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Documentary “I Am”: The Conspicuous Absence of the Shadow

Moss parkI Am, a documentary by Tom Shadyac (Ace Ventura) chronicles his quest to make sense of his life after a serious accident.  He puts two questions to well-known talking heads from diverse fields:  “What’s wrong with the world?  and “What can we do about it?”

The film focuses on quantum physics, consciousness studies and social activism, as well as the effects of consumerism on humanity.  Its simplistic message is that we are all  “one” and that by changing our beliefs, the world in turn will change; human nature is viewed as cooperative instead of competitive.  In my view, human nature encompasses both qualities, and for this reason, I Am appears one-sided, exploring only  the “positive” side of human behavior to support its point of view.

Deeper questions were never asked, such as:  Are excessive consumption, greed and ruthless competition in some way compensatory and if so, for what are they compensating?  Instead, the film blames “society”  for these issues as if we, as individuals, had not created such a society in answer to other human needs.  The word “psychology” makes only a few brief appearances in the film; the darker side of humanity isn’t addressed in any depth.

Instead, the director emphasizes being good and having positive feelings, the implication being that “negative” feelings are the cause of our social problems.  On the contrary:  in and of themselves, emotions aren’t a problem.  It’s what we do (or don’t do) with them that causes trouble. If we decide that we must get rid of or overcome  “negative” emotions, they then go into our Shadow, which contains anything repressed, hidden, or unconscious in our psyches.  This reflects the operation of  splitting, a psychological defense mechanism.   [For more extensive discussions of Shadow and splitting, see our blogs on “Man on the Train”“Wolf”,” Collateral,” “Fight Club,” and “Black Swan“.]

This film exemplifies a kind of “spiritual bypass,” where the goal is to transcend the darker sides of humanity instead of transforming them through the sometimes painful work of digging deep within ourselves.  Shadyac never addresses the root causes of the world’s ills and instead focuses entirely on “what’s right” with the world.

There is nothing wrong with understanding that everything we do has an effect on other people. There is nothing wrong with cultivating cooperation, compassion and love.  The problem arises when we impose those values upon ourselves as how we ought to feel, rather than examining our actual feelings and working them through.   Those “shoulds” and “supposed tos” become a kind of spiritual Super-Ego and the “negative” emotions become repressed, expressing themselves in unconscious, usually harmful, ways.

The film seems to suggest that we “just” change our beliefs … as if it were as simple as deciding to hold a different belief.  The greater challenge would be to acknowledge and integrate our own “negative” emotions so that they can be channeled constructively.   Rather than avoiding internal conflict by submitting to the “should” conveyed by this film, we could instead “inquire within” and search for the inevitable personal splits that reside inside each of us.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Swami

Documentary “I Am”: The Conspicuous Absence of the Shadow

Marla Estes, MA

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APA Reference
Estes, M. (2011). Documentary “I Am”: The Conspicuous Absence of the Shadow. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 21, 2019, from


Last updated: 15 May 2011
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