Our natural inclination is to present an exaggerated version of ourselves in the public arena which we hope will make an impression. Often times the person we display at work might not be the same as the person we are at home. On our own we have no one to impress, but in public we wear a mask, so that we may create a desirable image of ourselves to others. Every profession has subtle agreements about the manners which are acceptable, and those which are not; and it is expected that the individual will adapt to these requirements without anyone having to openly explain them. A teacher, for instance, is expected to behave as a teacher should, with patience and knowledge. That would be difficult for an ordinary person to achieve; any propensity for impatience or hostility towards students would not be acceptable, and for good reason.
It is then the distinct purpose of the persona to suppress all of the primitive urges, impulses, and emotions that are not considered socially acceptable, and that, if we were to act upon them, would make us look unwise or immature.
The difficulty with the persona or mask arises only when a person loses all sense of self and identifies too closely with their professional role. Such a person will be entirely unaware of any distinction between himself and the world in which he lives. The result of an inflated persona, Carl Jung warned, is a ‘shallow, brittle, conformist kind of personality which is ‘all persona’, with its excessive concern for ‘what people think.’ Such a person has no boundaries and will sacrifice himself for the wishes of others without limit — not because he is a saint, but because he does not have the courage to refuse and endure conflict.
The persona is obedient to expectations; it is the mask one wears to convince himself, and others, that he or she is a good person. The challenge is that one cannot go beyond the persona until he or she has integrated into his or her character those darker character traits which belong to what Jung called the ‘shadow self’. The shadow is everything that we have denied in ourselves and refuse to acknowledge. This is everything that the ego has refused to associate with itself, but that we can notice in other people — such things might include our passions, sexuality, spontaneity, aggression, instincts, cowardice, enthusiasm, love of material possessions etc. In our shadow lurks all those sins, dark thoughts, and moods for which we feel guilt and shame.
The shadow is emotional in nature and naturally oppose the ego. It holds its own autonomy, separate from the conscious mind. The shadow is prone to psychological projection, where we attribute to others all our evil and inferior qualities that we do not want to admit are in ourselves. ‘A man who is unconscious of himself’, Jung writes, ‘acts in a blind, instinctive way and is in addition fooled by all the illusions that arise when he sees everything that he is not conscious of in himself coming to meet him from outside as projections upon his neighbour.’ When we notice an emotional need in others we can be sure there is a similar need within ourselves. Marie-Louise Von Franz writes, ‘If you feel an overwhelming rage coming up in you when a friend reproaches you about a fault, you can be fairly sure that at this point you will find a part of your shadow, of which you are unconscious.’
If we observe our resentment towards ourselves and others, and if we consider the moral aspects of our behaviour, then we have the opportunity to bring the shadow into consciousness, and achieve a renewed sense of strength and independence.
The real question to uncover your shadow therefore is “What may you not be?”