According to Freud, the persona is basically our personality – what we lead with out in the world, our espoused values, what we identify with, who we think we are. The shadow is what lies beneath the surface, what we don’t know is there – stuff that may violate our espoused values and may not serve us, others or society. Others may see it better than us, but it will confuse them and catch them off guard because – based on our personality – they do not expect it. To a great extent, psychological health involves accessing and integrating the shadow – getting to know and accept it, making friends with it, and finding constructive ways to express it.
I have an older friend, Harry, back in Syracuse whose persona is very attractive and constructive. He’s charming, funny, generous and helpful. He has a big old Labrador retriever who he loves to death. Based on this personality, it surprises people when his shadow turns up as competitive – wanting to control things and people, wanting to be one-up. When his dog was a pup and Harry was training him, he was very influenced by the Dog Whisperer. He believed that central to dog training was to be alpha – the leader of the pack – and to command obedience from your dog. If he felt one-down to someone who was important to him, he couldn’t tolerate that for too very long. He would need to find some way to re-balance things – to feel one-up, sometimes by criticizing or even verbally and emotionally attacking. He would never have described himself in any of these ways, because his shadow was deeply buried – out of his consciousness and thus out of his control.
I have a persona that is in many ways like my friend Harry’s. I’m a “nice guy” – sometimes even identified by the occasional perceptive person as “too nice”. My shadow – which I have gotten to know pretty well over a lot of years of self-exploration – is quite different than Harry’s. The latent, more buried part of me – rather than competitive – is primarily aggressive. I have an unidentified need to tell people off, to call a spade a spade, to look and sound angry when I’m angry. The socially constructive part of this side – especially to the extent that I make it conscious – can be speaking truth to power, giving constructive challenging feedback and setting boundaries and limits. My “wise guy” self is a way to blow off steam that – if not always genuinely constructive – at least mostly does no harm.
The less constructive part of my aggressive shadow is suddenly erupting in anger that I have not integrated and maybe didn’t even know was there. The even more gnarly part of this side gets manifested when I need to justify that anger and give others lots of feedback about that is wrong with them.
In my apartment building, there is a dog Rocky that menaces and intimidates most other dogs. He’s really good at it – he looks and sounds really aggressive. And his mom Susan is not very good at controlling him. My dog Pancho was kind of like me in reference to Rocky: at first he was very mild- mannered – then he became lots more aggressive. This behavior did nothing to set limits on Rocky, but made both of them pretty scary for people who happened to be around. On one recent occasion, I was keeping my Pancho back a long ways from the elevator from which Rocky emerged, spitting nails. Both dogs screamed at each other. As the elevator door was closing to take Rocky and Susan up to their higher floor, I didn’t actually scream, but I did say very loudly “My dog will kill your dog.” I was pretty surprised myself at the eruption of such menacing behavior, but I started to laugh at it almost as soon as the elevator was gone. It was really thrilling to manifest my shadow in such a powerful and mostly harmless way.
I told this story to a couple of my friends in the building who also found it very funny, but one of them warned me that – among many rules and policies for the building – one of them specifically enjoins people from threatening each other. “You could get in trouble with the building.” The next day I encountered Susan and Rocky on a bench outside the building, without my dog along to create a scene. (Rocky is really very nice with people.) I said to Susan “I am really, really sorry for what I said to you yesterday.” Susan responded “What did you say?” “Oh, nothing, really.” I think she is hard of hearing.