Shadow Explosion

The shadow is one of those abstract concepts that has different definitions and nuances depending on each person’s understanding of it.

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung created the concept of the shadow. His Collected Works indicate that the shadow is “that hidden, repressed, for the most part inferior and guilt-laden personality whose ultimate ramifications reach back into the realm of our animal ancestors and so comprise the whole historical aspect of the unconscious.” (Collected Works, 9, part 2, paragraph 422. 1963)

Since that description can be difficult to grasp, people provide different interpretations and descriptions of the shadow.

The shadow often represents the parts of ourselves that we want to deny and push aside. Those elements, which are generally uncomfortable, painful, and often deemed “negative” get pushed into what Jung called the shadow.

Often, that which you are uncomfortable with, you ultimately reject and push aside.

  • If you don’t like feeling insecure about something, you shove it into the shadow.
  • If you don’t like to feel angry, you shove it into the shadow.
  • If something frightens you and you reject it, you shove it into the shadow.
  • If you think being vulnerable is weakness, you shove it into the shadow.
  • If you see compassion as a weakness, you shove it into the shadow.

The Shadow Related to Trauma

From my own experiences, I think things can end up shoved into the shadow not just because they are negative and uncomfortable. Specifically, when a person is faced with long-term stress or trauma, it is natural to push responses aside into the shadow.

If we can’t figure out a way to resolve the pain and emotion associated with trauma or dysfunction, we shove that aside. Anger, frustration, passion, fear, sorrow, pain, grief. Over time, we can’t figure out how to resolve the situation that causes those elements and ultimately push them aside so that we can focus on parts of our lives that we do have more influence and control over.

At some point, we need to push it aside to get on with our lives. It’s not necessarily the case that we deny that part of ourselves. We may fully recognize the parts of us that react and respond in ways appropriate to a stressful situation. Yet over time, when faced with prolonged pain and stress, we have to do something with the emotions related to it. And often they get pushed aside. It is reasonable to me that the pain and emotions end up pushed off into the shadow.

The painful, “negative” elements don’t have to be a result of direct experiences. They can be emotions generated as we witness trauma and pain in other people, including family members and friends. Pain and compassion related to cultural and societal problems can also end up pushed aside.

When faced with issues that we cannot solve, we have to do something in an effort to function in our daily lives. As a result, we end up shoving those emotions aside. Most likely, they end up in the shadow. Note that this is also a form of conditioning in that we become adapted to the environment around us.

The Glass Ball of Stress

Prior to the breakdown / breakout in 1998, I was open with my friends about past trauma and stress. I witnessed significant trauma in chaotic situations since I was in high school. People around me were experiencing significant long-term difficulties. Though I had compassion for them and grieved for the pain they endured, I was not in a position to resolve their pain. As I continued into college and continued to build my life, I thought I was letting the stress in my life, including past trauma, “roll off my back.”

After the 1998 breakout, I realized that the accumulation of stress and responses hadn’t been rolling off my back at all. Instead, it was as though I was stuffing all of that into a glass ball.

As more stress was added into my life, I tried to adapt. Due to conditioning and my role as a people-pleaser, I didn’t walk away. Instead, I accepted it. At some point, I became entrenched in multiple dysfunctional environments. Yet I still didn’t walk away. I inadvertently continued to stuff more and more into that glass ball.

The Kachink and Explosion

Four days before my scheduled trip to Banff, one specific event fell into place. That event whacked that glass ball hard enough to break a hole in it. One single “kachink” was enough to puncture a hole in it. All of the garbage I had pushed into that ball poured forth and exploded as the pressure was released. At least that was a reasonable description for it.

And that alone was a very violent process.

For over twenty years, I knew that with my experiences there was both and explosion AND an implosion. Yet I couldn’t quite describe it. A few months after my breakdown in Banff, I realized that the implosion could be described as an ego collapse. The structures and relationships I created over my lifetime — which I have come to call an experiencebase — broke apart and collapsed in an implosion.

Yet what was the explosion? I couldn’t figure that out.

In the summer of 2020, I read and researched multiple resources to better understand my experiences. At some point, I thought, “Wait. That glass ball. Is that what Carl Jung called the shadow? Is that what exploded?” As I thought more about it, it made a lot of sense to me. That certainly seemed like a reasonable description. That would describe the pain, the content and the violence of what I felt so many years earlier.

