Too often when a relationship ends or you feel rejected, you start asking yourself, “What’s wrong with me?” Naturally our friends tell us “There’s nothing wrong with you! You’re so much better off without [whoever] in your life.” And on the whole I think that’s usually true – relationships can fail without one person being at fault or having anything specifically wrong with them.
But once you move past the “what’s wrong with me” stage, how many of us take the time for some serious introspection? I recently read a book called Psychology for Screenwriters by William Indick. While the book does deal with psychology as a tool to create better characters, it also gives a thorough background on the different theories of psychology. Reading about Jung and the “shadow” side gave me pause.
To briefly explain, Carl Jung believed that the human psyche has different parts. The “persona” is the part we show to the world, while the “shadow” is our hidden nature behind the mask of the persona. As Indick says, “The shadow is the repressed alter ego, the dim reflection of our unconscious selves. It is the dark side that is always with us but often unnoticed.” According to Jung, we all seek to find a psychological balance between these two aspects of our personality. To use a fictional example, look at the original Star Wars trilogy. Luke represents the persona while Darth Vader as his father is the shadow. Throughout the three movies Luke has to encounter/recognize his father the shadow, overcome it, and then finally learn to integrate it. The shadow isn’t a separate villain, it’s a part of all of us. And Luke has to stop denying his relationship with Darth Vader and fully accept his true identity to reach the full potential of his powers and ultimately triumph.
Now, what does the Jungian shadow have to do with breakups and introspection? I think frequently rejection brings out the worst in us. We lash out to hide our own hurts or become petty and spiteful. It’s not pretty. I did an Internet search about spiteful things people did after breakups and couldn’t believe how many I found, or how bad they got!
Everyone has a dark side. Jung felt that the more we ignore or deny that aspect of our personality, the more it builds up in repressed fury. He wrote, “Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it…But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.” When the shadow isn’t allowed a form of expression it can overwhelm a person. Look at Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – another fictional illustration of the shadow side. Dr. Jekyll must ultimately integrate the shadow into his conscious life. If Hyde assumes control and overtakes the rational persona, “the conscious becomes the slave of the autonomous shadow”
I joke that as a writer I have more of a dark side than most people, but I often wonder if that joke has a firm basis in reality. After all, look at the history of some of the greatest writers: Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf. Their lives didn’t have happy endings. Jung apparently had the same theory: “…in spite of its function as a reservoir for human darkness – or perhaps because of this – the shadow is the seat of creativity.”
I’m definitely not proud of some of my behavior in response to breakups or rejections, but I’m hoping recognizing that and learning from it can help make a positive difference in the future. Reading about the shadow made me realize our dark sides aren’t necessarily something to fear. What’s worse is not acknowledging them at all. I think that’s where so much pain and lingering torment comes from – repressed emotions. If we take a moment to shed some light on our shadow sides (pun intended), then maybe we can deal productively with what we find and make some changes. Because while there may be nothing wrong with you or me in terms of why a particular breakup or rejection happened, none of us are perfect. Examining those imperfections instead of hiding from them may help us to cope better with rejection next time it happens. At the very least you’ll have an individual answer to “what’s wrong with me.” And you can add, “Yes, I may have these flaws, but I’m working on them.”