“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
Positivity Psychology and Confrontations With the Unconscious
I admit that positive psychology and I are not always on ‘speaking terms’ in the family of psychotherapy. The soul often burdens the therapeutic notion that thinking positive or feeling happy is our measure of health. Depth psychologically speaking, the pull into our deeper, heavier and conflict-ridden spaces is an invitation to meaning, passion, and drive. By contrast, the spirit of positivity aims at ascension, relying on the angelic-liberation motif. We may avoid altogether the gripping and necessary confrontations with the unconscious.
A Spirit of Gratitude
Like the estranged sibling or the conflict-avoidant mother, positive psychology dismisses some of my deeper values. It often leaves the table without consideration or sensitivity to the many emotions present in the family unit. On the one hand, positivity can be described as contagious. It welcomes a spirit of gratitude and lifts us from the humdrum of mediocrity into the realms on high. Who doesn’t benefit from the gift of appreciation and light? On the other, who among us hasn’t felt the obvious and shallow reframe amongst clients’ family and friends where otherwise significant and weighty realities starve behind forced smiles and empty hugs?
Masking the Palpable Tension
Perhaps the issue is not with gratitude in the archetypal sense with a depth of discovery and embodied resonance. Rather, it’s when gratitude masks the palpable tension. I’ve always considered myself a realist in the sense that small talk dries me out. I think the villain in my narrative is more the shallow optimist than the heartfelt seeker of appreciation. One replaces reality with superficiality while the other draws upon the nourishment that thankfulness provides us all.
Gratitude and the Perspective of Advancement
Emerson reminds us that gratitude can become habitual. He heralds the role of gratitude in the perspective of advancement. I say we fall on a broad spectrum in regard to our gratitude. Sometimes we hang on for dear life and others attract the perspectives of a positive outlook. It can sometimes be difficult to search out what we are grateful for, especially for those estranged from family around the holidays. I found it particularly interesting in my research on gratitude this week that cross-culturally holidays celebrating thanks and gratitude can be found spanning recorded history. It would seem an innate virtue this cultivation of gratitude, both for the inner life and the interpersonal/ inter-communal life.
The Two Stages of Gratitude
According to Dr. Robert Emmons, the feeling of gratitude involves two stages (2003):
- First comes the acknowledgment of goodness in one’s life. In a state of gratitude, we say yes to life. We affirm that all in all, life is good, and has elements that make it worth living and rich in texture. The acknowledgment that we have received something gratifies us, both by its presence and by the effort the giver put into choosing it.
- Second, gratitude is recognizing that some of the sources of this goodness lie outside the self. One can be grateful to other people, to animals, and to the world, but not to oneself. At this stage, we recognize the goodness in our lives and who to thank for it, ie., who made sacrifices so that we could be happy?
The two stages of gratitude comprise the recognition of the goodness in our lives, and then how this goodness came to us externally lies. By this process, we recognize the gifts of everything that makes our lives—and ourselves—better.
The Cultivation of Perspective and Connection
As Einstein once offered, we have only one decision in life: whether we live in a kind or unkind universe. I say gratitude offers both a catharsis and an invitation to reciprocity. Gratitude shows us the kind of universe we want to live in. In recognition of that which we have received, we learn to open ourselves to life. When our mental health is on the line, we may resist any receptivity. Feelings are guarded against any penetration from others or circumstances as a way of survival. I see gratitude as the rightful opening of oneself. To feel appreciative rather than fearful can cultivate the kinds of intimacy and hopefulness that we need most. When gratitude is considered an embodied emotion, one learns, as Emerson described the “cultivation” of perspective and connection.
This week we take a simple look at the cultivation of gratitude and the benefits of embodied receptivity and appreciation. Positive psychology is a valued member of the family of intervention and we can take a look at the historical virtue of thanks as a reminder of the potent power of deep receiving and deep meaningful advancement.
It goes without saying that this year presents a difficult task for all of us. We all have questions about our place in this world. How does the vocation of healers come into contact with the evolving and unpredictable circumstances of a global pandemic? Furthermore, an economic crisis and the collective existential transition beckon each of us to the far reaches of our psychic structures. Both in our work with others and any confrontation within ourselves. Up against these strenuous times, we may come together in the hopeful and often humbling realities of our common desire to bring clarity, support, and inspired endurance to the task.
