Imagine a résumé for your “shadow”—that unconscious part of us that holds all the stuff we deny, discount, disown, bury or pretend does not exist:
Vengeful, easily victimized, lazy, bad, untrustworthy. Excel at hopelessness and rage, expert on greed. Not creative. Never finish what I start. Stupid, a loner, damaged goods. Nurture murderous thoughts. Definitely unlovable.
No one likes to admit to a dark side—it can be a frightening and shocking experience to our self-image. We spend huge amounts of energy denying and repressing this unwanted inferior self.
What many of us don’t realize is that the shadow can be a helpful aspect of ourselves that holds the key to transformation—a loyal friend bearing the gifts of depth, integrity, vitality and wholeness—if we choose to meet it and love it.
“Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once, beautiful and brave,” said poet Ranier Maria Rilke. “Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something that needs our love.”
How the Shadow Develops
Many forces play a role in forming our shadow selves: parents, siblings, teachers, religious leaders and friends all have their part.
When little Elsie’s mother entered the hospital before the birth of twins, Elsie was suddenly left alone with a new nanny during the day and put to bed by her distant father.
When her overwhelmed mother and the newborn twins came home two months later, the toddler was not-so-subtly encouraged to “be independent” and a good big sister. Anger that erupted was quickly reprimanded.
Afraid that her parents would leave or stop loving her, Elsie learned not to rock the boat. She took care of herself, became a pleaser and kept her needs and feelings to herself.
The Shadow’s Gift Revealed
Today, the single mother still prefers to depend on herself, struggling with the amount of intimacy she is able to experience in her personal relationships. She smiles a lot and has trouble saying “No” to requests for help, works late into the night, and rarely takes a day for herself. She doesn’t “do” anger publicly, but at home, she sometimes explodes at her children.
Working to integrate these painful shadow elements into her conscious life is challenging, Elsie says. But doing so is helping her to stay in a deeply nurturing relationship, from which she would have fled earlier in her life.
“I’m realizing how much energy it has cost me to keep this stuff underground,” she says. “What I’m working on is saying ‘Yes’ more often to myself—and teaching others by example. And I silently cheer when my children tell me how mad they are!”
These, then, are the gifts of shadow work that can benefit each of us—and the world:
- more genuine self-acceptance
- fewer negative emotional eruptions during our daily lives
- less guilt and shame associated with our negative feelings and actions
- a clearer and more accurate picture of others (uncolored by shadow projections)
- the opportunity to heal relationships through more honest self-examination.
What’s in Your Shadow?
Awareness of the shadow is always the first step towards the treasure box that lies within your shadow. But the elusive nature of the dark side can make it tricky to discover the content of your personal shadow. Here are some effective detective tools:
Examine your exaggerated negative feelings about others.
Look at the characteristics of the people in your life whose behavior pushes your buttons, at people you dislike or hate, at what irritates or angers you the most. When we are blind to our own shadow traits, we often “project” these traits onto others. We see in the other person something that is a part of ourselves, but which we fail to see in ourselves. It’s like a mirror.
Notice what you really admire in others. Perhaps, growing up, it was not acceptable to be powerful, creative, intelligent or empathetic. When we relegate these aspects of ourselves to the dark, we project this “greatness” onto others, not realizing that it is actually our own.
Examine others’ perceptions of you. When two or more people independently perceive a shadow trait in you, it is worth deeper exploration.
Examine your impulsive and inadvertent acts. A slip of the tongue or of behavior can sometimes be very revealing. So can “forgetting” to do something you agreed to or getting sleepy when it’s time to talk over a fight with your mate.
Consider your humor. Humor is often much more than meets the eye; in fact, what is said in humor is often a manifestation of shadow truth. For example, what hidden, inferior or feared emotions do dirty or racist jokes express? We can also use humor to shake loose repressed fears and feelings and take the bite out of embarrassment and shame.
Study your dreams. The shadow often appears in our dreams as a figure of the same sex whom we react to with fear, dislike or disgust. Observing this figure’s actions, attitudes and words can offer helpful identifying information.
Examine situations in which you feel humiliated. When we are possessed by strong feelings of shame or anger, or when our behavior is off the mark in some way, the shadow is erupting unexpectedly. Keep an “over-reaction diary.”
Observe your distractions. Do you work too many hours? Overeat? Numb your feelings with drugs or alcohol? What feelings are you avoiding?
Track down the inner critic and victim. Try writing the internal dialogue between the powerful, critical part of you that demands change and the weak part that apologizes and makes excuses. Both are voices of the shadow.
Ultimately, as author James Hillman says, the cure of the shadow is rooted in love. “How far can our love extend to the broken and ruined parts of ourselves, the disgusting and perverse?” he writes. “How much charity and compassion have we for our own weakness and sickness? How far can we build an inner society on the principle of love, allowing a place for everyone?”
So embrace your shadow and learn from it. Be aware of your reactions to people and events and know that you can change things. The shadow brings gifts. Receive them gratefully.