Last week I had a discussion with a colleague about why Halloween was such a popular holiday, even amongst adults. My theory is that for many folks, Halloween is the only time of the year that it is socially sanctioned to get in touch with one’s “shadow.” By shadow, I mean the term used by psychoanalyst Carl Jung to refer to the unconscious aspect of oneself that the ego does not identify with. In other words, the shadow is everything about ourselves– our rage, lust, envy, hatred, and greed– that we want to disown. It is the monster within. And it exists in all of us. When we dress up as goblins and monsters on Halloween, we can parade around as Mr. Hyde at least for one day of the year and the world supports that. The next day, we are back to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde gets locked in the closet.
The problem is that the shadow is still always with us– it can never be fully disowned. It will come out every now and then, even if we are not consciously aware of it, and wreak havoc on our psychological and emotional lives. Often the suppression of the shadow creates intense internal conflict in the form of depression, anxiety, and self-defeating behaviors. It often feels unbearable for people to come to terms with their hatred of a parent or their anger at a child. Instead, it all gets pushed down into the unconscious, bubbling to the surface at inopportune times. One of the most important articles I read as required reading in grad school was called “Hate in the Countertransference.” Basically it was about the importance of being able to articulate and recognize all of our feelings, including hatred, if we were to be effective as therapists. The same holds true for everyone else. It takes a lot of courage to admit to oneself that one feels like murdering someone we love, and to articulate it to that person. Something like, “You know honey, sometimes I get so angry at the things you do, I almost feel like killing you.” That’s honest. And that kind of dialogue (if done appropriately, in a measured way) can be some welcome honesty and transparency in the relationship.
I sometimes use a technique called “portraiting” with clients. When a client brings up some intense feeling towards another person, I will ask them to be very specific about the impulses they experience with that feeling. For example, if a client says, “I really feel like killing my father sometimes,” I’ll ask, “And how would you do it?”
Let’s say the client says, “I would cut him with a knife.” I’ll then maybe ask “What does the knife look like?,” or “How would you use the knife, would you jab it or kind of swing it around?”
It’s very graphic stuff, but the point is that I want to help the client really get in touch with and embrace the emotion, not run away from it. I want to bring the feeling into the room, not discuss it as if it’s some stale bit of news that happened in the past. By facing the emotion (or “shadow”) the client is able to do something with it– discuss it, examine it, challenge it, question it– instead of just suppressing it and pretending it doesn’t exist, only for it to blow up sometime in the future.
I’ve heard some stuff in my office that would make Jack the Ripper wince. And speaking of which, the Jack the Ripper mystery has become a multi-million dollar business ever year and seems to be only growing with the passing of time. When I was in London, there were dozens of Jack the Ripper tours going on at the same time. Dozens. And over the years, this unsolved case has generated innumerable books, television programs, and movies. Why? I think on some level, the brutal murders resonate with people on some deep unconscious level. Here was a man that was so mundane and normal in real life that he was able to perpetrate the most heinously imaginable crimes without ever getting caught. Does it touch on some deep unconscious aspect of ourselves? Is there a bit of that level of darkness in all of us? Perhaps. On some level, I do believe that Jack the Ripper is an extreme example of the shadow hidden by all of us.
But the important idea I want to convey in this article is that we all have a shadow. And we all have a strong desire to disown it. To push it to our unconscious and pretend it doesn’t exist. But by running away from it, we never give ourselves to chance to face it, address it, and change. We just kick the can down the road until things really hit the fan. By helping my clients to face their shadow, I help them to not only fully understand themselves, but also to take steps to not be ruled by it.