We see the shadow side of our nature in all that we repress, loathe or deny. If unaddressed, they take on a life of their own.

No philosopher, religious figure or guru has ever sufficiently answered the question about who we really are. Understanding the true nature of the human being has eluded generations of scholars. Yet at some stage in life everyone faces a ‘who am I’ dilemma. Mostly we define ourselves in the context of our surroundings and activities or our function and purpose. We are informed by those around us. We learn from others that we are loving, unforgiving, talented, impatient, funny: sometimes we own these labels and other times find them impossible to accept. Of course, feedback about our individual nature can be subjective, or a projection of what someone else wants to see.

Most of the time, we seem to operate with little or no awareness of ourselves. But if we heed Hippocrates instruction to “Know Thyself”, perhaps we should be trying harder. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed people are motivated by a psychological energy that pushes them to achieve psychological growth, self-realization, psychic wholeness and harmony. Knowing ourselves is essential to this process.

The part of ourselves most difficult to know is the dark side of the psyche or the side Jung calls the shadow side. In Owning your Own Shadow (Harper Collins), author Robert Johnson explains the shadow side as, everything that doesn’t fit into the ‘persona’ or the ‘mask’ we project. Johnson explains, our persona is how we would like to be seen by the world, a kind of psychological clothing that “mediates between our true selves and our environment” in much the same way that clothing gives an image. We can recognize the shadow side of our nature in all that we repress, loathe or deny. These may include moral discrepancies, lust for power, greed, cruelty, murder, betrayal and other things we deem abhorrent. Because shadow is unconscious, we often only encounter our shadow sides through projection. We see these dark sides of ourselves through other people and in places where we project it.

As we are exposed to society, we learn there are certain types of thinking, acting, relating and being that are unacceptable. Instead of acting out behaviour or thoughts that are ‘unacceptable’ we push them into the shadow cupboard. Sex is one example; often our thoughts and feelings about sex don’t match what is acceptable in society – because they don’t just disappear, they are repressed and if unaddressed, can take on a life of their own. The shadow side of sex is evidenced by pornography. As we get older and interface more with life our shadow cupboard gets bigger.

Jung maintained that unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself, or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. When we are conscious of our dark sides, there is always a chance to correct or modify, but when repressed and isolated there is little chance. Jung upholds that the shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act, he believes, is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.