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Retreating From The Brink – Owning Our Own Shadow

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 “the ego seldom really knows enough to know that it does not know enough.” (Hollis, Why Good People Do Bad Things, p. 12)

Obviously, I am continuing on with my reading of Hollis’ book. The book talks about shadow, ego and the unconscious. I know that I have likely explained this elsewhere in the archives of this blog site, but I feel a need to visit these terms once again. Ego is the simplest of these words to describe. Ego is the thinking aspect of ourselves, the part of us we “know” in real terms. Though we often question ourselves and our identity, we do have a sense of self that in adulthood, is fuller that the others around us can ever know. What others around us know is typically what we let them know about ourselves.

jo-hari windowLet me begin with the Jo-Hari Window, a simple diagram that looks at the self in a two-dimensional grid:

We obviously, no matter how hard we work or try can ever completely know ourselves. The ego I described above is comprised of our public or “open” self, as well as our private or “hidden” self. When people get close to us, they get to notice things about us that we are unaware of. More often than not, these aspects are usually minor in nature. However, those who are closest to us get exposed to more of our “blind” self and could tell us (and often enough do) about what they experience about us, usually to our embarrassment.

We can with a lot of effort become more aware, more conscious of ourselves. We may even be willing to acknowledge that even what we think we know, is somehow suspect because of various unidentified factors that slip under our control to affect our thoughts, moods and actions. What we know is simply that, what we know – ego knowledge. It is that area that is “unknown” that is the source of most of our problems that we typically blame on others. That unknown is called the unconscious. The diagram to the left is misleading as it suggests that the unconscious is relatively small and perhaps can be made smaller if we simply expose more of our “hidden self” to others who would in turn clue us in to those things about ourselves for which we are “blind.”

I am sure, that like everyone I know, there are things you regret saying and regret doing. More often than not, you can’t even explain why you might have said or done these things to people you profess to love. Often when confronted by those we love about what we have said or done, we deny the things they tell us about what we have done or said while honestly believing that we are truly innocent of what we have been accused of saying or doing. When we can’t escape the fact that we have indeed said or done something about which we were unaware of, we typically respond with, “What made me say that?” or if it radically contradicts what we know about ourselves, the response often becomes, “Why did you make me say that?” as we blame others for our unconscious actions and speech. I could go on and on with examples, but there is enough to give one the idea that perhaps we don’t know ourselves as well as we think we do.  We learn as we get older that our truths and certainties of our younger years are now fuzzy at best. It seems the more we learn, the less we “know.”

This unconscious aspect of ourselves permeates all of our lives, all of our relationships, our beliefs, our avoidances, our embracings including politics and religion. As soon as we think we “know;” as soon as we are convinced of our truths; we become trapped or locked in a limited awareness. It is as though we build a wall around ourselves wit which we find protection from antagonists. What has really happened is that we have retreated into yet another fundamentalist belief whether it is the belief that nudity is immoral, that Islamic people are terrorists, that coloured people are inferior, that only our brand of religion is valid, or that poor people are lazy and deserve to be poor. Any idea that reduces the world to black and white; us versus them; good guys and bad guys with God on our side – all of these are examples of being caught up in a blend of collective and personal unconscious – or Shadow.

So who are the bad guys and where do we find them? Well, as Pogo explained, “We have met the enemy and he is us. All that we project on others, are aspects of self we have denied or aspects we have never even known. I have often had difficulty following orders and found myself at odds with work superiors and believed that they were the problem. I unwittingly projected my authority complex on them thus robbing them of being seen and experienced as complex people who were more than their roles at work. I didn’t know that inadvertently I had become the problem.

In today’s world we are beset with more darkness than we can cope with. Beheadings, terrorism, rich plundering the poor, religion versus religion, profit versus the environment, liberal versus conservative, and racial strife that has erupted in militarization of police forces which in turn fosters a shoot first and question later response as the police see themselves in a war zone where every shadow becomes the enemy – there are too many examples of collective shadow at work. So what can we do about it? Well, the only real choice we have to do the hard and dirty work of uncovering, exposing as much of our own shadow as we can. As we become more “self” aware, we take back a little at a time, our projections and own them.  Along the way we may become more compassionate with ourselves and in turn with those around us including those who we perceive as giving us the most difficulty. It’s our only hope.


The Shadow is not black or white either. But that is a topic for another day.


Written by Robert G. Longpré

September 27, 2014 at 3:06 pm

Posted in Jungian Psychology