In the growth of the self, those psychological patterns and experiences which we are taught to or need to deny about ourselves, that which we are not, live on in the unconscious self. Starting in early childhood, this is a necessary process which helps us to avoid destructive behaviour and establish our own identity. But most of this shadow world does not die off, but remains to affect us in more or less subtle ways which we find it hard to account for and difficult to control.1
Since we have denied that they are a part of ourselves, we tend to project our shadow material onto the world around us. For example, a man may live as a heterosexual but feel uncomfortable about the homosexual interests which he has denied and repressed in himself. His unconscious or shadow world will react against this denial, and in compensation for his inability to destroy that which he cannot accept in himself, he will attempt to control the sexual orientation of those in the external world. He becomes homophobic, resorting to polemic, abuse or violence against gay men.
Hidden in our shadow material there is a wealth of treasures that waits for rediscovery when we gain the maturity, awareness and moral courage to revisit it. Often to our surprise, through understanding and acknowledgement of the shadows below, many of the unbalances, compulsions and pain from the past can be healed or transformed. This can be a challenging and even dangerous process which is best led by an experienced counselor.
As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and parental alcoholism, I had painful memories which, as many other people do, I had succeeded in almost completely forgetting. But wounds like this cannot be erased but haunt us from the shadows, with profound effects on our emotional, sexual and spiritual health. On one hand overly dependent on women, I was addicted to pornography and violent computer games, and disturbed by dreams and waking images of violence against and the sexual domination of women. In my late thirties, I received extensive counseling which penetrated these shadows and resolved many of the resulting issues.
Almost all my symptoms were treated successfully and I began to lead a much happier and consistent life - both awake and asleep. But as I have discussed, one problem area remained. Just before falling asleep I would fantasize of an abusive and controlling sexual relationship with an imaginary woman. Despite repeated attempts at healing and a determined exercise of my will, it seemed that I was still living with an open wound.