What It Takes to Grow Up – Dealing With Shadow

Recently I was preparing my notes to teach a weekend class at the C.G. Jung Institute in Chicago. I needed to present the notion of “shadow.” Typically, shadow is called “the inferior part of the personality,” as in R.L. Stevenson’s novel where Mr. Hyde is the “dark,” other side of Dr. Jeckyl.

I faced a three-part task: depict shadow in some fresh way that everybody can immediately relate to; show that shadow is a normal part of our human experience; and point out how dealing with shadow can contribute to our maturation as responsible human beings.

Cartoon strips can often be a source of psychological insight. Specifically, the words in the “thought bubble” reveal what the character is thinking but not saying. “Garfield” (the comic strip written by Jim Davis) offers countless examples of possible thoughts and comments that Garfield could make about Jon.

In one three-frame strip, Jon says, “I have feelings.” Garfield: “No, you don’t.” Jon: “I really do.” Horrified, Garfield thinks “Oh, no. You don’t!” Jon: “But I don’t like to talk about them.” Garfield, relieved: “Oh, that’s okay then.” (You can view this and other comic strips at https://garfield.com/comic/2016/10/04.)

Garfield’s reaction is “shadow” to the extent that it is an interpersonally inappropriate: hurtful but authentic. That’s really what Garfield thinks about Jon’s self-disclosure.

Who cannot relate to this situation? Somebody says something about themselves. We strongly disagree, but keep it to ourselves. (If we think fast enough!) What we would like to say is authentic and comes spontaneously, but we realize it is inconsiderate, hurtful, inappropriate, etc. In other words, our authentic reaction is in some way “inferior.”

Shadow reactions—like Garfield’s reaction to Jon—arise spontaneously. We call the emotional or cognitive content of these reactions shadow because our consciousness has learned (or been trained or educated) to hold these sorts of words and images and responses in check, often for very good relational, social, political, ethical, or religious reasons. Nevertheless, what comes up as shadow reveals something authentic about us, a “truth” we may not want to own, but certainly don’t want to let out into the world. Garfield really is appalled at the prospect of hearing about Jon’s “feelings.”

Our social learning creates shadow. As I mentioned, as children we have been trained and have learned what is acceptable to mom and dad, to siblings, to neighborhood, to school, in our society, etc. We learn to “disown” what isn’t acceptable to the others we have to live with. Initially our disowning is a voluntary act, but with practice the disowning becomes automatic. Then we say it is “repressed,” which means that we cannot easily access it voluntarily. Some of what we repress may be potentially of great worth, for example an innate talent that nobody in our environment values. “Who would ever believe that you could do that!” Similarly, we learn what we can and cannot say without unpleasant consequences. Or we don’t learn.

In the fifth grade I hadn’t learned some things yet. My mother was in hospital, more seriously ill than I realized at the time. An aunt and uncle lived within walking distance of the school I attended, so Aunt Opal fed me lunch every school day. One noon at her house I said, with no malice of intent, “I like Uncle Leon better than I like you.” I was just speaking my feelings, just saying what I had observed about my likes and preferences. (I may have said more, and in more detail, but—mercifully—I have no memory of any additions.) So I hadn’t learned something important: don’t make those kinds of comparisons to the hand that feeds you lunch!

On a recent Sunday morning my wife and I were on our way to church. I started sharing some observations. My wife interrupted me with her observations, delivered with passion and in detail. I shut up and pulled into my shell, very angry.

After church, I was talking with some acquaintances. My wife came up behind me and started to say something. Reflexively, my left hand waved her away.

Later she confronted me: “I don’t like it when you shush me!”

“Yes,” I said. “I was still angry and resentful about what happened on our way to church. I do not like it when you interrupt me like that. I have two choices: go silent, withdraw and remain resentful and angry; or tell you about it.”

We talked it out. The storm passed.

My “shushing” my wife was a primal reaction to feeling hurt. Because I had not initiated a discussion of what happened earlier in the car, my hurt still had a lot of energy that came out spontaneously when I felt hurt again by her wanting to interrupt me with some comment she wanted to make. My shushing was an aspect of shadow: a socially “inferior” behavior.

There’s a lesson in this: the lesson of what it takes to grow up, to handle situations more maturely. I needed to deal with my hurt in some appropriate way. Initiating a conversation of this sort is harder for me than remaining silent and resentful. But remaining silent does not help me to grow up, to become a more mature adult. Remaining silent does not use the energy in my shadow (the suppressed expression of hurt) in a responsible manner that promotes emotional maturity.

In the 1970s, Erik H. Erikson edited a book entitled Adulthood. There’s a line in his introductory chapter that has always stuck with me. In the context of discussing a scene in a film by Ingmar Bergman, Erikson writes: “For if the simplest moral rule is not to do to another what you would not wish to have done to you, the ethical rule of adulthood is to do to others what will help them, just as it helps you, to grow” (p. 11).

This is part of what it takes to grow up into psychologically responsible maturity.

Boris Matthews, PhD, LCSW practices Analytical Psychology at the Ommani Center.  To schedule an appointment, call him directly at 608.217.5184.