• Kate Ellis

Thinking about shadows

Who are you and what are you like? We can all answer these questions because we have an idea, a picture, a set of words in our heads about who we are. If you were to ask me, I would say, I am intelligent, funny, likable, a good cook, and creative. I tend more towards introversion than extroversion, and enjoy time alone. So that's what I would say, but I might add in my head that I am also impatient, intolerant and bossy. People who know me well might be nodding along here. Those things about me that I don't like, live in what Carl Jung, the famous Swiss Psychiatrist, called the shadow. We are largely unaware of our shadow side, and we like to keep it that way, because to look at those parts of us we don't like is painful, and to accept them causes real suffering.

Jung said, "Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering." By this, he meant that we will happily develop a neurosis - a maladaptive cluster of feelings, rather than face the suffering of seeing the truth. I never really understood this until one day my washing machine developed an uneven load, and started to bang and judder. Now most people will find this mildly concerning, but me? I absolutely cannot bear it. The feelings I get are horror, terror and terrible sadness - way out of context for the happening. As I threw myself across the washing machine that day, I thought, not for the first time, what is going on here? But for the first time, I let myself answer. I'm comforting the washing machine, I thought. It is hurting itself so much and I have to stop it.

Right, said the familiar judgemental voice in my head, you're comforting the washing machine are you? Not barmy at all then ... And again, for once, I ignored the sarcastic shame-maker and stuck with it. Over the course of the day, bits of memory were handed to me from the shadow. I remembered standing in my mother's kitchen as a teenager staring fixedly at the old banging washing machine, fear and sadness coursing through me. So that was the point where the feeling became associated with the washing machine. Simple. But the feeling had been there for much longer. I didn't want to think about it, but I stuck with it.

I won't bore you with the whole thing, but it is about my father, a clever, kind, complex man with his own neuroses. Here we are together with our matching wheelbarrows. We did not get on well, although everyone else in the world loved him. I could not comfort him, or he me, and our relationship felt forever ready to fly apart into irredeemable scrap metal.

Exercise: Go through your photos. See if one sparks a strong feeling that you would very much like to move away from. Interrogate it. Ignore the sarcastic voice that points out how silly this all is. It really isn't. Write down what you discover and share it if you can bear to.

Because, and here is the REAL point. The shadow is where all our CREATIVITY lives. Open the door to the suffering and you also open it to the joy of creating. The idea of the tortured poet, and the suffering artist comes from exectly this.

Finally, you will find that it is not actually dark in there. There are brilliant shafts of light. Go and have a look.