Free Therapy # 42: ‘We Cannot Change Our Shadow Until We Accept and Embrace It’

“There is no light without shadow and no psychic wholeness without imperfection. To round itself out life…calls not for perfection but for completeness and for this the ‘thorn in the flesh’ is needed, the suffering of defects without which there is no progress and no ascent.” – Carl Jung

My wife and I recently returned to our home in Redding from the tiny, idyllic town of Yachats, a magical, little village centered along an especially gorgeous stretch of the Oregon coast, a drive that usually takes about six hours.

It was late, about 9:30, as we entered what is usually the home stretch of this trip. This section of the interstate is a long, wide descending, black ribbon that snakes through the Cascade Foothills and meanders above and around the dark, sleeping monster that is Shasta Lake.

I told Nancy we’d be home by 10, just before a neon sign with golden yellow letters warned of a traffic delay ahead due to extensiven construction on one of the bridges. “Or not,” I added.

Just then we came around the bend to find an army of cars and trucks lined up neatly in the two lanes like trains patiently waiting for permission to move, their red tail lights punctuating their respectful separation from car to truck to car.

We quickly braked and coasted to our place in line in the right lane, sighing with restrained disgust and resignation. We’d all been here before. Like Ben Franklin once said, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes” and occasional, annoying traffic jams.

I instinctively looked to the left and memorized the car and license plate of the white Honda Accord next to us, a method I sometimes use to measure the length and depth of the hell I had just begun. As the Accord began to move ahead, I immediately felt worse. It is one thing to be stuck in traffic.

It is several magnitudes more torturous if the lane next to you is moving while yours remains still, torpid, dead in the water. Each passing car is an insult and reminder that you chose the wrong lane. They are the lucky ones. They are moving. Your life is on hold while they are getting closer to their destination. And the faster they move, the more miserable I felt.

In less than a minute I was 16 cars back. “Crap,” my competitive mind thought as it helplessly squirmed. It hates to lose. And then almost like an answered prayer the traffic gods looked with favor upon me and my superior right lane team. Yes!

Now it was our turn. We were moving. “Come on white Accord,” I whispered to myself and like magic she came into view. “Praise Jesus.”

This was too easy, I thought as the cars smoothly came and went and just like that we were ten ahead and then twenty. Woo hoo!

And so I passed the time for the next ninety minutes, constantly keeping count of my current worth in the traffic jam that was my life at that moment. I remained ahead throughout, at one point only by eight or nine but other times by as much as twenty-three. Number thirteen was the worst. A sporty red Tercel with the windows down and music blasting, her long-haired, narcissistic driver gyrating her body back and forth for all of us to see as she passed us and then we passed her.

Happily toward the end, even she grew tired of herself, shut the music off and acted miserable and bored like the rest of us.

By 11:00 I felt glassy-eyed and stiff, my fingers cramping from squeezing the steering wheel and my bony butt begging to be set free from where it sat since Sutherlin, several hours earlier. Still, I hung onto my sacred joy as our lead had grown to what felt like an insurmountable 59.

That white Accord must be hating her life right now I thought. Poor, pathetic left lane losers. I really didn’t feel any sympathy for them. I wanted to win and in order to win, they had to lose and the greater their loss, the greater my victory. That is life, isn’t it? In ninety minutes we had moved five miles but I was at least seven or eight-hundred feet ahead of maybe a hundred strangers to my left and sadly enough, that felt pretty sweet just then.

And then disaster struck as the left lane began to catch up. Maybe it was all the cheating right laners behind us who had zipped off exits and then re-entered ahead of us allowing them to unfairly leap-frog their way closer to the heaven of he otpen road. Or maybe it was any driver’s worst fear: the left lane might be ending so all my neighbors over there would soon be steadily passing me by as they are forced to merge.

As my lead vanished, I became increasingly depressed. It just isn’t fair I thought. If I am losing, something must be wrong. Life should work out for me. Others can lose. That happens. But not me!

And then as the red Tercel zipped by, I knew the white Accord was soon to follow. And then ten, twenty, thirty more. How strange, I thought. When I was winning, it seemed perfectly fair. In fact, it seemed correct and right somehow, proof that the universe really was on my side. But now I felt betrayed. More than that, I was pissed. It’s bad enough to waste two hours of your life in a virtual holding pattern. But to be on the losing team?!  That was just wrong.

Later when I had suffered the final ignominy of losing by 103 and the two lanes had become one and we had crossed the bridge and then been set free into fast-moving multi-lane nirvana, I began to reflect on my experience with my shadow.

And I was deeply ashamed.

Jung tells us, “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.”

We all have a dark side. When we are proud, arrogant and mean, we are ignorant and deluded. “Deep down below the surface of the average conscience a still small voice says to us, something is out of tune.”

Jung explains we cannot come to consciousness without pain and we can’t know pain without confronting our shadow. And we must know our own darkness if we are to understand the darkness of others.

“Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”

When we see our shadow, we also see our light. When we admit our flaws and failings and accept them, we become more whole and in a way, more holy. “To become conscious of (the shadow) involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.”

And we cannot change our shadow until we accept and embrace it. Self-hatred never works. “Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses.”

Douglas Craig

Doug Craig graduated from college in Ohio with a journalism degree and got married during the Carter administration. He graduated from graduate school with a doctorate in Psychology, got divorced, moved to Redding, re-married and started his private practice during the Reagan administration. He had his kids during the first Bush administration. Since then he has done nothing noteworthy besides write a little poetry, survive a motorcycle crash, buy and sell an electric car, raise his kids, manage to stay married and maintain his practice for more than 35 years. He believes in magic and is a Warriors fan..

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments