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Wed Oct 03, 2007

Embracing The Shadow Side

One of the most interesting concepts put forth by Carl Jung is that of the shadow. Jung posits that prominent personality traits tend to exist alongside their opposites. So, if I possess a certain trait to a great extent, then I also possess the opposite trait at some level, though I may be unaware of it. For example, if I am generally a very polite person, I am also likely to have a side of myself that is very impolite or even aggressive. However, to say that I am a polite person is to say that I generally do not bring the impolite side into reality, relegating it to my inner life, which I may glimpse through fantasy and dreams. This "unrealized" aspect of myself which generally contains material that I censor or stifle is known as the "shadow" side of my personality.

Like Jung, I beileve that it is important to acknowledge the existence of the shadow and to have some way of honoring it. I am not suggesting that we move through life constantly expressing every forbidden impulse or, pointing to the example, that we devise some schedule for venting our hidden impoliteness. However, an important element of fulfilling my potential as a human being is recognizing that I am complex and multifaceted. It is fine for me to be a polite person, but it must be acceptable for me to harbor fantasies of impoliteness, to laugh heartily at comedy that is impolite, and even to sometimes be impolite in situations that call for sternness. Otherwise, I do a disservice to myself by failing to be authentic and by ignoring -- and indeed blockading -- a potentially important aspect of myself.

To embrace the shadow is to live more completely. It is an extension of "The truth shall set you free" (John 8:32). To have sides of ourselves that are ugly is unavoidable; the task is to submit them, as with all other sides, to the will of God: "We are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ" (2 Corinthians 10). And this is no small task.

posted at: 10:49 | path: /theories | link


The Need for a Balanced View of Psychotropic Medication

Psychotropic medication can be an invaluable component to the treament of depression and most psychological issues. However, it is important to have a balanced perspective about these medications. First, it is important to recognize that as Americans we are conditioned to want to "fix" or "get rid of" symptoms as quickly as possible. This view of alleviating suffering is certainly understandable, but is often incompatible with issues such as bereavement, where a sometimes lengthy healing process is needed.

Furthermore, the depressive symptoms that we wish to remove may be indicative of larger issues that need to be addressed. Very often, people come to me asking how they can continue to behave in ways that are beyond their emotional capabilities without feeling the negative psychological effects of doing so. For example, if someone starts a new job and finds themselves depressed after two months, the typical question is "What can I do to not feel this way?" instead of "Is this the right job for me?" My approach is simply to be as efficient as possible: If you have your hand on a hot stove and are feeling pain, then take your hand off of the stove instead of asking what I can do to help you numb the pain.

The psychological suffering at hand may in fact be a mechanism for telling us that we are not on the right track -- either something is missing and we need to seek it, or something is present and we need to eliminate it. By removing the depressive symptom with medication, we may lose the critical information needed to address a core issue in our lives. Because I am a Christian psychologist, I believe that many symptoms that arise for people in fact have their roots in deep, spiritual issues. If someone's depression is present due to a fear of a punishing God, then, as a staunch pragmatist, I would advocate grabbing that issue by the horns and addressing it, instead of effectively ignoring it by eliminating the depressive symptoms with pills.

Finally, it is important to be aware of the chicken-and-egg game associated with brain chemistry in mental illness. In American culture, issues such as depression are often seen as caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Although there is significant research evidence that demonstrates that chemical imbalances are indeed associated with psychological issues, this does not necessarily mean that they are the cause of them. If you slapped me in the face repeatedly for an hour and then measured my brain activity, it would likely exhibit a chemical imbalance associated with depression. But in this situation I am not depressed because of the chemical imbalance but because someone is slapping me. The cause of internal emotional imbalance is frequently external.

Please note that I am not recommending that people taking medication for depression or any other condition should stop doing so (and I would never recommend stopping any medication without consulting with the prescriber). I work with many clients that are dramatically helped by medication and I stand in awe of these improvements. Also, there are degrees of severity with depression and in many cases, particularly the more severe ones, I will absolutely recommend the use of medication. However, it is important to remember that the biological is only one of the many aspects of our complicated human issues, and medication is only one of the potential solutions for them.

posted at: 10:46 | path: /depression | link