Where I live Halloween is a big deal for both children and adults. Not only does Halloween mark the biggest candy holiday of the year, according to the Christian Science Monitor, this year Americans will spend close to $80 per person to celebrate. Favorite costumes for adults are witches, vampires and pirates. Children prefer princesses, Batman and Spiderman. Yet it doesn’t stop there. Pets (mostly dogs) will go as pumpkins, devils and sandwiches. What we usually ignore is that all these costumes and masks are an opportunity for different parts of our personality to come-out-of-the-closet if only for the night. So maybe it is SMART to take the time to look more closely at those energies within us, and perhaps learn to channel them to help create a more happy and fulfilled life.
Don’t get me wrong. I love to dress up and become someone else as much as anyone. And obviously I’m not alone. Of the $8 billion that is collectively spent in our country on Halloween, 36% of that is spent on costumes alone. Also of interest is the fact that Halloween spending has grown tremendously during the last five years of the recession. While many people were struggling to find jobs and hang on to their homes, they apparently didn’t hesitate to spend money buying elaborate disguises to escape their everyday world.
So what’s going on? If you ask most people why they like celebrating Halloween, the usual answer is that it’s fun. And it can be.
The opportunity to briefly live out a fantasy or let your hair down being wild and crazy has immense appeal. That’s why even in a state like Utah, which is commonly known as a more religious and conservative state, Halloween is widely celebrated. Can you guess why? According to the Standard-Examiner newspaper in Ogden, UT, many Utahans believe that because they normally live under so many rules and regulations in their lives, they need one night a year to let their “dark side” come out to play. Some believe that Halloween has evolved into a ritual that allows the normally very devote people of Utah to clearly define the difference between good and evil.
But what about the rest of us? What might be driving the explosion of Halloween celebration and spending that has occurred during the last five years in the U.S.? Obviously we can’t ignore the huge marketing machine of American manufacturers and retail outlets. Traditionally October was a very slow month for retail, lying between back-to-school sales and the Christmas holidays. By pushing the holiday through heavy advertising, Halloween sales have inflated by 35% in just the last five years alone. Like it or not, all of us are vulnerable to the avalanche of media marketing around this holiday.
However, what makes the holiday extremely irresistible to most of us is that we crave the opportunity to do as the Utah citizens do, “let our dark side come out to play.” And what is that dark side? Usually it’s our “shadow self” as defined by Carl Jung the Swiss Psychologist and founder of Analytical Psychology. Jung believed that our shadow selves were the hidden and repressed part of ourselves that we consider inferior and covered by guilt. So instead of allowing those parts of us that either don’t fit our image of ourselves—or parts that don’t fit into what we believe our peers and culture expects of us—we spend a lot of money one day a year pretending we are someone else. The more bizarre and crazy the better.
But what happens to our shadow during the rest of the year? It’s good to keep in mind that our shadow isn’t necessarily a bad or inferior aspect of our personality. Actually, according to Jung, our shadow contains natural, life-giving, underdeveloped positive potentialities. But the positive aspects of our shadow are only possible when we become conscious of its influence and allow it to integrate into our daily lives. Unfortunately, the more we habitually repress or project the shadow it can become a destructive and dangerous aspect of our personality. When that happens we stifle our creativity, our normal instincts, realistic insights, and true spirituality along other beneficial qualities. In most cases a repressed shadow won’t turn us into a sociopath—but it could easily lead to us living a life of routine desperation.
How do we recognize our shadow? Halloween provides us with a great way to start recognizing parts of ourselves that we may have repressed. Ask yourself why you picked the costume you did and what does it means? Drawn to vampires? What is it about that image that appeals to you? Going as a sexy biker-chick? How about a swashbuckling pirate? Again, why are you attracted? Any costume or character that strongly appeals to us can represent qualities that we have disavowed in ourselves out of modesty or personal or societal rules. We typically project on to others what we hesitate to acknowledge in ourselves.
Not only should we look at what attracts us—but what about others that repels and disgusts us? Any costume that you consider outrageous or inappropriate could also be triggering your shadow. In the twelve-step tradition they say, “If you spot it, you got it.” That can mean that any trait or image that strongly catches your eye probably reflects your own shadow. Those who are trained in shadow work also believe that if we are paying attention we can spot our shadow in many of our unconscious habits or routines—when things happen over and over for no recognizable reason, our shadow is likely involved.
So why turn a light-hearted holiday like Halloween into another homework assignment? As I said earlier, I love Halloween too so I’m not suggesting we eliminate it. What I do think would be beneficial is for us all is to learn to integrate that shadow energy that we unloose one night a year into the rest of our daily lives in a conscious and aware way. And here are a few of the biggest benefits to doing shadow work:
- To better understand why we routinely behave in certain ways;
- To get help or support for living our purpose and passions;
- To work with feelings like fear, anger and shame;
- To learn how to change and break through old patterns of behavior;
There are dozens of books and plenty of teachers and therapists available to anyone who wants to begin exploring the fascinating world of your shadow self. Maybe when you think about it, our cultural obsession with wearing masks and costumes, of watching movies about supernatural characters, and our dreaming of imaginary worlds are all parts of ourselves striving for recognition. If that is so, then perhaps it would be really SMART to use this Halloween as a great way to get to know a big part of the real you.