A man who is unconscious of himself acts in a blind, instinctive way. ~ Carl Jung
Most of us strive to be good people. Whether it’s donating to charity, volunteering, or just helping out our families around the house, we all do things just to feel the satisfaction of having done a good deed. Yet this raises an interesting question: If we have to perform these actions in order to feel good about ourselves, then what is our default state? If goodness requires specific actions to prove itself, than what sort of people would we be if we didn’t do any of these good deeds? What about our dark side?
The fact is, we all have a dark side, whether we acknowledge it or not. So why hide it? There are plenty of reasons. We’re under a lot of pressure to be ‘good’. We don’t want to display our darker thoughts, our less polite, less ‘politically correct’ selves, lest we become that which we try so hard to avoid. But avoidance is rarely a solution.
Carl Jung and The Shadow
In the 20th century, the psychologist Carl Jung theorized that every human mind had a dark or hidden side, called a “shadow.” In Jungian philosophy, the shadow is the unconscious part of our minds, that which we can’t knowingly identify. Logic follows that we tend to downplay or ignore the aspects of our personality that we don’t like, so the Shadow is often a negative force. It’s a place where we hide the sides of ourselves that we fear or despise.
Jung thought that, particularly in people with low self-esteem, the shadow could end up growing to overtake some of the more positive aspects of a person as well. Fear of being judged for these negative aspects of your personality might lead you to bury even more parts in your shadow, whether or not they were objectively negative. Given this, you can already see why it might pay to embrace the shadow a bit more.
Jung himself felt that one of the keys to becoming a fully realized person, capable of controlling one’s urges and emotions, was to embrace the shadow in as much of one’s wider consciousness as possible. Ignoring the shadow is akin to ignoring a part of one’s own body, which can only lead to injury and harm down the road.
We strive toward achievement and perfection because most of us have an image built up in our ego that fits with a positive version of ourselves. When we fail to uphold this version we can have a host of negative reactions including nervous breakdowns and outbursts of anger or vindictiveness. The more of ourselves that we’re able to embrace, the less likely this is to occur. When we embrace our full selves, we are prepared to accept all the aspects of our behaviour and personality, whether they are inherently positive or negative.
Once you’ve accepted your own darkness, you’ll be able to better notice it in others...
What is “Good”?
Embracing your shadow means identifying it. Often, it’s easier to see the dark side when it’s exposed to the light. Perhaps to find the shadow, you need to start by identifying the best parts of your self – what you believe to be objectively good qualities. But this begs the question, of course, what is ‘good’?
You might say that to be good is to have good morals, but morality is very subjective – your ideas of what is ‘morally good’ can depend on your upbringing, your religious beliefs, your education, and many other factors that are far from the norms set in other families or cultures. This creates internal and external conflict. You don’t always know exactly what you should be doing, and you certainly don’t always know what motivates others to behave the way they do.
Many people think that being selfless is good. Giving away your possessions, devoting your time to the care of children and the elderly, and volunteering with charities are all selfless acts that are largely considered good, yet there’s such a thing as ‘too much of a good thing’. People who are too selfless risk burning themselves out and letting their shadow get the best of them. Basing an identity around being good to others but not to yourself simply turns the darkness inward. And it takes more than just positive thinking. Acceptance and love for yourself comes not just from thoughts but from acts.
It’s much harder to take care of others when you haven’t taken care of yourself. Whenever you get on a plane you’re told that in the event of an emergency, you must put on your own oxygen mask before helping your neighbour. The same logic applies to the everyday – you’ll be much better equipped to focus on the needs of others when your own needs are taken care of.
One of the best ways of doing this is self-honesty, particularly when it comes to aspects of ourselves that we don’t like that much. Instead of continuously trying to uphold our own sense of moral goodness, we’re better off acknowledging that sometimes we are far from good. At the very least, we should acknowledge that our morals may be flawed or foreign to others. What is morally acceptable to one person may not be so to another person, and so forth.
Acknowledging your dark side helps you see both the light and the darkness in others. Once you’ve accepted your own darkness, you’ll be able to better notice and accept it in other people — to accept that others are not always purely good, but that negative acts do not always come from malice. Sometimes mistakes are made, and sometimes the darkness gets the better of us. It’s part of being human, and it happens to everyone.