There was so much pain in that experience: the memories, the intensity, the force, even the anger, the rage associated with all the suffering and abuse I had witnessed and also suffered. That abuse wasn’t just between individual people. It was systemic in organizations and institutions as well. As that glass ball exploded, all I could see was the dysfunction I had become mired in.

What Happens in the Shadow?

What happens to that emotion, that imagery from traumatic situations, the intensity of the experiences when they get shoved aside to the shadow? How does that material move and shift? Does it get infected in time? And by infected, I don’t mean a physical infection. Does it morph into even worse pain and emotion? That type of infected material in the shadow would make it even more ugly, stinky, and messy. And even less desirable to deal with.

How does the material in the shadow fester and foment? It doesn’t necessarily lie dormant. It moves. It shifts. Especially when you continue to shove more and more garbage into it.

When you continue to shove things aside, there is an ever-increasing risk of something collapsing, exploding, or deflating somehow.

When I think of how people handle and manage past trauma and the dynamics involved, especially in cases that involve horrific abuse and constant stress, I am impressed with how well people do function. When I think of the energy involved in pushing that aside and storing it somehow, I recognize that can be a significant amount of energy. I wouldn’t necessarily say it is “wasted energy.” After all, it is allowing a person to function in this world.

Does the shadow sometimes explode? I don’t know. After all, the shadow doesn’t show up on x-rays, MRIs, or other tests and scans. Thus, this can only remain a theory.

Yet it is a reasonable description of what it felt like to me.

For purists, maybe this isn’t what Jung meant by the shadow. That’s fine. I sometimes call it a “pus-filled, infected trauma ball.”

When that ball explodes, one of the worst things you can do is suppress it and try to shove it back in. Unfortunately, too often, people don’t recognize this type of process and eruption of emotion as something possibly beneficial. Too often, people don’t even acknowledge the accumulation of past (and present) stress and trauma. Instead the focus too often on behavior and biochemistry without adequate understanding of the person experiencing a crisis.

Jung recognized that such intense processes can actually be helpful. I think so too.

Ego Collapse and Fracture

It’s a ride, and it’s not for the faint of heart. ~Penni Kolpin

It was some time in the summer of 1998 that a friend used the phrase “ego collapse” with reference to his understanding of my experience. For me, that was an excellent description. It certainly felt like my mind collapsed and exploded all at the same time.

There are different ways of defining the ego. I definitely don’t mean the ego in terms of haughtiness and bragging.

  • Ego can mean a “sense of self”
  • Ego can also mean that sense which holds us into our physical world and gives a sense of security and a sense of protection
  • Or in Freud’s terms, ego could mean the filter between the subconscious and conscious mind.

With any of these three descriptions of ego, the concept of an ego collapse or an ego death matches quite well with my experiences. My sense of self and separateness was gone and any sense of security or protection vanished.

The Broken Filter

I didn’t learn of Freud’s description of the ego until 2019. The idea of the ego as a filter intrigued me.

Normally, only a fraction of what the subconscious processes makes it through the filter to come into our “conscious” awareness. The subconscious mind processes so much more than what we are “conscious” or aware of. The subconscious notices and processes everything. It is a real powerhouse. Simply in scanning a room, the subconscious must process, the items in the room, colors, textures, noises and sounds, such as music or conversations, and even words and numbers on signs or labels on different objects. As I understand it, according to Freud, most of that gets filtered through the ego so that the most important elements are experienced at the conscious level.

Now imagine that there is no filter. A person becomes aware of so much more around them – even when doing basic tasks. Body language, background music, colors, advertisements, and even comments and actions made by people nearby are no longer filtered. And everything is equally important.

I have told people over the years that “Its a ride.” There is no conscious choice to go through that experience. It’s not like you wake up one morning and say, “Gee, I think I’ll let my ego collapse.” Once that collapse started, there was no going back to who I was before. It was way too intense. I would even say that it wasn’t just a collapse of the ego, but rather a severe fracturing into a million tiny fragments. There was that much pain.

