My mother always tells me to smile and put on a happy face.
She told me I had a purpose… to bring laughter and joy to the world.Arthur Fleck
How well do you know your shadow?
Sometimes a person will be drawn to psychotherapy because they know that there is more to their personality than they tend to admit.
- something may have occurred that has shaken them
- perhaps some kind of breakdown in their social group
- maybe the end of a relationship
- perhaps they were asked to leave their job
If you are lucky you will spot that there are things about your personality that you would like to work on and address in a confidential setting before they cause complications. If you ignore those insights, then there is always the chance that you will lose your control over the situation.
How well do you manage your personality?
You may have become so used to doing so that you no longer notice, but we all manage ourselves. We all try to choose what we want to reveal of ourselves and what we want to conceal.
- In Jungian psychology, the shadow is that part of ourselves that tends to be concealed, while the persona (the Roman name for an actor’s mask), is the face we show to the world.
There are conscious and unconscious sides to all of us
In Jung’s model, from our earliest moments, we are developing our psychologies, and as we develop so our ego-consciousness comes into being. As it does so it leaves behind parts of the self which then become part of the unconscious.
One of the parts of the unconscious that the ego cannot control is the shadow. Calling it the shadow makes it quite simple to grasp as an image, but on a practical level, it can be hard to grasp the shadow aspects of ourselves.
What is my shadow made of?
The parts of ourselves that we would prefer to deny tend to fall into the shadow. They are hidden, in the dark, out of sight of us, behind us. But they are still there, exerting influence from the shadows. Generally, the shadow parts of ourselves have a more immoral or disreputable quality.
The shadow is made up of the parts of us that don’t fit so well with social groups and society. Jung considered that Freud’s idea of the id would be part of the shadow.
How easily can we grasp a sense of our own shadow?
It depends on how defensive we tend to be about ourselves. If you are more prepared to accept your limitations, that you have blind spots, then you will probably find it simpler to engage with these shadow parts of yourself.
By engaging with them, by accepting them, it becomes easier to integrate them. As they become integrated, so you become transformed. The energy that has been needed to keep these different parts of you in their different places is now available for other projects.
The shadow is the unconscious side of the ego’s intentions – and every ego has a shadow
The shadow, as Jungian analyst and author Murray Stein put it, is a bit like a country’s secret service carrying out activities without the explicit knowledge of the state.
Mostly we don’t tend to engage with our shadows. But if you have the capacity to know yourself better, if you are prepared to admit your shadow side, to admit your capacity for selfishness, greed and so forth then you will be changed by the experience. You will grow.
Persona is a term that Jung that used, and it has become part of our shared cultural vocabulary to refer to the person-as-we-know-them. It refers to the roles that we have, how we join in and adapt to both our work and social groups.
In Jung’s model, the human personality is complex and is made up of many different sub-personalities. In ordinary development, these different aspects and sides to us do not become too apparent. But under intense pressure, this can change, and different parts of our personalities can become more evident.
Certain kinds of complicated psychological problems stem from such splits.
So, in public, a person might be all smiles and bonhomie, while at home, in private they might be rather more difficult, critical and hard to live with.
Shadow and Persona in Film
The book and film of Peter Pan (1953) provide an illustration of the shadow. The term Peter Pan syndrome has been used to describe people who don’t grow up but remain in a perpetual state of adolescence. One of Peter Pan’s defining characteristics is that his shadow is not attached to him. Wendy has to sow it back on. Without his shadow, Peter Pan never grows up, he remains in Neverland with the lost boys. There is really no future development in this identity.
Joker (Todd Phillips 2019) is a fascinating portrayal of persona, shadow and complex psychological states.
The film Joker follows the transformation of would-be clown and entertainer Arthur Fleck into the character that will be known as Joker. Initially, Arthur can use his painted clown mask, his persona, and he tries to put on a happy face and entertain people.
…she told me I had a purpose, to bring laughter and joy to the world…Arthur Fleck
But as Arthur is picked on, and starts to fall apart under pressure from dissolute bullies, and the collapse of the social and medical care he relies on, things start to unravel.
…Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?Arthur Fleck
Arthur Fleck’s persona is initially constructive and conceals the splits that underpin it. Now the persona changes. It becomes darker as shadow aspects, parts of Arthur that have been split off and kept in place by various medications and his work give way.
Joker is an extreme character study of a person disintegrating
Arthur Fleck only wants to be acknowledged by society, and by the man he thinks is his father. But, tragically, Arthur only starts to matter as a person when he executes three arrogant bankers.
Joker is the shadow to Martin Scorcese’s film King of Comedy (1983). But whereas in King of Comedy Rupert Pupkin can apparently achieve the status he craves and become a comedian. Arthur Fleck cannot. One film is an ironic dark comedy, the other is intense psychological horror.
Joker’s psychology cannot be stitched neatly back together by a Wendy figure.
David Bowie’s Moonage Daydream
David Bowie lived by creating and immersing himself in personas; Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke. These were not roles he put to one side at the end of gigs, he lived within the characters. You can see in Brett Morgan’s 2022 film, Moonage Daydream, that off stage they gave him a place from where to answer interviewers’ questions. For some people that rigid overidentification with persona, would become confusing. We might lose ourselves in the mask that we are wearing. Bowie managed to work from the personas, and he would recognise when it was time to shed them and reinvent himself.
Working with the persona and shadow in psychotherapy
Psychotherapy is a confidential relationship. It is a safe space in which the less socially polite, more awkward, and less well-integrated parts of ourselves can be acknowledged and integrated.
Psychotherapy involves certain rules, a particular framework made up of appointment times, length of session and so on, and as a client or patient becomes used to the framework so they find certain things disagreeable.
- Over time these critical attitudes to the therapist and the therapy become hard to hide.
- They become an active part of the work.
In this way, the more critical and less polite parts of the client start to become visible. All being well this becomes a gateway to personal transformation as these shadow parts of the person are integrated within a transformed personality.
I think most people find it much better to air their critical attitudes and feelings about these things in a private and confidential place rather than have them suddenly break out in an important social situation.
It is generally much safer and less personally costly, to argue about your sense of guilt or injustice with your therapist than it is your boss, your elder brother or sister, or your father.
I have twenty years experience of working with people who are trying to come to terms with themselves, and with the different parts of their psychologies.
Having the chance to speak in a confidential setting may be crucial to coming to terms with these aspects of yourself. This may be the beginning of transforming and liberating yourself from your restrictive persona.
Out of this, you may be able to develop a clearer understanding of how your problems tend to develop, and of what you can do to change your approach to yourself and to others.
From these beginnings, psychotherapy and counselling may be the starting point to building greater insight into how you tend to relate to yourself and to others.
This may be the beginning of becoming able to create a better and more lasting way of living and relating to yourself and others.
Contact me to arrange a free telephone consultation to discuss how my approach might help you.