Friday 23 February 2018

Well-being: Opposites attract

Extremes of behaviour always have a shadow side, writes Katie Byrne

Controversy: The head office of Console. Photo: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.
Controversy: The head office of Console. Photo: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.

Scientific studies often confirm the obvious or contemplate the inconsequential. However, every once in a while, a study comes along that contradicts all of our preconceived ideas and uncovers the shadow side of human behaviour.

Here are a few paradoxes, discovered by various social scientists, to chew on: Church-goers are more likely to steal newspapers. Homophobic men are more likely to be gay. Conservatives are the biggest consumers of porn in the US.

While we're on the subject of paradoxes, it's also worth considering the recent financial controversy at Console and the perplexingly high rates of fraud within the charity sector.

There's an Ancient Greek word for this contradictory behaviour - enantiodromia, which is roughly translated as "the superabundance of any force inevitably produces its opposite".

The word was popularised by psychiatrist Carl Jung and it was often cited in his work on shadow psychology.

Enantiodromia is much like the to-and-fro of a pendulum moving from one extreme position to the other. The point of suspension, in this case, is the elusive state of balance that we're all trying to find.

We don't have to look too hard to find examples of enantiodromia around us. We can see it at play in the binge-purge sequence of diets, the relapse-sobriety cycle of addiction and our tendency to swap hedonism (Christmas) for asceticism (Dry January).

It also explains the high probability of burnout following a bout of workaholism and the risk of burning the candle at both ends.

Look further and you'll notice that superiority complexes are often inferiority complexes in disguise; the angriest people are generally the most sensitive and, as the saying goes, it's always the quiet ones.

Or perhaps consider the high rates of depression among comedians; the chaotic inner worlds of the obsessively organised and the peculiar tendency for germaphobes to get sick.

In other cases, the shadow side is evident in the partners we choose. Think of the free spirit pairing off with the control freak; the person with trust issues falling for yet another cheater and emotionally needy types craving the affection of the emotionally unavailable.

We can see it in family dynamics too. We all know mollycoddling parents who inadvertently hold their children back by being at their beck and call, and authoritarian parents who raise rebels, despite their better attempts.

Even the kindest of people have a shadow side. I've started to notice that overwhelmingly empathetic types have a borderline sociopathic streak. Maybe it's a coping tool to harness their over-sensitivity. Maybe it's something else.

In the words of Goethe: "There is strong shadow where there is much light". Still, we easily forget that perspective gives meaning.

Jung wrote about "the necessity of conflicting pairs of opposites". In other words, we don't know the light without the dark, just as we don't know good without evil.

Granted, we know that everything has an opposite, but we forget that these two polarities are inextricably linked.

"Everyone carries a shadow," wrote Jung, "and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is".

The trouble is that we tend to point the finger out, rather than in. Think of the 'if you spot it, you got it' tendency to criticise traits in others that we have ourselves, or maybe just ask yourself why it is exactly that familiarity breeds contempt.

The shadow side is at the heart of author Byron Katie's self-inquiry method, which is known as 'The Work'. She uses the analogy of a piece of lint on a projector lens to explain the process. "We think there's a flaw on the screen, and we try to change this person and that person, whomever the flaw appears on next," she explains. "But it's futile to try to change the projected images".

I attended one of Byron Katie's courses and it was a gruelling process- enlightening, yet deeply foreboding.

It was worth it, though. It taught me to go looking for the lint on the projector lens, just as it got me into the habit of contemplating the flip side of all extreme emotions and behaviours.

It also taught me to reconsider the ideals that I identify with. Jung puts this better: "We all feel that the opposite of our own highest principle must be purely destructive, deadly, and evil," he wrote. "We refuse to endow it with any positive life-force; hence we avoid and fear it".

The shadow side becomes problematic when, through repression or oppression, we allow it to get to its darkest point.

However, it can be harnessed as a force for good too. Even the very act of acknowledging and negotiating with the shadow side can be enough to restore a sense of balance.

When you become comfortable with the extremities of your psyche, you become better at managing them. More to the point, when you become comfortable with the shadow side of human nature, you become better at accepting the ups and downs - the light and the dark - of everyday life.

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