When caretakers upon whom we depend reject (explicitly and directly or implicitly and indirectly) certain parts of us, we will often unconsciously rip that part of ourselves out of our core sense of identity and cast it into “the Shadow”, into our subconscious. This happens because humans are social creatures. We are entirely dependent upon the acceptance and cooperation of others for our survival, especially at early ages. So when we are rejected by others, especially others upon whom we directly depend, our fight or flight response is triggered. We feel afraid and are biologically compelled to act. And especially at young ages when we are the most dependent, we act all-too-often by rejecting and cutting off the offensive part of ourselves—that is, by dissociating from them.
Dissociating from parts of ourselves is one of the most excruciating things any human can do, and so ginning up the energy and gumption for the job generally requires us to tap into some strong negative emotion and to become actually hostile towards that aspect of self.
The problem is that the dissociated part of ourselves really never goes away. It continues to operate with just as much power over us as before, and perhaps with even more power now because its influence is mostly unconscious rather than conscious. It still is us, or a part of us, but we no longer identify with it and so it’s now invisible to us.
Let’s call these cast out parts of ourselves “The Monsters”.
Keeping The Monsters at bay requires incredible amounts of psychological energy. We must constantly gin up enough psychological power to build and maintain the fake/false psychological wall we’ve created between “us” (or the parts of ourselves we continue to accept) and “other” (the parts we now so actively reject). We are constantly at war with ourselves and don’t even know it. And the more parts of ourselves that we’ve been forced to cast out into the Shadow, the more psychological effort it takes to keep all those Monsters in their dark, hidden cages. When we’ve been forced to cut off large portions of ourselves, ginning up enough energy to keep them all caged unfortunately often requires active hate.
This is the origin of self-hatred.
Just because we have cast out some part of ourselves doesn’t mean that we no longer long for it, that we no longer unconsciously ache to be whole. No, we ache for wholeness constantly, though we often don’t know why we ache (the reason resides in the darkness, after all). The pain of that ache can often be so overwhelming that we’ll resort to drugs, alcohol or other coping mechanisms to numb it.
But just because we can no longer see The Monster in ourselves doesn’t mean that we won’t see it in others. If anything we become more heightened to the presence of our Monster in others in a process known as “projection”. And so whenever we come across somebody else who appears to well embody our Monster(s), our painful longing for wholeness gets unconsciously triggered again. The pain of that longing can become so intense that the need for numbing feels urgent.
As regards our relationships with others, our longing for wholeness can play out in one of three ways. The first is that the other person becomes immensely attractive to us. They may perhaps feel like our “soul mate” because, in a very real sense, they complete us. They embody some part of us that we forced into the Shadow in order to remain acceptable to our caretakers. As such, we long to bask in their glow, but that longing to be whole can also manifest in the exactly opposite way—that is, as a severe aversion to, or active hostility towards, people who appear to embody our Monsters. At a deep and unconscious level we resent them. Specifically, we resent that they are able to be something we can’t, something we’ve developed disdain for.
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When this happens we will at best actively shun them, and at worst we’ll feel compelled to actually condemn them or sometimes to even physically attack them. (We see this dynamic play out with the murder of the main character at the end of the move “American Beauty”).
But the most common, frustrating and destructive way this longing for wholeness often plays out is with a combination of the first two ways above—that is, with a push-pull dynamic. One minute we are magnetically drawn to someone for reasons we cannot explain, and so we pull them towards us. And then in the next minute, and for seemingly no reason at all, we are overcome with resentment or perhaps even active hatred towards that same person.
This push-pull dynamic can happen minute by minute, day by day, and it feels to those on the receiving end very much like gaslighting. Its effect can be positively disorienting to everyone involved, causing both sides to question their own sense of reality and is highly destructive to both the pusher-puller and to the pushee-pullee. No healthy relationship can persist within that dynamic, and it is the basis of most toxic and co-dependent ones.
Awaking involves becoming whole. And we can’t become whole unless and until we reintegrate our Shadow—that is, until we accept The Monster as part of us and begin once again to identify with it rather than to reject it.
But how do we re-identify with something we’ve shunned for so long, often with active hate?
Compassion is the only way. We must see the Monster for what it really is—an often harmless and well-meaning part of ourself that was rejected and demonized by other parts of ourselves so the remaining part could remain pleasing to the others upon whom we depend. Once we do this work of humanizing our Monsters, we can begin to understand them and to fully relate to them.
And with enough understanding and relating eventually comes compassion. That compassion then allows us to scoop the Monster up, comfort it and bring it back home (as part of us) where it belongs. The Shadow is then re-incorporating back into our identity where it becomes once again subject to our more conscious control.
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