A Culture of Supportive Growth
At Barn Life, I have always appreciated how we make a real impact on our clients and one another. Through positive regard, a weekly reframe, and reflection on the tone, protocol, and culture of our program we manage to lift one another up, fish for blind spots, and enter each new season with the security that we have a strong, compassionate, and united work ethic. I write our theme this week with these values in mind reminding each of you that you are valued and important to who we are and where we go from here. As a culture of supportive growth, we invariably will confront issues of shadow and projection.
Sorting the Seeds
Some of you may already know that I spent my early career working in a church capacity as a licensed pastor of large non-denominational church. I outgrew much of the culture and ideology, at times straining to reconcile culture with gospel. I could not resist the pull into deeper and expanding understandings of self, psyche, and culture. But during that time I quickly learned the lurking dangers no doubt familiar to those in the helping profession. Employment that is thoroughly cultural can ask of you many unspoken standards.
One great lesson came from when I put effort into areas of church life that were not a part of my job description. On the one hand, what a great opportunity to be involved and engaged, to follow my own compass, and contribute to the community I loved. On the other, in time, these efforts became a part of the standard for my job. I became overdrawn and eventually grew resentful. Had it not been for the wise advice of an elder, I may not have made it out alive. How do you sort the seeds between what you do as employee and how you serve?
Shadow in Vulnerability
I always felt this lesson was a good one to learn so early in my career. It can be difficult to find balance. Sometimes expectations can be unclear. This can lead to frustration or even resentments. From the perspective of shadow work, we can say that projection is inevitable. Through the lens of the shadow we recognize that our own understandings aren’t always a reflection of reality. In fact, when tensions go unattended, we may even miss out on the wonderful gift that misunderstanding and tension can provide. We must work to overcome these differences beyond what we may consider comfortability. How can we best model a functional and healthy psychological life to our clients?
We can begin with our own shortcomings – working to confront them and even wear them on our sleeves. We may just be onto something much more evolved should we embrace the universal phenomenon of shadow and projection. After all, as Jung once wrote, “What we resist persists.” This week our theme is shadow in vulnerability. Let’s work to practice listening skills and safe dialogue around vulnerability.
Our Celebration of the Macabre
“To confront a person with his Shadow is to show him his own light…anyone who perceives his Shadow and his light simultaneously sees himself from two sides and thus gets in the middle.” – Dr. Carl Jung, Good and Evil in Analytical Psychology
The air is crisp, the leaves are in bright finale, and the minds of American children are twisting with chocolate-scented wonder. Imaginative gears spinning ever-faster with every adult that asks them “So, whatcha gonna be for Halloween?”
Nearly every culture on Earth has an annual festival similar to Halloween. In the American manifestation of this masquerade, a candy display mushrooms up in every store (regardless of their actual product line). Houses get decked out in spooky splendor or goofy ghostliness. Parents invest dollars or hours into helping craft their children’s dream costume. In exploring this universal phenomenon, anthropologists posit a connection with harvests. Furthermore, religious leaders offer ideas on original sin or the dark side of the soul.
The Hidden Part of Us
However, psychology also holds a clue to our celebration of the macabre. A hidden part of every one of us, may see Halloween as a safe time to emerge without fear from the depths of our unseen heart. “The great Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, named this hidden part of us the Shadow. The Shadow is an archetype—a universal motif or image built into all human beings,” according to psychiatrist Dr. Phil Stutz and psychotherapist Brian Michels.
They go on to say that “the Shadow appears as the sum total of the weakest, most flawed, inferior, or even disgusting parts of yourself. It’s everything you don’t wish to be, but fear that you are. It doesn’t matter how rich, beautiful, or famous you are; as long as you fear that people can see your Shadow you will be insecure”. There is a tension between our Shadow and the selves we show to the world. We hide our shadows “…as a source of humiliation—usually through some kind of perfectionism”. However, on some level, we also yearn to show this part of ourselves. Furthermore, in some cases, the shadow will not be hidden (Stutz, 2012).
