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Our Shadow and How to Keep It In Check

We need to acknowledge our dark side. Source: Talkspace.

Only three days ago, in the middle of the Lunar New Year, when everyone was happily celebrating the biggest holiday in Vietnam, an atrocious story broke out. Two boys were reported to have violently tortured their relative’s cat almost to death and showed no attempt at redemption for their wrongdoings.

Without a doubt, both the cat’s owner and thousands of people on social media expressed rage at the boys’ unacceptable behaviors. When the cat’s owner uploaded an extract from her house camera showing her nephews’ horrendous actions, I didn’t dare look at it. As I read the owner’s description of all the horrible wounds the cat was suffering from, I was already chilled to the bone thinking about whether those two boys had let their “shadows” take over.

“Shadow” is a symbolic image representing the evilness lurking in every human being. As much as we want to see ourselves as innate kind-hearted social beings, science and history have shown that our morality has to fight against our more violent, corrupted side every second of our life. Those boys have lost their moral battle from a very young age, which is alarming in society as we all know children are our future.

But most of the time, our offensive side doesn’t reveal itself so noticeably. And that’s where it gets tricky: We like to think of ourselves as decent people, but have you ever stopped for a moment and thought about how easily people are influenced to act irrationally? Many people were once honest and hard-working before their country’s economic struggle persuaded them that following Hitler would be a good idea. A pandemic broke out in China, and a drastic wave of Asian hatred followed. And who’d have thought a Netflix series would build a fandom rooting for a serial killer?

Even if you’re immune to those unexpected “outbreaks,” don’t think you’re safe from your shadow yet. If Freud is correct, the Id exists in every one of us and fights against the Superego every second. The sooner we acknowledge this dark side, the better we can prepare ourselves to avoid it taking over our morality.

What is our shadow, and How much do we know about it?

Throughout history, we are never short of theories or real-life examples of the human’s dark soul. Talking about ideas, we have Xunzi, a philosopher from China and a student of Confucius, who argued that human beings are fundamentally evil. According to Xunzi, our natural emotions are mostly negative, like envy, resentment, selfishness, and pro-domination.

In the Western world, Sigmund Freud’s theory of human personality seemed to agree with Xunzi. He described our “primitive and instinctual part of the mind,” or the Id, as full of aggressive drives that contradict our morality. His argument has been proven with many researchers’ experiments. The experiment of Zimbardo, for example, where participants were given the role of correctional officers and entitled to treat their prisoners poorly, got so out of hand that the scientist had to stop it after only a few days. Milgram’s experiment proved a similar thing when he gave his participants the right to electrocute hired actors in the name of “aiding intelligence,” which led them to increase the voltage to a level high enough to kill actual people.

Freud's theory implied that our instincts were mostly bad. Source: Simply Psychology.


If these experiments were too theoretical to understand, the Nazis and the holocaust might be just a few typical examples of how people let their dark side take over and torture each other. The terrifying finding is probably that people contributing to horrible artificial events might be the most ordinary people; they are neither psychopaths nor potential serial killers, but it only needs a favorable condition for their lousy side to thrive. Hitler was only a rejected artist, and many Nazists were honest, hard-working oppressed Germans at the time. Similarly, most participants in mentioned experiments are decent and show no symptoms of madness.

This indicates that our dark side is not always apparent to us, and so it’s not easy to be detected or be aware of. However, it’s always there – people have asymmetric nature made up of the simultaneous existence of goodness and badness. More dangerously, such darkness is always ready to swallow us at the most unexpected stimulation. Most recently, we witnessed how a documentary series on the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer could create a fandom of people sympathetic to the horrid man. Therefore, it’s highly alarming if we keep neglecting the existence and the potential danger that this monstrous side of us could bring, especially when anything could become its stimulation.

How to keep it in check?

It might be tough to keep something that we barely know about and detect in check. Especially in an era where we are constantly bombarded by flows of information thanks to the emergence of the Internet and social media, we’re vulnerable to harmful stimulations more than ever. Nonetheless, there are a few ways to help you keep the Id under control.

The very first thing to do, which is also the most challenging step, is to acknowledge that we all have this monster inside us. Acknowledging our darkness, that we are by no means flawless, is something we, as human beings, are still trying hard to do since nobody wants to villainize themselves in their narrative. However, if we keep denying the existence of the shadow, it’s easier for us to gradually forget it and let it take control without us even noticing.

We can start by telling ourselves that “nobody is perfect.” Instead of criticism, this sentence has been a popular consolation whenever we make mistakes. Telling ourselves a familiar, comfortable saying helps us take the issue in more easily. Furthermore, it doesn’t mean we don’t have any goodness in ourselves. By gradually persuading us to accept our flaws little by little, it helps to alleviate the ashamed feelings and facilitate a more realistic view of ourselves.

As soon as we acknowledge our dark half, it’s easier to detect the inviting environment or stimulation for our shadow to thrive. It’s not a simple task to be aware of everything, especially when we are prone to comfort and ease, but staying alert gives you a heads-up and encourages you always to ask questions. For example, when you watch Jeffrey Dahmer’s documentary, while all you want to do is to enjoy the series, you can ask yourself if the string is making you sympathize with Dahmer and, if it does, whether the series is portraying the actual events faithfully or romanticizing the truth.

Furthermore, as society grows, we have sets of laws and regulations that will help to protect us from others and our darkness. Reminding yourself of legal and social consequences and terrible historical events may help you stay alert to potential stimulations, including extremist views and twisted facts. Acknowledging values is essential for hindering immoral actions, and schools and parents must know to teach children about consequences as they grow up to help them become decent people.

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