Q: Which of your attributes are you unconscious of and therefore form your dark side?

The attributes I’m not conscious of, I’m not conscious of. They’re in the dark, unconscious and so, invisible except through their affects in the ‘light of day’ where awareness leads me to assume they must exist—that something is going on ‘behind the scenes’ I’m not fully aware of.

Our ‘dark sides’ are also our ‘dark energies’. When I’m kind, considerate, friendly, helpful, attentive, supportive, and so on, that’s my ‘light side’. When I’m angry, disrespectful, impatient, dismissive, condescending, depressed, and so on, that’s my ‘dark side’. It’s the dark side of my ‘personality’ whether I’m conscious of it or not and we’re all a mixture of light and dark, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, conscious and unconscious.

These ‘dark energies’ are dark because they are not ‘socially acceptable’, they defy cultural norms. Expressing them too frequently damages or destroys ‘good’ relationships and makes the bearer of these energies unpleasant and undesirable to be around. Therefore ‘good’, ‘proper’, ‘well-mannered’ people hide them, suppress them, keep them inside. Then if they don’t remain conscious of them, these ‘censored’ energies become part of their growing shadow self.

Another way some people avoid their dark energies is by keeping themselves ‘safe’ within their comfort zones, careful not to ‘push the buttons’ of certain people. They don’t venture into expressing things that might offend someone. They don’t take unnecessary risks that might force them to confront the less developed, less conscious, less mature parts of themselves, avoiding issues that seem uncomfortable, unfamiliar, socially dangerous. Sometimes, with certain people in certain contexts, the wisdom of this kind of behavior seems indisputable.

We all have ways of managing our dark sides and relating to others with dark sides, some of us more consciously than others. The less conscious we are that we have dark sides, the more split off, autonomous, intense, and uncontrollable they typically become.

I’ve written lots of letters to people I have never sent and never intended to send because they would have done nothing but damage my relationships. I wrote them for myself, to express my feelings, to give voice to what was going on inside me, to gain clarity about my raging emotions, convictions and frustrations—rather than stuffing them down, forgetting about them, pretending they don’t exist, or that I’m somehow ‘above’ them.

This, I believe, has kept me more whole, self-aware, and self-accepting. I’m more in touch with my shadow energies and thus, better able to monitor and moderate them without ignoring them or convincing myself they’re not important enough to remain aware of. While negative energies are typically destructive, though potentially creative as well, the insights underlying these negative emotional storms frequently seem very sound—worth heeding and acting on in some fashion. Typically, though, they’re not worth expressing directly unless you intend to risk damaging or ending a relationship. Some relationships do seem worth changing or ending….

When I’m consciously accepting of my dark nature, I’m better able to prevent my dark energies from dominating my behavior and damaging my relationships with others. So if I find myself feeling angry, frustrated or depressed, I might be able to talk about my ‘negative feelings’ with my trusted confidants without blaming them for my disgruntlements.

Q: Can you describe an example of ‘shadow behavior’ in a work setting?

Let’s say four people agree with me that ‘Solution A’ is better than ‘Solution B’, and that ‘Solution B’ will create problems and complexities that will delay and unnecessarily complicate matters. Also, ‘Solution B’ will create personal hardships for already overworked staff while ‘Solution A’ will mitigate existing hardships. One-on-one we clearly and easily agree that Solution A is good and Solution B is terrible.

Then in a key group meeting when some bigshot champions Solution B because it will serve his personal agenda or simply due to his lack of experience and competence—they repress their authentic knowledge and opinions and accept that Solution B is okay and will work fine.

They suppress their genuine insights, pushing their deeper convictions into their unconscious, compartmentalizing their personalities into fragments. As they stuff some of their brighter insights into their semi-conscious depths, they create a bigger shadow. They may take the resultant angst, inner conflict and frustration of suppressing themselves out on those they love; or they may suffer physical ailments from accumulating stress; or they may feel increasingly tired; or maybe something else. Keeping this material suppressed, willfully ignored, takes its toll in ongoing effort. This creates more internal stress and self-conflict, decreases authenticity and autonomy in general and often causes people to like and respect themselves less.

The longer they keep this up, the more habitual it becomes, so the more readily they continue to repress their core insights. People get better and better at ‘dumbing themselves down’ to avoid confronting authority figures with differing opinions. Eventually, they may seem a bit sheepish, or distant, or may more frequently become distracted, less able to maintain focus and concentration. Yet they typically get used to the situation and point to others doing the same thing in order to feel ‘normal’ and blend in.

