Empowerment through shadow work
In this article we’re exploring the sides of ourselves that we’re often unaware of; the parts of self that get shunned to the edges of our consciousness by ourselves and often by society too. Otherwise known as the shadow self.
This article will explain what a shadow self is. It will offer ways to help you to connect to your shadow self to help you rapidly transcend to your greatest, most whole self.
Shining a light on your inner ‘darkness’ helps to heighten self-awareness, free you from fear and enable you to see yourself as a multi-faceted, 4-dimensional human being. And you may just discover that the darkness isn’t so dark after all, but rather the key to a much more balanced, full and connected way of living. Join us as we step into our shadow selves and unlock repressed feelings in order to connect to a much more complete and centred sense of self.
What is a shadow self?
Our shadow selves are the parts of ourselves that we believe to be unacceptable (or what we believe society considers to be unacceptable). Due to our upbringing and conditioning we have learnt that certain parts of us are not ‘acceptable’ and as a result we start to deny or hide these parts. Emotions like rage, jealousy, bitterness and lust may be repressed because they are typically dismissed as ‘bad’ emotions. This binary approach to life- good/bad, hot/cold right/wrong – is the foundation upon which the shadow self-forms. All of the sides of ourselves that we- or society- consider to be abnormal, unacceptable or wrong end up hiding in the ‘shadows.’
We all have a ‘dark’ side to our personality. It is what makes us human. And instead of pretending they don’t exist, we need to embrace these parts of ourselves. Then we can learn from them, we can create more choice in our lives, we can access more creativity and we can be fully ourselves. Our shadow selves have huge gifts to offer us all. So today, we’re celebrating our shadow selves, to release ourselves from the taboos that keep us trapped, defensive and fearful.
Deepak Chopra, co-author of ‘The Shadow Effect: Illuminating the hidden power of your true self’ says: “In order to have manifestation you need to have opposing energies. All experience is the result of contrast. To have a shadow is normal. If you had only truth, goodness, and harmony on the inside, and the complete absence of the other, there would be no creative impulse. Everyone has a shadow unless they are standing in the dark.”
Origins of Shadow theory
Carl Jung first coined the term ‘shadow’ when he was trying to answer the following question: “Why do seemingly good people do obviously bad things?” The Swiss psychoanalyst used the term to describe those aspects of the personality that we choose to reject and repress. Jung believed that we were all born as a blank canvas, but due to our social and cultural conditioning, we all have parts of ourselves that we push down into our unconscious psyche. This collection of repressed emotions and aspects of our identity is what Jung referred to as our ‘shadow.’ In ‘Psychology and Religion’ Jung writes: “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.”
When we deny our shadow, we are denying a part of self. Embracing the shadow self can lead to a greater understanding of our whole self, as it helps us to understand, control and integrate it. Because when we shine a light on our shadow, we become conscious of the unconscious and gift ourselves with the power of conscious choice.
Don’t think of a pink elephant!!
For the next 30-seconds think about anything you want. You can think about your work, what you’re having for dinner, your plans for the weekend. But whatever you do… DON’T think about a pink elephant.
So…did you manage it? My guess is that most of you didn’t even last 5-seconds without thinking about a pink elephant.
This exercise is often used by psychologists to show how trying not to think about something, actually makes you more likely to think about it. This is due to “ironic process theory,” whereby deliberate attempts to suppress certain thoughts make them more likely to arise. Social psychologist Daniel Wegner, a psychology professor at Harvard University and the founding father of thought suppression research, discovered that telling someone to simply ‘stop thinking’ about an intrusive thought, encourages further obsession and worry about the thought in question. His research has suggested that ignoring and repressing disturbing thoughts only increases their potency and persistence. The way to move past these psychological blocks is to move through them, by replacing an attitude of resistance with one of acceptance.
It is the same with parts of ourselves we deny or don’t like. If we try to fight them, resist them or deny them they will pop up from our unconscious and play out in relationships and situations. And even then, we will still find a way to deny their reality! Even when they’re right in front of us. We might blame someone else, defend ourselves or justify our actions as reasonable because of the someone else’s wrongness, badness or irresponsibility. But if we own those parts of ourselves we find tricky – suddenly we have nothing to defend against, nothing to fear and nothing to fight about. We can’t be hurt by those parts because we have taken ownership over them.
So, unfortunately, we find ourselves in a paradox: to be free of our shadow, we have to step into it and normalise the repressed emotions and rejected identities that make up this darker side of self. This is why shadow work requires a huge amount of courage, self-compassion and conscious intentionality. However, hard work reaps great rewards…
Celebrate your shadow
“Man needs difficulties; they are necessary for health.”
– Carl Jung
Stepping into your shadow can help you to tap into your creative and innovative potential and increase your physical and mental health. This is because working with your shadow involves balance: you accept all of your so-called ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parts and embrace your whole self.
