Our brightest thinkers struggle to expose the hidden dynamics of the shadow, the dark side of our psyche. Depth psychology can shed light on those repressed regions of the mind. Yet experts are having difficulty understanding the discipline’s basic tenets.
By way of illustration, I’d like to recommend a lovely book, with the proviso that one section of it is flawed. The book, written by Ken Wilber and three of his associates, is titled Integral Life Practice: A 21st Century Blueprint for Physical Health, Emotional Balance, Mental Clarity, and Spiritual Awakening (Integral Books, Boston & London, 2008).
Based on Wilber’s admirable body of work on human consciousness, the book adopts a method of healing that integrates body, mind, spirit, and shadow. It’s a fabulous blueprint for expanding our consciousness and getting us beyond our negativity, irrationality, and egotism.
The authors state correctly that the shadow is “the most sorely neglected area” in self-help literature. Even the Eastern spiritual traditions “don’t adequately address the psychodynamic shadow,” they say, adding that shadow work “frees up energy that would otherwise be spent shadowboxing within ourselves.” That freed-up energy becomes available for growth, creativity, and healthy pursuits.
Unfortunately, the book’s presentation of the shadow is flawed or, at best, incomplete. Employing depth psychology, the authors discuss repression, projections, and disowning of emotions, but they fail to see how these dynamics are linked to psychological defenses and emotional attachments.
Using three examples from their book (in the chapter titled “The Shadow Module”), I’ll try to show, in the spirit of friendly debate, what I believe the authors both miss and misunderstand.
The situation: A little girl becomes angry at her mother and then represses the anger. The child feels scared, sad, and depressed.
Authors’ analysis: The child represses her anger rather than risk the bond of love with mother on which the child depends. In repressing the anger, the child might project that anger on to others and begin to see a world full of angry people. The child will be inclined to more fully repress the anger until all she feels are “internal decoys” consisting of sadness, fear, and depression. Anger is “the root cause” of the child’s distress, and it’s the “primary actual (and thus ‘authentic’) emotion.” Her sadness and fear are “secondary, inauthentic emotions.”
My analysis: Anger is sometimes authentic (for instance, getting angry at a man for abusing a child), but often it is not. We have to understand why the child becomes angry at her mother in the first place. The mother might have behaved quite innocently or even kindly, and the child still could have interpreted the mother’s action (or inaction) as refusal, control, criticism, or rejection. Or the mother might have refused the child some favor, which triggered the child into becoming angry. In this case, the child’s anger is now a reaction to the feeling of being refused. Yet, depending on circumstances, refusal is often a requirement of good parenting. It’s typical for young children to become angry when they have misinterpreted the intentions of their parents.
So the child’s anger is likely not, as the authors say, “an authentic emotion.” Instead, it’s likely an inauthentic emotion, a symptom of a deeper problem and a defense against recognition of that deeper problem. The girl’s deeper problem is her unconscious determination to experience refusal in a given situation, whether or not she’s actually being refused. This painful feeling often lingers in adults as an unresolved emotional attachment, meaning the individual is unconsciously expecting refusal and is willing to have another “run-in” with that negative experience. Such wayward behavior defies common sense, but irrationality is nonetheless a driving force in human affairs and the “language” of the psyche.
Children (and adults) are unconsciously determined to cover up (defend against realization of) their readiness to feel and recycle an unresolved negative emotion. Emotions involving refusal are orally-based, and they remain unresolved in vast millions of children and adults. When refusal is felt with accompanying anger, the person is likely using the anger as a psychological defense to cover up his or her willingness to absorb a painful experience of that refusal. Anger, as a defense, makes this claim: “I hate feeling refused. Look at how angry I get at mother (or whoever) when she refuses me.”
Another way to perceive this dynamic is through an awareness of the inner conflict: The child consciously wants to get, not to feel refused, yet unconsciously the child is expecting to feel refused and is anticipating an angry clash with mother. That anger is a protest to cover up the child’s expectation of (or emotional attachment to) feeling refused.
Any therapist who claims that such anger is authentic is only helping to strengthen the defense and to cover up the deeper dynamics. Typically, people are grateful to a therapist who strengthens their defenses. This way they can avoid the consciously and unconsciously feared deeper examination of the shadow side.
The situation: Phil is dreading going to visit Joe, his childhood best friend. Phil gets triggered because, as he says, Joe is “such a wimp! His wife runs his life! He’s got a super safe, secure, and dead-end job. . . . He’s betraying himself. It makes me sick. It drives me nuts to be around him.”
Authors’ analysis: Phil becomes triggered because “he’s disowned his own needs for safety and security so much that he’s easily triggered by Joe’s qualities.” Phil believes in “risk-taking and pushing the envelope and going for the max.” Phil has disowned the side of himself that needs “safety, security, predictability . . .” He “can become more whole” when he realized this.
My analysis: Phil sees in Joe what he doesn’t want to see in himself. Both men have unresolved inner passivity. Phil’s risk-taking lifestyle is likely a potentially self-defeating reaction to his own inner passivity. Macho men and compulsive success hunters, for instance, are usually inwardly weak and unsure of themselves.
Phil sees passivity in Joe, and he (Phil) identifies (resonates emotionally) with that passivity. His discomfort around Joe is a psychological defense that makes this claim: “I don’t want to feel passive. I don’t want to identify with Joe’s passivity. Look, I hate it in him. I can’t stand to be around him.”
Phil also likely has an aggressive inner critic (inner passivity servers as an enabler of this critical side). Phil’s critical feelings toward Joe likely mirror the manner in which Phil is treated by his own inner critic. When Phil learns about the inner conflict in his psyche between aggression and passivity, he can free himself from it.
The situation: Harry is procrastinating on doing his taxes, and he later snaps at his wife when she innocently asks, “How are the taxes going?”
Authors’ analysis: Harry overlooks his own drive to do the taxes and becomes convinced that his wife is pressuring him “to do the stupid taxes.” After projecting this inner drive on to his wife, Harry now experiences the drive as outside pressure, and he objects to feeling pressured. The solution is for Phil to recognize his disowned projections and make them conscious.
My analysis: Harry, through inner passivity, is emotionally attached to the feeling of being pressured. At his office, he reacts passively-aggressively to that sense of pressure—the obvious need to do the taxes—by procrastinating and failing to do them. The procrastination says, in effect: “I do what I want, not what some responsibility or obligation tells me I must do.”
When Harry gets home, he reacts angrily to his wife’s innocent question about the taxes. Because of his attachment to inner passivity, Harry, who’s already had a very passive experience at his office, unconsciously jumps at the chance to feel pressure coming from his wife. Instantly, he reacts with inappropriate aggression: “Get off my back.” That aggression is a self-defeating reaction to his passivity, and it, too, serves as a defense: “I’m not passive with my wife in feeling that she’s pressuring me. Hey, I yell at her which means I’m aggressive.” Harry much prefers to feel guilty for his inappropriate aggression than to recognize his inner passivity.
When Harry feels that he’s being held accountable by his wife, he’s transferring on to her his own sense of being held accountable by his inner critic. He would greatly benefit from this insight.
Depth psychology is a powerful tool for penetrating the shadow and resolving the conflict imbedded there. Hopefully one day soon its essential principles will be more widely understood.