Light and Shadow

When we talk about the past, it’s really easy to go one of two ways: We can either look at the past with a golden hue, regarding everything with fondness of for the days gone by; or, we can look toward the past with pangs of regret and remorse, as if a raincloud was hanging over our entire life experience. Both views of the past can be valuable in moderation. We run into trouble when we take an unbalanced view that leans toward one or the other.

In the last ten years, psychologists have started looking at the value of intentionally visiting the past and how it can contribute to happiness. This has given rise to a positive psychology concept called “savoring”. By savoring past experiences, and sharing them with others, brain science suggests that we actually strengthen positive brain patterns (also referred to as samscara, or neuroplasticity). Practiced over time, the strengthening and creation of new positive samscara makes positive thinking easier, and ultimately raises our mood – our happiness setpoint.

Although neuroscience and positive psychology research suggests that focusing on positive experiences (both in the past and the present) can create happiness, there is also a danger. In my counseling practice, I’ve noticed that clients who look at life with a sort of Pollyanna or Norman Rockwell paradigm are likely to be able to sustain a positive mood, at least superficially, for a short period of time. However, there is a danger in taking on this mindset, despite how good and empowering it may feel at first. Carl Jung, a Swiss psychologist who pioneered the study of the unconscious, cautioned about filtering out the negative aspects of life to focus only on the positive. Although he recognized the value of positive emotions, he also emphasized the importance of looking at the negative—what he would call the “shadow.”

The trouble with ignoring the more shadowy aspects of our life experiences and personality is that it sets us up for drama and surprises. In fact, the more we try to silence our shadow side, the louder it will become. Just like the foreground, the shadow demands to be seen and acknowledged. As we ignore our own shadow, we also become more intolerant toward others. As Carl Jung said, “Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.”

Indeed, there is much value in recognizing both the light and the darkness that is experienced in the world. Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not advocating that anyone adopt a depressed or somber experience. I do not think there is much value in calling forth rainclouds and inviting our inner Eeyore to take over. Instead, I suggest that we take a more balanced approach and recognize that Forrest Gump was right — “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.”

As we learn to develop awareness and acceptance that there is light and darkness in our life experience, we eventually can find peace somewhere in the middle.

“To confront a person with his shadow is to show him his own light. Once one has experienced a few times what it is like to stand judgingly between the opposites, one begins to understand what is meant by the self. Anyone who perceives his shadow and his light simultaneously sees himself from two sides and thus gets in the middle.” –Carl Jung

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Jeremy Savage, MA, LPC

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