Steve Wolf, co-author of ‘Romancing the Shadow’ writes that: “Beneath the social mask we wear every day, we have a hidden shadow side: an impulsive, wounded, sad, or isolated part that we generally try to ignore. The Shadow can be a source of emotional richness and vitality and acknowledging it can be a pathway to healing and an authentic life.” To change our auto-pilot programming we have to go beyond our surface-level beliefs and start working with our unconscious desires. What are these repressed feelings trying to tell you? What do they need? Want? Take, for example, the part of you that is angry. Maybe it needs to be heard. Or perhaps it needs you to set some boundaries for it so that it doesn’t feel put upon and undervalued by others. Every shadow part is trying to tell you something. Something that, if you listen, will make your life much fuller and happier.
Opening up an internal dialogue with these rejected parts of self will enable you to better understand them. To quote 20th-century philosopher Charles Francis Haanel: “The real secret of power is consciousness of power.” How might you work with your shadow to step into new ways of being?
Getting to know your shadow
There are three key ways that we try to hide our shadow. Three behaviours that most of us do every day. These behaviours are rationalisation, rejection and projection.
- Rationalisation: With rationalisation, we justify actions in order to make the parts of our self that we don’t like, appear completely reasonable.
- Rejection: With rejection, we completely deny these parts of our self. We limit opportunities because we have decided that we are not that person. With rejection, we reject, judge and dismiss these qualities in other people.
- Projection: With projection, we project onto other people the behaviours and qualities we cannot tolerate in ourselves. Even if that person has not even demonstrated these qualities.
Making the Unconscious Conscious…
We can start to integrate and own our own shadow by heightening our awareness to these 3-shadow hiding behaviours.
1. Rationalisation: Catch yourself justifying certain behaviours. For example, “I only slept with him because I was drunk.” This justification reveals a lot about a part of yourself that you are repressing. To quote Carl Jung: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.
2. Rejection: Notice the traits you reject in other people. This is usually a sign you are rejecting this trait in yourself. If you catch yourself thinking about your boss “she is so controlling”, then this may suggest that “controlling” is something you reject in yourself. Or something that you do but deny you do. What do you reject in others that you might be rejecting in yourself? To quote the German poet Herman Hesse: “If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.”
3. Projection: It’s not easy or comfortable seeing the darker sides in our selves. To quote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” It’s much easier to project these qualities onto other people as opposed to recognising them in ourselves. In fact, the entire celebrity gossip industry is built on this fundamental human tendency. It loves to build people up with incredible qualities and talents that we mere mortals could not possibly ever own. And then it loves to tear them down with all the terrible qualities that we would never demonstrate ourselves.
Because when it comes to shadow, we don’t just project the ‘bad’ stuff we also project out the wonderful qualities that we don’t have the courage to own in ourselves. And by projecting out amazing qualities we set ourselves constricting yet ‘safe’ limitations. “I could never be as amazing as that because I’m just ordinary. I could never do what they do, I don’t have those qualities.” But you do. You’ve just projected them onto someone else. So, losing the insights, gifts, and expansion they could bring you. We lose out in every way when we project qualities out onto others.
Own your shadow
So – own your shadow. Create a list of the worst adjectives to describe a human being. Now pick five that you would hate somebody to attribute to you. Let’s say your five are: greedy, selfish, thoughtless, angry and stupid. Now own own of these adjectives by saying it out loud: “I am greedy. I am greedy. I am greedy.” Keep saying it till it doesn’t hurt. Once it no longer stings you can balance it with: “I am greedy, yes and I’m also very generous. I am both.” Then continue to work with the other adjectives you have chosen. Because both parts of you are true. And that generous part of you needs some balance. A little bit of greed- perhaps in the form of self-care- does not take away from your generosity. Embrace the paradox of being both.
The second exercise involves owning the amazing parts of you that you typically disown. So, this time write a list of amazing, wonderful, incredible adjectives that you think are the best ways to describe a human being. Now pick five that in your heart you feel “I’m not that.” For example: special, successful, funny, radiant, beautiful. Now keep repeating to yourself over and over: “I am special, I am special, I am special.” I know it seems a bit silly but stick with it! This really does work.
You can even involve a partner or friend to help you with this. Every time you say for example: “I am special” they say to you: “yes, you are special.” And you keep on and on and on until it no longer embarrasses you and you no longer reject the words. Until they simply feel a part of you. Because they are.
With both of these exercises, you are creating new neural pathways and shifting both your mental and physiological responses to these parts of yourself. In the first exercise, you keep going until you no longer feel triggered and shamed by the words. And in the second exercise, you keep going until you no longer feel embarrassed, modest and rejecting. Until you can own the words, shrug your shoulders and say: yes they are a part of me. The next time somebody calls you one of these words or you imagine that somebody might think you are one of these words… You will simply shrug your shoulders and be fine with it. Other people’s judgement and criticism will no longer have any power over you. Because you have owned your shadow. You have owned your power.
Shine a light on your shadow
Working with your shadow will help you to stop living reactively and unconsciously and will help you to consciously respond to whatever life throws your way. Shadow work isn’t about ridding yourself of the shadow. Nor is about becoming perfect. It’s about integrating the shadow self into your conscious experience so that you can step into a more integrated and whole way of being in the world. Normalising intrusive thoughts and repressed feelings will enable you to sit back in the driver’s seat of your life. So that you- the whole, integrated you- can make conscious choices that will drive your life in the direction you want it to go.