The shadow knows
Unlock the power, creativity and useful energy lurking in your ‘shadow side’
By Patti Carmalt-Vener 09/27/2012
I was raised in a strict religious fashion. In high school, I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup, sleeveless tops or short dresses or to see secular movies or date boys who didn’t go to our church. While I was open to friendships with others outside my religious group, at around the age of 15, I became very judgmental and angry toward girls who dressed sexually or were flirtatious.
As an adult, I still believe in God but have found my own spirituality and am comfortable living a much more secular life. Though I disagree with the rigidity of my upbringing, I’ve come to terms with it, except for my attitude toward women who act and dress provocatively. I get enraged at prostitutes, yet I’m obsessed with them. If the subject of harlots comes up on the news or in casual conversations, I go ballistic about how awful and sinful they are, sometimes embarrassing myself. I have a son and daughter and worry that they’ll respectively start dating one or being influenced by them.
I’m a compassionate person and not a black-and-white thinker, but on this subject I’m unyielding. I hear others get on their high horse about politics and religion and don’t want to be that way. I’ve learned to quiet down in social situations so that I don’t humiliate myself, but deep down I still feel the same way and don’t know why or how to change it.
In psychology, the “shadow” or “shadow aspect” of oneself refers to the unconscious or denied side of a person’s personality, where they have repressed the least desirable part of their feelings. When people are hurt, they often learn to hide parts of themselves to avoid being hurt again. According to Jungian psychology, everyone carries a shadow side and the less it is allowed to enter into consciousness, the darker and more controlling this aspect of the personality can be. It’s often stated, in fact, that the part of you that you refuse to look at can be the part that ends up running your life.
The shadow side is prone to projecting and perceiving one’s repressed feelings into a moral deficiency in someone else. If someone has unacceptable homosexual feelings, for example, they may loathe gay individuals for no real reason. Likewise, if people have repressed rage, they may resent others who express their anger overtly while they themselves shy away from conflict of any kind. Sometimes the mild-mannered, soft-spoken individuals who allow others to push them around are desperately trying to reassure themselves they’re not like those angry people, frantically trying to keep their own unacceptable feelings from surfacing. These projections can insulate one from the real world as well as limit and censor one’s own power and part of oneself.
Is it possible you had sexual feelings during puberty that were considered unacceptable in your religious culture and to people around you? Were you shamed or punished for such feelings? Are you denying a trait in yourself — but aware of it in others — and acting irrationally toward these traits by becoming unduly angry and blowing things out of proportion? Could you be harboring repressed sexual feelings and resent anyone that triggers those feelings? How satisfying is your present sexual life, and how fulfilling has your sex life been in the past?
It could be beneficial for you to explore your current sexual feelings as well as your sexual history freely and openly with a professional psychotherapist. The integration of the unconscious and the assimilation of the shadow side of your personality are basic stages of the analytic process. In the core of the shadow side is power, creativity and useful energy. The goals in therapy would be to understand why you behave in certain ways, get support for being open to other aspects of yourself, work through difficult feelings like fear, shame, rage and grief and break through and change old patterns of behavior that no longer work for you. It can be difficult to face these primal, unacceptable parts of your personality. But how exciting it would be to have an opportunity to learn more about yourself and how to love that part of yourself, as well as learn to be more tolerant and empathic toward others.
Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.