As though glimpsing into the present, 19th century psychotherapist Carl Jung wrote in his book, “Undiscovered Self,” that most problems of modern life are caused by “man’s progressive alienation from his instinctual foundation.”
Look upon any subway, bus, cafe or bar and it’s obvious our innovations have isolated us within the private glowing auras of our devices. But what is this instinctual foundation we’re distancing ourselves from?
In the simplest manner, Jung considered it the complete and true self, the person that each one of us would be if we hid nothing from ourselves or from the world at large. Jung understood that the fear of not being accepted by our peers drives us to repress the aspects of ourselves we are ashamed of, pushing them into a dark recess of our unconscious, an area he called the “Shadow.”
Throughout our lives the Shadow accumulates, gaining influence over our conscious mind every time we refuse to engage honestly with an emotion or desire (usually because we fear retribution from our peers for appearing ignorant or flawed). Overtime, an ignored Shadow can become so strong that it begins to spontaneously lash out, overwhelming our conscious mind and forcing us to commit deplorable actions that provide a release for our inhibited desires.
“..if [the shadow] is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected and is liable to burst forth suddenly in a moment of unawareness.” —CG Jung
This is how Jung might’ve explained a husband who, after constantly feeling powerless in his professional settings, ends up raising a shadowy hand against the woman he loves; or why a celibate priest might eventually become a sexual predator.
But it doesn’t stop there. Jung believed all kinds of persistent neuroses—perfectionism, cynicism, depression, etc.—result from a disharmony between the unconscious and conscious minds. Like a desperate puppeteer hiding behind the curtains of reality, the Shadow’s tug can be felt in all actions we take.
To combat this, Jung founded Analytic psychology, a field dedicated to what he called individualization—a process of unifying the unconscious shadow with the decision-making consciousness, thus restoring wholeness to the psyche.
Jung considered this personal development of the utmost importance, believing the future of our species depended on our ability as individuals to resist the pressure of cultural norms that force us, sometimes through mere exposure, to adhere to principles and practices that do not represent our true beliefs. Failure against these collective forces leads us to fill our shadows as we engage in habits we don’t inherently or honestly support. And with addiction, narcissism, and loneliness as staple neuroses of our time, it would seem many of us are now losing this battle. Let’s explore some of the reasons why…
— Modern Causes Of Shadow Growth—
From billboards to televisions, and Spotify commercials to Facebook ads, we’re under constant assault from a stream of companies telling us we’re not good enough—that we have a problem only their product can fix.
Naturally then, we turn to the internet, an easily accessible realm where we find like-minded people from all around the world—people who will give us hearts and likes and follow us, providing that sense of validation and acceptance we so deeply yearn for in our mission of personal discovery. Several studies have been done to show that even a few minutes on social media can increase our levels of oxytocin—the “cuddle” hormone that makes us feel like we’re socially bonded with others—by upwards of 150%. One such study showed how neuroeconomist Paul Zak had a 13.2% increase from only 10 minutes of Twitter usage—an amount comparable to a groom at a wedding.
But this solace is a trap.
It can lead to a self-perpetuating tendency for curating our online personas in ways that make us seem more impressive to our peers: erasing posts that people disagree with, rallying behind trending beliefs, and posting pictures that make us look more adventurous, attractive, or popular. But behind this public persona, our passions begin to atrophy into meaninglessness as we either ignore them or distill their essence into these electronic trophies.
Since our most frequent communications with friends and family already take place on devices, our minds have easily adjusted to seeing people as digital objects—as images on a screen. Even our lovers are sometimes little more than pictures we swipe in and out of our beds.
Kurt Vonnegut said in his novel “Mother Night:” “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
And as we pretend to be our profiles, our “alienation from the instinctual foundation” of Self worsens. By outsourcing the aspects of ourselves that we identify with to this digital medium, the person we present to others in the real world becomes a husk of our Shadow, a formless persona we don’t feel comfortable using to connect to others with because we don’t feel connected to it ourselves.
