Harry Potter: This connection between me and Voldemort... what if the reason for it is that I am becoming more like him? I just feel so angry, all the time. What if after everything that I've been through, something's gone wrong inside me? What if I'm becoming bad?
Sirius Black: I want you to listen to me very carefully, Harry. You're not a bad person. You're a very good person, who bad things have happened to. Besides, the world isn't split into good people and Death Eaters. We've all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That's who we really are.
The Shadow Within Us
Have you ever said something mean or dismissive to someone you like, and feeling guilty about it afterwards, wondered where the hell it came from? Or maybe blurted out an off-hand comment that was…a little too sarcastic?
You think, I’m a good person, but why did I just say that hurtful thing? That’s not me. You might begin to wonder: is there a deeper, darker side of who I am? A hidden side to my personality?
There is, and everyone has this dark side, what the psychoanalyst Carl Jung called the shadow self. It’s the side of people’s personality they keep out of sight from others, that they repress, usually without even realizing it.
For example, Richard Nixon often presented an intense and boisterous front. But deep within he was actually deeply insecure and bitter, this shadow self later fueling the self-conscious paranoia that ultimately caused his downfall.
As author Robert Greene has written, what is fascinating about the shadow self is that if you can recognize it and make peace with your dark side within, you can harness its powers in surprisingly beneficial ways. You can be less awkward and robotic at work as you try to force your shadow into the background. You can be what he calls an “integrated human”, able to see and accept yourself as you are, warts and all.
Origin of the Shadow
People develop their shadow self as children, when they’re learning how to make friends, please their parents, and follow the rules at school. They start to realize they have certain personality traits that are considered undesirable, or even a little embarrassing. To fit into the group and be accepted, they learn to repress these “undesirable” traits.
Boys are supposed to be tough, but some have a sensitive, creative streak that they learn to plaster over with a more stoic façade.
Some girls may be ambitious and assertive, but they’re encouraged to tamp this down as they’re conditioned to be more agreeable and "lady-like".
Whatever traits people learn to repress, they don’t just go away. They stew within their unconscious and thicken over the years to form their submerged shadow self. And occasionally these undesirable traits leak out in certain situations, when they are stressed, tired, or even just a little drunk.
The macho man becomes surprisingly panicky, indecisive, or emotional, throwing a childish tantrum when things don’t go his way.
The girl that is so nice and charming talks behind people’s backs and even has a manipulative streak.
The shadow can manifest itself in other ways, too. You may have been introduced to people who are extremely friendly and charismatic up front, a little too friendly, probably because they are guarding their aggressive side as they actually try to get something from you. Or you may have seen people who are almost excessively self-confident, constantly posting their minor achievements on social media, probably because they have to compensate for some repressed insecurities on the other side.
And maybe you’re familiar with the most famous shadow of them all: Mr. Hyde, the murderous, violent alter-ego of Dr. Jekyll, the respectable and successful doctor in Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novel.
The Shadow in You
What about your own shadow? By recognizing your own shadow traits, you can integrate them into the personality that people know you for, and in a way, have better control over them in situations where they would otherwise leak out unrestrained.
One way to see your shadow is to look into situations in the past where your conscious mind has gotten a little lazy, allowing your normally repressed shadow freer rein than usual. You may think of situations when:
You drink too much or get emotional about something, and your mask comes off, revealing opinions you normally don’t express to others.
When you’re tired or stressed and it becomes harder to hide what you truly think and feel.
If you still have a hard time seeing the shadow within yourself, there’s another way: by seeing the undesirable traits in others that bother you the most.
Because often, as Jung put it, people project their own shadow self onto others, as it’s easier to magnify the flaws of others than to see those same flaws within themselves.
Do you hate pushy, assertive people? Maybe that’s because you yourself secretly like to be the one in control.
Do overly sensitive, caring people bother you? That could be the soft underbelly you try to disown.
Richard Nixon once said, “I hate intellectuals. There’s something effeminate about them. I’d rather talk to an athlete.” But Nixon himself was an intellectual, and a very insecure one at that. Wanting to be the masculine, domineering leader, like Charles de Gaulle (who he admired), he was ashamed of his sensitive, intellectual side and repressed it at every opportunity.
As a result, he essentially was always trying to be someone he really wasn’t. He had no sense of his true strengths, such as his tenacity and intelligence.
Contrast him with Lincoln, who also had both aggressive and sensitive sides to his character. Both of these sides brought Lincoln some embarrassment in his younger days, but sensing (correctly) he could not simply eliminate these traits, he applied his aggressive, competitive streak to thoroughly winning debates and his sensitive side to cultivating a genuine understanding for the common people.
Everyone has a different shadow self, but no matter what it is, it can be integrated and harnessed. Nice, agreeable people can develop the courage and tenacity they need to survive in such a competitive world. Tough leaders, hardened by the climb to the top, still can engage the soft side they’ve had to repress all those years.
If you’re an artist, there are certainly envelope-pushing ideas hiding within your deep dark side, too. As Robert Greene writes,
“The greatest art in all media expresses these depths, which causes a powerful reaction in us all because they are so repressed. Such is the power of the films of Ingmar Berman or the novels of Fyodor Dostroyevsky.”
Greene’s own infamous 48 Laws of Power is another prime example.
I’ll leave you with one final question for this week:
What could be hiding in your dark side?
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
– Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
(1) The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene