Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.
—CARL JUNG, PSYCHOLOGY AND RELIGION
Most of my life, I haven’t liked who I was. As a kid I felt fat, ugly and, for reasons I didn’t understand at the time, ashamed of myself. As a teenager, I began to drink and use drugs—behaviors that led me to lie to my family and friends. Feeling fat and ugly turned into feeling like a loser. I was terrified of getting too close to anyone or staying anywhere too long because people might see me for the person that I had become. I tried and tried to be kind, compassionate and loving, but it just didn’t work. My dark side ruled me. In truth, I was my own victim. I knew I needed help, but I was afraid of letting anyone in. I was even afraid of myself.
Perhaps you can relate to what I’m saying. What don’t you like about yourself? What parts of your character do you want to change or leave behind? You know what I mean… the things that make you say I wish I wasn’t like that or I hate when I do that. They are part of your shadow self, which refers to your unconscious. Here’s what happens: The ego rejects the parts of itself that it does not like, leaving us unconscious of these behaviors. Therefore the unconscious is filled with negative qualities.
Stephen Diamond, PhD, a clinical and forensic Psychologist, wrote: “The shadow is a primordial part of our human inheritance, which, try as we might, can never be eluded.” He goes on to say that the nature of the dark side is primitive and unenlightened; therefore, concealed from our conscious selves.
Knowing and understanding your dark side, or shadow self, is important information in your search for your true self. All that we consider unacceptable or evil in ourselves becomes part of that shadow self. The more we try to ignore it, the stronger it becomes until it needs to find expression in our very lives whether we want it to or not. That’s called acting out, and it can be quite a shock. Remember when I said I tried to be nice, compassionate and loving, but I just could not do it? At the time I couldn’t understand what was happening, and all I could do was hate the person I had become. I had no idea that my shadow was pushing its way up into my behavior.
Everyone has a shadow self. To be complete, we need to claim it. Identifying the traits of our shadow selves is actually fairly easy. You know that person you just can’t stand to be around? The one who irritates you just by walking into the room? The one you can’t be nice to for more than a few minutes? Here’s looking at you, kid. That’s right; that person is your mirror. He or she reflects back to you what you cannot accept about yourself. Whenever you find yourself judging another or criticizing someone, think of the mirror and what, exactly, you don’t like, and you’ll have your list of character defects.
After I got sober, I began to work the steps of the program I had become a part of. Steps four through nine specifically deal with handling our shadow selves. First, we identify our part in all the situations where we thought we had been wronged, thereby bringing the traits from our shadow side into the light. I remember how terrified I was when I read my inventory of how I had been wronged to my sponsor because it had my part in it, and I had gone to extreme links to hide this from others. The thing is, though, that we cannot hide our shadow side. The harder we try, the more it sneaks up on us.
Psychologist Carl Jung spoke of the shadow as all that lies beyond the light of consciousness. Anything about yourself that you hide from your conscious mind becomes dark and powerful, capable of destruction.
So, sharing our defects of character with another human being turns out to be a wonderful thing. Truly it does lead to a spiritual awakening. At first, that seems hard to believe. In my case, my sponsor shared her shadow side with me, and we bonded over our shared similarities. I felt vulnerable in a way that I had previously thought was impossible. I felt connected to her, and I knew she felt the same. This was the beginning of my being able to trust another human being, and a big part of that was my ability to trust myself. I had been honest with her, and she appreciated me for it.
As children, we are taught to be nice. We are not necessarily taught to accept the parts of ourselves that aren’t nice. We don’t realize that it’s normal to have those traits. Therefore, our shadow selves collect more data about us to store deep into the darkness of our unconscious. By the time we are grown, many of us have constructed a fortress around our true selves, so certain are we that we are not worthy. Hopefully, we learn later to expose that part of ourselves to the light. Understanding our darker side is what saves us and allows us to integrate our unconscious selves into our conscious personalities. Being conscious of these traits gives us the chance to change them if we choose rather than have them change us.
Once you’ve identified your shadow traits, one thing is certain: The only way to change them is to face them and embrace them. Keep your internal enemies close, so to speak. In her book The Dark Side of the Light Chasers, author Debbie Ford explained that the qualities hidden in your shadow self often turn out to be extremely important in positive ways. These qualities can help you with your search for wholeness, your relationships, your career, your parenting, you as a student—in every part of your life.
Jung wrote: “In spite of its function as a reservoir for human darkness—or perhaps because of this—the shadow is the seat of creativity.”
If we go within and become conscious of our shadow selves, we can use what we learn to move forward. When we bring the shadow into the light, it can become the very source of our confidence and creativity. Life is full of mirrors, reflecting back to us powerful information about ourselves. If we use this information, our shadow can be a deeply creative force in our lives. To find that creativity, to be in touch with our heart and soul, we need to push past the darkness, the fear of our own selves.
Every powerful trait is a double-edged sword—it can be used positively or negatively. Stubbornness, for instance, can prevent you from trying something new, but it can also help you stay your course and be strong and patient. Being a caring person is usually seen as a positive trait, but you can be so caring that you cross the line into getting enmeshed so deeply in another’s life that you lose your sense of self. Acknowledge these rejected parts of yourself. Accept them, and you shine a light into the dark reaches of your soul.
We need always to keep an awareness of our shadow side but not get sucked into it, engulfed by it, thereby descending into the darkness and becoming a slave to that part of ourselves.
Accepting, embracing our shadow helps us to realize our full human potential and the balance of our true selves. Embracing the parts of our past we’ve been holding back is the path to authenticity. Once we’ve become aware of our own shadow selves, we can find compassion, vulnerability and connection to other human beings. Once we begin to allow others to experience us in our entirety, open and free to be us, they can begin to “get us.” And really, that’s what we want, isn’t it?
As human beings we have a right to all of our feelings, to the full richness of what it means to be a person—the good and the bad, the ugliness and the beauty of our own humanity. We get to drop the burden of a pretense so deep that we can’t see it because of the denial surrounding it.
When we form a bond with our shadow, accept it into our very essence, what can happen is a sense of inner strength which comes from our very depth.