To stand firm on my differing convictions, alone, requires ‘shadow energy’ in that I have to confront the tempting relief of suppressing my insights and swallowing the wisdom of my experience. It requires me to ‘swim against the current’ of ‘business as usual’ in order to create a new perspective or open a new course of action. Some ‘leaders’ welcome this type of attitude. Others abhor it, accurate or not. Others….

Rather than allowing my ‘shadow energy’ of fear, vulnerability, weakness, insecurity and self-doubt to push my best insights and convictions into my unconscious, I have to use my awareness to light a path ahead of me, avoiding the jaws of destruction as best I can. The recklessly stubborn passion, the self-importance, the brazenness I need to express myself creatively in such a challenging situation comes from my dark side, from my creative passion to fight for what I believe and care about against powerful opposition.

My ‘pleasant personality’ or ‘professional demeanor’ is not capable of routinely engaging in such boldly direct confrontations. I am forced to ‘pick my battles’, confront less dramatically important issues with greater disinterest and detachment; only become ‘intensely determined’ occasionally, when it becomes critically important to my top priorities. If I allow myself to get swept away by my convictions every time someone disagrees with me on even minor issues, I may be seen as a chronic nuisance who others will invite to fewer meetings.

So I never do away with my suppressed shadow-energy. I just develop a conscious relationship with it, preventing it from becoming split off. I continue to monitor it. Then I can discuss my frustrations with those closest to me without projecting my repressed feelings onto them, acting out my disappointments at work unconsciously, or unwittingly hurting those close to me for perceived ‘offenses’ they actually played no part in.

Some of the elements of my ‘dark side’ that I was conscious of may include my anger, frustration and disappointment in the leading authority’s incompetence and lack of vision, and in those I knew agreed with me but were unwilling to abandon the safety and security of keeping their mouths shut; my sadness, remorse and disappointment that I was unable to protect my hard-working team from working longer hours on fruitless tasks because I couldn’t prevent our carefully crafted plans from being derailed; fear that I might lose my job if I didn’t go along with a clearly misguided agenda; fear, sadness, remorse and disappointment that the whole project had been plunged into a morass of oppressive controls in spite of my more balanced and effective plans; feelings of helplessness, betrayal, frustration, disappointment, and sadness that I couldn’t prevent someone from damaging the quality of our products by compromising the processes we were using to build them; sadness, exhaustion and self-pity that I was going to have to work even longer hours on tedious administrative tasks; sorrow, disappointment, weakness, exhaustion, and helplessness that my joy of working on a smoothly running project had been saddled with an injection of overly-detailed regimentation that would yield more exhausted, less-inspired workers; all while needing to continue to model an upbeat, optimistic attitude that all is well and running smoothly. Ugh.

Q: Isn’t it artificial to lump some feelings into a category called ‘dark’ and others into a category called ‘light’? Aren’t these terms just baggage from some outdated psychological orientation?

If most people were as comfortable treating others impatiently, disrespectfully and abusively, as they are treating them with kindness, consideration and respect, then perhaps so. This would imply most people are happy to be seen by everyone they know as someone who typically acts with malice; that most people want to bring destructive behavior ‘into the light’ where everybody can see it. If the terms ‘light’ and ‘dark’ have relevance to human affairs, then there are some forms of behavior we’d rather keep hidden, less visible, less dominant.

If I had a less ‘artificial psychological orientation’, then would I consider love and hate, for example, as equally ‘light’? Hate definitely has a place and can serve a positive role in a specific context, but living with my kind and loving wife is an ongoing joy and enriches my life in many ways. If she were chronically abusive and hateful she’d be a repeated source of suffering and anguish. I definitely consider this latter ‘darker’ and the former ‘lighter’. Frankly, who wouldn’t?

‘Dark’ in this context implies destructive, abusive, disrespectful, and it doesn’t just apply to ‘feelings’, it applies to attitudes, behaviors and energies as well—the ways we actually live our lives. If you prefer calling them destructive, abusive and disrespectful instead of ‘dark’, then that may work just as well.

I assume almost everyone has sometimes found one person’s energy more positive and another’s more negative; one person’s presence more light and uplifting and another person’s heavier, more troubling, and depressing. I’m just characterizing these common differences as ‘light’ and ‘dark’—nothing fancy or even particularly ‘psychological’.

