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Exploring the Shadow: Instincts in “Wolf” (Part II)

wolves055_1986[Part 2 of a 4-part series]

In Part I, we looked at the Shadow as it turns up in our unlived lives. In our further exploration, we’re going to look at Shadow and our instincts. As Dr. Joe Burgo says,
“Freud believed human beings were driven largely by instinct (the Id). As we become “civilized,” the external      restraints and limits imposed by society upon the gratification of those instincts are internalized as the Superego. The Ego must navigate between the two and constantly tries to reconcile their conflicting demands.”

So what happens is much of our instinctive nature goes into “the long black bag we drag behind us,” where all of our rejected parts go.

Some of us tend to romanticize babies, infants and children, but we can see when they’re frustrated they get angry and can bite, hit, throw a tantrum or simply take what they want. They need to be taught not to do those things and to be considerate of others; in other words, to be socialized.

Through being socialized, we come to think of certain traits as bad, primitive, and even taboo: greediness, gluttony, lust, wanting, selfishness, impulsivity, overindulgence, appetite, desire, anger. As “untamed” children, many of these aspects were civilized out of us. We had to learn “manners.” We learn to behave ourselves and accommodate to the external reality, and our Super-Ego keeps us in line.

For most of us, our instincts have gone into the shadow and we’ve lost touch with them. We override our instincts with our minds and then dissociate, to some degree, from our bodies. Because our parents or society may have shamed us for much of this, there can also be a great deal of internalized shame around these instincts. In addition, what we don’t deal with consciously very often ends up coming out “sideways” in ways which we have no control over.

There is nothing wrong with our instincts per se; it is what we do with them that counts. When we suppress our instincts, we lose some of our vitality, accuracy of perception (gut feeling), capacity for pleasure (sexual and otherwise), and ability to stand up for ourselves and others (fierceness), among other things.

The film “Wolf” (1994) was not received well, but it is an effective fairy tale (another take on the werewolf story) looking at where instincts have gone in our modern day, civilized life. Will Randall (Jack Nicholson) is editor-in-chief at a publishing house in New York City. He has been a “good” employee, compliant and diplomatic; his boss says, even as he’s demoting Will, “You’re a nice person. What are you…the last civilized man?” Will comes to find out that his protégé, Stewart Swinton (James Spader) has gone behind Will’s back and ruthlessly manipulated to get his job.

Meanwhile, Will has been bitten by a wolf while traveling in the countryside, and discovers he is turning into a werewolf. He gradually changes: he is more in his body and all his senses sharpen. Through his “sixth sense,” he is even able to perceive that Stewart, as well as having betrayed him at work, is having an affair with his wife.

Stewart also becomes a werewolf, having been bitten by Will. At any rate, we have already seen that Will was a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” all along, hiding behind his veneer of civility. A battle of sorts ensues; Will is able to access his cunning and fierceness to get his job back, and to stand up for himself. He takes his instinctual aggression and turns it into assertiveness.

Will goes to visit a shaman who tells him, “The demon-wolf is not evil unless the man he has bitten is evil.” We see the differences in Will and Stewart by the ways in which they express their “wolf-ness.” Will uses his instincts with a more evolved awareness for the “good” and Steward uses them for the ruthless gratification of his own primitive, unexamined impulses.

The shaman also gives Will an amulet to suppress the wolf, “creating a great pain and weakness while the wolf struggles to emerge.” Author Debbie Ford talks about our shadow being like a beach ball that we are constantly trying to keep under water. It takes a great deal of exertion and energy to keep the ball submerged. So, as discussed in Part I, just as there is innate vitality in our repressed aspects themselves, we are also expending a lot of energy simply in keeping those aspects hidden, which can be exhausting. Part of our challenge is that most of this is unconscious and so we remain unaware of why we are feeling so tired and drained of vitality.

In watching this film consciously, we can explore ways in which we repress our instincts. How can we bring back some of our instinctive nature into our lives and with it some of our innate aliveness? And how can we integrate this nature with living in civilization?

[In Part III, we will be looking at the movie “Collateral” and the archetypes of Hero and Villain]

Creative Commons License photo credit: BillRhodesPhoto

Exploring the Shadow: Instincts in “Wolf” (Part II)

Marla Estes, MA

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APA Reference
Estes, M. (2011). Exploring the Shadow: Instincts in “Wolf” (Part II). Psych Central. Retrieved on September 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 8 May 2011
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