“Owning your own shadow”-that’s the title of an 118-page book by Robert Johnson, a psychotherapist, and its one of the first books I read on depth psychology. There is so much to offer in this small book that my words will not suffice to recommend it, but it is a nest egg of wisdom that has been immensely valuable to me.

I’ve thought about the goal of therapy, and if someone asks me “What are you trying to do?” I might answer that I’m trying to facilitate my client’s desire to change. There are many things that people want: perhaps someone wants a better relationship, perhaps one is grieving a loss, maybe one wants to understand oneself better, or to be more motivated, or to function better in society.

These are all worthwhile and I can sum up my aim like so: I want to make life bigger. By that I mean more expansive, more inclusive, filled with a vitality of purpose so that one pursues what one most wants in life, one’s innermost desire. I also want people to understand themselves better and to understand others too so that they might be less reactive. One will have more choice in how to respond to challenging situations, as well as a greater range of emotions and flexibility, to fully experience happiness and joy as well as life’s hardships. In short I want it all, for myself and for my clients.

Robert Johnson writes of each person’s ethical responsibility to know one’s Shadow and how not to project our own unwanted qualities onto others. In short the shadow represents all the disused or unwanted parts of ourselves that are unconscious-that we are unaware of. Some traits are individually suppressed and others collectively.

As a member of society, for instance, there are certain traits that are suppressed for the good of the whole, such as aggression. In 21st-century society acceptable aggression is at a low level, yet had one been born in 1st century Rome, for example, the level of accepted aggression might be different then. It might have been acceptable, celebrated even, to display aggression at times in society. When one travels one notices differences in how people express themselves.

I lived in Israel for eight years and I traveled in several other countries in the Middle East. People there are more emotionally expressive, compared to the west, to where one might guess that two people are arguing-from our western vantage point-when they’re just having a conversation. People there typically talk in closer proximity to one another as well, so there is a different sense of the amount of physical space that one needs around oneself. In the US people, on average, would not be comfortable with that degree of physical closeness or that level of emotional intensity. The US, like much of Europe, tends to be “cooler” in expression, more reserved emotionally and physically not in such close proximity. Is one style better than the other? No they’re only different and I’m sure you can find many other examples-cultural differences that you’ve noticed-from all over the world.

The point is that people are similar at base and we are capable of all these expressions and qualities and yet only some are accepted in our culture, and from our particular vantage point. On a personal level, a family is a small microcosm, a universe in itself, and some personality traits were acceptable (or emphasized and praised) in your family while others were not. Let’s take a boy: this boy may have been raised never to cry and never to show emotion- “Be a man, never cry and never let them see you upset.” Or a girl may have been raised to be passive- “Don’t speak up, don’t talk back.”

These qualities are then “put into the box,” into the unconscious, as these things were not rewarded by our families. Rather the boy’s stoicism was emphasized and the girl’s passivity. They might identify with these qualities, the ones that were emphasized- “this is me.” The boy learns not to be emotional-no that couldn’t be him-while the girl learns not to be forthright-that couldn’t be her either. A some point the boy, now a man, realizes he is emotional sometimes, maybe a lot of the time. The woman realizes that she is forthright too. The problem is that these qualities, and all the others that were pushed down, didn’t go away. They want recognition and a place in one’s life as well. The unlived life calls.

Carl Jung wrote that up until about age 35 life is devoted to the ego and to mastery of the world. We learn how to be competent, how to get around and how to achieve a measure of success in the circumstances that we find ourselves in. At least we learn how to survive. We learn the game and we rely on our strengths-on what we are good at and what has been emphasized in our personalities. Then sometime in our 30’s, most likely, we desire to experience the other half of life, the part that’s been pushed down, the undeveloped, the downtrodden. If one has been practical and rational, perhaps one desires to travel, to create art, to dance. Maybe one wants to start a barfight and make poor decisions too. If one has been wild and carefree then perhaps one has a desire to settle, to establish community, to tend a garden. We want to live the parts that have been missing, that have actually been with us all along. Without consciousness this process can be dangerous-one’s whole life is upended, depression and anxiety might surface as old habits do not bring us the same content as they once did and as we turn, perhaps, to destructive behaviors and vices to soothe our disquiet.

The unconscious wants to be included, through art and dreams for instance. It wants to be a part of one’s life, the new life. Oftentimes when someone comes in to see me it is because they have lost their way in a sense, they’re confused, and they are looking to (re)discover or (re)connect to a part of themselves. A part they thought they had lost. So, as a depth therapist, I have them start to pay attention to the unconscious, to the parts of themselves that need more airtime and a place at the table. I have them record their dreams and engage in creative pursuits to nurture the part of themselves that wants to grow, evolve, create and to change. They walked in the door for a reason and it is my job to hep them find that reason.

The unconscious wants to become conscious, despite our own fears and limitations about these undeveloped parts of ourselves. What was once told to me is that the conscious also wants to become unconscious. The known wants to become unknown.

(More to come…)