Wrong Focus

Through that process, was my biochemistry out of whack? Absolutely. But unfortunately, in my case, too often the focus was on the biochemistry and not on the actual injury and fragments. The goal was to get my biochemistry under control so that I could resume the life I had been living — the life that led me to a breakdown. That was a huge problem.

As with my analogy of broken knees, focusing primarily on a person’s biochemistry does not address the full situation. Understanding a person’s trauma history and social dynamics is vital to get an appropriate understanding of what a person has been living with. With too much focus on biochemistry, it is very unlikely that the person would ever truly heal and recover from the trauma — both the trauma that led to the collapse and the trauma introduced due to the process itself.

In addition, if that injury and collapsed condition is not adequately addressed, it is very likely that the person will limp for the rest of their lives.

I have long said that my experience is not an illness. And I knew it at the time. It was much more like a shattered leg. You don’t “cure” a shattered leg, you treat it so that it can heal and then strengthen.

In my experiences, too often the mental health models focus on illness, disorder and biochemistry rather than on mental injury and trauma.

Language matters.

Hatching from the Ego

The same friend who introduced me to the phrase “ego collapse” also did a play on the words ego and egg. He likened the evolution of dealing with a fractured ego to that of hatching from an egg. That, too, was a very helpful analogy to me since the experience I endured was exceptionally transformative.

Unfortunately, too often, effort is placed on trying to force a person back into that eggshell — back into the very role that “broke” them open. To the person trying to “hatch” from their own ego, there is no going back into that eggshell and no desire to do so.

In the early 1990s, I read M. Scott Peck’s book, Further Along the Road Less Traveled. When I was still in Banff dealing with the initial break, I recalled a concept that he wrote about — that when faced with a desert, there is no going back, there is only going through.

When it comes to my type of experience, I definitely agree.


Experience is the only true source of knowledge. ~ Albert Einstein
We live in our minds. ~ Beverly Kolpin

I call it the experiencebase.

Experiencebases are the frameworks we create about the world around us. We operate continually within that framework. Simply put, an experiencebase is:

  • The compilation of our experiences, perceptions, memories, observations, conversations, feelings, emotions, language, and virtually everything we interact with.

  • The experiences and perceptions before we have cognitive and verbal skills to describe them.

  • Our interpretations of body language and other subconscious functioning.

  • It includes all of what our nervous system absorbs, whether we are aware or conscious of it.

  • Our theories about how the world an universe works based on what we have learned, experienced, and choose to believe. Though arguably those theories are also created FROM elements in our experiencebase.

The experiencebase provides the unique frame of reference from which we function. Some people may call this the “mind” or perhaps the “ego.” Both mind and ego are abstract concepts that seem to have multiple definitions. When I consider the concepts of mind and ego, I don’t envision a sense of structure and relationship between the individual experiences and memories that we individually experience. I look at the experiencebase as a massive database that we build from our cummulative experiences, even before we have the language to describe them.

Though the concept of an experiencebase is also abstract, it is related to the concept of a database, which includes elements and structure. When I have shared the concept and description of experiencebase with other people, they grasp the concept fairly easily and often think of their own content of how they navigate through life.

The experiencebase is what we function in as we operate within this realm. While growing up, my mom often told me, “We live in our mind.” While I agree with that in general, we are also constantly managing and navigating through our experiencebases. In addition, our experiencebases are always growing with new content being added with relationships consistently being created.

As you can guess, these experiencebases are MASSIVE. So much bigger than anything I could have imagined — until mine blew apart.

Problems With an Experiencebase

One of my theories is that much of what are labeled as mental health “disorders” and “illnesses” are cases where the structure of the experiencebase no longer serves a person very well. This may be due to conflicts because the structure is not strong enough nor stable enough to build more elements around it.

In some cases, the structure of the experiencebase may not collapse, yet a person experiences significant pain. In other situations, sections of the experiencebase may explode or implode, which leads to exceptional psychic pain and even difficulty in functioning.

What can make it difficult to help someone going through a difficult time or even a crisis is the differences in experiencebases between two people. Too often, the current mental health system does not take into account what condition a person’s experiencebase is in, nor the content involved.

That, of course, is just a theory. Yet that is a reasonable description for the very intense period of my life in 1998. At least that’s my take. And this comes from someone who has made the journey of her own mind.