This post explores my thoughts around our own unconscious processes and desires, and looks at their impact on children, who are literally absorbing everything we say as the whole truth. It is based on an earlier email to a group forum I no longer haunt, so some of it may seem a little “context specific”. I think this subject is an extremely important one for parents to explore, so do bear with me, and read on to the end.
Want to share something I have learned endlessly from, and was recently reminded about by a post from Rahul.
Its the “shadow aspect”. Its a Jungian funda.
The formal descriptions and theories can be found. That is, if anyone is obsessed with psychology.
Otherwise, to make a long story short, “we cannot comprehend what we don’t have a mental scale for”. So, if you think I’m mean, its basically because there is meanness in you. If you think I’m a grnius, its because there is a genius in you. And so on.
How is this relevant to our lives?
There are aspects of ourselves we are aware of, and others we are not. The ones we are not are our shadow, and it contains the baggage of a whole load of “shoulds” (among other things). So, if I’m told, I shouldn’t be dishonest, I don’t “register” my dishonest behaviour, and think of myself as honest. However, there is unconscious unease around this as the unacknowledged in us piles up, and to relieve it I see dishonesty in the world and criticize it. Similarly, if I’ve been taught to be modest, I will see the genius or glamour in others without being able to acknowledge it in myself.
What disturbs, awes, or in any other way impacts us the most is what we suppress the most in ourselves. This process of seeing disowned aspects of ourselves in others is referred to as projection. Essentially everything we perceive is a projection. Every quality we understand exists within us. Violence existed in the Mahatma. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have understood it and had such a strong response to it. So its not always bad either.
Ooookay, I’m really skimming over a lot and maybe I’ll elaborate later when I have more time, but I want to bring up its significance in parenting/schooling, which is something few people realize.
We project a lot of things on people all the time. For example, someone may simply be stating a perspective, but when I speak like that, I’m usually avoiding something, so I see that person as avoiding something, while taking pride in myself (indeed feeling quite superior) that I am very direct. Usually, when something like this happens, there arises conflict on a conscious or unconscious level. End result, mutual dislike. If we are projecting all the time, we just become unpopular. However, when we do it with kids, the kid can’t afford to hate you, and the kid doesn’t have more “power than you” to win….
We project on our children, when we see them as naughty, rebellious, lazy, etc. Unfortunately, unlike in the case of two adults, the balance of power in an adult-child relationship is quite unequal. An adult can easily override a child’s defenses. This can and does result in unintentional “emotional abuse” if we are not sensitive to our impact, if we end up holding the child responsible for something s/he never intended, for example:
We proceed to give the poor child a lecture about laziness and getting his work done first. Then dad comes home. Finds said kid watching cartoons and asked if he’s finished homework. Then some random relative sees kid watching cartoons and comments on how kids waste time in front of TV and ignore studies. And so on. Poor kid is unable to verbalize something as complex and simple as – I find the cartoons interesting. The rest of my villainy exists in your head, not mine. Various reasons – kids find it difficult to express such stuff, contradicting adults already not happy with you, adults not willing to acknowledge that all that bad stuff belongs to them….. kids are dependent on adults and quite powerless in front of them and unable to “prove their innocence”.
This conflict can’t last long with such unequal power.
Eventually they “figure out” that they indeed did it purposely and that they are bad when they do it.
This is happening all the time with kids. Its part of being a kid and somewhat functional too. In fact, positive reinforcement is another way projections create an image in a child. “He is so clever” leads to a child believing he really is clever and leads to being like that, which is desirable, though too much of it can result in severe damage (and it does, with suicides after exam results, for example) when those beliefs are shattered. Sometimes, kids told that they are clever could also feel like frauds “They all think I’m smart, and I’m going to flunk this exam” and feel tremendous pressure to “live up” to people’s beliefs about them to maintain being loved, as they start associating all their value as a person with this incongruence they experience. This is also why its important to acknowledge and appreciate children freely for their emotional well-being.
All this is natural. We all went through this, and it is not possible to separate it from childhood (or indeed, life). However, being aware of these things helps us understand our own impact and moderate it if we think it distresses our child.
So, now what?
Firstly, its important to remember that no one exists without a shadow. So, you are not evil for having one. The objective of shadow work is not about eliminating it, but understanding its impact and working to decrease the power of some of the most dysfunctional aspects. Second is working to become aware of “hot spots” in our shadow and bring them to consciousness. Often, this is plenty to change behaviour, since the minute you are conscious, its not unconscious.
- Split a page vertically in half and make lists – “I am” and “I am not”. I’ve described this exercise in detail elsewhere, so simply pasting the link and saving myself a lot of typing. Here
- Make a list of “I am” show it around to people and ask for suggestions as to what you could add to your list – their contributions is literally a list of your shadow aspects.
- Using language that helps you own your projections. Percept language “I see my goodness/cruelty/stylishness/impatience/etc in you” or “I see the cruelty (etc) in me, in you” or “I think you are being very graceful, because I think I’m graceful when I act like this”
- Recognizing that we generate our responses to situations and acknowledging that: “I make myself angry when I see you watching cartoons.” in the place of “You make me so angry when you do this” or “I make myself delighted when I watch my son play”
- Examining and embracing in ourselves what we criticize the most “I hate injustice” – I do ignore myself being unjust.
- Examining and accepting in ourselves what we would like to deny the loudest “I am NOT angry” – I am angry.
- Examining strong labels we bring into a conversation. Who was the first person to bring in the word “insensitive” in this discussion? What were the strong labels I contributed to this conversation? etc
- When there is an observation about ourselves “I think you felt defensive when he said….” that we would like to reject “No, I didn’t feel defensive”. Leave a possibility open that others may be providing an insight into our shadow “I’m not aware of feeling defensive, but I accept that you perceived me as that”. Often simply leaving that possibility open widens the doors of our awareness.
- Shadow is essentially a phenomenon of our unconscious mind. Thus, forget it if you think you can discover your shadow through self-examination, meditation, reflection, etc. You can’t yourself access what you are unconscious of – you don’t know what to access and it will NEVER stand out to you. You will not be able to work easily with your shadow without feedback. The more you invite, seek, observe perceptions about yourself, the more of your shadow will be revealed.
I would like to invite insights from others, what do you think, how have you experienced the impact of shadow in your life, what are the ways you use to work with expanding awareness of previously unknown areas of self….
Unconscious processes are an area of psychology I have tremendous respect for, as it is impossible to bullshit what you don’t even know exists. I have found these insights into myself the most difficult to cope with (who likes reaching an acceptance that they are cruel?)
Thank you for listening to something this close to my heart about self-development, discovery and acceptance.