Think of an incident when someone else’s behaviour was so appalling to you, that it triggered a stark emotional reaction. Maybe it was someone acting selfish, rude, greedy, arrogant, mean, inflexible, etc. Anything come to mind?
As part of my psychotherapy studies I came across an interesting psychological concept recently, which taught me an interesting lesson… revealed in two yogurt containers.
The lesson is all about shadows, which, according to Carl Jung, “exist as part of the unconscious mind and are composed of repressed ideas, weaknesses, desires, instincts, and shortcomings.”
This is the darker side of our nature we don’t really want to acknowledge. The shadows contain all the things that are unacceptable to society… and to our own personal morals and values. That’s why we don’t want to acknowledge them!
The American clinical psychologist, John Wellwood, shares a great metaphor about this phenomenon. He says we are all born into a wonderful palace with hundreds of beautiful rooms.
Each room represents a certain personality trait and being young, we marvel at each of the room’s individual characters, uniqueness and beauty, visiting them regularly. The palace represents our complete personality… the “good”, the “bad”, and everything in between. Growing up, visitors come to our palace, telling us that certain rooms are not nice, acceptable and we stop visiting them. Gradually, we close room after room, shutting away precious traits, and we end up, eventually, living in a “three-bedroom-apartment.”
As part of my studies, I was challenged to work with some of my own shadows. The results were intriguing, as reconnecting with my shadows released a substantial amount of energy. It takes energy to hide stuff about ourselves and it keeps us away from being authentic.
I wanted to work with two specific shadows … “selfish” and “victim.” My experiment was to observe for one week whether at any time I would display even at a little of these traits myself.
Why is that good to know? Once we discover traits inside ourselves, we begin to own them and don’t get triggered as much when we see them in others.
One morning, I opened the fridge and found two 500g yogurts. I noticed one yogurt was unopened and the other one had only about one spoonful left. I hate it when, still sleepy, I have to scrape out the remains of a nearly empty yogurt. Instinctively, I grabbed the full yogurt, opened it, and left the nearly finished one for Anne. Selfish! Here it was! I acted selfishly! I smiled and felt a wave of happiness running through my body No more hiding the shadow! What a relief.
On the same evening at football, another player fouled me a bit and, while I had, indeed, gotten a knock, I briefly enjoyed pretending that it was really painful. Bingo, I had acted the victim. And again, I smiled!
Carl Jung asked, “Do you want to be good… or whole?” Being good all the time is like trying to keep a ball under water. It can be done, but only by expending a lot of energy and erecting a facade.
In the days since my discovery, I felt I had found a new friend in my “selfishness.” During situations when I previously would have caved in on some point or another, I stepped up and vigorously made my case, defending my territory in a friendly way.
I realised it can be helpful to be selfish on occasion, especially when it comes to protecting myself or taking care of my needs. At the same time, I feel more relaxed when others act selfishly. The yogurt taught me I occasionally do it myself, so who am I to judge? In embracing that aspect of my nature, I unlocked the door to a marvelous and helpful hidden room inside my inner palace.
Why am sharing this story?
Sometimes people around us trigger what we must learn about ourselves… our shadows. The pain of acknowledging our perceived flaws compels us to cover them up, but when we deny certain aspects of ourselves, we risk overcompensating in order to remain “good.” This can be exhausting.
I would like to challenge you. When something triggers you in the coming days, see whether it could be an inner shadow talking… a room inside yourself you may have locked up? Check whether you ever demonstrated that behaviour, experience it now or there is a chance you might demonstrate it in the future.
Once you answer yes to any of these questions, you’ve started the process of owning the trait and begin to experience the magic of living life just a little lighter and feeling more whole.
Debbie Ford, author of ‘the dark side of the light chasers’ summarizes “It is possible to acknowledge and accept our so-called weaknesses. In fact, these qualities may prove to be hidden strengths. Perhaps a touch of ‘laziness’ is just what the workaholic needs or some judicious ‘selfishness’ can save us from exhaustion and resentment.”
Why not trying it out?