Beyond My Comfort Level II

In an earlier issue of the Ommani Jewel (March, 2019), I wrote about going beyond my comfort level. In that essay I began by focusing on the so-called “outer world:” loss of species that pollinate our food plants, climate change, political activism, and the discomfort I and many experience when we finally chose to speak out in some manner. In the earlier essay I wrote: “We now need all the self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and courage we can muster. Why? Because going beyond one’s comfort zone is what offers us the only opportunity to know what we are made of and to discern if what we do is good enough.” This month I will deepen the “inward” look.  Hence the title: Beyond My Comfort Level II.

The word “shadow” reminds us that we are not pure light. So easy to say, but not so easy to deal with, shadow draws our attention to our attitudes, behaviors, and habits that embarrass and humiliate us when they slip past our well-groomed self-presentation (our “persona”) and our sense of ourselves, or when they take over and possess us. Most basically, shadow is “not I.” Shadow, used in this sense, comes from the work of C.G. Jung.

Shadow encompasses everything of which I am not aware, but also everything that I experience as Not-I. Case in point: When I was in postgraduate training at the Jung Institute in Chicago there was a fellow student whom I could barely tolerate. Every time he spoke I could feel rage boiling up inside me. I felt that his way of being canceled me out, made my way of being superfluous, negated me. How could the world be big enough for both of us, let alone the postgraduate program we were both enrolled in?

Over the decades I have mellowed somewhat. He has not become my favorite colleague, but I don’t get enraged when I hear him speak. Two qualities make him a shadow figure for me: first, there is expansiveness about him such that he fills the entire space, wherever he happens to be. Second, he appears to have a sense of easy-going self-confidence. Both of these qualities lag behind other human potentials I have developed to a fair degree. He is not evil, but his strengths painfully remind me of my deficits, those less-well adapted human behaviors and attitudes that lie within his comfort zone. And this takes me back to the title of this essay: beyond my comfort zone. I can (somewhat) develop my ability to fill the space I occupy; I can, and have, cultivated more self-confidence, and on a good day my self-confidence is more easy-going.  But I’ll never be as good at it as he is.

How do we know what is shadow for us? As my experience with my colleague shows, our reactions to other people (especially our negative reactions) provide a mirror in which we see what we are not. The people with whom we live can describe our shadow in detail – if we can stand hearing it! (Of course, we can return the favor, too.) At the societal level, “the other,” the out-group, those people who look different from us, or speak differently than we do, or support the other political party frequently carry shadow for us. Currently for many in the U.S. and other countries on this planet, migrants and immigrants serve as the mirror for the dominant culture’s shadow. They challenge us individually to scrutinize our cultural conditioning and recognize other valid ways of being human.

It often happens that we condemn in others what we ourselves unconsciously do. For example, I know a very talkative person whom I have heard complain bitterly about another person who talked, seemingly, incessantly. Black pots and kettles? Another example from my distant past comes to mind. Once in an interview at a professional meeting I was asked whom I didn’t like. I immediately thought of a man who spoke very circumstantially. Later I had to realize that I had difficulty making a simple, declarative statement. That fellow was doing what I did, but I didn’t see the same behavior in myself – until later.

Our dreams often confront us with shadow figures and behaviors. The classic shadow figure is that person who appears to be everything I am not, and whom I cannot stand, or fear. Sometimes this is a known person, but often the figure is unknown. As much as I may protest, and as often as I see the shadow figure as other, that shadow figure nevertheless is my human potentials that I have not developed and integrated into my conscious personality. This is where I have to go beyond the limits of my comfort zone. That is an ethical challenge.

Most of the time, nobody can succeed in forcing us to go beyond the limits of our comfort zone and begin to deal with shadow, the “Not-I.” For that matter, we see exactly the same inability to deal with the societal Not-I on the global scale in ethnic cleansing, racial superiority claims, mass immigration, and so on. It seems to me that we deal with personal or collective shadow only when forced by necessity.

What qualifies as necessity? The most pressing necessity is survival: unless we mend our ways, we will not survive. (Here we are at politics again.) However, necessity may also be less dramatic than brute  survival: We become problems to ourselves. When a person says, “I can’t stand myself, the way I am, and the things I do,” that person has taken the first step toward dealing with a shadow issue. That person has made an ethical/moral choice, and will necessarily go beyond the limits of the personal, and perhaps collective, comfort zone.

We are all called to grow into more mature – which means more ethical and more responsible – human beings who have worked on realizing not only our best gifts, but also our lesser gifts. This includes “gifts” that we struggle with, but do not fully master. Our struggle with the shadow usually begins when we say, “Enough. The changes I need to make can’t be much worse than enduring the present.” This journey leads to self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and a coming-to-terms with the shadow.

May 2019 Boris Matthews, PhD, LCSW practices Analytical Psychology (a.k.a. Jungian Analysis) at the Ommani Center for Integrative Medicine in Pewaukee, WI. He is a teaching and supervising faculty member of the C. G. Jung Institute of Chicago, IL, and Director of the Analyst Training Program. He has been in practice since the mid-1980s.  To schedule an appointment, call the Ommani Center, 262-695-5311. Learn more at