Darby Christopher, LMSW
We all have a preferred way of viewing ourselves, which includes owning the personality traits that we believe will serve us best in the world. Often, cultural values that we uphold, such as loyalty, optimism or courage, will fall into this category. Many of us want to see ourselves – and for others to see us – as loving, giving, considerate and self confident. Sometimes, qualities like wild, out-of-the-box, rebellious and counter-cultural are also characteristics that we are happy to claim.
But what about those parts of ourselves and experiences we have that we don’t want to claim? What about the traits that others might see in us, but which we have a difficult time seeing in ourselves? These are the parts that Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung named our “shadow.” Traits that comprise our shadow often include qualities that our communities have disowned, such as fear, anger, selfishness, destructive words, thoughts or actions and various desires and addictions. Experiences of abuse or shame that have affected our self concept also fall into this category. On the other hand, if owning our talents or loving nature doesn’t feel safe, then these traits too will comprise our shadow.
Our natural human tendency is to run from our shadow. After all, the reason we don’t like certain qualities or recalling certain experiences is because they bring us pain, and our natural response to pain is to get as far away from it as possible.
However, what works in the physical world – “don’t touch that fire!” – does not translate well in the psychological world. If avoiding the things that bring us emotional and psychological pain were the answer, this whole business of growth and healing would be simple, linear and formulaic. The journey toward wholeness, rather, is circular, containing elements of mystery, and often takes place in relationship. This is why our efforts to “just not think about it” or “just don’t do it” sometimes fail us.
Why is this the case? Why doesn’t avoidance work? I don’t have the definitive answer for this, but one thing seems to be clear: The harder we work to push some aspects of psychological life away – including our painful problems and symptoms – the harder they work to make themselves known. It’s as if they contain a message for us, and, in terms of the big picture of our lives, this message is more important than our comfort.
Paradoxically and somewhat counter intuitively, turning toward our painful problems, symptoms, personality traits, and memories is what helps begin to loosen them and move them along.
How To Recognize The Shadow
In order to turn toward our shadow, we must first be able to catch glimpses of it. This is not easy, as our defenses are sometimes good at keeping it out of view. However, finding our shadow might be a little like bird watching, or finding shark’s teeth at the beach: If the intention is there, and we know what to look for, it may be elusive, but it is also ultimately knowable.
One of the best ways to catch a glimpse of our shadow is through our body and emotions. While we may be adept at keeping certain thoughts at bay, our bodies and feelings often will not cooperate. Depression, anxiety, disturbances, addictions, compulsions, physical pain and other physical or psychological symptoms are sometimes the result of disowned parts of ourselves trying to get our attention. (Note: If a medical condition is suspected as the source of a painful condition, a physician should be consulted.)
Another sure way to spot our shadow is to look for it in what we project onto others. Jeremy Taylor, Unitarian minister and author of several books on dreams, refers to people as “projecting machines.” Taylor emphasizes how, in order to see something in ourselves, we must first project it outward onto someone else. For example, if a man sees and is frustrated with the passive or aggressive nature of another man, he may not yet recognize his own passive or aggressive qualities.
Another way to find the shadow is to look for it in our dreams. Because, on one level, everything we dream is an aspect of our own self, the potential for shadow-finding in dreams is immense. One predictable way in which this occurs is when an individual dreams of another person of their same gender. For example, if a woman is invested in seeing herself as serious and responsible, and she dreams of her free spirited sister allowing the bills to pile up while she lounges around, she may be seeing a disowned part of herself.
Most of us encounter our shadow in hundreds of ways every day, such as in our dreams, the people we come into contact with, movies, books, plays, work situations and primary relationships. Even what we day dream about could show us disowned parts of ourselves or repressed memories, if only we pay attention.
How To Turn Toward The Shadow
Finally, in the journey toward growth, wholeness and self-discovery, we need ways to get to know and integrate our shadow material. The following list includes a few ways to do this:
When a disturbing thought or feeling arises, take time to turn toward it, welcome it, and be still with it. If possible, go to a quiet place. Breathe deeply. Focus on the disturbing or painful feeling/experience. Hold it in awareness, and let go of any negative thoughts toward it. If possible, welcome it and put forth an intention to listen to it and learn from it. Breathe into it.
Journal, using “Active Imagination.” Choose a dream image, and ask it questions. Write down both the questions and the answers. The idea here is to allow the answers to arise spontaneously from the unconscious. Write down whatever shows up. Resist the temptation to force a question or answer, or to judge it. Sometimes, the sillier or more off the wall the answer is, the more right on it turns out to be. Ask: “What is here? What is going on? Who or what are you? What do you like or dislike? What are you afraid of?” Insights will come sometimes, but not always. The practice of being still, asking, and listening is what counts, and will make a difference over the long run.
Practice taking back projections. When strong feelings of like or dislike for another person show up, make a list of what you like or dislike about that person. Then ask, “Where does this quality show up in me?”
Practice “I am that too.” Jeremy Taylor adopted and advocates this practice from the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Whenever the urge to judge another is present, practice the thought “I am that too.”
If possible, do the work with a therapist or spiritual director. Something powerful occurs when we confess (or, “own”) a part of our self to a trusted other, and learn that all of our parts, even if painful or undesirable, are ultimately acceptable and make sense. Often, deep healing occurs in relationship.
Remember SOS, which can stand for “See it, Own it, Say it.” Recalling SOS may help us remember to stay alert and watchful, own what is ours rather than projecting it on others, and then to invite the healing power of relationship to work for us as we share our journey with a trusted other.
Shadow work requires persistence, patience, and sometimes, the ability to be present with pain. Like many endeavors in life, the reward – including a greater sense of wholeness, a sense of waking up to our lives, and ultimately an increased capacity to love – is worth the effort. For many of us, our well being depends on this work, and, as our own inner light shines brighter, our efforts will benefit the people whose paths we cross. And ultimately, we can be deeply gratified to know that our work is transforming the world we live in, one step at a time.
Romancing The Shadow by Connie Zweig and Steve Wolf
Jung To Live By by Eugene Pascal
Inner Work by Robert Johnson