We live in a world of duality.
Here and there. Hot and cold. Yin and yang. Light and dark. All opposites.
Because of this duality, there are two sides to everything, with a spectrum in between.
One of the most important types of duality in our world has to do with personality. Namely, our shadow selves.
You may consider yourself a “good person”. After you read this article, you may want to give more serious thought to that.
Meeting your shadow self
What if I told you that everything you think to be true about yourself is either wrong or terribly misinformed?
I want you to…
Think of a time when you flew off the handle at someone for no real (justifable) reason.
Also think of a time when you did something that was “out of character” for you.
You considered those “anomalies”, didn’t you? Something that was a “blip in the radar”.
Well, your shadow self was in control.
Our shadow selves comprise the aspects of our personality that aren’t “easily digestible” in polite company.
Envy. Jealousy. Rage. Lust. Desire for power. Anything that we don’t want to admit as belonging to “us”, we stuff in the shadow self.
The truth is… no matter what anyone says, everyone has a dark side to their personality.
When the shadow self is kept hidden in the background, suppressed, and not fully integrated, it pops up in inconvenient moments.
This is why we do shadow work. Shadow work also prevents things like these from happening:
- Social anxiety
- Incredibly deviant sexual behavior
- Limiting beliefs
- Uncontrollable anger
- Arrogance and haughtiness
- Problems getting along with people
I could go on…but it’s clear that when the shadow self isn’t given a productive outlet, it can get you into trouble.
But first, why does this “shadow self” exist in the first place?
Origin of the Shadow Self
Carl Jung was a Swiss psychoanalyst who wanted an answer to the question:
“Why do seemingly good people do obviously bad things?”
Jung finally devised an answer in the formulation of the shadow self, the dark side – meaning the side that’s hidden from view AND the side that’s metaphorically dark.
Jung’s model of the shadow arises from the human subconscious/unconscious.
“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.” – Carl Jung, Psychology and Religion
You see…in childhood, we are socialized to behave a certain way, to follow a certain set of rules.
These rules allow us to “fit in” with society and operate as productive citizens with the least amount of friction.
Some of these rules are actually good because they allow a society to function, for many people to enjoy a good standard of living, and lead reasonable lives.
However, these rules also pose a problem: they create a great deal of personal and collective repression.
Repression creates what is called “cognitive dissonance”:
In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values.” – Wikipedia
Cognitive dissonance is the disconnect between who we “think” we are and who we “actually” are.
On the societal level, cognitive dissonance is responsible for a large amount of the insanity in our world. On the individual level, it’s responsible for failure to connect with other human beings and create productive relationships.
Cognitive dissonance is a very uncomfortable feeling, so in order to downplay it, we use certain “tricks”
Shadow Work and Projection, Rationalization, and Social Masks
A few of the unconscious mind’s most beloved techniques to prevent cognitive dissonance is the use of projection, rationalization, and social masks.
Projection is the act of ascribing character traits onto other people.
Rationalization is justification of certain acts or behaviors in certain situations.
Social masks are the guises that we wear on a daily basis to fit in.
All of these are ways in which we repress our shadow selves.
Let’s use this example, because you see it a lot:
A seemingly “good girl” from a seemingly well-adjusted home goes to college.
She ends up hooking up with a guy in the first week. The second week, she does the same as well. This continues for quite a long time.
She can’t let anyone know she actually enjoys sex, because it would brand her as “damaged goods…Especially her parents…are you kidding me? She can’t let them know about it.
So what does she do? Rationalization and projection.
Rationalization: “I was pretty drunk, so I hooked up with him. I wouldn’t have done so if I wasn’t.”
Projection: “All guys want is sex and I can’t find a good relationship, that’s why it’s so easy to hook up with different people.”
And of course, the social mask is that of being a “good girl” who would “never do that”. It “just happened”.
The Repression of the Shadow Self
The biggest question becomes:
What happens when the shadow self isn’t allowed to express itself?
As stated earlier, a person ends up with a numerous array of personality problems.
These personality problems arise via the usage of denial through means of projection.
Projection is when you put traits onto others that are buried in yourself.
The ego uses this as a way to avoid connecting with the pain of the shadow self.
In our last example, this woman hooks up with guys because “all guys want is sex”. Is that really true? Or is all she wants is sex?
