What Is Our Shadow Self?
What Is Our Shadow Self?
In short, the human shadow is our dark side; our lost and forgotten disowned self. Your shadow is the place within you that contains all of your secrets, repressed feelings, primitive impulses, and parts deemed “unacceptable,” shameful, “sinful” or even “evil.” This dark place lurking within your unconscious mind also contains suppressed and rejected emotions such as rage, jealousy, hatred, greed, deceitfulness, and selfishness.
So where did the Shadow Self idea originate? The concept was originally coined and explored by Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Carl Jung. In Jung’s own words:
Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.
When the human Shadow is shunned, it tends to undermine and sabotage our lives. Addictions, low self-esteem, mental illness, chronic illnesses, and various neuroses are all attributed to the Shadow Self. When our Shadows are suppressed or repressed in the unconscious long enough, they can even overtake our entire lives and causes psychosis or extreme forms of behavior like cheating on one’s partner or physically harming others. Intoxicants such as alcohol and drugs also have a tendency to unleash the Shadow.
Thankfully, there is a way to explore the Shadow and prevent it from devouring our existence, and that is called Shadow Work.
Shadow work is the process of exploring your inner darkness or “Shadow Self.” As mentioned previously, your Shadow Self is part of your unconscious mind and contains everything you feel ashamed of thinking and feeling, as well as every impulse, repressed idea, desire, fear and perversion that for one reason or another, you have “locked away” consciously or unconsciously. Often this is done as a way of keeping yourself tame, likable and “civilized” in the eyes of others.
Shadow work is the attempt to uncover everything that we have hidden and every part of us that has been disowned and rejected within our Shadow Selves. Why? Because without revealing to ourselves what we have hidden, we remain burdened with problems such as anger, guilt, shame, disgust, and grief.
Sometimes, when people hear that they have a Shadow side (or when it is pointed out), there is a lot of denial. We have been taught to perceive ourselves in a very two-dimensional and limited way. We have been taught that only criminals, murderers, and thieves have a Shadow side. This black and white thinking is one of the major causes of our suffering.
If the thought of having a Shadow side disturbs you, take a moment to consider whether you have developed an idealized self. Signs of an idealized self include attitudes such as:
“I’m not like those people, I’m better.”
“I have never strayed.”
“God is proud of me.”
“Criminals and wrongdoers aren’t human.”
“Everyone sees how good I am (even so, I have to remind them).”
“I’m a role model.”
“I should be validated and applauded for my good deeds.”
“I don’t have bad thoughts, so why do others?”
Such perceptions about oneself are unrealistic, unhealthy, and largely delusional. The only way to find inner peace, happiness, authentic love, self-fulfillment, and Illumination is to explore our Shadows.
Many in the New Age community will tell you to turn a blind eye and focus on "Love and Light" and nothing else. Focusing only on “love and light” will not heal your wounds on a deep level. In fact, I’ve learned through a lot of heavy inner work, that not only is focusing solely on “holiness” in life one side of the equation, but it is actually a form of spiritually bypassing your deeper, darker problems that, let me assure you, almost definitely exist.
It is very easy and comfortable to focus only on the light side of life. So many people in today’s world follow this path. And while it might provide some temporary emotional support, it doesn’t reach to the depths of your being: it doesn’t transform you at a core level. Instead, it leaves you superficially hanging onto warm and fuzzy platitudes which sound nice, but don’t enact any real change.
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This is an excellent video explaining how the shadow is formed.
Shadow Work Techniques
Shadow Work Techniques
#1: Watch Your Emotional Reactions
Remember that the shadow is elusive; it hides behind us. Our defense mechanisms are designed to keep our shadows repressed and out of view.
The more you pay attention to your behavior and emotions, the better chances you have of catching your shadow in the act.
We tend to project our disowned parts onto other people.
One of the best ways to identify your shadow is to pay attention to your emotional reactions toward other people.
Sure, your colleagues might be aggressive, arrogant, inconsiderate, or impatient, but if you don’t have those same qualities within you, you won’t have a strong reaction to their behavior.
If you’re paying close attention, you can train yourself to notice your shadow when you witness strong negative emotional responses to others.
At the end of the day, it’s helpful to take five or ten minutes to reflect on your interactions with others and your related reactions.
Whatever bothers you in another is likely a disowned part within yourself.
