Note: This post contains no spoilers, nor do you have to have seen either movie to “get it.” 🙂
As I sat in the dark theater last Tuesday night, enraptured by “The King’s Speech” and emotionally engrossed in the stuttering troubles of King George VI – or “Bertie” – one line of dialogue jumped out at me. Speech therapist Lionel Logue (embodied superbly by Geoffrey Rush) said of Bertie, “It’s like he’s afraid of his own shadow!”
I’d encountered that expression zillions of times before, but that was the first time I really heard it.
See, shadows have been very much on my mind these past few weeks. They’ve been following me around (and not because we’ve had any sunshine in the Seattle area!) ever since I saw the deeply haunting “Black Swan.” The entire movie is an exploration of the tug-of-war that exists between our controlled exterior and our unbridled shadow side. The story is a dramatic example of what can happen when we try to suppress our shadow, or when we disregard it completely. Because dancer Nina (Natalie Portman) had always tried to be disciplined, perfect and a people-pleaser, she struggled to get in touch with her shadow when a challenge arose. And what happened? The shadow took her over, tragically and completely.
I’ve just started really learning about the “shadow,” which is what Carl Jung called the archetype that contains our most primal nature, our animal spirits. While we often think of the shadow as being dark and scary, it’s actually more accurate to say that it contains things we have repressed. Consider this from the forward of “A Little Book on the Human Shadow” (Robert Bly):
“…we might call the shadow ‘the dark, unlit and repressed side of the ego complex,’ the Jungian analyst Marie Louise Von Franz says in Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales. ‘But this is only partly true,’ she adds, lest we get caught in the negative connotation of the image. She tells of an occasion when Jung, impatient as always with Jungians, dismissed a nit-picking discussion of the concept by protesting. ‘This is all nonsense! The shadow is simply the whole unconscious.’ The definition Von Franz settles on is neutral and lucid: ‘…the shadow is simply a mythological name for all that within me of which I cannot directly know.'”
Additional perspective comes from “A Primer of Jungian Psychology” (Hall & Nordby):
“The person who suppresses the animal side of his nature may become civilized, but he does so at the expense of decreasing the motive power for spontaneity, creativity, strong emotions and deep insights. … A shadowless life tends to become shallow and spiritless.”
The Nina we meet in the beginning of “Black Swan” is beautiful to watch because of her precision and grace. She also lacks the spark and charisma that her rival seems to have in abundance. It’s only after numerous intense encounters with her shadow that she is able to rouse passion in herself and others.
So what does a twisted ballerina have in common with a stuttering king?
Recall the phrase that Logue uttered: “It’s like he’s afraid of his own shadow!” Bertie was introduced to us as a proper royal, occupying his role with some discomfort yet doing his best to please others. The shadow Logue referred to (whether he knew it or not) was the shoving away, the piling on of years of emotional neglect and low expectations from others. Bertie’s father, brother, nanny and other people who were supposed to care for him, failed him. Bertie is not allowed to openly grapple with that, and his frustration and pain come through in his speech.
Before seeing the movie, I wasn’t familiar with the causes of stuttering. One might watch the movie and, knowing nothing else, conclude that the cause was purely psychological. And indeed, it was after Logue started shining the light on Bertie’s shadow, one memory and profanity at a time, that he started to find his voice (literally and metaphorically).
Instead, the reasons children begin stuttering are developmental and neurological; there are still some idiosyncrasies (like why does the stuttering go away while whispering, or singing, or speaking in unison?), but it’s generally believed that it’s not psychological.
Bertie’s struggle with and detachment from his shadow wasn’t the cause of his speech impediment, but it certainly exacerbated it. Once he started standing up for himself, and finding his innate power (not just the power from his birth right), he was able to be more spontaneous and emotional. His shadow started working with him, rather than against him.
