Psychotherapist David Richo notes, “Our scared and arrogant ego has an enormous capacity not to know itself.”
He goes on to quote Jung: “The shadow is the negative side of the personality, the sum of all those unpleasant qualities we like to hide, together with the insufficiently developed functions and the contents of the personal unconscious… [The shadow] also displays a number of good qualities such as normal instincts, appropriate reactions, realistic insights, creative impulses, etc.”
[From his book: Shadow Dance: Liberating the Power & Creativity of Your Dark Side.]
The movie Black Swan portrays some aspects of how the darker aspects of the shadow self can impact our mental health and creative expression. The photo shows ballerina Nina [Natalie Portman] and her mother [Barbara Hershey].
In his Psych Central article “Black Swan” and the Recovery of the Shadow Self, Joseph Burgo PhD points out that the “decor of Nina’s room is juvenile, in pastel shades, with a herd of stuffed animals on her bed; the mother treats her as if she were, in fact, a young child.
“The atmosphere feels asexual and repressive; beneath the false and saccharine sweetness, one has the sense of emotions unacknowledged, words not spoken.”
Nina “has clearly disowned an important part of her emotional experience, undoubtedly because her false and brittle mother couldn’t tolerate its expression.”
Burgo goes on to note this kind of suppression / repression “has enfeebled Nina: the choreographer tells her she’s perfect for the role of the white swan but lacks the passion needed to dance the black swan with real conviction.”
Nina goes on to try various ways to gain more access to her “darkness” and be more “qualified” to dance the Black Swan side of her role – even going so far as to use the dangerous drug Ecstasy.
Exploring the Shadow
In her article and related book Archetypes for Writers, Jennifer Van Bergen writes about another aspect of the Shadow self, and using techniques to uncover “underlying pre-existent patterns, or archetypes, in people’s behaviors and actions. Eventually, you begin to discern a whole ‘invisible world’ where these secret lives interact, interweave, and form into stories.”
[From my Inner Writer post Archetypes for Writers: Developing Complex Characters.]
But artist Stephanie Tihanyi writes in a long and thoughtful post on the topic:
“Can the Shadow Self be ‘used’ to enhance your creativity, like a tool and be called on to serve its ends?. I don’t believe it can. The only way most people first become aware of or become in touch with their Shadow Self is in a time of intense emotional and identity crises.
“You can’t just tap into it when you feel like it…You cannot control experiences like that.”
She notes, “I had not heard of the concept of the ‘shadow self’ until after many years of painting it. At a time of trying to overcome intense emotional problems, I underwent counseling. I developed an interest in psychology, particularly trauma, in an attempt to understand and overcome my chronic inner turmoil and confusion. The best book I read was The Haunted Self, by Onno van der Hart…
“I came to realize I had been painting disavowed aspects of my personality for years without consciously comprehending it, all I knew was that it was important but did not know why.”
From her post The Shadow Self & the Emerging Self in Art.
[Also see more art on her site Stephanie Tihanyi-Artist.]
In our interview, The Psychology of Creativity, psychologist Stephen A. Diamond noted that we tend to dread looking “in there” – into our Shadow side – partly from a fear of “having impulses appear unbidden.”
But he adds, creativity comes from a refusal to run, a “willing encounter with anxiety and what lies beyond it. It is an opening up to the unknown, the unconscious, the daimonic.
“And it can be terrifying. The real trick is learning to use the anxiety to work rather than escape. And all of this requires immense courage, the courage to create.”