In many of the great myths and epics, including virtually every example from the world of Hollywood and comics, the hero has an ongoing confrontation with a figure who represents their opposite – often dark, destructive, violent elements – think of Dracula, who embodies all that suppressed desire of Jonathan Harker. There’s also Darth Vadar. During his training in Empire Strikes Back Luke Skywalker is confronted with an image of Darth Vadar. However, when he strikes him down, behind Vadar’s mask he sees his own face. It’s an illusion in this case but it’s also a sign that he’ll have to confront the darkness within himself, his own fear, doubt and anger. This is surely one of the most literal treatments of the shadow, and there are many others. Watch the clip here.
One of the greatest examples of the shadow is that of Hektor and Achilles in Homer’s Iliad. In the final duel, Achilles confronts Hektor outside the walls of Troy. Hektor is dressed in Achilles’ old armour which he had stripped from Achilles’ companion Patroklos. So, the image the poet creates is one of Achilles being confronted with an image of himself, and an image of his past and all the history that comes with it, including his decision not to fight and his fateful choice to allow Patroklos to fight on his behalf.
So how do we relate this back to everyday life?
I’m not one for dwelling on the past. I’m not one for regret. But I do believe in learning from the past, reflecting on our experience, and I understand how unresolved issues from the past can exert a powerful influence on us all in the present. Feelings of hurt and loss, of abandonment or rejection can create deep emotional and behavioural patterns based on harmful beliefs around low self-worth that I often see manifesting in anger and depression. They can also give rise to forms of self-abuse and addiction – consuming excessive amounts of food or alcohol and other drugs to change the way we feel, or to stop feeling altogether.
We will also repeatedly find or create experiences that give us the opportunity to express whatever needs expressing whether it’s anger, pain, loss or something else. In this sense, our experience is our shadow, the projection of those darker parts of our mind which we project onto the world around us. Most of the time we’re blind to the real cause of our pain and our senses, being directed outward, tell us to look for the cause out there. As long as we do this, we fail to grasp the true value of the shadow, as we identify it as something ‘Other’.
I’ve seen this with gamblers and people struggling with obesity. Sure, if you want to lose weight you probably need to start eating healthy food and exercising, but without tackling the real cause of unquenchable dissatisfaction the problem will still be there. I once met a gambler who lost serious amounts of money on a regular basis, far more than you or I probably live on. The thing was, this guy actually new a lot about gambling. He knew how to play to increase the odds in his favour. But he didn’t. Why? Because loosing gave him fuel, it gave him fire, and it even more – a story which gave him reason to be almost constantly angry. The thing was, this guy didn’t have a gambling problem. Not from my perspective anyway. His was an emotional problem that we were able to identify in moments.
The thing is, tackling this, the real cause of the pain is scary, and incredibly challenging – so much so that many believe that they haven’t got what it takes to look at the past directly. Anyone can take a diet, anyone can quite the drug, for a time anyway – but it takes real guts and real strength to deal with why these patterns exist in the first place. When we do muster these resources that are in all of us, when we awaken the sleeping giant – the hero within, we can start to free ourselves from the tyranny of the past and the false illusions and beliefs that keep recreating themselves in our lives.
The first step is one we can only take alone – no one else can do this for us. But, when we do take the first step towards healing we will find the people and the resources we need – the friends, coaches, mentors, physicians, psychologists, you name it. In my own experience, it’s like pulling together an A-grade team – and believe me, you need the best you can get and you need a mix of specialists who know their part.
Don’t let financial resources get in the way of action on this. Speaking from experience, I did a lot of work on myself while I was a cash-strapped student. You just need to be resourceful, ask around. The first line of support is your immediate network of friends. There are tons of great resources online also, many of them free. I’ve listed several of them on other posts, including one called Overcoming Anxiety and Resilience. I made the most of the services that were available to me as a student, including academic mentors and the university psychology service. Some coaches also provide pro bono, that is free, coaching for a few clients. I do this also for those who are in very difficult straights financially.
Taking the first step is the crucial thing – whether it’s a phone-call or something else, the first step sends the most powerful signal to your deepest self. You’re telling yourself that you’re going to do something about your situation, and this simple shift starts the ball rolling in a whole new direction.
Odds are, if you’re anything like most people, including me, this is not a single act play. Doing this once doesn’t mean it’s over for good. You will have to revisit and adapt new strategies – maybe even seek assistance again. But as you get better, the cycles shorten and the shadow exerts less and less power over you. Instead, as you recognise and gradually come to terms with the shadow, as your anger softens and self-love replaces self-hate, you’ll also start to recognise that the power that your shadow once exerted over you is actually yours.
Note: If you want to read the Iliad, I recommend the translation of Richmond Lattimore. It’s available both as a printed book and as an eBook. I am including the publisher’s link which provides purchasing options here. Lattimore is also available free online through Northwestern University’s Homer Project. This is great but you’ll have to cope with the English being interspersed with the original ancient Greek – it’s great if you’re a Classics student!