Both Nina and Bertie were confronted with their shadow side. To step into the fullness of who they were meant to be, they were required to look at what they had stuffed away, and to come to grips with “all that within me of which I cannot directly know.” Each experienced their shadow emerging in socially inappropriate ways (hers with violence, his with scathing put-downs); the results could not have been more different for each person.
I did a search for “black swan effect,” curious if it was a phrase in use, and if so, what it meant. Besides being a rock band, I found a reference to “black swan events.” According to Wikipedia, “Black Swan Events were characterized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2007 book (revised and completed in 2010), The Black Swan. Taleb regards almost all major scientific discoveries, historical events, and artistic accomplishments as “black swans” — undirected and unpredicted… [demonstrating] rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability”
Huh! Sounds like what happened to Bertie, the future King George VI!!
His brother’s abdication of the throne during wartime was rare, had an extreme impact and in hindsight, might have been predicted. And since Bertie was known as the reluctant king, never expecting to assume the crown, it’s no wonder this “black swan event” led to a close encounter with his shadow.
We don’t have to wait for a “black swan”-level crisis to begin the dance with our own shadow. It’s always going to be there, following us around, sometimes bigger, sometimes smaller. Think of it as a reservoir of personal power. We can either see it as a source of inspiration and creativity, or we can deny it, and by extension, deny an integral piece of what it means to be human. It’s by acknowledging the shadow and understanding it that we can use it for good and not evil.
If you’re interested in learning more about the shadow, there are some excellent books devoted to the subject. Spend a few minutes browsing my virtual bookshelf here: http://theintrovertentrepreneur.com/shop/bookstore/
And if you haven’t already seen them, I highly recommend both movies. The stories of Bertie and Nina will stay with you long after you’ve left the theater.
Lynn / Power Chicks says
I love how you've taken the pop culture of two movies to bring into the light the shadowy side of what dominates our lives… whether we realize it or not.
Your phrasing here resonates beautifully with my own thoughts: "Think of it as a reservoir of personal power. We can either see it as a source of inspiration and creativity, or we can deny it, and by extension, deny an integral piece of what it means to be human. It’s by acknowledging the shadow and understanding it that we can use it for good and not evil."
So true! For me, it's not an either/or practice but both are true: some shadow selves I deny entirely (I catch wee glimmers and plunge them back to the dark) while others, such as vulnerability and strength, I work with more consciously.
Your blog is always insightful, beautifully written and wise. Thank you!
Lynn, thanks for your really thoughtful comment. You bring up an excellent point: it's not an either/or, it's a continuum between either and both (just like being an introvert/extrovert!), depending on where we are in our lives and what buttons are being pushed :-). I have experienced your vulnerability showing up in very powerful ways, and you're a shining example of the good that can come when we choose to work with, rather than against, our shadow. Thanks for inspiring me and others!
My recent post What “The King’s Speech” & “Black Swan” Have in Common
Renee Segal says
Thanks for the post. Although I understood that The Black Swan was about the shadow, I hadn't considered the shadow while watching The King's Speech. As you mentioned in one case confronting the shadow caused death and in the other it was the impetis for growth. It seems to be true in life, what is hard for us either makes us stronger or can metaphorically kill us (by killing our spirit or our drive) By embracing both we become fully alive!
Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us!
Renee, thanks for commenting! I wouldn't have thought much about the shadow in TKS except for that comment Logue made, which just grabbed me and caused me to see Bertie's journey through a slightly different lens. Reading your comments and what you share on your website's "about" page, another word comes to mind: safety. So much of whether we are able to confront and/or embrace our shadow depends on how safe we feel. It's interesting to think about how Logue created safety in that relationship. And Nina? Nothing about her situation was safe, not even at home. Thanks for being a catalyst for a new area of reflection!
My recent post What “The King’s Speech” & “Black Swan” Have in Common
Not sure I can add anything to this thought-provoking post, except to say that it's just quite possible that our culture doesn't encourage us (especially little girls) to get in touch with their shadow side—or at least that's the way it used to be. : )
Interesting to me that the scientific discoveries and artistic achievements are describe as having been "black swan" events. Makes me wonder what we might be suppressing that really needs to see the light of day.