Embracing Your Own Dark Side
Some might argue that we’re very good at seeing the dark side of others. Especially today, when social media and various forms of instant communication make it very easy to launch an anonymous attack against someone who we feel has done wrong. The sense of mob mentality is very strong on the Internet.
But seeing the darkness in others is not the same as accepting it. In recent years, there have been a number of examples of people going too far to point out the dark side of others, ostracizing them and making them social pariahs.
Take, for example, the phenomenon of the pick-up artist. Many have advocated for their complete removal from polite society. Any decent person wouldn’t think of associating with such evil individuals, let alone allowing themselves to be seduced by one of them.
Yet there are a few small voices who note that perhaps a zero-tolerance policy is not the way to solve the problem. We shouldn’t tolerate the activities or the ideas, certainly. But we should tolerate the individuals themselves – at least enough to try to help them. These are the people with low self-esteem who, according to Jung, keep more of themselves in shadow — in the dark side — than not.
For a person who is constantly picked on in school, made to feel worthless at work, denied healthy friendships and relationships, the idea of becoming a pick-up artist might become very attractive. It is a subtle source of power that can be used very effectively. Yes, this power comes from a negative place, but most of us just want to be accepted. When acceptance is hard to come by, we’re more likely to take it from a questionable source.
Perhaps we’ve become too quick to accuse and too quick to punish. While the anonymity of the internet allows us ample opportunity for vigilante justice, it can also prevent us from seeing the other side of the story. If we look at darkness as the other side of light, rather than an individual’s only quality, maybe we’ll be more likely to see past that darkness and in turn help that person overcome themselves.
We’ve seen plenty of other recent instances of the dark side being given the opportunity to take over. People such as Jian Gomeshi and Bill Cosby, for example. While it’s difficult to know what’s going on in the head of anyone who commits such atrocities, one might speculate that being in a public position where you are perceived as a beacon of light, might give the shadow the internal pressure and stress that it requires to grow, eventually leading it to burst out as acts against other people.
We can all learn from these many examples. As cliché as it sounds, there is no light without darkness, and no darkness without light. We all need to be allowed to embrace our darkness, to make mistakes and to occasionally indulge in acts that aren’t necessarily charitable or moral. But that’s not to say there aren’t constructive ways to acknowledge the darkness within.
When we embrace our own darkness we show others that it is, in fact, okay to embrace theirs...
How to Embrace Your Dark Side
The first thing to do is become aware of your dark side. The negative aspects of your personality are often easy to identify. Nobody is cheerful and charitable 100 percent of the time, but you have to be conscious enough to actually be aware of the mood you’re in when you’re in it — often not the easiest thing to do. Anger and jealousy are negative emotions that both have well-documented usefulness in other areas. The key to harnessing such emotions for good is being honest with yourself and being able to identify where they come from.
Jealousy comes in two types: benign and malicious. Benign jealousy is jealousy that clearly comes from a desire to achieve goals. If you have an attainable goal, such as running a marathon, but your friend runs a marathon before you, you might feel jealous of that friend. This type of benign jealousy serves as further motivation for you to keep training and run your own race.
Malicious jealousy is the type of jealousy you feel when you want to hurt someone else for their achievements. It’s easy to turn malicious jealousy into benign jealousy – just identify the thing of which you are actually envious. Then, focus on going after that desire, rather than hurting someone who has it. This example shows us, again, that they key to overcoming negative emotions is recognizing them. The first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one.
Anger can also be used constructively. People tend to have more positive views of risk-taking behaviour when they’re angry. These are the same kinds of risks that we might be more willing to take if we’re excited or happy. If we’re angry at not being able to pay the bills, we might be more motivated to search for a better job. We might join an activist group for better wages, or to start our own small business on the side, in order to provide the products or types of services we feel are lacking.
The above is a good example of anger at something outside of your control. But what if you’re angry at another person? Again, it’s all about identifying the source of your anger. This might take more effort, but if you can understand what made you angry, you’ll be better equipped to move past your negative feelings and work on improving the situation through a means more constructive than violence.
A dark side can encompass many things. Because light and darkness are so subjective, what might be a negative trait to one person might be positive to another. While it’s easy to think that we have to suppress our dark side in order to be loved and accepted, the truth is much more complex – and much more forgiving.
When we embrace our own darkness with occasional indulgences and harness the power of negative thoughts for productivity, we not only remind ourselves that it’s okay to embrace the dark side from time to time, we demonstrate this to others as well, thus actually helping other people through this act of higher consciousness.