demons.
The Greek word ‘Daimon‘ had a positive connotation, in contrast to the term ‘demon‘ which arose from it. Socrates‘ ‘Daimon‘ guided him like an intuitive inner voice telling him what to avoid. As long as we do not close our minds to feelings or emotions, they guide us like spiritual navigators.
From this stimulating or stirring inspiration, however, emotions can become frightening, demonic powers. This occurs when we are not following their clues and ignore them, or when we are not exploring the source of discomfort.
Feelings are suppressed or repressed, especially when an impression in the past was so traumatic that the mind is no longer able to cope with this shock. Such an event can no longer be perceived as stimulation or even inspiration. Rather, it merely triggers the feeling of powerlessness, fear, and rage.
Subsequently, every feeling that is disturbing the mind becomes a potential threat, because it could call back the intense feelings of retraumatization. The traumatized person loses his/her navigating ‘Daimon‘ and the suppressed, negative feelings grow into threatening forces.
These demonically grown feelings become more and more insistent in their disturbance of the thought processes. As they are repressed, they merge with other repressed emotions. Thus, this self-referential entanglement reduces the clarity of thinking and narrows the field of perception. More and more, these ‘hybrid demons‘ control all our actions and restrict our creativity to find new solutions to problems.
Banning by naming
What applies to the effectiveness of writing as a coping strategy in dealing with trauma also applies to dealing with negative feelings in general:
As long as inner demons such as suppressed fear, shame, guilt, dependency, insecurity, anger, sadness, dissatisfaction, inner emptiness, and restlessness, or more complex combinations of them, are not named, consciously felt, and banished, they unnoticeably influence our thinking and communication. The neurotic self-centredness, which is always the accompaniment of repressed emotions, limits our field of perception and our sense of possibilities.
The inner demons can affect us so much, that we are no longer able to concentrate. They can be so insistent in their attempt to tell us something we do not want to hear, that they dominate us completely. The tensions caused by the pent-up emotions manifest themselves in the body as psycho-somatic ailments.
Indeed, the more we fight these feelings, which are now heightened into the demonic, the bigger and more powerful their shadows become. The more we repress and deny them, the more intensely they influence our thinking and acting from the hidden. Until we split them off to such an extent that we have the feeling to encounter them in the ‘outside’. There, they appear ‘personified’ in the other person. To recognize the inner demons is therefore essential to avoid the demonization of others.
Shortly before enlightenment
In legends about yogis, enlightened beings, or mystics, the motif of ‘visitation‘ by a demon is quite common. These become particularly insistent when yogis retreat into the solitude of the desert or into the forest, the mountains, or a cave. On the verge of enlightenment, even Gautama Buddha was visited by his demoness Mara.
Left to their own, without any possibility of distraction, seekers are confronted with their inner demons immediately before they reach their spiritual goal.
In Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras these inner ‘demons’ are called ‘Kleshas‘. They are the last and often the strongest obstacles on the path to self-knowledge and enlightenment. Although liberation from these demons alone does not lead to enlightenment, it is the emotional and mental prerequisite for Moksha.
In ancient Greece, there was a cave cult in Lebadaia, that consisted of the initiand retreating into a narrow chamber of the cave to spend a few hours or even days there. Before he had his rebirth in the womb of the earth, the initiand was anointed. He drank the water of forgetting, ‘Lethe‘, and of memory, ‘Mnemosyne‘. So that later he could remember what had happened to him in the cave and forget what might have been beyond his capacity.
“Prepared in this way, he [the aspirant of the Oracle of Trophonius] immediately descended into the fissure of the earth on a narrow ladder to ‘see’ and ‘hear’. Pausanias, who visited the oracle himself, tells us that such people were usually filled with terror after their return from the cave and did not recognize ‘themselves or their surroundings, […] those who ventured into the fissure were called ‘men without laughter’ in ancient times.“11
The ego fiercely resists its dissolution. It offers everything to lure the seeker or meditator into its traps more than ever. Probably the ‘men without laughter‘ did not expect to encounter such intensity of emotion in the silence. They tried to fight against their inner demons, which just reinforced them. Finally, the seekers were overwhelmed by them.
