The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung coined the term “shadow” to refer to all those part of ourselves we would rather not know about.
As children, we learn early on that certain qualities are not acceptable and need to be hidden from view. Aggression, selfishness, boastfulness, avarice, sexuality – these are all traits that we likely learned were forbidden. Depending on the values of our family or culture, we may also have learned to divorce ourselves from emotionality, creativity, or playfulness.
According to Jung’s theory, we split these qualities off so that they are not quite conscious. This allows us to go about life identifying with those part of ourselves considered more acceptable.
While this process may be necessary, those parts of ourselves that get stuffed into the shadow are often full of vitality, authenticity, and untapped potential. Becoming curious about our shadow qualities can be an important part of psychological growth and development, especially in the second half of life.
Parenting is sure to put us in touch with those qualities we least like in ourselves, as we will certainly see them in our children. When our offspring displays our very worst traits, we are likely to be especially irritated with her. At the same time, such a display may offer us a chance to get to know a part of ourselves we haven’t been accepting of in a long time.
The Norwegian tale “Tatterhood and the Hobgoblins” is a fairy tale that illustrates this idea. In it, a Queen gives birth to two daughters – one who is pretty and delicate, and the other who, upon coming into the world, rides around on a goat with a wooden spoon in her hand whooping and hollering.
The Queen is ashamed of her unruly daughter, whom she names Tatterhood. She tries to hide her away and keep her out of sight. However, one day a pack of hobgoblins attack the palace. It is Tatterhood who knows how to fend them off! The King and Queen then learn to value both of their daughters.
What is it that your child does that gets under your skin the most? That thing that you find most irritating. That thing that is most embarrassing. That thing that makes you feel like you want to crawl out of your skin.
Alison is a woman in my practice who has a young daughter named Emma. Emma is very bold and courageous. She likes to take risks and be the center of attention. She is, in a way, a little like Tatterhood.
Alison struggles at times to deal with her daughter’s spirited behavior, as any parent would. But Alison comes undone when her daughter is boastful or draws too much attention to herself in public.
As we explored why she finds this behavior particularly mortifying, Alison admitted that she had been a bit like this as a child – but her parents had responded with harsh reprimands. “Being modest was definitely valued in my house growing up,” said Alison. “I learned that early on!”
She recalled one gathering where she had been singing and “putting on a show” for the adults, and her father had responded sharply that she was making a fool of herself. Alison felt ashamed.
As we explored this together, Alison gained a better understanding of why her daughter’s theatrical style bothered her so much. She was able to approach this trait in her daughter – and eventually in herself – with greater curiosity and acceptance.
Over time, she was able to support her daughter’s healthy desire to be seen and appreciated. She even grew to value her owe wish to be in the spotlight at times. When Emma started school, Alison indulged a long-time secret desire to take an improv class. Not surprisingly, she discovered she had a natural talent for it, and doing improv became an important interest for her.
What we learn to shove into the shadow is often the thing that, when rediscovered in adulthood, can bring us renewed energy and joy. It may be the thing that keeps us psychologically alive.
If we allow ourselves to be curious about those traits in our children that bother us the most, they may lead us to know ourselves more deeply.
Originally published on PsychCentral.com.