Many people have mixed feelings about themselves. Of course some people have a very dark view of themselves, especially when they are depressed. Other people think highly of themselves and can’t see anything wrong. But most of us see both good and bad in ourselves; sometimes it is hard to see the connection between the two, hard to understand how the same person could do both good and bad things.
There is often a gap between intentions and actions, with our intentions better than our actions. Most of us at least well most of the time, but the follow-through on those good intentions can be disappointing to ourselves and others.
If you recognize this in yourself, and feel a bit demoralised about it, you are in good company. St Paul, in one of the more heart-felt personal passages in his epistles, laments how he does things he meant not to do, and fails to do the things he intended.
Many great people turn out to have ‘feet of clay’, to have remarkable achievements in some areas that are valued very highly, but to behave incredibly badly in others. In fact, this seems to be remarkably common, not just something found in a few ‘bad apples’.
It is one of the greatest challenges of personal development, first to recognize our very mixed qualities, then to understand how that arises, and finally to take steps to integrate things better. If that goes well, we will reach a point where we are less surprised by how we mess up sometimes, and indeed actually let ourselves down less often.
The psychologist C G Jung used the word ‘shadow’ to refer to this dark side of the personality that can lets us down badly, when so much can else seems admirable and impressive. It is a key question for many of us how to manage our shadow side so it doesn’t destroy or sabotage what is good in our personality
His basic advice is to bring our shadow in from the cold and to integrate it better into the rest of us. The alternatives, of ignoring it, or trying to eradicate it, don’t seem to work. Condemning our shadow doesn’t seem to work; it is better to befriend it and harness it for good.
It is hard for us to recognize the shadow side of our personality; in fact it is hard to recognize that we are both good and bad, and that these are closely intertwined. We tend to want to either hold on to an entirely positive view of ourselves, or to flip over into thinking we are entirely bad.
Freudians think about somewhat related issues in terms of ‘splitting’, the tendency to think that things are all good or all bad, and to struggle to recognize the complex way in which the two jostle together.
Cognitive psychologists talk about ‘cognitive complexity’ or ‘integrative complexity’, contrasting it with more black-and-white thinking. Integrators try to hold everything together, and that has far-reaching implications.
The challenge of recognizing how darkness and light are closely intertwined arises in many areas of our lives, public and private. But it is often particularly challenging to recognize this about ourselves.