Why good people do bad things.


How many of us know who we really are?

Who amongst us can honestly claim to have never felt the presence of the darker emotions that prowl the periphery of our idealized selves. Rage, greed, desire, jealousy, hatred… these are but alienated, unexamined  aspects of the self that are denied access from conscious awareness, relegated to the wastelands where they are doomed to wander until called.

At some stage in the distant past I worked in the criminal wards at Valkenberg psychiatric hospital where men who were accused of the most heinous crimes (rape, murder, incest etc) were sent for observation and evaluation. At one point I was conducting between five to eight evaluations a day. It was both fascinating and traumatizing work. Many of the men I evaluated had committed crimes not because they were ‘evil’ (I have yet to meet an Evil man), but because they were either- under the influence of a substance, mentally handicapped (including head trauma),  psychiatrically ill (e.g. paranoid schizophrenia) or prone to acting out their repressed feelings of chronic powerlessness violently upon others. In hindsight I’m sure I saw evidence of the Shadow stalking the dimly lit passages of Valkenberg, but at the time I didn’t recognize it.

After working with many men for many years it has become painfully evident that within each man’s psyche lurks a Shadow. The Shadow can be defined as all those aspects of ourselves that make us uncomfortable with ourselves, the split off, denied, rejected parts of Self that are exiled to the unconscious.   Our“complexes” – those historically charged clusters of energy, organized around particular personal experience in our past — aid in protecting our Shadow’s territory. These energies form our first and deeply entrenched anxiety management strategies (projection, denial, avoidance, repression) to assist us in avoiding knowing what we don’t want to know about ourselves. We then project onto others aspects of ourselves that make us uncomfortable with or about ourselves. These energies and strategies feed the Shadow, often with terrifying results. Jung probed these darker recesses of the psyche with exquisite precision. He wrote:

“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. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected”.

“Psychology and Religion” (1938). In CW 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East. P.131

“We know that the wildest and most moving dramas are played not in the theatre but in the hearts of ordinary men and women who pass by without exciting attention, and who betray to the world nothing of the conflicts that rage within them. What is so difficult for the layman to grasp is the fact that in most cases people have no suspicion whatever of the internecine war raging in their unconscious. If we remember that there are many people who understand nothing at all about themselves, we shall be less surprised at the realization that there are also people who are utterly unaware of their actual conflicts”.

“New Paths in Psychology” (1912). In CW 7: Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. P.425

At times it appears that we are all recovering children, stumbling about in big bodies, in big roles with big consequences. The only variance between us appears to be our tensile strength, our resilience, our will to become. The challenge then is to begin to reclaim our personal authority, to realize that we are not our history, not only what happened to us and how it all got internalized. We are also our aspirations. We are what wishes to come into the world through us.

The Shadow is not something to defend against, but to be met head-on, explored, eventually integrated into the whole of us, for when we meet our Shadow, there we are most fully in the game, most completely in the arena in which meaning is won or lost, and life more fully lived.

(3:51 am)…hmm, perhaps Erikson was talking rubbish.

About the author

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Jamie Elkon http://shrinkrap.co.za/

The author can be found rummaging through life looking for nourishment in the early hours of the morning. He is slowly going sane by using his actual life and relationships to wake up.He lives in Cape Town with his teenaged daughter, two bassett hounds named Thelma and Louise and Digit... the cat. He hugs trees, has experienced numerous dark nights of the soul, collects incorrect Chinese packaging and tracks curious things to their lair.

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