It’s always standing right behind us, just out of view. In any direct light, we cast a shadow.
The shadow is a psychological term for everything we can’t see in ourselves.
I came to understand the importance of knowing my shadow, and working with it, when I wrote a biography on a spiritual teacher.
It can be difficult to accept that you have a shadow, if you’re not familiar with this psychological insight. We go to great lengths to protect our self-image from anything unflattering or unfamiliar.
As such, it is easier to see the shadow in another before seeing it in one’s self.
Seeing the shadow of this spiritual teacher helped me understand how someone can be gifted in one area of life while remaining utterly unaware of poor behavior in other areas.
Every human being is susceptible to this.
I personally find working with my shadow to be a challenging yet rewarding process. Anyone interested in experiencing greater authenticity, creativity, energy, and awakening will certainly benefit from shadow work.
Let’s start by taking a closer look at what the shadow is and how it comes into being. Then, we’ll explore five benefits for working with your shadow.
What is the Shadow?
The shadow is generally considered to be the “dark side” of our personality because it consists predominantly of primitive, negative human emotions and impulses like rage, envy, greed, selfishness, desire, and the striving for power.
All of the things we deny in ourselves—whatever we perceive as inferior, evil, or unacceptable—become part of the shadow. Anything that is incompatible with our chosen conscious attitude about overselves is relegated into this dark side.
The personal shadow has been called the disowned self. It represents the parts of us we no longer claim to be our own, including inherent positive qualities.
Of course, these unexamined or disowned parts of our personality don’t actually go anywhere. Although we deny them in our attempt to cast them out, we don’t actually get rid of them.
We simply repress them in what is called our personal unconscious. Think of the unconscious as everything we are not conscious of.
The shadow can’t be eliminated. It stays with us as our dark brother or sister. Trouble arises when we fail to see it. For then, to be sure, it is standing right behind us.
How the Shadow is Born
All humans have a diverse range of qualities and emotions that are innate, that are part of our biological heritage.
Every young child, for example, exhibits kindness, love, and generosity, but he also expresses anger, selfishness, and greed.
These emotions are part of our shared humanity. But as we grow up, something happens. Traits associated with “being good” are accepted, while others associated with “being bad” are rejected.
We all have basic human needs. We all have physiologic needs for food, water, breathing, sex, sleep, excretion, and homeostasis. We all have needs for safety and security. We all have needs for feeling love and belonging.
These needs are biological and instinctual.
As children, when we expressed certain parts of ourselves, we received negative cues from our environment.
Maybe we got angry and threw a tantrum. Our parents reprimanded the outburst and sent us to our room.
Or perhaps we acted boldly, playfully, spontaneously, or silly in our first grade classroom. Our teacher shamed us for our lack of decorum in front of the class and told us to sit down.
Whenever it happened—and it might have happened quite often—it threatened one of our basic needs.
Would the disapproval of our parents threaten our safety? Would the disapproval of our teachers and classmates jeopardize our need for belonging?
We adjusted our behavior to gratify our needs and learned to adapt to the external world.
All the parts of ourselves that weren’t accepted or encouraged to develop in the first 20 years of our lives were bundled together and neatly swept out of view (outside our conscious awareness).
As poet Robert Bly put it in A Little Book of the Human Shadow, the child puts all of these unwanted parts into an invisible bag and drags it behind him.
This repression of unwanted parts creates what psychologist Carl Jung called the personal shadow.
Ignore the Shadow At Your Own Peril
The ancient Greeks understood the need to honor all of the parts of the psyche. For them, these parts were worshipped as autonomous gods and goddesses.
The Greeks knew that a god or goddess you ignored became the one who turned against you and destroyed you. The Trojan War, as illustrated in Homer’s Iliad, provides an excellent example of this psychological dance.
Any part we disown within us turns against us. The personal shadow represents a collection of these disowned parts.
So here’s the problem: The shadow can operate on its own without our full awareness. It’s as if our conscious self goes on autopilot while the shadow assumes control.
