I wanted to do a post about the Shadow, because I believe that integrating your Shadow side is critical to holistic well-being. Now, by the Shadow, I don’t mean black magic, hexing, cursing, or what-not -- so if that’s what you’re here for, this post isn’t for you
. What I’m talking about today is the Shadow aspect of the self, a concept initially created by Carl Jung. According to Debbie Ford, the Shadow “contains all the parts of ourselves that we have tried to hide or deny. it contains those dark aspects that we believe are not acceptable to our family, friends, and most importantly, ourselves. The dark side is stuffed deeply within our consciousness, hidden from ourselves and others.”
Often, these messages begin in childhood, such as messages from your parents that being selfish, or mean, or vain, or greedy, etc., is not okay. But we all are capable of all these traits at some point or another in our lives, but often our psychological response is to put those things into the Shadow, to distance yourself from them and deny that you are capable of it.
The trouble is, the more that you try to live wholly in the Light (i.e. deny your Shadow is a part of yourself), the denser your Shadow becomes. The darker your Shadow becomes, the less control you have over it, and the more likely it’ll come to (bluntly speaking) bite you in the a**. It is also very common to project your Shadow onto other people’s behavior - by being blind to how you are the one casting your own Shadow, you’ll see it everywhere in everyone else, and the more you will grow to hate it. You’ve probably heard about how some of the people who shout homophobic diatribes or support the most vicious anti-gay laws secretly harbor gay tendencies themselves - because they refuse to accept their sexuality, they can only consciously deal with their Shadow by hating it in other people. But of course, this is not the only example of the Shadow. We each have our own Shadows, such as denying our fears, our selfish impulses, our vanity, etc.
You might wonder if it’s a good thing to keep fear, selfishness, greed, etc. locked away. There are a couple of problems with this. The first is that we are imperfect people, so we are all capable of these things, and simply denying it just means you have less control over it. The second is that often you’ve locked away good things in your Shadow too. For example, maybe your parents always yelled at you for not planning or being prepared enough. So you learn that being spontaneous and creative are unacceptable, and you start putting it into your Shadow, and trying to live in the Light by being meticulous and careful. Deny the Shadow too hard, though, and you’ll be too rigid and too careful, and stop being able to take risks and be creative, even when those things can be positive for you. By liberating your Shadow, you can bring them back into your consciousness, and access your creativity and spontaneity again.
The goal of Shadow work, then, is NOT to banish your Shadow, to exorcise it from you forever. The goal of Shadow work is to accept your Shadow, to embrace that it is a part of you.
. You bring it into the light, by bringing it into your consciousness. Then, and only then, do you have control over it, and make peace with yourself.
Identifying Your Shadow
When you deny one of your own traits, oftentimes you become hyper-aware of it in other people (e.g. "If you spot it, you got it"), and you'll react irrationally to one of these traits in others. Here are a few ways whereby you can try to identify your Shadow:
- Notice if there are certain people who just REALLY bother you, for whom you have an irrational dislike. Maybe other people have pointed out that you get disproportionately angry at this person. Ask yourself what about this person bothers the heck out of you. Chances are, whatever that thing is, that's your Shadow.
- Write down a list of 5 people whom you really dislike (maybe people you know personally, or celebrities, or fictional characters - doesn't matter), and next to each name write down a trait that you hate about them.
- Write a letter to someone whom you really despise (you probably shouldn’t really send this letter). Now read the letter back to yourself, as if someone else wrote it about you.
- Notice what kind of advice you give to other people. What are you telling others to do to make their life better? Ask yourself whether you follow this advice yourself in your own life.
Integrating Your Shadow
One exercise recommended by Debbie Ford is to refer to the list of negative traits that you hate in other people. Then stand in front of a mirror and say each word over and over again: "I am [that trait]." It'll be uncomfortable, but say it until the energy around the word disappears.
Think about a time when you have shown that trait. For example, maybe the thing that you notice is your Shadow is greed. Try to think of all the times in which you have acted greedily. You'll likely feel guilt and other negative emotions, but it's very important to let yourself feel them and process them.
Ask yourself what is the positive side of that trait that you deny in yourself, and how it may have helped you in the past.
I heard of a great example once of a woman who was really nice and sweet, and in the process of doing Shadow work she found that she really hated people who were "b*tchy" (specifically, being assertive). Then she asked herself, were there times when I've been b*tchy? Of course she had. And then she asks herself, were there times when being b*tchy would have been a good thing? She realizes that it could have really helped her when her plumber came late, did a poor job, and then overcharged her like crazy. So in accepting her b*tchy side, she also reclaims her assertiveness, and now she can use her assertiveness in situations where she needs it.
It’s often recommended to keep a journal of your Shadow work, and pay close attention to any subtle inner shifts.
The Positive Shadow
In addition to the Shadow with all the negative traits within ourselves, we also have a Positive Shadow, the traits which we love in other people and which we don’t always recognize in yourself. One great way is to ask yourself who are 5 people whom you admire, and why you admire them (e.g. Nelson Mandela, for his courage). Acknowledge that you have that quality, and recall situations where you have demonstrated that quality. You can try using a mantra such as, “Courage is a part of me” and repeat that in front of a mirror, and see how you feel. Now see how you feel applying it in daily life - for example, the next time you have the opportunity to say something to a bully. It might be uncomfortable, but the more that you can do it consciously, the better you’ll get it at it (the more courageous you’ll become).
You can also try the letter-writing exercise again - write a letter to someone you admire, explaining why you admire them. And then read it back to yourself, but pretend like someone else wrote it about you.
I think that integrating your Shadow is really important for your own psychological healing and wellness. Shadow work is also an ongoing process - it’s not like once you have identified your Shadow, you’ve solved it forever. You should remember it and retain your awareness of it. You also likely have multiple Shadows ...
Any Doctor Who fans out there? Okay, sorry, I just had to do that.
So the exercises above are really just ways to initiate the process, but I think you’ll probably find that even starting Shadow work can be an immensely healing process.
The Dark Side of the Light Chasers
, by Debbie Ford.
I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time; I hope you have found it helpful. I’d love to hear about ways in which you have worked with the Shadow, or any questions you might have!