Apparently most of us now have far more self esteem than is good for us. Hundreds of studies have revealed the common fallacy called "illusory superiority", in which we tend to rate ourselves as being above average in everything from driving skills to popularity, looks, intelligence, job performance, honesty and kindness. In one of the earliest studies back in 1976, 25% of a million students interviewed rated their leadership abilities as being in the top 1%. This kind of distorted self image is very common, and I know all about it. I remember the shock at age 11 when I lost the vote to be class captain.
Most, though not all, of us think we are better than average people, which, of course, is a statistical impossibility. We can speculate that this cognitive bias has many advantages. It makes us feel good about ourselves despite our failures. It may give us the confidence to proceed with difficult undertakings.
Overweening self confidence has taken many who were utterly incompetent to the top. We may also gain consolation by claiming superiority in matters that we deem important, such as character or wisdom, to compensate for our failures in other matters, such as financial success.
To maintain our self respect in this unbalanced way, however, is potentially dangerous. It involves the suppression, distortion and denial of our true character. The course of our lives is ultimately decided by who we really are, not whom we perceive ourselves to be. The psychologist Carl Jung said that we all tend to suppress, or are completely unaware of, our weaknesses and shortcomings, to our great cost.
Jung called this bundle of repressed, instinctive, denied or unknown character traits "the Shadow". It is roughly equivalent to what is also called "the Unconscious". Jung said we all have a shadow side to our character that is often the complete opposite of the face we present to the world. We may be dimly aware of it, but we rarely know it well, and it typically clashes with our conscious sense of self. Nor is it harmless. The shadow typically sabotages our conscious goals and can make us fail in almost anything we choose to do.
Under the influence of the shadow, we are far less likely to admit responsibility for our failures, and will be more inclined to blame circumstances or other people or our upbringing. We may also admit to some faults to show off our self awareness, but downplay their significance. Or we may confess to certain faults we are actually quite comfortable with, to avoid facing deeper and more destructive ones.
Freud, who was Jung's teacher, had a view of the unconscious as a pit of seething sexuality that had to be both acknowledged and firmly suppressed for the sake of civilisation itself. Jung had a far more nuanced view. "What you resist, persists," he said. Jung felt that we needed to find a way of integrating the shadow into conscious life to be psychically whole. We have to try to understand the totality of who we are, good and bad, if we are not to be constantly ambushed and frustrated from within.
Jung said that, "Good does not become better by being exaggerated, but worse, and a small evil becomes a big one through being disregarded and repressed." The shadow is particularly likely to erupt in people who are expected to embody high moral standards. How often have we been shocked to discover the secret side of one prominent Good Citizen or another? The evidence shows that prostitutes, on the other hand, are not inclined to abuse children, if only because their sexuality is more integrated into their personalities.
Every good thing, every quality and every person, has a shadow side. Inflating the good is bound to result in a stronger shadow. Consciousness is the very best tool we have against inner and outer chaos, but we can guarantee that the brighter the light, the deeper the consequent shadow. Mankind now lives in the triumphant days of a 24/7 solar society, and the shadow that we cast over future generations is looking very dark indeed.
Jung said that the more conscious we become of our shadow aspects, the more we have a chance to correct them, and even find good uses for them. He said that trying to be a good person, to do what people expect of us, often clashes with our true character. This means that the shadow often contains some of the most creative and valuable aspects of our character.
Jung said, "One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious." I am sure he is right. It is much better to be whole, to try to integrate the light and darkness of the soul, than to attempt to be pure. The first is difficult, but the second is all but impossible. The shadow makes a formidable enemy.
Spiritual traditions and social moralities usually describe mental evil in generic terms, but Jung argued that a man's shadow is just as individual to him as his outer personality. It is not enough to beat our breasts and admit to being a wicked sinner. We have to get the know the individual character that is our individual shadow.
The first step is to honestly admit what we don't like about ourselves, and how bad it really is. Freud said we are all driven by sex. Adler said the lust for power was stronger. Jung rather whimsically suggested that our deepest vice was laziness, which certainly rings true for me. The shadow is typically about being egotistical (the superiority illusion) or hypocritical, being sloppy and lazy, blaming others for personal failures (projection), indulging in escapist fantasies, moral cowardice and gullibility, a preoccupation with wealth or status, being self absorbed and indifferent towards others, and the list goes on and on.
Another way to find our personal shadows is to look at our obvious failures. I know I've made three or four very expensive mistakes in my life. I don't know how it happened. When I was 22, I thought I understood everything worth knowing. That's the way the shadow works. It ambushes you when you think you're in control. I'm unlikely to make exactly those mistakes again, but I know I've got those character weaknesses. I'm like the reformed alcoholic who still has to be careful to avoid pubs.
We like to think we would do anything for the people we love, but a simple mind experiment will tell us otherwise. Being friendly takes little effort but most of us can manage that. Being sympathetic takes more effort, since it requires tuning into the emotional state of the other. Being compassionate and actually doing something to alleviate another's pain takes far more time and commitment. How much time would you give to help a workmate or a good friend, for example, before you felt compassion fatigue? We have limits even in regard to those we love.
The same dynamic happens in families. Most parents are immensely loving and dedicated towards their children, but I could see that I wasn't capable of that. I would have been one of those parents who felt too much resentment at their loss of freedom. This somewhat cool, dry, solitary part of my shadow is not very appealing to me or to others, but I feel a lot better admitting it.
Similarly, many of us are approaching the age when our parents may need considerable help. In the past, millions of people, mainly daughters, sacrificed years of their lives to care for aging parents. If it came to the crunch, would you? My mother willingly took on that role and enjoyed it, but I am sure she knows that I would only do that for her with reluctance, and that I would do my best to avoid it. I know I'm not as nice a person as I would like to be, but wishing to be otherwise would be a recipe for misery.
As Jung said, "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." Conversely, the more we admit our weakness, faults and unsavoury emotions, the more sane and well grounded we become. Most of us are not particularly bad, but this clear sighted assessment benefits both ourselves and those around us.
I've been acquainted with Jung since I was 17. I came across his collected works in the university library and as I could tell from the withdrawal slip in the back only one other person, a surrealist poet, ever took his books out. I am proud to say that in my own fumbling, slow learner, way I've tried to integrate my shadow as he recommended ever since. He said that the work never really comes to an end, and that it would be hard but enormously rewarding, and he was right on both counts.