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Ethics and Morality

Is There a Place Where We Can Be Evil?

What do we do with our shadows?

Key points

  • Everyone has good and bad sides—light and shadows—but are educated to show only the good sides.
  • Cultivating only one's good sides and ignoring shadows can decrease vitality and give space to more inner darkness.
  • Giving up one's shadows means declaring a part of the personality as non-existent. Hence, it's important to negotiate space with shadows.

Each one of us has good and bad sides, light, and shadows. To be decent to one another and create a functioning society, we are kindly asked, daily trained, and legally controlled to behave only according to what society agrees to be good.

Kindness instead of anger, love instead of hate, control instead of addiction, punctuality instead of lateness.

A shadow is not necessarily something horrific—it might be something as simple as an aspect of you that you or your loved ones found annoying.

While growing up, our shadows manifest in our lives as inappropriate mistakes that barge into our day when we are tired or in distress. It is because of our shadows that we yell at our children when we lose our patience, and it is again from our shadows that we cheat because we feel weak.

The shadows represent a quiet but socially unacceptable mistake toward which we need to be immediately dismissive and sometimes even blind (being jealous of your friend’s success, being avid with your possessions, being deceptive about your intentions, and so on).

Can we just be blind to our bad spots?

If blindness were the solution to our shadows, life would stop being so complex. If the solution to our Dr. Jekyll were not engaging with it, our behaviors would be much easier to understand.

But life always means learning something. So, even if you are determined to ignore your shadows, chances are that you’d become very irritable with the people around you who resonate with your same shadows. It might very well be that you will become judgmental and very rigid toward those who take the freedom to act according to those shadows. Those who get angry for no apparent reason, who are always greedy, or behave like a sadist toward other fellow humans.

Why do you get so judgmental and irritable toward these people? Because you want to be them! Because you’re jealous of their freedom and vitality in being as bad as you wish you were.

Can we just cultivate our light?

It might even be that you spend all of your life patiently cultivating only the good in you and you found your way to keep the shadows at bay by giving little attention to them and to all those people around you who enact them in front of you. It might be that you became the master of "live and let live." But then again, in doing so, it might be that your loneliness grows and your vitality gets lower and lower.

In fact, the problem is that shadows bring vitality to our lives. Their raw messiness is vital for our growth as human beings. Giving up on our shadows means declaring a part of our personality as non-existent.

This is, of course, not my theory. This is Jung writing:

“By not being aware of having a shadow, you declare a part of your personality to be non-existent. Then it enters the kingdom of the non-existent, which swells up and takes on enormous proportions … If you get rid of qualities you don’t like by denying them, you become more and more unaware of what you are, you declare yourself more and more non-existent and your evil will grow fatter and fatter.”

According to Jung, our shadows need to be integrated because the goal of life is not becoming rich, a saint, or popular; the true goal of life is to become whole. He thought that in growing up we were trained to forget about those aspects of ourselves that are not appreciated by our immediate society. This feeds a form of psychological blindness that makes us emptier and our evil fatter.

To be loved, accepted, and included we are willing to sell pieces of ourselves to the non-existent; while we become a thinner and thinner ego that has to roar against everything to stand up against this scary world, our evil becomes fatter because the darkness has more space to grow. If we do not look at it, if we do not reflect on it or take care of it, what is inconvenient in society and for our persona becomes more difficult to understand. Hence it comes out in unexpected ways because we lose sight of it.

I had a client who strongly loved his wife; he wanted to be the best husband on earth. He ended up cheating on her and he did not know why. He repressed all the things he did not like about her and wanted so much to be loved by her that his shadows took over in a very mysterious way. Unfortunately, that is one of the most common outcomes of the game between light and shadows.

What’s the solution?

Should we all become evil? If I tend to become very angry but my parents reasonably taught me that anger is bad, how can I accept this part of myself without selling it out to my fat, evil side?

In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche was one of the first to realize that to become truly ethical and do real good, we should have the courage to be bad. By mastering the shadows, one enhances their own qualities and becomes more in sync with life because the self-harming effects of the shadows do not come out with the same intense destructive power.

But how do we allow ourselves to live in our shadows without hurting ourselves and those whom we love?

Becoming aware of our evil side is crucial to our well-being. Integration is the path that Jung indicates is needed to recover this wholeness and awareness we need in life to thrive.

Let’s take aggression, for example. We would like to be kind people to each other; nevertheless, it might happen that we are unpleasantly assertive toward our partners or colleagues. Clara Thompson believes that “aggression is not necessarily destructive at all. It springs from an innate tendency to grow and master life which seems to be characteristic of all living matter. Only when this social force is obstructed in its development do ingredients of anger, rage, or hate become connected with it.”

Each shadow has something good and very joyful and life-asserting to say about ourselves. At each attempt of obstruction and denial, we allow this quality to become darker and darker and heavier components attach to it.

Of course, aggression is frowned upon, and we had to learn how to control it, but repressing it in order to adapt to our surroundings might lead to the creation of that "untouched bomb waiting to explode in murderous anger" that Lowen described in his writings.

We need to face our evil sides and negotiate some space with them.

Hence, we need to make space for our evil sides. As Sharp wrote in the Jung Lexicon, “assimilation of the shadows requires long negotiation and acceptance of what we do not like of us, paying attention to our moods. If we do not want our life to become the place where we are bitter and mean, we need to create the paradise of evil in our little land.” We need to make room for an inner space where we become aware of the qualities of our intentions and the intensity of our instincts without judgment and moral blame.

This does not mean that we need to become deliberately aggressive toward others and let go of all the bad in ourselves. It means that we need to treat our shadows with the same patience we would use with a mischievous puppy. We need to make time to see when our shadows want to come out and instead of investing our energies in denying their existence or blaming ourselves or others for being so, we just observe them.

I’m a big fan of lying on the couch and staring at the ceiling (I know it’s a luxury that not all of us can have… but think of how much time one spends playing on the phone!). The ceiling can be my place where I can be bad. Where I see the bad I did, or I might have done if… The ceiling is where I try to understand what the root of those instincts is, and to what kind of vital quality of mine that root is connected.

Less philosophical than a ceiling are sports, board games, creative activities, and so on.

To conclude

Any shadow as well as any light is a part of us we need to learn how to love. It often happens that the more intense the shadow is, the more threatening its absence would be to our vitality. So, you find yourself being particularly aggressive? Maybe it’s a way for your body to tell you that you’re feeling vulnerable, and you need to slow down, or you need to find a safer space to assert yourself.

Taking the existence of the shadow seriously is a way to preserve the light of our existence; paying attention to moods and fantasies does not make us bad people but just more careful and caring. If your house is on fire, you do not pretend that you don’t smell the smoke. It would make things worse. You take action to master the fire and take care of your house!

Jung writes “this integration (of the shadow) cannot take place and be put to a useful purpose unless one can admit the tendencies bound up with the shadow and allow them some measure of realization—tempered, of course, with the necessary criticism.” (Jung, Psychology and Religion)

We need to learn what our shadows are. They need to come out so they become useful for us and we are not used by them.

Working on integration often enhances our vitality which will find expression in creativity, sexuality, personality growth, and self-reliant, grounding, courageous personality traits.

“The acceptance of the shadow involves a growth in depths into the ground of one’s being (...) stability is born” from this acceptance (Erich Neumann, Depth Psychology and New Ethics).

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