Befriending our Shadow

"Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darkness of other people."

- Carl Jung

In seeking to awaken, there comes a time when we must learn to fully accept aspects of ourselves that our culture teaches us to regard as undesirable or even shameful. I am referring to our shared capacity, as humans, to be greedy, hateful, petty, cowardly, deceitful, boisterous and rude, along with other distasteful behaviors. Psychologists use the word “shadow” to refer to these darker elements of human behavior.

The Shadow in All of Us

It turns out that for every quality of ourselves that we deem as good, we also possess, in some measure, its opposite. So, if you are willing to begin to explore your shadow side, take a moment to make a list of the things that you most like about yourself. For example, perhaps you appreciate your capacity for compassion, your independence, your willingness to listen to others, and so forth. Write down as many positive attributes as you can. Then, next to each one, write down the exact opposite. For example, next to compassionate, you might put cold-hearted; next to independent, needy; next to intelligent, ignorant… and so forth.

Then, and this is the clincher: Consider that these opposites are also a part of who you are—i.e., they are elements of your shadow. And, though it may seem paradoxical, it is by acknowledging your shadow qualities that you—I, we, all of us—may become whole.

Discovering Your Shadow: An Example

Suppose that while participating in a group gathering, you notice that you become irritated every time a certain person speaks. Something about this person really pushes your buttons. Wishing to break free of your upset, you step outside, and breathing slowly and deeply, you spread your arms wide and look up to the sky. Then, as you gradually come into a more open, relaxed state, you begin a dialogue with yourself that goes something like this:

You:  Why am I so irritated each time that guy speaks?
Self:  Because he is so full of himself and just goes on and on…
You:  And why is that a problem for me?
Self:  Because he is dominating the conversation.
You:  And why do I suppose that he is doing this?
Self:  I don’t know… Maybe because he feels insecure and wants attention?
You: Have I ever done what he is doing?
Self:  Yes, I suppose there have been times when I have behaved just like him.
You:  And so, again, why is all of this so irritating to me?

As you proceed in this way, the source of your irritation will gradually surface as you come to see something of yourself in the other person. Indeed, behaviors in others that push our buttons are almost always related to aspects of ourselves that we have yet to fully accept.

As author and teacher, Debbie Ford, points out: “It takes compassion to own a part of oneself that you have previously disowned, ignored, hated, denied, or judged in others. It takes compassion to accept being human and having every aspect of humanity within you, good and bad. Ultimately, when you open your heart to yourself, you will find you have compassion for everything and everybody.”

It is one thing to acknowledge our shadow elements; but something else, again, to fully embrace these elements. But embrace them we must because, as Ford points out, “What we can’t be with, won’t let us be.” You can experience what it’s like to embrace one of your own shadow qualities by calling to mind a behavior—a way of being—that is hard for you to accept in others, much less, in yourself.

For example, put yourself in the place of Julia who, as an adult, endeavors to be accommodating and kind at all times; but Julia wasn’t always this way. In her teen years, she was headstrong and demanding and always ready to stand up for herself. It was during this time that those who knew Julia began to refer to her as a bitch because they felt threatened by her boldness and power. In an effort to shed the label of bitch, Julia became docile and accommodating—i.e., afraid to be her full self.

Exercise: Integrating the Shadow into Your Life

Holding the example of Julia in mind, find a willing partner to join you in exploring how you might make peace with your shadow. Begin by taking a moment to come up with a shadow quality—i.e., some aspect of yourself that you struggle to accept—and then speak this to your partner, and ask them to affirm your statement. In the above example, if you happened to be Julia’s partner, she would say “I am a bitch” and you would look her in the eye and affirm her by saying: “Yes, Julia, you are a bitch.” You and Julia would then go back and forth, in this manner, for several minutes until saying “I am a bitch” or hearing “You are a bitch” no longer held any charge for Julia. Then, it would be your turn to state one of your own shadow qualities to Julia; and to listen, as she repeatedly reflected this shadow element back to you… until you gradually came to accept it as an integral part of who you are. In fact, with patience and curiosity, it’s possible to discover hidden gifts within our shadow.