To clarify, not all demons are frightening or even recognizable as such. One of the most seductive demons that the spiritual seeker can encounter is the demon of ‘spiritual pride‘. Therefore, Patañjali warns of this trap in the third chapter of the Yoga Sutras ‘Vibhuti Pada‘.
When the meditator attains supernatural mental or psychic powers (‘Siddhis‘), his/her follower or friends usually admire and revere them. Consequently, at this stage of spiritual awakening, there is a danger, that pride becomes the dominant feeling. As a result, the yogi falls back into self-centredness, which s/he has already partly overcome through his/her spiritual exercises.
“The fatal error of all who fall victim to this deception [hubris] is that they attribute the ability and power of the transpersonal or higher self to their personal ego.”12
Moreover, this demon can sometimes tempt gurus to abuse their power. However, only when the yogi reaches the highest form of Samadhi, namely ‘Samprajñata Samadhi‘, s/he cannot fall back anymore. Since, according to Patañjali, in this ‘Samadhi without seeds‘, every trace of ego is wiped out, and all seeds of karma are finally burnt.
Accordingly, the yogi is not safe from falling back until s/he has reached this stage. By all means, s/he must be on guard to identify with the states that have been reached or develop any ‘spiritual’ pride.
“Whereas although true enlightenment exists, it exists entirely apart from the context of ego and the arena of presumptions. The enlightened state doesn’t presume itself to be enlightened, ego presumes to be enlightened. And since most people are identified with their ego, individuals also presume themselves to be enlightened. The problem with mistaking the fact of one’s own enlightenment is that it negatively affects the person’s drive towards realization. It is an obstacle to the growth process.”13
Resolving of resistance
When Machig Labdrön, a great Tibetan yogini of the eleventh century, was initiated as a Buddhist nun, she voluntarily went to a place known for being ruled by powerful nagas. ‘Naga‘ was the term used in Tibet at Machig’s time to describe much-feared snake water spirits. She meditated on a tree above the pond – the ‘Naga realm‘ – and provoked the spirits.
“When Machig saw a huge army of magical spirits coming towards her, she immediately transformed her body into a food offering for the spirits, and they ‘could not destroy her because she was ego-less. The aggressiveness of the ‘Nagas’ fizzled out, and […] they submitted to her and vowed to protect her and to serve her and all who followed her teaching [the Chöd].“14
Tsültrim Allione was initiated as a Buddhist nun at the age of 19 in Nepal. From the Tibetan-Buddhist Chöd ceremony, Allione developed a technique that enables postmodern yogis to ‘make friends’ with their demons. Like Machig Labdrön, this technique offers the ego to feed and thereby dissolve a specific demon. However, sometimes it is enough to pay attention to repressed feelings in order to take away their demonic dimension and let them become guiding and inspiring inner voices again.
Surprisingly, this friendly turning towards unpleasant, conflict-laden emotions often causes amazing transformations. This is not only true for those, who deal with their own demons, but also for people with whom they are currently in conflict. However, this transformation often begins with an almost imperceptible, gradual shift in perception. The feeling of having overlooked something important suddenly comes to mind, something that was previously hidden, although it was obvious and right before our eyes.
Transformation of relationships
New possibilities open up, which, ‘blinded‘ by the repression of feeling, we simply could not perceive before. Through this new mental attitude, we communicate and act differently. This in turn transforms our relationships, which suddenly feel completely different. What previously used to drive us crazy, now leaves us cold. No electricity flows through the ‘trigger contacts. We can no longer understand, why it had upset us so much.
Hence, if we pay attention to our demons, they turn into helping forces. Thus, we can release the energy that was spent in the fight against these demons. We learn, why we have so far reacted so violently to certain sentences or actions of others.
Since the different negative emotions are usually closely intertwined, we usually discover the next demons as soon as one is ‘fed’. Furthermore, the connections between these repressed, negative emotions become clear.
Author: Eva Pudill
Estimated reading time: 14 minutes