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Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Shadow Self & the Emerging Self in Art

The depiction of the ‘Shadow Self’ in my art work is not easy to put in a few brief paragraphs. What came first, the Shadow Self or the art?  Does art and creativity create the Shadow self or it the other way round?. For me as the early life instincts and personality are born bringing forth a  known Concious Self, so is the Shadow Self. 
The Angel & The Firecat
by Stephanie Tihanyi
(all copyrights are held
by the artist)
Can the Shadow Self be ‘used’ to enhance your creativity, like a tool and be called on to serve its ends?. I don’t believe it can. The only way most people first become aware of or become in touch with their Shadow Self is in a time of intense emotional and identity crises. You can’t just tap into it when you feel like it. You don’t get in touch with it, it gets in touch with you and when it does you will know it and for most part your reaction to it will not be pleasant. Its going to be at a most difficult and challenging moment in your life. Whatever you are in, you’re way in deep and you are going to be in some sort of life changing emotional crises. You cannot control experiences like that.  
I had not heard of the concept of the ‘shadow self’ until after many years of painting it. At a time of trying to overcome intense emotional problems, I underwent counseling. I developed an interest in psychology, particularly trauma, in an attempt to understand and overcome my chronic inner turmoil and confusion. The best book I read was The Haunted Self, by Ono van der Hart, made clear a lot to me. I came to realize I had been painting disavowed aspects of my personality for years without consciously comprehending it, all I knew was that it was important but did not know why.
I was an imaginative and sensitive child, who began painting and drawing quite early. I found my imagination a refuge and a solace when the violence and abuse in our family home became too much. To protect myself I invented ‘friends and protectors’, I found places to hide, literally and artistically. When my mother finally left, the sadistic bullying and abuse got even worse, there were many days I feared for my life and that of my brothers and sisters. I feared my father may end up killing me, my siblings and or himself. My memories of this time became unreal, dreamlike, in slow motion and fuzzy. Only the strong emotion of overwhelming fear and horror remained until I even put that out of my mind completely. I became frozen and forgetful. Its hard say I grew up, it more true to say, I survived.  Growing up came much later.
I seemed to arrive in adulthood one day. A shell of a person, a house with lights on but nobody home, only ghosts at home. At least I was alive, albeit on autopilot. I had no opinions, no views, no personality, no center; I was what I thought anyone wanted me to be on different occasions. I was a construct. I mimicked bits of people’s behavior in order to engage socially and I began to believe that was me. My sense of identity changed like a chameleon does with its background but with no sense of self continuity. To me it was safer to appear colorless, dull and boring, safe, but very lonely. I continued like this for years. My imagination on the other hand was a rich fantasy world of dreams and magical beings. In real life I began to have terrible nightmares. That was the beginning, of trying to become a true person but it felt like a horrible disintegrating death, this crumbling of the false self.
The Shadow and the FireCat  by
S. Tihanyi
(all copyrights are held
by the artist)
                                Instinctively, I turned to my artwork in search of a true self. I knew the clues were in there somewhere but they were encoded in private symbols.  Magical and fantastic creatures appeared in my art, memories of long ago childish imaginings and self stories. I worked on them, revived them, and drew them obsessively.  They felt more real to me than myself. While working on them, I felt like I might find the secret way to become a real person. Raging tiger cats, winged cats, phoenixes and powerful sphinxes, fighting dragons that were powerful, aggressive, defiant and wild. Looking back now with knowledge, I know these were where I hid the emotions that were too dangerous for me to have or express as a child. Symbols that hid and locked, dissociated parts of a personality, in a secret language that only my subconscious understood. My mind was sending postcards to myself, only it was in code. Still it was therapeutic all the same. I just drew and drew. I invented new characters and developed them. My social skills grew and I became more confident, I began relating to others on a deeper level, though still I was too emotionally fragile to cope with going to art school. I worked cleaning jobs and painted after work.