The Darker, Shadow Self
Perhaps this inner conflict fuels our choice of costume this Halloween. Someone once told me, “I love Halloween because it’s the one day that it’s okay to not be myself”. The eventual understanding was that the self this person actually chose to be was always an aspect of themselves. However, it was one they were afraid to show, or desired to embrace but felt unworthy of, or too insecure to fulfill. I wonder what costumes you wore?
In celebration of this day of masks, we relate to that inner conflict and seek to uncover this darker, Shadow self.
The Persona, the Self, and the Shadow
“Healing isn’t possible when dark energies are kept bottled inside.”
– Deepak Chopra, Author
Jung defined three crucial parts of our psyche. Those are the Persona, the Self and the Shadow. The Persona is the mask we wear in society to make a positive impression. It has the potential to show our real nature if we are confident in it. However, most often it is “a compromise between a person’s real individuality and society’s expectations”. The Shadow, as we said, is the dark side, but Jung encouraged that it is also the “underdeveloped” side. We move towards “self-realization when one recognizes and integrates it” into the third aspect, the Self. Jung considered the Self “the most important” part. This is because “it signifies the harmony and balance between the various opposing qualities that make up the psyche” (Curran, 2013).
An External Example of Inner Conflict
Halloween costumes are an external example of this inner conflict. On the surface, as children or adults, we may just think dressing as Darth Vader, a police officer, a vampire, or Elsa from Frozen is cool—and it is. But if we take a moment to consider why we think that costume is cool, we taste a flavor of Jungian Shadow Self study. Often what repulses us or attracts us reveals aspects of our Shadow Self. We dress as heroes or villains, future careers, or dreams of stardom. We wrap ourselves in the ugliness we may see in ourselves, craving acceptance. On the other hand, we may seek validation dressed as powerful archetypes to balm our insecurities. “The counter-intuitive truth is that when we reveal the Shadow, when we give in to its imperfections, its nature changes. It becomes a source of creativity and confidence.”
Jung believed that we could integrate the shadow using dreams, creativity, or active imagination (Stutz & Michels, 2012). What more active form of imagination could be found than Halloween? We examine, create, and adorn ourselves in our Shadow Selves. For one night alone we live free, are praised or feared, and as children, rewarded with candy.
A Greater Aim of Humanity
“If human beings had genuine courage, they’d wear their costumes every day of the year, not just on Halloween.”– Douglas Coupland, Artist and Novelist
This is a playful look at the Jungian exercises that could hide in Halloween—and their potentially unfocused healing power. However, we must note that Jung, and countless thoughtful healers after him, take Shadow Self work quite seriously. It is a powerful personal change agent in a therapeutic setting. And it is still being carefully employed by practitioners today, myself included. The drama of 1800s Swiss thought touches the title “Shadow Self,” but it is relevant to real-world healthy living.
Recognizing the Dark Aspects of the Personality
Jung spent his life writing about the Shadow Self because he felt that vigilant embracing of our Shadows was a greater aim of humanity in pursuit of street-level wellness. He warned that “…a small evil becomes a big one through being disregarded and repressed”. Furthermore, “for any kind of self-knowledge,” we must embrace our Shadow as “a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality…recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real” (Curran, 2013).
There is—and should be—communal joy and excitement in this vigilant embrace. Just like the hordes of costumed kids running and laughing down the street on Halloween night. Dr. Stutz (2012) in closing a story on his own embrace of his Shadow Self, said “I had accepted my Shadow with all its imperfections”. In art, shading adds the depth and contrast for true beauty. Similarly, Dr. Stutz said, “The reward was an endless sense of flow—from a larger, deeper dimension that had its own truth.”
We all have that deeper dimension inside ourselves. Perhaps this week we might take an interested look into the shadow in our clients and the shadows of our best personality traits. Who among us cannot benefit from an exploration of our masks, our favored villains, our taboo fantasies? This week we honor those aspects longing for surface, confessed by our makeup, our clothing choices, perhaps our Halloween costumes.