So, I’ve been reading and studying up on our “Shadow” personalities, the collective unconscious, and our personal unconscious. It’s a fascinating topic. I’m grateful, too, indulging my interest in personality type — a journey that’s taken me deeply into my own shadow.
On my bedside table sits Pigs Eat Wolves: Going into partnership with your dark side, by Charles Bates. I eat away at it (sorry) whenever I get the chance. It’s an awesome little book that interprets the well-known tale of the Three Little Pigs in terms of how it represents everyone’s development through life – and how we integrate the light and dark of our own personalities and our own human development. It’s an exploration of our shadow side – the unlovely and unlovable qualities we ignore, hide, or project onto others, even though we can’t deny them: they’re a part of our psychological makeup. It’s not until we acknowledge them and begin to integrate them that we find even greater awareness and wisdom. Then we grow.
In fact, Jungian analyst Robert Johnson, author of Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche, suggests we think of ourselves as standing on a teeter-totter, balancing what we honor and acknowledge (the good, usually) on one side with what we reject and hide (the bad) on the other. Culture, background, education — all of these influence what we place on either side.
Psychoanlyst Carl Jung said, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” He was talking about our shadow selves and how we disown what we consider bad and project it onto others rather than acknowledging those traits in ourselves. We just load them up on the “bad” side of our teeter-totter. Eventually, we’ve placed so much stuff on one side that it’s out of balance, and our only action is to relieve some of the overload. That’s when we act out, give voice to that part of us we disavow, and generally find ourselves in the grip of behaviors that are so alien … at least unlike the selves we claim and aspire to be.
Every expression and every experience of either side must be balanced by an equal expression or experience of the other side. In other words, for every action there’s a reaction. For every yes, a no. For every act of creation there’s one of destruction, for every kindness, there’s a meanness. It’s yin and yang.
So, tonight, Charlie and I find ourselves sitting with friends around the dining table. In our hands are stark black-and-white cards – the black ones are questions and statements; the white ones, potential answers … but with one big difference. They’re perhaps the most twisted, politically incorrect, off-color, and imaginative answers and combinations I’ve ever encountered, which makes them at times unbearably gross and incredibly obnoxious and mean – and hysterically funny.
I pat my face. It’s hot and it hurts from laughter. Tears sting my eyes.
With a start, I make the connection between my shadow work and tonight’s game with all its laughter and horror. This expression of all the dark things and the impolite answers and the so very politically incorrect comments is nothing more than a releasing of our dark sides in a safe environment. All of us around the table are passionate about doing good things for others, for upholding laws and affirming people. But for all that daily goodness, there’s a need to safely expend an equal amount of energy from our darker sides. By giving it voice, by acknowledging that, by God, we do house both light and dark, we can learn a lot by balancing that psychological yin and yang. We are, as Johnson says, also keeping our psyche in balance, maintaining the teeter-totter at its fulcrum, and acknowledging the parts of ourselves we don’t welcome on the “good” side.
In some ways, we are, all of us, a sort of Jeckell and Hyde.
So I get it. I understand why dark humor exists, why jokes are so quickly developed following tragedies. It compensates, it keeps us balanced, and it’s what allows us to be the kind of people we aspire to be.