I showed my artwork to friends who were intrigued. They expected me to know what they meant, but I was just as mystified as they. I secretly hoped each time I showed them to someone, they would magically be able to tell me the meaning but they never did. I began to believe I would never know. It depressed me that I would never know myself and that no one will ever truly know me. I felt such loneliness.  I knew future happiness lay in solving these mysteries. How could I ever really relate to anyone if my feelings, thoughts and sense of self were still a mystery to me, how could I plan or build a future without any sense of continuity?  Many of my emotions were confusing and some I had no concepts or labels for. Likewise my convictions about who I was, my opinions and beliefs’ also shifted. What feeling or belief seemed real one minute was not the next. Only my drawings and the characters in them seemed to know who they were.
When I met my future husband, I finally felt a safe stable place at last. Feeling strong, I made a bold decision to finally face my inner demons. I had developed a good logical mind but did not realize I lacked the skills to handle the unknown emotions that were going to arise and overwhelm me. I jumped right in and journaled about my early painful childhood, the beating and sexual abuse. Anxiety and fear surfaced out of nowhere, it took me by surprise. I took self defense classes to fix that. Flash backs and panic attacks began in training and outside of it. It got worse. I began to fight myself. I evoked the courage and rage encapsulated in the magical creatures I drew. The Firecat was the strongest. When I felt threatened by my  feelings of anxiety and fear, I drew him and studied his picture and drew his power and rage and defiance into myself for protection. I felt I could take on any adversary; I had dragged myself up from nothing, come so far and became strong at last, I would not let anything drag me down and make me helpless  again.
I did not realize that it was my own feelings and self I was fighting against. If my feelings of rage, libido, sexuality, destructiveness and defense had a champion in the Firecat, my feelings of vulnerability, neediness, gentleness, acceptance, love also had a champion, living in the paintings of the Angel. In the painting, ‘The Angel and the Firecat’ you can see their struggle. She strives to control him but he fights back, clawing her side. She is obedience and conformity, acceptable, stable, gentle and depressed. He is wild, aggresive, rebellious, manic and passionate.  I did not understand then that these were self representations, I was a house divided. I painted a new figure of The Shadow in my work, it chilled me, “who the hell was that”, I did not know who it was but I didn’t like it. At times my paintings so unnerved me, I turned them to the wall afraid to look work on them for weeks. I was having a breakdown, I was very scared.
I began to slip into a psychotic depression although I managed to work and keep an outward functioning self. At least  I was good at dissociation. My relationship was on the verge of collapse when I made my boyfriend move out. I became paranoid and feared my boyfriend wanted to harm me. I was getting battling voices in my head all day, arguing over what I thought or felt; I began to have suicidal thoughts. The images of the Firecat became more sinister; it seemed less like a protector now and more like a persecutor. The final crunch came when I woke up from a night of drinking alone to find razor scratches all over my body from another binge of self harm. I was alarmed but a voice came in my head saying, “the Firecat scratched you, don’t be such a pussy” and I laughed, then a voice came “maybe it’s trying to kill you!” and I was scared . I said out loud to myself, “You’re really are in deep shit!”. It was then I realized I had to get some help. Initially I was thought to have schizophrenic spectrum diagnosis but overtime it was clear my problem was trauma related, complex ptsd and emotional deregulation.  With medication and counseling I came back from the brink. Eventually I came off medication altogether but have continued to find talk therapy helpful to remember and address the past and learn to recognize, bear, name, own and tolerate my emotions. I continue to use my artwork to explore subconscious truths about myself. I still paint without total knowledge of the meanings but trust the process that eventually it will reveal itself. I have gained much knowledge in my own psychology and emotions and in turn, that of others. I no longer have loud thoughts and chronic dissociation. I have a more a sense of myself as a whole person, although not seamless, more like a mosaic; at least I see where all the bits begin to fit.
 Looking back, my experiences were kind of inevitable in some way. The instinctual drive for growth and life meant my true self had to emerge. The shallow false self had to crumble, but being a defense, it did not go without a fight; it almost pushed me to the point of contemplating suicide. For me, my imaginary world and its figures, far from being a sign of psychosis, were actually a creative attempt to encapsulate and hold my core self and its representations in a frozen state during a state of trauma. This allowed later retrieval and developmental when a safer environment was perceived such as now.