Q: Is ‘the shadow’ the same thing as ‘the dark side’?

The shadow is typically unconscious while the dark side is something we’re frequently aware of. In a war, for example, we dehumanize our enemies, considering them evil and worthy of destruction. This makes it easier for us to destroy them. It is the dark side of our personality that actually does the killing, and consciously so. In battle, we are consciously killing our enemies. That’s an expression of the ‘dark sides’ of our personalities.

In the preparatory dehumanization of our enemy, where we consider him evil, subhuman, vile, destructive and worthy of our wrath, we’re ‘projecting our shadow’ onto the enemy. Here I am killing this guy and thinking I’m doing something good by killing him. I may be condemning him for killing someone else, or for his ‘group’ killing others, or just believing someone who told me he or his group killed someone without ever having verified it myself. Yet even in the worst case where he actually did kill somebody, how do I know he didn’t think he was doing something good by killing that other person, just like I believe I’m doing something good by killing him now?

Except maybe in some movies where we get to see behind the scenes, I typically don’t know. Yet I’m calling him evil and myself good. I’m suppressing from my consciousness the fact that my behavior mirrors his. Thus we could say I am unconscious of my own dark side in this context, or my own ‘evil nature’. This illustrates the presence of ‘the shadow’.

When I’m not conscious of my evil nature, does it just go away? No. It ‘hangs out’ in my unconscious, my ‘shadow side’. My ‘shadow’ is thus the container, storehouse, and vehicle of my ‘evil’ or ‘darkness’ when I’m not conscious of it.

Because it’s so hard for us to accept our own evil and take responsibility for it, rather than blaming someone else for being ‘bad’, we typically suppress our awareness of it. Because we are so often unaware of our ‘evil natures’, they become our ‘shadow selves’. They become “the little black bag we drag behind us”, as poet Robert Bly once put it. We don’t typically see them but we know in the backs of our minds they’re there. We don’t usually look at them directly yet we can’t really leave them behind. ‘The shadow’ knows what evil “lurks in our hearts” even when our conscious selves don’t.

Fred might be well aware that he’s beating his wife. He’s aware of his dark side, the behavior of the dark side of his personality. But he’s probably not conscious of why he’s beating his wife, why he has convinced himself she deserves it, how he’s concluded it’s her own fault for ‘making him’ beat her—the inner forces that are driving him to abuse the woman he may really love more than anyone else in the world. He’s unconscious of his ‘shadow’, the content he and others have helped stuff into his ‘shadow self’ over the course of his life.

One day I raged at my sister when she sharply criticized me for interrupting her. I didn’t plan on it. I didn’t see it coming. It blind-sided me. She had been monopolizing family conversations, repeatedly interrupting me, for years. I believed I had been very gracious in allowing her to have her way and not make a big deal of it. I even imagined she appreciated my forgiving, lenient attitude toward her. And now, after having waited patiently for twenty minutes looking for a slight opening in her non-stop monologue to insert one brief point I wanted to make before I forgot it, she jumps down my throat for interrupting her! What?!

I exploded with a rage that had been accumulating inside me bit by bit, interruption by interruption, for decades. It was hidden in my unconscious ‘shadow’ where I had stuffed it. When she felt righteously indignant enough to take me to task for interrupting her as gently and unobtrusively as I could, I suddenly realized she had no appreciation for my accommodating attitude at all, and apparently no awareness that she had just interrupted everyone in the conversation several times each in the past 40 minutes. This ‘triggering event’ ignited far more rage in me than I’m typically capable of. It was suppressed and stored in my shadow and it broke out of me like a crack of lightning, erupting with vengeance.

A professional boxer or football player might use awareness of their raging darkness as a conscious asset. They will consciously use their darker energies, the dark sides of their personalities, to their advantage. Their completely unrestrained, whole-heartedly expressed fury, can give them an edge, a competitive strength. Various sports coaches have described the advantage great competitors have over very good competitors, as a ‘killer instinct’. This is an example of ‘dark side’ energies that we may be well aware of.

What we’re conscious of, unconscious of, or partly conscious of can be difficult to be clear about and subtle to distinguish. The more we’re conscious and accepting of our dark sides, the fewer of our dark energies we need to stuff down into our personal unconscious because we reject them, swelling our personal shadows.