Saturday, March 15, 2008

Adoption and The Shadow

I've been doing a little rereading on the Jungian concept of the Shadow. I find the Shadow a fascinating concept, one that is incredibly useful for making sense of my mind, my reactions, and the reactions of those around me.

When I first encountered the idea, I was resistant. The notion that things I intensely disliked in others were things I failed to recognize in myself struck me as false on its face. But the more I investigated and explored the idea, the more it began to ring true. We take things we don't like about ourselves, or that we think others don't like about us, and stuff them down, repressing them. When we see other people doing those things, we react negatively. We recognize ourselves, pieces of ourselves that others told us were bad. We tell ourselves that the other person is horrible so that we don't have to reclaim that piece of ourselves which have learned to loathe.

Robert Bly has written a book exploring some aspects of the notion called A Little Book on the Human Shadow. In the second chapter he writes:

Let's talk about the personal shadow first. When we were one or two years old we had what we might vizualize as a 360-degree personality. Energy radiated out from all parts of our body and all parts of our psyche. A child running is a living globe of energy. We had a ball of energy, all right; but one day we noticed that our parents didn't like certain parts of that ball. They said things like: "Can't you be still?" Or "It isn't nice to try and kill your brother." Behind us we have an invisible bag, and the part of us our parents don't like, we, to keep our parents' love, put in the bag. By the time we go to school our bag is quite large. Then our teachers have their say: "Good children don't get angry over such little things." So we take our anger and put it in the bag. By the time my brother and I were twelve in Madison, Minnesota we were known as "the nice Bly boys." Our bags were already a mile long.

I was struck as I reread those words today. Bly is describing a phenomenon that happens to everyone. Every human being on the planet does this to a greater or lesser extent.

And given the focus of my mind in the past many months, it quickly made the leap: If everyone stuffs things because of fear that they could lose the love of their parents, how much must this play on the adoptee, who already has (in the adoptee's mind) lost the love of a set of parents? How much easier is it for the adoptee to find reasons to stuff the bag?

And, I feel somewhat badly about this, I thought of those people who reject the notion that something traumatic happened to adoptees. I thought, everyone has had this happen, it's a universal experience. Why must they deny it about adoptees? And why would it be so hard to recognize that adoptees would struggle mightily with this? How does this threaten them? And the answer lies in the notion of the Shadow itself. Those who are threatened by adoptees discussing their trauma, don't want to face up to their own trauma. They are made uncomfortable by the very suggestion of the existence of their own bag.

I suppose that gives me a little empathy for them. But I have done for others so much throughout my life, and I have begun to reclaim just a small measure of selfishness from my own bag, that it's hard to have a lot of empathy for them. After all, they are dismissing me and my feelings. How much empathy should I have for that?

I do not mean to imply that every adoptee experiences the same thing. But given how the Shadow forms, how our own rejected self comes to be, it is of little surprise to me that adoptees have much we struggle with. Our search is a very literal search. But it also is a very physical manifestation of a metaphorical reclamation of the self that every human being should strive for. Not every human being comes to terms with his or her Shadow. But the adoptee must search for and reclaim the Shadow, as well as the self that was lost at relinquishment. We already start off with less than a 360-degree personality. There is much to recover.

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