"Become What You Are!“ - Rediscover Vitality in the Workplace

Emanuel Frauenlob

When was the last time you felt truly alive? In harmony with yourself, in the flow with your professional tasks, completely in the present moment.

At a recent workshop the facilitator asked exactly this question; and it shook me to the core. A simple question that leads directly to existential contemplations. 

Am I living my life, or is it just "happening" to me? Am I fully engaged in it, or is it flowing by? Is it perhaps as John Lennon sang in "Beautiful Boy":

"Life is what happens to you
While you're busy making other plans"

What kind of life is it if you don't feel alive? I suspect it's one where one day you'll ask, "Where have all the years gone?" 

So, how can we become more vibrant, more lively, and more joyful despite, or precisely because of, the demanding challenges that work and personal life impose on us?

What power does each individual possess to free themselves from the yoke of external control and the veil of lethargy?

How can each of us, embedded in our individual life realities, gain personal freedom and feel genuine and authentic? 

Building upon Carl Gustav Jung's concept of individuation (1875 – 1961, Swiss psychoanalyst and student of Sigmund Freud), I would like to offer you some insights into how this can be achieved. But first, let's explore our professional context in industrialised nations and its impact on our mental health.

The escalating spiral of expectations and record sales of antidepressants

What is demanded of people in industrialised societies in terms of adaptability and performance is on the verge of being unreasonable. And the demands keep increasing. Relentlessly. 

The demographic shift and the shortage of skilled workers distribute the looming tasks onto fewer and fewer shoulders. Many high-performing individuals are burdened to the point of complete exhaustion.

Simultaneously, digitisation accelerates technological change, constantly engaging us with new processes, structures, and tools. And just now, when these changes amplify the feeling of insecurity, hybrid and remote work is becoming the norm in many industries. Despite the many advantages, it promotes individualism, hinders the integration of new employees, weakens social cohesion, and doesn't provide the social safety that many urgently need. 

This accelerating spiral of demands is further compounded by boundless, Kafkaesque bureaucracy that suffocates entrepreneurial action, creativity, and risk-taking in its infancy. The progress achieved through automation, increased female participation in the workforce, improved physical occupational safety, and heightened awareness of mental health, is far from sufficient.

Even though our species' remarkable adaptability continually enables us to find new and creative solutions to emerging problems, the mental health statistics in most industrialised countries tell a clear story. For many, today's demands are too high, and the available support is too limited. The statistics from several European countries confirm this hypothesis.

  1. Mental illnesses are now the leading cause of early retirements in Germany. 43% of all disability pensions result from mental disorders.
  2. In 2019, Eurostat found that 7.2 per cent of EU citizens reported having chronic depression. Some countries like Portugal, Sweden, Germany, and Croatia are above 11%.
  3. The overall economic costs of mental illnesses in Austria have increased by 51% in the past seven years (2014 – 2021), reaching €16.7 billion. This is three times Austria's science and research budget for 2023.
  4. Use of antidepressants increased by nearly two and a half times from 2000 to 2020 in 18 European countries, according to Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data. 

Our baseline stress level

Finding a healthier way to cope with these high professional demands and the accelerating pace of change is a social, political, legal, entrepreneurial, organisational, and individual matter. 

Although the structural issues cannot be solved on an individual level, each individual can develop a healthier approach to the increasing demands. The other stakeholders are by no means relieved of their responsibilities. However, for this article I want to consciously focus on the question: "How can I personally better manage work-related stress?"

To answer this, it's useful to understand how we as humans process stress and when stress becomes detrimental to our health. 

stress model
Figure 1: Diathesis-Stress Model: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diathesis%E2%80%93stress_model 
Blacktc, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Diathesis-Stress Model provides answers in three key statements. 

  1. Stress can be effectively managed up to an individual stress threshold. Beyond that threshold, stress causes symptoms of illness.
  2. The capacity for stress management is determined by the gap between the individual stress threshold and a dispositional baseline stress level.
  3. Through individual resources, stress that temporarily exceeds the illness threshold can be processed. These resources can be learned and practiced.

Returning to our initial question about personal vitality, what does the feeling of "not being alive," of functioning, have to do with stress management? 

The central hypothesis of my article is that there is a direct correlation between vitality and stress management:

A lack of vitality is a sign of increased dispositional stress and thus reduced stress resilience.

How can this hypothesis be substantiated? The concept of individuation from Analytical Psychology by Carl Gustav Jung helps me with that.

