Ending Your Inner Civil War

What drives people to war with themselves is the suspicion or the knowledge that they consist of two persons in opposition to one another. The conflict may be between the sensual and the spiritual man, or between the ego and the shadow.

Carl Gustav Jung, CW11, Par 522

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung observed that whatever we repress in ourselves, keeps influencing our behavior. And because for the greatest part, we aren’t aware of what’s lurking in the dark, we don’t know about the mechanisms running in the background of our psyche. There are things about us that are easy to accept; especially things we proudly use to fill up our egos with. And these are probably characteristics that our direct environment has classified as desirable. But if we take a peek behind the masks we wear, we find stuff that we don’t easily flaunt with. We might show these elements sparingly to some people, but in many cases, this part of the ego is off-limits to anyone but ourselves. However, if we’d delve deeper, we arrive at a psychological structure beyond the limits of our consciousness: the Shadow.

The inner civil war takes place when there’s a conflict between who we think we are, and the characteristics of ourselves that we aren’t aware of, but are nonetheless active behind the curtain, living autonomously and influencing our behavior without our knowledge or consent. This piece explores the inner civil war, and how to end it.

The Shadow

The novel and movie Fight Club tell the story of a young man known as the Narrator.  The Narrator works a dead-end office job and has a nice apartment full of Ikea furniture. In order to be the docile, harmless fellow he seems to be, many unwanted characteristics have been hidden in a place that he can’t consciously reach: things like the ability for violence, confrontation, doing illegal stuff… and enjoying a wild night with a woman named Marla Singer. But then his unconscious takes control, personified by Tyler Durden (who basically represents what he swept under the carpet). Tyler appears as a friend at first, but when the story progresses, the Narrator discovers that he and Tyler are one and the same person. Tyler is his shadow taking over, making him do things that he’d normally never do.

Many people are surprised by what evil they’re capable of. We see this with the character Walter White in the series Breaking Bad; a man working as an overqualified high school chemistry teacher at the age of fifty.  At the beginning of the series, Walter White can be described as a timid, droopy man that wouldn’t hurt a fly. He often gets mocked by his brother-in-law Hank Schrader, a typical macho ‘alpha male’ policeman, and it’s quite clear that his son and wife as well as his students don’t respect him. But when he’s diagnosed with cancer, repressed personality traits come to the surface, as his outlook on life shifts. Slowly but surely, he turns into a criminal, which he justifies by the idea that his activities are necessary to support his family financially after his death.

In the criminal underworld, Walter White becomes increasingly notorious and goes by the name ‘Heisenberg’, known as a cold-blooded kingpin in the local drug trade. Now, nobody in his environment, including himself, would have ever expected that Walter White would have been able to do what he did. He was a typical case of a person being “too good” for this world. And in his case, being “too good” meant that he never came to terms with his dark side, which can be a dangerous thing; because if we cannot recognize and eventually accept the evil within us, how can we master it?

Carl Jung wrote about this, and I quote: 

Unfortunately, there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.

Carl Gustav Jung, “Psychology and Religion” (1938). In CW 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East. P.131

It’s no surprise that Walter is constantly at war with himself and, as a consequence, with his environment. His old persona and his emerging shadow seem difficult if not impossible to reconcile, as they are extremes: the humble, silent, docile, man, on one end, and the greedy, angry and violent one on the other. Unfortunately, the latter extreme has taken over; his unconscious is controlling him from behind the curtain. Walter White has become a slave to his autonomous shadow.

The Shadow’s revolt

The inability to accept is the reason why we create dense shadows. But it’s no surprise that we’ve got a hard time accepting who we are. In general, people are quick to condemn us for traits that aren’t desirable. These traits don’t even have to be evil; like certain creative interests or certain preferences… things that aren’t harmful at all, but could be faced with harsh criticism from our environment. Jung noticed that by condemning another person for behavior that we consider unacceptable, or thoughts that we find offensive or ideas that we think are extreme, we subsequently condemn ourselves, as we’re all humans, and we all contain the seeds of immorality.

We see, for example, people that fight against oppression of all sorts, and claim to fight for justice. But this is often done in ways that are based on strong condemnations, which actually makes them oppressive and unjust. Take the character Hank Schrader, for example, who justifies the dehumanization of criminals, comparing them to cockroaches and what not. By taking such a stance, Hank doesn’t do humanity justice either, as criminals are still humans, and his brother-in-law Walter White proves that even within a Saint hides a monster.

As Jung stated: “Condemnation does not liberate. It oppresses. I’m the oppressor of the person I condemn. Not his friend and fellow sufferer.” 

If we condemn ourselves for having a dark side, we don’t just oppress ourselves; we also deny our humanity. And thus, the inner civil war proceeds, as we refuse to acknowledge what’s part of us. The contents of the shadow will not disappear through repression. On the contrary: it will revolt.

Ending the inner civil war

From a Jungian perspective, in order to help a patient, a doctor must approach this person with unprejudiced objectivity. A doctor cannot help a patient if he cannot accept him, regardless of his own morals and values. And we can only accept another person if we accept ourselves first. Because only through acceptance, we can acknowledge the totality of our being and know that the evil within us is also within everyone else. We ourselves are the enemy we despise. Hence, “love thy enemy” also means “love thyself”. As we shouldn’t condemn an animal for being hostile, we shouldn’t condemn a human being for doing the same thing, even when it’s irrational. Denying one’s humanity will get us nowhere.

According to Jung, the idea of self-acceptance is easy to comprehend but difficult to execute. I quote:

No doubt this also sounds very simple. In reality, however, the acceptance of the shadow-side of human nature verges on the impossible. Consider for a moment what it means to grant the right of existence to what is unreasonable, senseless, and evil!

Carl Jung, as quoted by Alan Watts

In order to accept ourselves, we must know who we are. But even though we cannot consciously access our dark side, and the vast majority of our psyche is beyond our reach, there are ways to integrate repressed parts of ourselves into our conscious personalities, according to Jung. In cases like Walter White and the Narrator in Fight Club, it means that extreme opposites need to be acknowledged and reconciled. Because what’s considered good has kept evil, evil. So in order for that to stop, evil must be turned into good.

We could compare this to removing the dam between two areas of water, so the water will naturally and effortlessly find its level. In Jungian psychology, this process is called shadow work, in which practitioners learn to remove barriers that keep parts of themselves from flowing naturally into the light of consciousness. When we make the unconscious conscious and give that what we’ve condemned into the shadow permission to exist, only then, what Jung calls “the conversion into the opposite” can take place. “It is this…” he states, “that makes possible the reunion of the warring halves of the personality, and thereby brings the civil war to an end.”

Thank you for watching.