Get to know that part, accept it, make it a part of you, and next time, it may not evoke a strong emotional charge when you observe it in another.
Focus on what and who evokes an emotional charge in you. It doesn’t matter what the emotion is; it’s a clue you are denying something within you.
Exercise #2: Engage in Inner Dialogue
Many forms of inner work require you to engage in an active dialogue with your shadow side.
At first, this might seem like a scary idea since we have a belief that only “crazy people” talk to themselves. But all of us have many subpersonalities—numerous unrecognized, autonomous parts in our mind.
Many different psychologies offer ways of working with these disparate parts, including Jung’s Active Imagination, Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems, Stone and Winkleman’s Voice Dialogue, and Assagioli’s Psychosynthesis.
When we don’t pay attention to these parts—one or many of which represent aspects of our shadow—they have a way of influencing our behavior.
Have you ever done or said something and then wondered why you did or said it? A part in you was taking charge.
Every so-called “accident” is a part hijacking your behavior.
Our disowned parts aren’t trying to hurt us, but when we ignore or deny them, they often do.
By dialoguing with them in our imagination or in a journal, we can integrate these parts into our conscious selves.
Then, they become our allies instead of our enemies.
Exercise #3: Challenge the Good Part
Many of us identify ourselves as being a “good person”. We were praised as children for being a “good boy” or “good girl,” and that identification stuck with us.
This intensified the split between our conscious identity and our shadow.
Make a list of all of your positive qualities. Then, highlight the opposite. Try to identify the opposite within yourself.
For example, if you define yourself as a disciplined person, you’re repressing your lazy part. The lazy part is hiding in the shadow.
The disowned is influencing your behavior and constantly challenging your disciplined part.
So identify with this lazy part. See it. Accept it. Make friends with it.
Exercise #4: The 3-2-1 Shadow Process
If you want a step-by-step method for shadow work, try the 3-2-1 Shadow Process developed by integral philosophy Ken Wilber in Integral Life Practice.
Here are the basic steps:
Step 1: Choose what you want to work with. It’s often easier to begin with a person with whom you have difficulty (e.g., partner, relative, boss).
This person may irritate, disturb, annoy, or upset you. Or maybe you feel attracted to, obsessed with, infatuated with, or possessive about this person.
Choose someone with whom you have a strong emotional charge, whether positive or negative.
Step 2: Face it: Now, imagine this person. Describe those qualities that most upset you, or the characteristics you are most attracted to using 3rd-person language (he, she, it).
Talk about them out loud or write it down in a journal. Express your feelings.
Don’t calculate say the right thing. There is no need to be nice. The person you are describing will never see this.
Step 3: Talk to it: Dialogue with this person in your imagination. Speak in the 2nd person to this person (using “you” language).
Talk directly to this person as if he or she was there. Tell them what bothers you about them.
Ask them questions such as:
Why are you doing this to me?
What do you want from me?
What are you trying to show me?
What do you have to teach me?
Imagine their response to these questions. Speak that imaginary response out loud. Record the conversation in your journal if you like.
Step 4: Be it: Become this person. Take on the qualities that either annoy or fascinate you.
Embody the traits you described in step 2. Use 1st-person language ( I, me, mine).
This may feel awkward, and it should. The traits you are taking on are the exact traits you have been denying in yourself.
Use statements such as:
I am angry.
I am jealous.
I am radiant.
Fill in the blank with whatever qualities you are working with: “I am __________.”
Step 5: Notice these disowned qualities in yourself.
Experience the part of you that is this trait. Avoid making the process abstract or conceptual: just BE it.
Now you can re-own and integrate this quality in yourself.
Exercise #5 WHY?
This is the method that I use. Its basic and to the point, especially when I dont know why Im reacting the way Im reacting. All you do is face the issue and ask yourself why? And then why to that and then why to that etc.
Example: Say I were to see a gay couple kissing in public & I make a face in judgment. (I have no issues with gay people, this is only an example) I would ask myself why I did that. Maybe my answer would be "because I dont agree with a gay lifestyle".
So I would then ask myself- "why does this bother me"?
I may answer- "because it makes me uncomfortable"
I would then ask- "Why does it make me uncomfortable"
I may answer- "Because my parents taught me this is wrong".
and so on down the line. Eventually you get to the root of the issue.