Dear Therapist..."I Don't Recognise My Own Behaviour"
Recently I’ve tripped myself up in a number of ways. Many, but not all, pertain to work – I forgot to bring my prepared notes to an important meeting and so botched it. I missed a couple of team calls unintentionally. I behaved inappropriately with a female colleague that has me facing queries from HR. On the latter, it has also damaged my relationship with my fiancé as there is an investigation underway she knows about. I love my fiancé and am deeply committed to our life together so the thought of losing her is terrifying. I’m also concerned about the future of my job.
I’m baffled by all of the above as they are so out of character for me and may have messed up my professional and personal life irrevocably. Please help.
It sounds like you are having a series of encounters with your shadow. The term ‘shadow’ was introduced by Carl Jung to describe repressed or denied parts of the self that reside in the unconscious. Poet Robert Bly describes it: ‘When we were very young, we had a 360-degree personality, which radiated energy from all directions. But the adults around us could not tolerate this much exuberance. So, in their discomfort, they unintentionally but inevitably betrayed us by shaming and humiliating us for certain things. The full circle of energy that was our birth right is sliced away piece by piece…The ego incorporates only the acceptable parts we consciously retain. The rest are banished to the shadow.’
Anger, sadness, jealousy or resentment are examples of emotions sometimes exiled to the shadow. Not only negative or undesirable aspects of self are found there, however. Jung was clear there is much ‘gold’ to be found there in the shadow as well - sensuality/sexuality, creativity, compassion, sensitivity and more can be retrieved from the depths.
We can feel the shadow at work when ‘out of character’ behaviour like you describe rears its head. Shadow encounters may include a sense of losing oneself for a moment and acting ‘irrationally.’ Outbursts, self-destructive behaviours, slips of the tongue, inappropriate or cruel humour, addictions, inexplicable physical symptoms are all clues the shadow is at work. It also makes appearances in our dreams where unknown feelings and unseen attitudes reveal themselves. Jung’s view was a failure to incorporate the shadow is often the seed of problems in relationships, organisations and wider society (even war).
So if you’re with me that your recent behaviour has a shadowy quality to it, we can start to get curious: What’s the point of these actions? What’s their use? What is lurking in the unconscious trying to reveal itself?
As part of this, I would invite you to re-examine beliefs about what ‘bad’ and ‘good’ look like, in work and in relationship. You can question: In what ways do I yearn for a change? Where are these behaviours turning my conscious, previously accepted beliefs upside down? What taboo thoughts or feelings might I give space to?
This line of inquiry can be scary. You mention you are deeply committed to your fiancé, and maybe to your job too, so to entertain thoughts or feelings that conflict with these consciously accepted positions can feel ‘terrifying’ to use your words. But engaging with the shadow can help us show up in work and romance more authentically as we allow space for all aspects of self, not just the outwardly acceptable ones. You may the inexplicable behaviours subside accordingly.