For example, a video-game lover might ignore presenting that passion in favor of posting pictures of rock-climbing and yoga as to not seem too boring or lazy; but this means they neither identify with the adventurous online persona or the passionate nerd they’re afraid of embodying. This wavering of consciousness creates a weakness their Shadow can then exploit to gain influence over their personality.
This loss of self-awareness creates a disconnect when attempting to engage with others offline, making it more difficult to fall into the fulfilling throes of conversation required for two strangers to bond. Even worse, the real-time interaction provokes a sense of vulnerability as we become fearful that our deceptions and flaws will be recognized behind the mask, and it’s at this moment the Shadow seizes its opportunity for dominance.
“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” —Jung
This causes us to do what Jung calls Projection, condemning others who embody characteristics of our own Shadow so that we feel we’ve taken a stance against our own weaknesses. Thus our neuroses take over and we become angry, arrogant, or deceitful in order to avoid admitting that we’re flawed, that we aren’t really our online mask, that we don’t actually have the expertise and beliefs we might have portrayed ourselves as having.
And it’s this guarded nature and lack of curiosity about self and others that darkens our Shadow and pushes away the very human connections so crucial to becoming whole, to our “individualization.”
— Individualization and Reconnection —
“The first step in individuation is tragic guilt.” — CG Jung
Perhaps the reason why Individualization is so hard for our generation is because the process starts with admitting we are flawed. To say “I might have actually been wrong about this all along” takes incredible courage, especially in a time when we’ve built social-network reality-tunnels around ourselves and consume news that reaffirms our beliefs. But while we should be mindful of technology’s role in our Shadow creation, we must also understand that it is only a tool, and that we are the only ones to blame for our abuse of it.
Thus, only through willpower can we break away from the numbing noise of technology. By having the courage to overcome the taboos against any serious form of spiritual and mental discourse, we’re able to bring the unconscious to the surface. There in the quiet void we can encounter the Shadow, engaging it without remorse and thus lessening its sway over our lives.
This silence can be accessed by simply vowing to use moments of downtime as opportunities for introspection rather than scrolling for distraction, or through intentionally setting aside 20 minutes a day for meditation. We can also partake in what Jung called active imagining, where we engage in some sort of creative process like automatic writing, dance, music, painting, etc.
Jung believed these artistic outlets serve as healing channels for the unconscious, imparting that “in spite of its function as a reservoir for human darkness—or perhaps because of this—the shadow is [also] the seat of creativity.”
In this way we are able to take the torrent of abstract ideas that haunt us with their unknown forms and turn them into concrete creations that we can examine objectively, removing the personal shame attached with addressing our faults.
Vulnerability With Others
“Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.” —CG Jung
When we gain the strength to come to terms with our Shadow, we can then begin partaking in what Jung considered the most pure form of individualization: human connection.
As we learn to accept our own flaws, so too do we learn to accept the flaws of others. Over time it becomes continually easier to engage others in an honest and vulnerable way. Slowly we rid ourselves of judgment, instead learning empathy as we realize that—because no one is perfect—we’re all suffering from the whims of a merciless Shadow. Thus we tend to be more forgiving, feeling compassion because we understand how hard we struggle to absorb our own darkness.
And in these honest exchanges, we find our peers acting as mirrors who reflect our strengths and weaknesses back at us in a way that will better aid us in our pursuit of Shadow absorption.
Stop Looking For A Finish Line
Like a coastal beach under the constant assault of ocean waves, it’s important to understand that no matter how unified your psyche is, the tide of the Shadow is ever present.
To deal with this great irony, Jung turned to his mystical roots in alchemy:
“The alchemists…expressed this paradox through the symbol of the Ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail.”
The image of the self-devouring serpent teaches us the most important lesson of individualization: it is a constant practice, not something you attain. There will always be areas of yourself that need work, new aspects you repress and new parts of your Shadow that you must absorb and integrate into your conscious self. It’s the realization that Shadow work is never done—that enlightenment isn’t something you actually find, but rather a path you must navigate in every moment.
By balancing our time with technology, self, and community, we can gain the strength to resist culture and transform our technological tools from barriers that isolate into platforms that liberate. And there in the honest comfort of who we are as individuals, we can cultivate the vulnerability that will restore the depth of connection with self and others we have been yearning for.
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