She can’t own the fact that she just “wants to have a little fun” because she has been socialized to believe that this type of “fun” is inherently wrong unless it’s in some type of relationship.
This type of thing pops up all the time because sexuality is one of our most primal desires and it’s an impulse that we still haven’t managed to integrate into our collective psyches in the present day.
If our heroine continues along this path, she will inevitably encounter some type of dysfunction along the way.
It may pop up in one of her future relationships or the way she engages with her friends and co-workers.
She will consciously or unconsciously pass on this dysfunction to her children.
Regardless, if it is not solved, it will rear its head at an ugly and inconvenient time and the cycle will continue.
So how do we go about solving these issues and this dysfunction?
We need to find the middle ground.
Shadow Work: The Middle Path
Shadow work is the key to finding the middle ground.
Shadow work is how you integrate the aspects of your unconscious psyche into your conscious experience and allow the positive aspects of the shadow self to express themselves.
Positive aspects, you say?
Yep. When properly used and channeled, the shadow self has traits that you can use to further your own personal development.
Here’s some of them:
- Greater physical health
The shadow self is the key to the ideal of the “balanced man”, one who acknowledges who he is fully and steps into it, accepting the good and bad parts of his personality.
This makes him a force and an asset to himself, his neighbors, his community, and his world as a whole.
How to Do Shadow Work
Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes. – Carl Jung
Shadow work is an inherently introspective endeavor.
It is a quest you can only embark on alone.
You can’t bring your parents, you can’t bring your friends, you can’t bring your pets. It’s only you.
Psychotherapy uses shadow work to a large degree, but the therapist is the tool by which the person uses to do the shadow work. The work is only done by the person and only they can determine how far they can go.
This frightens some people because many of us have been brought up to think diving into dark things is “bad”.
The only “bad” part is when you leave your shadow self un-examined and don’t do this work. THAT’s bad.
Here’s some ways to get started.
1. Silence is Golden
Silence is part one of the initiation process into shadow work.
We live in a world that encourages distraction and unconsciousness. Everywhere you turn, there’s something around the corner to help you forget who you are and what you stand for.
Shadow work removes this entirely from the picture. No cellphones, no TV, no Internet. Just you and yourself.
2. Uncover the Darkness
Once you sit in silence, certain things will start to arise to the surface.
The average human mind is a mixture of hopes, dreams, worries, fears, and doubts. As you continue shadow work, all of these will arise to the surface in a super-messy mixture of congealed thoughts.
You may find that things you haven’t thought about in a while or memories you’ve repressed will start to emerge. This is normal.
Some of these will probably be frightening. You’ll end up feeling bad and want to stop.
Don’t do it! Continue!
3. Sit with the Emotions
As human beings, we communicate in two ways primarily – verbal and nonverbal. Knowing how to combine those two is at the core of social intelligence.
Your emotions are the nonverbal part of you. They broadcast their way to others via your facial expressions and body language.
Your emotions are constantly trying to tell you something. If you have a “gut feeling” about someone or something, chances are, it’s usually right. This is called intuition.
When you do shadow work, you WILL feel strong emotions.
4. What are you avoiding?
Your emotions are a signal to you. What do they tell you?
Do you feel social anxiety because you have a chemical imbalance or because you’re avoiding social situations?
Do you procrastinate because you’re “sooooo busy” or because you’re afraid of doing the work of “digging in” and accomplishing the goal?
5. Write it out
The best way to do shadow work is to write as your emotions and thoughts out as you’re experiencing them.
The stream-of-consciousness writing of shadow work gives you an unfiltered window into yourself.
When you finish writing, you can either toss out the sheet of paper you were writing on, or keep it for future reference. If you do the latter, I would suggest getting a journal or some other type of record-keeping book.
Shadow Work is all on you.
After reading this post, it’s so easy to say “this seems like a really great idea! I’ll start tomorrow!” But then things start to get in the way.
A certain period of time passes and you’ve forgotten all about this concept. This is another “cloaking mechanism” that the shadow self and unconscious mind uses to disguise itself from view.
Shadow work requires constant vigilance and conscious awareness to do. Many people, especially in THIS society will never do it.
But if you do, you will reap enormous benefits that will take your life to the next level. That’s the goal of self-improvement after all, and shadow work is just another tool in the toolbox.
Have you done shadow work? What are your thoughts on it? Let me know in the comments below!