Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Are You Shadow-Shocked?

Unable to doubt your own motives?

Increasingly I sense that there are two kinds of people, people who are skeptical about their own motives and people who aren't. 

The people who aren't are the kind who, when challenged always say in so many words, "Oh no, my motivations are pure." And you can tell that they really believe it. 

I've called it "talkiswalkism" elsewhere. "My positive self-reporting talk is always an accurate description of my walk, my real behavior."

I’d argue that people who can only speak positively of their own motives are shadow shocked. Like Shell Shock, traumatized by a bad experience with seeing their dark side. Post-traumatic introspection syndrome.  Experience of their own shadow or dark sides is repellant to them. 

These people duck when they see their shadow like Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog of Groundhog Day. And as with Phil, whose ducking predicts more winter, you can expect a cold response to any further challenges to them.

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There are lots of reasons to duck one’s shadow or dark side.  Like all evidence of room for improvement, it can be dispiriting, immobilizing, discouraging. If you think you’re further along in life and you get evidence that you’re not, it can make you want to give up trying, or at least make you want to dismiss the evidence.

If you cringe every time you see your dark side your strongest impulse is to stop seeing your dark side.

The default for humans is to find ways around see our own dark side. Seeing other people’s dark sides, yes--that’s easy, fun, a bonding experience when people talk cattily about other people’s dark sides, present company excepted.

“Boy was Jim being a jerk the other night, right?”  

But seeing our own shadow, that’s another thing.

To be able to look at your own shadow unflinchingly takes a lot of practice. The only treatment I know is desensitization therapy, see a little bit of shadow, laugh nervously, breathe, see a little more shadow, breathe—sooner or later you can get to where you can breathe seeing lots of your own shadow, including your dark side aversion to seeing your dark side (my mantra is “no matter how hard I pursue the truth about me, it will never catch me.”)

I think desensitization to one’s dark side is the most substantial benefit of long-term therapy, and of philosophy too, especially the two in combination:

Philosophers find their true perfection

Knowing the follies of humankind

By introspection.

The combination enables you to see your dark side without assuming you’re exceptionally shadowy.  We all have one, some of course have a darker side than others, but the basic habits of dark sides are pretty much the same in all of us.  Introspection and some philosophy about why we all would have dark sides enables us to feel at home in human nature.

Now you’ll notice that I said there were two kinds of people, those who can look at their dark side and those that can’t and then immediately tipped my hand that I think the kind that can are better.  The others need therapy, right?  

And you can guess therefore what kind of person I’d claim to be, right? 

Whether I am or not, I might be the last person to know. That’s the thing. I could claim I can look at my dark side but not really be able to. There are so many ways to not look, including claiming to look but not really looking. 

You get this one from people who declare themselves receptive and even give a moment’s lip service to challenges. “I hear you, but…” and then immediately go into defense mode, or the problem is you mode or really, any distraction. Like I say, “No matter how hard I pursue the truth about me it will never catch me.”

I might also simply be suffering from “be like me syndrome.”  I’ve invested a lot of time in looking at my dark side (a side effect of over 2,000 hours of on-the-couch Freudian therapy starting at age 8) so I assume everyone should look at their dark side, right?

I could make a case why being able to see your dark side is good for us. I have elsewhere. Most of the mega-jerks this world has known are people who couldn’t doubt their own motives or see their shadow.  Every one of them thought they were on the side of truth justice and a better world.

But some of our heroes weren’t great at seeing their potential for bad motives either. Steve Jobs from what I understand, but others too.  If you’re fighting for justice against considerable opposition, you can’t afford a lot of doubt.  Steel yourself, eyes on the prize and don’t be distracted by challengers pointing out your potentially dark motives.

Which is one of the great benefits of not being able to doubt your motives.  In general you can plough through a whole lot more resistance. What you plough into as a result is another matter.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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