Last week, my longtime friend, Kathleen, asked me a very important question. Kathleen is a dedicated high school English teacher and debate coach. She’s a person who goes above and beyond as a pattern of being. Her question was regarding Shadow Psychology, which was conceptualized by Carl Jung. She was wondering about its role in Trump becoming president and continuing to hold a certain level of support despite his often dark behavior and attitudes.
Jung saw the psyche as consisting of several interacting parts. Three of which, the ego, the personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious, being the most powerful and important parts.
The ego is the conscious mind. It’s what we are aware of- our thoughts, memories and emotions are all part of our ego. It largely represents what we want to see in our Self.
The personal unconscious holds forgotten or repressed memories. This is where we can develop a “complex.” A complex can develop around any number of unreasonable fears or worries. The more we have stored within a complex the more power it has to influence our attitudes and reactions. This is what often brings us pain. It’s at the root of our inner conflicts, our relationship struggles, our career and other personal confusions, inconsistencies and performance setbacks. It’s usually what brings us to therapy or pushes us to reach out for help and relief. Initially, anyway.
The third aspect is what Jung called the Collective Unconscious. This is all of what is shared over all generations within the entire human race. Jung said, “The form of the world into which [a person] is born is already unborn in him, as virtual image.”
There’s no way to briefly do this topic justice but I wanted to provide a high level overview to lay the groundwork for what I believe will be helpful for us all at this time, and more specifically, to better address Kathleen’s question about the role of the Collective Unconscious in the rise of Trump as President and the divide between his supporters and opposers.
Remembering, every one of us has a shadow – a part we want to deny, resist and avoid seeing in our Self. If we fail to look within for our shadow it will continue to have negative power and influence over us. This sets us up to project the things inside us that we do not want to see onto another. We can then point at that person or at them, as the case may be, and lash out at their moral failings. For example, on a group level, we make one political party and their supporters morally inferior to “ours”. This is happening at a high level right now between our two major political parties. Sometimes, there is clear wrong-doing and we need to speak to that and take healthy responsive action when our proactive steps are not enough to prevent abuses. That said, I would encourage us all to think about whether we are really that different on a moral level, or are shadow parts being hooked and then lashing out? Are there multiple shadows engaging at the same time? I think of arguments that seem to be rooted in pure amygdala… very little evidence of high level reasoning before emotionally reacting. Self reflection can only help.
The day Kathleen’s question came was a busy one. I wasn’t able to give the time or attention to fully respond. I did want to acknowledge what a great question it is, and the importance of probing it carefully. I also felt it was important to point out that all of our big negative reactions must be looked at through the lens of “why am I feeling triggered in this way?” We are on a slippery slope when we see our Self as righteous and the other as lesser or as the moral failure in our mental equation. That’s not to say that the behavior we see is anything other than offensive, immoral, dishonest or otherwise bad. The point I’m making is that we don’t want to stop short of looking for what our reactions say about our Self.
If we view the Collective Unconscious as the buildup of generations of ignored, repressed dark emotion, it’s easy to see how we’ve arrived at this troubled time. The collective pain, anger, oppression, rage, violence, and the like, that has existed throughout human history has brought us to this point and to all it entails, which ripples out far beyond Trump.
The Trump presidency has given professionals in the field of psychology compelling fodder for a variety of psychosocial and related topics such as this.
I thought it would be helpful to turn to two of the world’s leading spiritual teachers, Eckhart Tolle and Depak Chopra, for their thoughts on how we’ve arrived at this time of Trumpism and what we can do to improve our situation.
Tolle speaks of the rise Trump in terms of the collective “pain-body”, which has similar meaning to Jung’s term, Shadow. He uses it to refer to negative emotions that have not been faced and accepted when they occurred. This is also a part of what I addressed in my quick reply last week. All of us get wounded in childhood. If we fail to adequately unearth those wounds, see them, speak to them and release their energy through emotional expression, they remain in us and they are destructive. “These emotions build up over time and when not properly confronted, they can be unleashed at inopportune times”, according to Tolle.
Tolle goes on to say, there is also a collective human pain-body containing the pain suffered by countless human beings through history. Sound familiar? Yes, it is what Jung referred to as Collective Unconscious. Every now and then it becomes activated, and when it does it seeks more suffering to feed on. This is a point upon which we would all benefit from taking a moment to pause and self reflect.
“In the case of American politics, there is a lot of anger and resentment at politicians for seeming to always say one thing and do another. George Bush, for example, went to war in Iraq because of weapons of mass destruction, but this turned out to be completely false. Barack Obama, a Nobel Peace Prize winner at the beginning of his presidency, dropped over 26,000 bombs on foreign countries in 2016 alone.” (Tolle)
These examples highlight the fact that people are frustrated and the anger and frustration has been swelling over time. This, as well as numerous other confounding factors, is the context in which Trump as President, and subsequently, Trumpism, has emerged.
How the pain-body works
“The pain-body wants to survive, just like every other entity in existence, and it can only survive if it gets you to unconsciously identify with it. It can then rise up, take you over, ‘become you,’ and live through you. It needs to get its ‘food’ through you. It will feed on any experience that resonates with its own kind of energy, anything that creates further pain in whatever form: anger, destructiveness, hatred, grief, emotional drama, violence, and even illness. So the pain-body, when it has taken you over, will create a situation in your life that reflects back its own energy frequency for it to feed on. Pain can only feed on pain. Pain cannot feed on joy. It finds it quite indigestible.”
It is important to be aware of these parts – the pain-body or shadow, and to hold space for them. Oherwise we allow every negative feeling or thought to generate more negative energy. If we hold these thoughts or feelings separately from our Self, we can observe them without letting them take over. This is why it’s crucially important to look within and understand why you’re reacting.
To this point, Chopra says “Trump’s success comes from a side of human nature that exists inside all of us”, and offers some steps for how we can combat this.
“In reality Trump isn’t bizarre or anomalous. He stands for something universal, something right before our eyes. It’s an aspect of the human psyche that we feel embarrassed and ashamed of, which makes it our collective secret. Going back a century in the field of depth psychology, the secret side of human nature acquired a special name: the shadow.”
“The shadow compounds all the dark impulses—hatred, aggression, sadism, selfishness, jealousy, resentment, sexual transgression—that are hidden out of sight. Our psyches are dualistic, sharply divided between the conscious and unconscious. The rise of civilization is a tribute to how well we obey our conscious mind and suppress our unconscious side. But what hides in the shadows will come out.”
“If Trump is the latest expression of the shadow, he isn’t a bizarre anomaly, which would be true if normal, rational values are your only standard of measure. Turn the coin over, making the unconscious your standard of measure, and he is absolutely typical. When the shadow breaks out, what’s wrong is right. Being transgressive feels like a relief, because suddenly the collective psyche can gambol in forbidden fields. When Trump indulges in rampant bad behavior and at the same time says to his riotous audiences, “This is fun, isn’t it?” he’s expressing in public our ashamed impulse to stop obeying the rules.”
”The danger that Chopra foresees is the shadow forces getting out of control, as we saw in the first half of the twentieth century with two world wars. Therefore, Chopra offers each of us some steps for looking within and confronting the shadow side that exists in all of us.
After all, the best way to change the world is to change ourselves.