“The shadow is the unknown ‘‘dark side’’ of our personality–-dark both because it tends to consist predominantly of the primitive, negative, socially or religiously depreciated human emotions and impulses like sexual lust, power strivings, selfishness, greed, envy, anger or rage, and due to its unenlightened nature, completely obscured from consciousness.” – Carl Jung
Have you ever said or done something irrational, in spite of knowing that it was unethical, mean or potentially harmful? (If you’re human, I suspect that your answer is a resounding “yes!”)
Perhaps you ate a whole stack of chocolate chip cookies right after committing to a healthy eating regimen. Or you intentionally blurted something hurtful to your partner during a spat with him or her. Or you fell back into smoking or drinking again after successfully going cold turkey for a few months.
This insidious part of you seems to have a mind of its own and is frustratingly recalcitrant. On a conscious level, you know what’s right and what’s wrong, but that doesn’t stop you from acting on your raw impulses when you’re overpowered by temptations. A battle may ensue between your rational and emotional sides and, most of the time, the emotional part triumphs over the logical faculty.
To understand why this occurs, we will have to take a closer look at the anatomy of our mind. Our thoughts are influenced by the conscious and subconscious mind, with the subconscious being the more powerful. In his book, The Biology of Belief, Bruce Lipton states that our conscious mind processes 40 bits of data per second, while our unconscious mind operates on a whopping 40 million bits per second!
Neuroscientists have repeatedly proven that the subconscious mind has a powerful impact on our emotions, actions and decisions, and accounts for 95-99% of our behavior patterns (the conscious mind accounts for 1-5%) that are beyond our conscious awareness. The unconscious mind is submerged in the deep recesses of our minds, which makes it harder to access and understand its complex functioning.
The subconscious mind happens to be where our shadow self resides. Our shadow stems from painful memories and unhealthy beliefs that have been stored in our subconscious mind. Like Pandora‘s Box, it houses the most repulsive and unpleasant parts of our being that we prefer not to confront.
Dealing with the shadow was a major preoccupation of our ancestors. They were acutely aware of its impact on their outlook, as noted in the diaries of many notable literary and religious luminaries. They consistently worked towards integrating it into their being. Writers such as Samuel Johnson and mystics such as St. Teresa of Avla, tirelessly worked towards transmuting the prodigal aspects of their nature.
In our modern world, people are just too busy or indifferent to engage in self-exploration and the inner work that is needed to diffuse the tense energy incited by the shadow self. However, this angry, weak, lazy, controlling or selfish facet of ourselves will continue to rear its head into our daily life and control us, no matter how hard we try to repress it or numb it with food, drugs, anti-depressants and alcohol.
Our shadow self will fester within us if we continue to deny its existence until one day, it consumes us like a forest fire. If we suspect that our sensibilities are being overpowered by our shadow, we should promptly apply ourselves to the healing process, no matter how daunting and ambiguous it may seem.
Shadow work, as it’s popularly called, can often seem like a sticky and uncomfortable process, but if done right, it can be cathartic and release us from being a captive of our own irrational compulsions. We become more capable of imparting and accepting unconditional love. We also become more accepting and understanding of the perceived flaws and weaknesses we witness in other individuals.
According to Debbie Ford in her pioneering book, The Dark Side of the Light Chasers, “embracing these negative qualities actually opens the door to happiness, fulfillment and true enlightenment. Our dark sides are part of who we truly are. By uncovering and embracing our shadow side, we become whole.”
Just as light cannot exist without the dark, the enlightened side of us cannot exist without the darker aspect of our personality. The key to managing our shadow self is by facing it head on and then balancing it with the other aspects of our personality. This will create harmony between the disparate parts of us and align us with our spiritual core.
Here is a simple outline of the techniques that you can use to work with your shadow to generate a sense of equanimity and stability in your life:
- Engage in deep inner work: If we want to get acquainted with the shadow aspect of our psyche, we should be willing to fearlessly delve into the hidden and unexplored depths of our minds. We need to excavate psychological wounds from childhood and other painful experiences that we have repressed. With the help of a qualified therapist, we can scrutinize the feelings, fears, beliefs and traits that we have shunned away from as a result of our past hurts. This work is critical because whenever we disown any part of ourselves, we essentially stunt our potential and creativity, which limits our progress.
- Watch your behavior patterns: You are the only person who can collect real time data on your behavior patterns by remaining conscious of your thoughts and actions. Watch out for any discrepancies and any deviations from your normal and preferred ways of being and take note of it in a journal. If you do this consistently, you will gradually see some patterns emerging and you’ll get more clued up about the characteristics and triggers of your shadow self. Remember to remain objective during this process and pretend as if you are an unattached observer who’s disengaged from the process.
- Be aware of your projections: Whenever we criticize or judge others for being or acting in a certain way, it is almost always an indication of a shadow aspect of our personality that we are not accepting. In other words, whatever we repress in ourselves gets projected on to other people. That particular quality or behavior that gets on your nerves the most is a clear sign that you have not owned that quality within you. For example, a lot of people see a famous figure such as Donald Trump as being loud, brash and pretentious, while others see him as being confident, strong and capable. This variation in opinions occurs because people are unconsciously driven to form opinions based on their projections.
- Channel your shadow through your creativity: We are accustomed to believing that the shadow only manifests itself in negative ways such as in acts of violence, aggression and crime. However, the shadow can also be channeled in numerous positive ways. Various artists and creative professionals have found ingenious ways to express their dark side through their specific art forms. Fashion designers created gothic inspired clothing lines, film directors created film noir movies in the 1940s-1950s, and authors have written dark thriller novels such as Silence of the Lambs and Gone Girl. You can try experimenting with different creative portals to see which one appeals to you the most.
- Be kind to yourself: It is critical that you avoid judging yourself while being immersed in shadow work. It can indeed be a challenge to look at the unpleasant parts of us without having feelings of shame and repulsion coming up to the surface. It may awaken your inner gremlins, which can generate a litany of harsh criticisms. Remind yourself that confronting your shadow is an act of self-love, which you are embarking on so that you can improve the quality of your life and become a better human being.
The journey of life is primarily a journey of cultivating character and not of attaining material success. It’s not about attaining perfection but about becoming whole. The process of accepting the full spectrum of our proclivities and natural characteristics will bring us closer towards connecting with our spiritual essence and the Universal energies that created us.
All my best on your journey,
Question for you: What’s the biggest challenge that you encounter when facing your shadow self? How is it affecting your life?
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