Note: Before I get into things, I want to mention that there are entire organizations dedicated to the Shadow and Shadow Work. There are books, lectures, podcasts, and plays even. What I’ve included here is my attempt to simplify and share some of the aspects that have stood out to me, or that I have personally found effective. Please (Please!), if you feel compelled, feel free to look into and explore other methods that are out there.
“Something we were withholding made us weak,
Until we found it was ourselves.”
As humans, we are multidimensional beings. To box ourselves up, categorize our nature, or identify as anything less than all that we are is to do ourselves a disservice. Unfortunately, this seems to be our present day society’s preferred method. In our ego-driven pursuits toward the ‘light’ side of human nature, we abandon (and paradoxically become saturated in) our shadow elements.
We are products of a hypercritical society. Thus, not only are we wildly insecure, but we all also, for the most part, carry a conditioned tendency to interpret our experiences through a lens of opposites. We categorize life as positive or negative, worthy or unworthy, pretty or ugly, etc. As our personality develops, we learn to embrace that which is deemed acceptable by our society, our culture, our families, etc., and reject, or repress, that which is not. The ego, made up of what is accepted, and the shadow, made up of what is denied, develop in tandem and thus, create one another. For example, in our society, we are praised, rewarded, and honored for behaviors like politeness, cleanliness, and compliance, which subsequently pushes things like indifference, dirtiness, and defiance into the shadow. We act as if these are qualities are worthy of judgment, criticism, and exclusion, when in reality, they are simply the other, equally as important, aspects of our existence.
Ultimately, shadow is all that is removed from the light of consciousness. It contains all of the aspects of ourselves that we are (seemingly) unaware of. The instincts, the ideas, the fears we try to bury. It is all we have left unchosen. The concept of shadow and shadow aspects grows mainly from Jungian Psychology, though it has presented itself in different forms for centuries. We can find various references to the shadow in mythology, literature, and lore. Examples of this archetypal force include the stories of Jesus and Satan, Muhammad and Iblis, or Buddha and Mara. These figures had to confront, or face their ‘opposite’ (their shadow) in order for enlightenment to occur. It works the same way for us.
In a culture like ours, where there is a relentless promotion of “happiness” and “good vibes”, we find that things like anger, sadness, and apathy are rejected. They’re categorized as ‘bad’, ‘irrational’, or ‘undesirable’; as something to fight off or eliminate. In our uncompromising pursuit of happiness, we find ourselves in daily battles against things like depression, anxiety, and anger. We ignore them, we combat them, we medicate ourselves against them. We make ourselves sick in our efforts to keep them away. Still, being the willful beings that we are, we frequently, despite all exhaustion, succeed in our restraint and manage to send these expressions away. But not for long.
What we often don’t realize is that when we send these things away, not only are we sending away the gifts they have to offer us, they also don’t simply disappear. Like a boomerang, they return to us. Constant positivity doesn’t eradicate anything. Despite what we’d like to believe, we don’t get to deny any of life’s experiences. They simply move from conscious expression into the unconscious, where it is it not seen, but continues to develop and influence us greatly. In the words of the ever observant Carl Jung, “What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.”
All of the thoughts, feelings, and emotions that we send away into our unconscious create what many would refer to as an “alter ego” – an “inferior” personality that seems to rear its head at the most inconvenient of times, and goes against all that we believe ourselves to be. In these moments, we find ourselves saying things like, “I have no idea why those words came out of my mouth”, or “I don’t know why I did that – that’s not like me at all.” What we fail to realize here is that it is, in fact, like you. It is you. Our refusal to look at something doesn’t diminish the fact that it is there. All of the sensations we discredit in the name of progress, success, or science, rest in their unexpressed darkness, gathering vital energies. When they are provoked and called back to the surface (and they always are), they erupt with even greater power than previously expressed, which more often than not, leaves us feeling conflicted and ashamed.
When it is not wreaking unwarranted havoc over our partially put-together lives, it speaks to us through projections. Because of our refusal to turn inward and face our ‘darker half’, its energy is projected outward and externalized. It is at this point where we begin to encounter our own darkness in other people and circumstances. We meet it in situations where we find ourselves irritated or triggered, saying things like, “I can’t believe he/she would do such a thing.” The issue here is that instead of recognizing the darkness as our own, we judge, hate, and criticize the external in an attempt to eliminate what is actually arising from within ourselves. We push it at others and assign blame. We point our finger at others, not realizing how many fingers of the same hand are pointed directly back at us.
The important thing we must realize here is that you cannot run from a shadow. It’s with us always. Because of this, it would do us well to find the courage to turn inward and invite. Be willing to get to know your demons. “Fight off your demons” is a fearful, outdated phrase. Instead, invite them in. Sit down with them. Understand them, understand what they have to offer. Once you do, integration can occur. From here, they become less of a catastrophe and more of a companion. With this experiential knowledge, we can transform that which we previously resisted/ran from into a present day fuel for creativity and evolution.
But how can we do this? How can we begin the process of looking inward? There are so many ways. Something that works for one person may be completely ineffective for another. Shadow is as unique and elusive as ego. I can only speak on my personal experience. In that, I have found that presence, reflection, and writing have been the keys to my own shadow confrontation. Forgiveness, too. The theory is simple. The practice? Not so much. Still, it is when we are present in our bodies, in our emotions, that we are able to better feel when we are triggered, or “put off” by something. When this happens for me, I simply observe and take note. Er, I try to anyway. I’d be lying to you if I told you I never reacted to things that trigger me. My understanding of the concept does not keep me from being affected by the experience.
Regardless, when I return home or to a place where there is space for contemplation, I reflect on the circumstance. It is here that I begin to play the “Why?” game with myself – the one we often played with our parents as children. I look at the situation that affected me and ask myself, “Why?” When then answer comes, I write it down, and then ask the question again, “Why?” I allow this to continue for however long is necessary. In addition to journaling our “Whys”, the art of journaling as a whole is extremely beneficial. It allows us to physically move energy from the mind, the realm of thought, to the physical, where it exists tangibly & can be observed. Things like painting, dancing, and drawing are phenomenal outlets for this energy shift as well. Once we get to know our shadow, when we begin to dig up its roots and resurrect its creative power, we can begin to embrace its contents. By doing so, we begin to embrace ourselves as whole beings – an integral component for the reclamation of personal power.
We must recognize that our existence goes far beyond basic concepts of good and bad. It goes far beyond logic and rational thought. As human beings, we are the whole shebang. We are the good, the bad, the ugly, the anxious, the elated. We are the dazzling, the distraught, the divine, and the disorderly. The full spectrum of sensation is alive in us in every moment, offering us gifts for our journey. The depression carries gifts. The anger carries answers. Open to them. They are not ‘bad’, they’ve just been in the dark for awhile. They only become ‘dangerous’ when left unattended. There’s an African proverb that says something along the lines of, “The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down just to feel its warmth.” The same goes for our repressed, unexpressed emotions. Bring ’em out & let ’em play. Be good to yourself – your whole self, not just the parts you like.
(PC: E. Richardson – Songs of Near and Far Away)
If you’re interested in learning more about the Shadow/Shadow Work or if you just want to chat more about it, feel free to reach out. I love this shit.