Individuation: More autonomy, freedom, and vitality but also the loss of perceived uniqueness

Individuation means becoming more authentic and aligned with oneself. Developing what's pending, integrating what's been excluded, and shedding what's outdated. (Kast, 2016)

Jung's personality theory encompasses three components that play a crucial role in individuation.1

Firstly, our social masks. They can also be referred to as our external personality or persona. This addresses the side of us that we want to present to the outside world. In ancient Greece, the term "persona" was also used for the "assumed character" and the "false face" in drama. The persona is our sunny side. This is where our ego ideals are found, developed from the guidance of our parents, social norms, and personal ideals. According to Freud's structural model, parts of the superego are located here.
Secondly, our shadow. This is where what we would rather not show resides – what embarrasses us and what we fear. To paraphrase C.G. Jung: "What we fear ends up in the shadow, and what lies in the shadow makes us afraid."
However, not only the seemingly objectionable is found in the shadow. It also contains creative forces, realistic (unfiltered) perceptions, and natural responses, including instinctual reactions (what Freud would call parts of the "id").

Our shadow, this unconscious part of our personality, is thus a source of vitality and creativity.

Engaging with one's own shadow is uncomfortable and more intricate than expected. Consider the example of a leadership training where participants willingly share their shadow sides. The motto is, "Show us your vulnerability!" But is the genuine personal shadow being discussed here, or have we already adopted exemplary shadows for such situations? A shadow mask to meet the course's requirements, calm ourselves, and avoid the painful process of uncovering.

For those interested in a genuine confrontation with their own shadow, here's a valuable tip: Pay attention to what genuinely outrages you in others. What substantially disgusts and upsets you in others. What qualities evoke emotions like hatred and disgust within you?

The third element of Jung's ego concept lies between the mask and the shadow. It's our core, our ego essence, or according to Jung, our "ego consciousness". It shines through the veil of the mask and serves as the entity for integrating shadow components. This is where cognitive-dominant superego masks and somatic-dominant "id" shadows are holistically brought together in thinking, feeling, and willing.

Jung's individuation process requires the recognition, acceptance, and ultimately integration of shadows into our conscious life.

It's also about defining boundaries and engaging with societal roles and norms, authorities, and other external (even if intrapsychically led) impositions of masks. Through this process of individuation, we gain autonomy, freedom, the sense of being able to and allowed to be "real."

The price we "pay" is a loss of perceived uniqueness – the realisation of narcissistic ego injury. With the fall of the mask and the integration of the shadow, personal narcissistic fantasies are undermined – the realisation "I am also just a human who wants to be seen and loved, just like the person opposite me" leaves no room for individual grandiosity.

As vitality and creative power are embedded in the shadow, the conscious awareness of these elements releases energy that leads to more liveliness. This is where individuation and dealing with work-related stress converge. 

Integration lowers our dispositional stress level

Maintaining masks and repressing shadows consumes energy. The more extravagant, colourful, and glossy our mask, and the darker, deeper, and more fear-laden our shadow, the more energy is expended to sustain the façade.

Returning to the Diathesis-Stress Model, the predispositional stress – the baseline of our stress system – is elevated by the energy bound in mask and shadow management. The gap between predispositional stress and the stress threshold decreases. The space for coping with stressful experiences diminishes.

The consequence? Even minor stressors that could previously be compensated for with ease lead to exceeding the stress threshold. In the long run, three options remain: illness, stress abstinence, or therapy.

Illness due to stress levels recurring or persistently above the stress threshold. Stress abstinence through withdrawal (e.g., reducing working hours), a reduction of being "in the world," not fully utilising one's potential. Or therapy – confronting the now deeply ingrained and pathological masks and shadows and the energy they bind.

Creating a resilience space

The path to integrating the shadow involves acknowledging all aspects of our personality. We must confront what's repressed, what we don't want to acknowledge.

The initial impulse to push away, erase, or split off our shadow aspects is counterproductive. The intention to only show our sunny side is too short-sighted. Our masks and shadows rob us of authenticity, freedom, and vitality.

Those who embark on the journey of self-exploration will quickly realise how exciting, meaningful, and satisfying this discovery process can be. Pidnar, a Greek poet from the fifth century BC, succinctly captured the essence of this journey in the "Second Pythian Ode": "Become who you are." A quote that inspired subsequent thinkers, such as Carl Gustav Jung and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900).  

Unveiling our own masks, accepting our individual shadows, and integrating them into our ego-essence enables genuine authenticity.

Those who can bring all their aspects into relationships will experience greater resonance. Just as a tuning fork with covered tines cannot vibrate freely and only resonates muffled, a person whose energy is invested in maintaining masks and controlling shadows can only resonate to a limited extent with others.

Those who become aware of their own essence and trust their qualities will be surprised by the increased vitality, confidence, lightness, and, consequently, the improved quality of relationships with others, but also with themselves.

„Was ist, darf sein,
und was sein darf, verändert sich.“

"What is, is allowed to be,
and what is allowed to be, changes."
(Werner Bock, psychotherapist)

Further Reading

Kast, V. (2016). Der Schatten in uns. Patmos Verlag. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1043428/der-schatten-in-uns-die-subversive-lebenskraft-pdf (Original work published 2016)


1 Jung's entire model of the Self is much more complex and includes the collective unconscious and archetypes.