How do you find the lion that has already swallowed you?
We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.
In our last blog we examined Jung’s concept of the Shadow: what it is, where it resides, and how it manifests (or erupts, as the case may be). Today I would like to explore ways that we can meet and befriend our Shadow in order to better integrate it into our total being.
When Jung was asked how one can identify his or her Shadow, he remarked, “How do you find the lion that has already swallowed you?” I am fairly certain he chose his words carefully to make a point about the ferocity of the Shadow when we ignore, deny, or repress it. The Shadow is elusive and by its very nature hard to pin down, especially when we deny or project it onto others. There’s an old saying that we often fail to notice that which we refuse to observe. Our Shadow likes us where we are; therefore, taking notice and paying attention on purpose isn’t easy. The process of meeting your Shadow objectively and accurately requires consistent, sustained effort and focus, as well as honesty and a fair amount of humility. In this blog we will examine four ways to meet your Shadow: writing, drawing, identifying patterns, and projection. And don’t worry – you do not need to be a psychologist, author or artist to effectively meet your Shadow. All you need is focused effort, vulnerability, and willingness to be honest with yourself. Having a sense of humor during this process doesn’t hurt, either.
Before we explore ways to shine some light on our Shadow, it’s important to note common defensive mechanisms that keep us in what Jung referred to as the “fog of illusion.” There are three common pitfalls to avoid when trying to identify your Shadow: total denial, total acceptance, or erratic oscillation between the two. Denying your Shadow because it is not you at your best, which is reinforced today in our ‘StrengthsFinders Culture,’ represents your Shadow at its most effective. Denying something as valid or accurate because it doesn’t fit your ego “ideal self” is a very common, and very tragic, defensive mechanism. Likewise, over-identification or total acceptance lacks accuracy and objectivity, too. Both responses represent intense reactions in opposite directions, but extreme and inaccurate nonetheless. Wildly moving between the two, one day totally owning and accepting your Shadow and then the next day denying it, is both erratic and unsustainable, not to mention very difficult for those around you. What these three have in common is a lack of measured and rational acceptance, which then leads to integration. As you begin this process, take care to avoid these extremes.
Creative imagination, what Jung referred to as “active imagination,” is an effective way to tap into our intuitive side where profound awareness and insight await. Writing and drawing are two creative and insightful ways to help you identify your Shadow. When we allow ourselves to tap into this “right-brained” and intuitive side of ourselves we access creativity and a source of insight that, sadly for many of us, has been shut off since childhood when we learned that rational problem-solving was expected and rewarded. Well, it’s time for a long overdue recess break, so dust off those crayons and allow yourself to play. Invest in a journal or some art supplies and tap into this reservoir of knowledge and wisdom that is waiting to be reawakened. Imagine you are meeting your Shadow – what would that encounter look like, and how would you feel? Draw or write this story, and see what you create.
Another method for shining some light on your Shadow is to identify patterns of negative or destructive behavior in your life. This effort can yield surprising results, if you’re willing to take a look. A common theme for some individuals is a string of broken relationships, both personal and professional. In this instance, we often have a negative Shadow trait that we fail to recognize or “own” in our self. For example, someone with a poor self-image or low self-esteem may look for faults in others as a way to justify ending the relationship. Or, you may notice that something that was once a positive trait, being thrifty with money for example, has morphed into something more extreme and more negative. In this instance, a person might have an unrealistic perspective on being frugal due to an underlying sense of scarcity or a negative experience from childhood, and now hoard money to the point of self-denial. In this instance, moderating this aspect of yourself would allow you to bring it back into balance, and back into being a positive, responsible asset in your core being.
Finally, pay attention to your extreme reactions – what you tend to always notice and either love or hate in others. This process is a powerful and sometimes painful window into your Shadow. Projection is the process of projecting your positive and negative traits onto others. This occurs when denied negative qualities or positive aspects that you have, for whatever reason, disowned, are then projected onto others. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus taught about the ills of this dynamic and how it results in judging others:
Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’ while the wooden beam is in your own eye? You hypocrite! Remove the beam from your own eye first, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
Matthew 7: 3-5
In this example the unaware projector with a “wooden beam” in his own eye notices and judges others with only a “speck” in their eye. That process is the essence of projection: noticing faults in others while ignoring those in ourselves. Pay attention to the faults you find in others as they are, very often, your own.
So, drawing, writing, and paying attention to our own patterns and projections are effective ways to try and accurately identify our own elusive Shadow. As Jung points out at the very beginning of this blog, it’s difficult to find the lion that has already swallowed you. But take heart. Another well-known figure from the Bible, Jonah, was also swallowed whole by a whale. He survived for three days and was eventually spit out and lived to fight another day. Whether you prefer the image of a lion or a whale is irrelevant; what’s important to realize is that, chances are, you’ve already been swallowed. It’s high time you give your Shadow the time, effort, and energy it deserves to make sure you’re spit out into the brightness of a new day grounded on profound self-awareness. And while this image may not be pleasant – let’s face it, it beats the alternative.