Do we sometimes feel surprised, ashamed and scared by aspects of our personality?
Do we know those moments in our counselling practice, when we find ourselves acting in the ways that we are not proud?
There is something in us which sometimes disturbs our sense of security and internal stability. We do our best to create a safe environment for our clients, and all of a sudden we find ourselves in a place that seems to be uncertain. We are sitting in our bright and comfy counselling rooms, and yet, we sometimes feel insecure with ourselves.
What is this dark element that partly covers our self-confidence, makes us feel embarrassed and calls into question our professionalism?
Can it be dangerous for ourselves and our clients? Moreover, if the answer is; Yes, then why? Is it because we do not know about “its” existence, or we do not want to know that “it” exists?
“Suddenly I had the feeling that something was coming up behind me. I looked back, and I saw a gigantic black figure following me. But at the same moment, I was conscious in spite of my terror, that I must keep my little light going through night and the wind, regardless of all dangers. When I awoke I realised at once that the figure was my shadow on the swirling mists, brought into being by little light I was carrying”
It was just one of Carl Jung’s dreams, but he describes here how he intuited the presence of “another” in his psyche. Jung calls that other side of ourselves, which is to be found in the personal unconscious, the shadow.
Roger A. Johnson (1991) reminds one of Jung’s greatest insights which says, that the shadow and the ego have the same source and exactly balance each other. To make light is to create a shadow. There is no shadow without light, and one cannot exist without the other.
We know the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Hyde represents our shadow, which is the inferior being in ourselves, the one who wants to do all the things that we do not allow ourselves to do. Mr Hyde is everything that we are not. We prefer to identify ourselves with Mr Jekyll because it seems to be a safer option. If something happens with our emotions and we are acting with rage, we can always say something using various forms of excuses, for example: “I was not myself”, “It was beyond my control”, or “I do not know what came over me”. In fact, we showed the primitive, uncontrolled, and animal part of ourselves. We externalised our shadow.
We spend hours of our life sitting on less or more comfortable chairs trying to understand what goes on in others’ minds. We listen to them, and we genuinely want to help them. There was a reason, or maybe more than one that we have decided to walk on this path and fit into a role of counsellors. We can assume that the clients coming to us have fixed idea of our role as their therapists. Do we try to satisfy their expectations? Do we try to fill a role of counsellor according to our images and expectations? How long we can remain authentic?
Frieda Fordham (1953) elaborates on the persona as a collective phenomenon, a facet of the personality that might equally well belong to somebody else, but it is often mistaken for individuality. She (p.49) gives an example of the actor or artist with long hair and casual clothes, who is looked on as someone unique – a personality- while often, in fact, he has merely adopted the dress and habits of all the other artists of his group.
The hospitality, kindness, acceptance, objectiveness, empathy, compassion, congruence, competence – are ones of those desired qualities in our profession. So many good things and they all represent a good, bright side of our nature. Are there any shadows in our work?
As Fordham (p.49) says, “to some extent, it is true, people choose the roles for which they feel best fitted, and to this degree the persona is individual, but it is never the whole human nature. Human nature is not consistent, yet filling a role it must appear so, and is therefore inevitably falsified.”
Let’s imagine now, that we are sitting at the front of our client, and suddenly, we are spotting something which provokes a whole repertoire of unpleasant emotions. We just have noticed something in our client that we do not like, and we cannot find a reason for it. Somehow we might feel like taken by surprise; we did not expect ourselves to be weak in our “free of prejudices – good nature”. We had some expectations about our positive, non-judgmental attitude, and out of a sudden, we feel inadequate. Can we say that we just have met our own shadow?
Jung says that the shadow personifies itself. (Fordham, F., p.49). When we particularly dislike someone, especially if it is an unreasonable hatred, we should suspect that we do not like a quality of our own which we find in the other person. We might hate some feelings in ourselves that we always tried to ignore, always tried to push away.
It may sound like a truism, but we – the counsellors – are the human beings also. Apart from our bright side, that we want to explore and develop, we are also the owners of our dark side. Steven Page (1999, p.116) gives us some examples of ingredients of his own shadow that he acknowledged during an extended counselling career; impatience, jealousy, envy, pessimism, cynicism, a tendency to tease, unrealistic idealism, a desire to gossip or to be the centre of attention.
Can we add something more from ourselves into this collection? What about pain?
Maybe, we have lost someone or something in our life, and we could not stand a pain. Perhaps, we have tried to get rid of that pain, without accepting the whole situation we were in, and the reasons for our suffering. Now, we are the counsellors, sitting face to face with the client. The person is expressing him or herself, and we can hear the story that sounds familiar. We experienced something similar not that long time ago. Different people, different circumstances, but the pain seems to be very the same as we remember it from our experience. We know how to avoid it, but we might do not know yet how to accept it. There is a risk then that we would project our unresolved issue with our pain, into our client. We do not want to feel the pain again; we want to avoid it. We can try to ease the pain temporarily by ignoring its seriousness, or by injecting unjustified hope into the client. We can project our irrational belief: Everything is going to be okay, life goes on!
Robert A. Johnson (p.46) states that two things go wrong if we project our shadow: First, we do damage to another by burdening him with our darkness – or light, for it is as heavy a burden to make someone play hero for us. Second, we sterilise ourselves by casting off our shadow. We then lose a chance to change and miss the fulcrum point, the ecstatic dimension of our lives.
“A wound is raw and vulnerable, and when the salty tears of a client fall upon it, the pain may be too intense to bear.”
Page (1999, p.108) says that “it is to be hoped that work in personal therapy will lessen the degree of pain, but for many of us there will remain areas in which our own vulnerability will continue to be re-stimulated by clients.”
What can we do then, to help ourselves and enrich our work without taking away from the focus of a client?
Steven Page (1999, p.108) writes about the wounded healer archetype. As he explains, the mythological exemplary of this model is Chiron, the immortal centaur who was a teacher and a healer – but suffered unceasing pain resulting from a wound to his foot.
Page says further that we can take up a challenge, and find a way of working with the clients without hurting them and ourselves. It only becomes possible, when the wounds are recognised, explored and sufficiently integrated to no longer form of threat (p.108). When we decide to accept pain as natural part of our being, without underestimating its obviousness, then we help ourselves to understand our clients. We move from being rightly fearful to being increasingly respectful toward ourselves and others.
So, when we feel attacked by the unknown forces, we still have some time to make our choices. We can run away, or we can stay. We can choose to fight, or we can decide to negotiate. We can pretend that it does not exist, or we can accept its existence. We can opt to ignore, or we can choose to explore. We can also accept ourselves as we are, and give ourselves a chance to improve. The continuous process, the hard work to do. No one said it is going to be easy, but we know already – it will be worth it!
“So much energy lies wrapped up in the shadow. If we have exploited the ego and worn out our known capacities, our unused shadow can give us a wonderful new lease on life.”
Johnson, R.A. (1991). Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche. New York: Harper Collins
Fordham, F. (1953). An Introduction to Jung’s Psychology. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
Page, S. (1999). The Shadow and the Counsellor: working with darker aspects of the person, role and profession. New York: Routledge
Jung, C.G. (1963). Memories, Dreams, and Reflections. New York: Pantheon Books
 From Jung, C.G. Memories, Dreams, and Reflections, translated by Richard and Clara Winston. New York: Pantheon, pp. 87-88.
 Page, S. (1999)
 Johnson, R.A. (1991, p.46)