If you’ve ever had a thought or feeling you were ashamed of, felt the pull of the “dark side,” you’re not alone. Psychiatrist Carl Jung posits that each and every one of us has a “dark side” or “shadow self.” This side is made up of the parts of ourselves that we tend to reject because they’re socially unacceptable, they don’t fit with the persona we want to project, or because they’re ugly — the black sheep of our soul.
One might think that the best course of action is to purge ourselves of these undesirable traits, and this may be a reasonable idea if these qualities could be exorcised. The reality is, though, that we cannot control our visceral reactions to the world, many of which make sense when viewed in the light of evolutionary psychology. To try to keep ourselves from ever thinking a judgmental thought, for instance, would not only be impossible, but even if we were to achieve it, we would lose the valuable skill of gauging whom to trust, whom to fear, whom to marry or whom to hire.
So if we can’t eliminate the darkness within us, then what? Most of us bury these shameful aspects deep in our unconscious, in the “shadow.” Burying them does not rescue us from their reach, however. In a Hitchcockian twist, they’re dug up again and again, or haunt us from under the floorboards, most often by projecting themselves onto others around us. When we see the traits we’ve buried in ourselves exhibited in others, we judge them harshly, unable to show grace or understanding for the things we abhor deep within ourselves.
Therefore, Jung states that we must learn to accept our dark side. This is a difficult concept for many people, including myself, to wrap our heads around. How, I ask myself, am I to accept the things in me that are dark, that are evil, that are unacceptable?
This question was at the heart of my short stint in therapy a few years back. I found myself feeling extreme, but entirely needless anxiety over little things and so decided to try therapy. A theme quickly emerged from these sessions — my need to be perfect, always be nice, never think a mean thought, (essentially, my religious guilt) was causing my anxiety.
As my weeks in therapy went by, I began having vivid dreams of people trying to break into my house, and sometimes succeeding. My therapist explained that these bad guys in my dreams represented my dark side, and the house was me. My dark side was trying to get through to me and tell me something. This was not especially surprising news, as my therapist was trying to coax this side out herself. “Let go of the ‘shoulds,’” she always told me. “Be more selfish. Sure, you may go too far and end up being a bitch sometimes, but that’s okay.”
Letting the bad guys in, listening to what they had to say, letting go of everything I “should” be and accepting what I imperfectly am, these were hard pills to swallow. The thing that finally made it easier was something I found on a list of ways to cope with stressful situations. One item on the list was accepting the situation you’re in, but clarified that accepting something is not the same as being okay with something. I had to reread this several times. How is accepting different than being okay with? As it turns out, there is a difference.
Imagine that someone close to you was hit by a drunk driver and became a quadriplegic. You could do everything in your power to make sure that the driver was prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, you could sue them for every penny they’re worth, you could send them angry letters detailing how they’ve destroyed your life, but none of these things will ever change the reality that what happened has happened. You can do all of these things, but you must also accept that they will not change reality. Accepting that does not mean that you are okay with it.
This idea of accepting vs. being okay with opened my eyes to how one can accept one’s own dark side. I can say, “I have very mean thoughts about people sometimes,” and I can accept that that simply is what it is. I don’t have to complete the thought with, “I’m okay with that, and I think I will start expressing these thoughts to those people more often.”
In guided meditation we are sometimes instructed to let our thoughts float away, like bubbles or balloons, in recognition of the fact that our thoughts proceed from us but do not control us. The better we become at meditation, the more our dark thoughts will start to make their way to the surface. This occurs as we learn to stop suppressing these unsavory parts of our unconscious, and learn to let them be what they are without fear of them controlling us. As they float to the surface, we can let them continue to float far away without being affected by them.
We must finally learn to accept the unacceptable within us — not condone it, not start living by it, but simply accept it. The benefits of this will go far beyond peace within ourselves, although that is the first benefit. The second benefit is the reduction of the psychological projection I mentioned earlier. When we stop struggling so much with self-hate, we can look upon others with a greater sense of understanding and forgiveness. We will begin to find that we empathize with people’s shortcomings when we are in touch with our own flaws, and are then able to meet them where they are.
Gavin De Becker suggests this practice of getting in touch with one’s dark side in his book The Gift of Fear for the benefit of protecting ourselves. He tells his reader to think of the worst thing they can think of one person doing to another (not to recall a movie scene or something of that nature, but to think of a scenario yourself.) Once you’ve done this, he says to recognize that that terrible thing you thought of came from you — your mind created it. He says that this is an important step in protecting ourselves, because we must recognize that evil thoughts are human, that all human beings are capable of coming up with despicable things, in order to protect ourselves from the people that would mean us harm. Accepting the evil within people is vital in being able to spot it. You certainly don’t have to be okay with people doing harm to one another, but if you don’t accept it, you can’t recognize it, and you can’t protect yourself or your loved ones.
One more benefit is the one we reap from the therapeutic release of these dark parts of us. Some of the world’s greatest art, music and literature were born of angst, anger, depression and hate. (Think Van Gogh, Beethoven, Emily Dickenson.) The things that could have been embarrassing at best, and destructive at worst, have instead produced some of the most beautiful and touching artistic expressions the world has known. Imagine if these artists had simply buried these feelings and denied their existence instead of pouring them out in a healthy medium.
Mr. Rogers reached millions of children in the world with his message of acceptance — acceptance of anger, of mistakes, of the less than perfect. That’s not to say that his message was that anger problems are okay, no need get a handle on them, or that hurtful words and selfish acts are not a problem, no need to get upset about them. His message wasn’t one of fixing or condemning what’s wrong, it was one of acceptance, a message that continues to bring peace to people of all ages.
There is much that needs to change in the world, and much we can each improve about ourselves, but step one needs to be acceptance.