We do things we wouldn’t normally do and later regret. We say things we wouldn’t ordinarily say. We respond to people with negative reactions that really have little to do with them.
For this reason, remaining unconscious of the shadow hurts our relationships with our spouses, family, and friends, and it will certainly impact our professional relationships as well as our leadership abilities.
Do you remember Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Dr. Jekyll was a respectable gentleman (the “good,” conscious side of the personality) who took a potion to separate out his darker impulses to create a creature free of conscience named Mr. Hyde (the personal shadow).
(Looney Tunes did a fun version of this classic tale in Bugs Bunny in Hyde and Hare.)
Dr. Jekyll was unable to control the actions of his darker half, leading him to commit unscrupulous acts, including murder. Such is the fate, although generally not so severe, of anyone who denies his or her shadow.
What Happens When You Repress Your Shadow
So what happens to all the parts of ourselves that we sweep out of view?
Whatever qualities we deny in ourselves, we tend to see in others. In psychology, this is called projection. We project onto others anything we bury within us.
If, for example, you get really irritated when someone is rude to you, it’s a good bet that you haven’t owned your own rudeness. This doesn’t mean the person isn’t being rude to you. However, if rudeness wasn’t in your shadow, someone else’s rudeness wouldn’t bother you so much.
This process doesn’t happen consciously. We are generally not aware of our projections. Our egos use this mechanism as a means to defend itself, that is, to defend how it perceives itself.
These projections distort reality, creating a thick boundary between how the we view ourselves and how we behave in reality.
Five Benefits of Working With Your Shadow
The shadow isn’t a popular topic in most circles. After all, who enjoys seeing their own flaws and weaknesses? How many of us are committed to constant growth and change?
Working with the shadow, however, gives us tremendous opportunities for growth and development.
Let’s look at five benefits that result from working with your shadow:
1) Improved Relationships
As you integrate your shadow and come to terms with your darker half, you begin to see yourself more clearly. You become more grounded, human, and whole.
When you can accept your own darker parts, it is easier to accept the shadow in others. As a result, other people’s behavior won’t emotionally trigger you as easily. You’ll also have an easier time communicating with others.
When you’re not projecting your shadow onto others, the world becomes a friendlier place. You may notice an improvement in your relationships with your spouse, family members, friends, and business associates.
2) Clearer Perception
In seeing others and yourself more clearly, you’ll have a cleaner lens with which to view the world.
As you integrate your shadow, you’re approaching your authentic self, which gives you a more realistic assessment of who you are. You won’t perceive yourself as being too big (inflation) or too small (deflation).
By becoming a more grounded human being, you’ll also be better equipped to assess your environment. You’ll see others and evaluate situations with greater clarity, compassion, and understanding.
3) Enhanced Energy
Dragging around this invisible bag of stuff behind us is draining. It is exhausting work to constantly repress and suppress all of the parts of ourselves that we don’t want to face in our adulthood.
Fatigue and lethargy can plague the unexamined life. Mental suppression can also lead to physical pain and disease.
In working with your shadow, you liberate a tremendous reservoir of energy that you were unconsciously investing in protecting yourself. This can improve your physical, mental, and emotional health. It can bring you inner strength and a greater sense of balance, making you better equipped to take on life’s challenges.
4) Psychological Integration
As long as we deny our shadows and repress certain parts of ourselves, a sense of wholeness and unity is elusive.
After all, how can we feel a sense of wholeness and balance if we are psychically divided?
Integrating the shadow brings you one step closer to healing your mind and realizing a sense of wholeness.
5) Greater Creativity
We’re going to cover this topic more deeply in later posts, but one of the greatest benefits of integrating your shadow is that it unlocks your creative potential.
Creativeness, as psychologists like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers found, is a spontaneous occurrence in mentally healthy (psychologically integrated) individuals.
Now that you have a better idea of what the shadow is and why it’s important, what’s next?
In the next post, I’ll offer a few suggestions on how to begin working with the shadow so you can reap the benefits.
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