Now I'm going to have to see these two movies. Thanks for such an insightful post, Beth.
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Judy, I think you're right. Little girls are sugar and spice and everything nice, right? 😉 But overall, what's deemed generally acceptable is reinforced and affirmed so much, lots of really rich creativity and daring is left to live in the shadows. And when some people (artists, for example) bring it out, it's sometimes met with such resistance that others dare not bring their own out (or, they are inspired to bring it out regardless!). AND usually when we get triggered by someone else being comfortable with their shadow (thinking "who does she think she is?!") it means that same thing in us is resonating and saying "me, too! I want to play!" Are we afraid of that, or do we dip our toe in?
I find it all fascinating and have a lot to learn. I'd love to know what you think of the movies. "The King's Speech" has been universally loved by those I know who've seen it, and "The Black Swan" sparks mixed reactions (it's really, really dark). Come back here if you think of it and let us know your impressions!
My recent post What “The King’s Speech” & “Black Swan” Have in Common
Arden Clise says
I lose myself in your words. You are a beautiful writer! And, a brilliant observer!
I have to second what Lynn said about "the resevoir of personal power." It's very true that I tend to shun my shadow side, but as you said that just gives it more power or it ends up being expressed in inappropriate ways. If we can see our shadow self as part of all that we are, not the only part, and embrace it it has less control over us and we can harness the power it has.
I'm still discovering what that means. I deny my shadow side a lot. Not quite sure what to make of it.
Thank you for a thought-provoking post, as usual. And, I too loved both of those movies. Everything about both of them was brilliant.
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Patty K says
I've always associated the term "shadow" with something dark, dangerous or even evil. Like getting in touch with my inner serial killer…
But your post makes me think of my favourite Marianne Williamson quote that begins with:
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?"
I think for a lot of us, wanting to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous and in the spotlight is the shadow. (Or maybe that's just me…)
Thank you for your insightful and eloquent post (and for the movie recommendations!)
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Beth, I'm with Judy: I'm not sure I can add anything substantive to quite a comprehensive consideration of how encounters with The Shadow inform our wholeness (or lack thereof).
I really like Tammy's way of describing the "light" meeting "shadow" as our 'committees coming into agreement or harmony'.
Refusing to embrace whatever The Shadow is for us always causes all sorts of problems. Our greatest need is to be acknowledged, loved. When any part of us is neglected, repressed, or judged as inadequate, it still must somehow be acknowledged and known.
I think that is why The Shadow has been often characterized as negative and bad. Since it (like any part of us) will not be denied, when suppressed, it comes out in unhealthy — even destructive — ways.
Examples of this occasionally make the media, like the closet homosexual who commits a murderous hate crime. Or, perhaps less dramatically, the closet introverted entrepreneur who fails to embrace the beauty and magic of who he is and secretly hates himself, failing at business and in life.
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Barbara Breckenfeld says
Beth – Thank you for writing about such an important subject that our culture loves to over look or limit by making it black and white. I certainly have done so, but took the opportunity to explore several aspects of my own shadow with a coach this past year. The process has been helpful beyond what I can say, or maybe I am still discovering the value of that process. It has certainly freed energy for what I choose.
I'd also like to emphasize a point you made, and Patty K commented on, that the shadow also contains our gifts which we may be just as afraid of as our "negative" parts. In my experience, our gifts contain a light side and a dark side, just as our weaknesses contain a light side as well as the obvious dark. Unless we dive deeper, it is easy to miss that rich reality.
It was a big relief to me when I could feel in my body that the shadow is NOT black and white. We are complex creatures, and in this lies our beauty, our power, as well as our foibles and tragic flaws. You have done a beautiful job of calling our attention to this with current examples from popular culture. Thank you!
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