If you are skeptical, I understand. I mean, really, how could being a bitch be a desirable quality? Well, let’s say that Julia has contracted a carpenter to build a deck off the back of her house; and she needs the deck to be completed soon because in two weeks she will be hosting a wedding reception for her daughter. At the outset, the builder assured Julia that he would have the deck done on time, but he has fallen behind and Julia is worried that the deck won’t be done in time for the wedding. Rather than being docile and non-confrontational, Julia accesses her inner bitch—i.e., her capacity to be bold and assertive—and faces off with the carpenter, reminding him of his commitment. That’s all it takes for him to hop to and complete the job on time.

As this example reveals, every time we embrace parts of ourselves that have been relegated to our shadow—as Julia did—we become more fully ourselves. Indeed, the process of becoming whole is not about getting rid of stuff that we dislike about ourselves; instead, it’s about, acknowledging our shadow aspects and integrating them into our lives.

"All the big problems in the world today are rooted in the philosophy of separateness and dualism."

- Satish Kumar

The Gold Within the Shadow

As a means of integrating the concept of shadow into your own life, take in this true story as retold by Debbie Ford:

In 1957 a monastery in Thailand was being relocated and a group of monks was put in charge of moving a giant, ten-foot tall clay Buddha. In the midst of the move one of monks noticed a crack in the Buddha. Concerned about damaging the idol, the monks decided to wait for a day before continuing with their task. When night came, one of the monks came to check on the giant statue. He shined his flashlight over the entire Buddha. When he reached the crack he saw something reflected back at him. The monk, his curiosity aroused, got a hammer and a chisel and began chipping away at the clay Buddha. As he knocked off piece after piece of clay, the Buddha got brighter and brighter. After hours of work, the monk looked up in amazement to see standing before him a huge solid-gold Buddha.

Many historians believe the Buddha had been covered with clay by Thai monks several hundred years earlier before an attack by the Burmese army. They covered the Buddha to keep it from being stolen. In the attack all the monks were killed, so it wasn’t until 1957 when later-day monks were moving the giant statue that the great treasure was discovered.

Like the Buddha statue, our outer shell protects us from the world while our real treasure is hidden within. We human beings unconsciously hide our inner gold under a layer of clay. All we need to do to uncover our gold is to have the courage to chip away at our outer shell, piece by piece.  

In interpreting this story, Ford writes: “Your outer shell is the you who faces the world. [This shell] hides the characteristics that make up your shadow. Our shadows are so well disguised that we often show the world one face when, in fact, the exact opposite is really within us. Some people wear a layer of toughness that hides their sensitivity, or a mask of humor to cover up their sadness. People who know it all are usually covering up feelings of stupidity, while those who act arrogantly have yet to reveal their insecurity. The cool people are hiding the geek within, and the smiling face, an angry one.”

“We have to look beyond our social masks in order to discover our authentic selves. We are masters of disguise, fooling others but also fooling ourselves. It’s the lies we tell ourselves that we need to decipher. When we’re not completely satisfied, happy, healthy, or fulfilling our dreams, we know these lies are in our way. This is how we recognize our shadow at work.”  

“If you begin the process of uncovering your shadow and a voice inside starts screaming for you to stop, know that that voice is only your ego fearing its own death”

In considering what relevance this story could have for your life, grab a chisel and give some journal time to questions like the following:

What masks do you wear?

How might you be deceiving yourself and others?

In all of this covering up, what shadow qualities may be hidden underneath?

What larger shadow work might free and awaken you?

Said differently, in what ways might you begin to actively embrace and make friends with your shadow in an effort to become more whole?

Making Sense of it All…

When it comes to fully awakening, our biggest challenge is to acknowledge and then to embrace our shadow. Here is an excellent video, Embrace the Darkness: Carl Jung and The Shadow, that points the way:

"Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate."

- Carl Jung

"It was the qualities of my personality that others deemed unattractive that eventually alerted me to my shadow."

- Madison Rios, Steppingstone #19 Guide

Join the conversation hosted by Madison on the Community Page