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.