What is the shadow, why it forms and why work with it
What is the shadow and why does it form?
We are born and enter into this world with the emotional blueprints and capability to be whole and complete, and to feel and experience the connection and the abundance that life has to offer. However, from infancy as we grow, our conditions, environment, and the people around us impact us in many complex ways. Certain behaviours and emotions may be unwelcome in our culture or family of origin and we quickly learn to repress or deny these parts of ourselves in order to fit in or simply to survive. Our primary drive for attachment, to be loved, accepted and to fit in supersedes our drive for authenticity, and we choose to repress unwelcome parts of our personality in order to remain connected to our caretakers, family and culture. In this way, the shadow absorbs all the aspects of the psyche that are deemed unacceptable in the environment within which we find ourselves.
Shadows are formed when we cut off, repress or deny any part of ourselves.
We all do this as we pass through life, it is an essential part of surviving and adapting to the world in which we find ourselves. Shadows are the unconscious beliefs and behaviours that we take on in order to keep those unwanted parts of us hidden. As we move through the early part of our lives, we strive for connection and attachment, to be accepted and loved, and so we put parts of ourselves into shadow as we relate with others and react with entirely appropriate, sometimes lifesaving responses to the situations in which we find ourselves.
Perhaps you grew up in a house where sexuality was a taboo subject, not to be spoken of, but something to be kept in the darkness, even associated with shame. If you grew up in such an environment, it would be no surprise to find that your natural sexuality was suppressed, and that later in life you experience difficulties around sexual expression and intimacy.
So you might have put your power in the world, or your ability to get things done, or your capacity to change the world around you, into shadow. This might happen, for example, when your parents and caregivers and others around you conveyed the message that you weren’t important or in control of what happened to you, that you didn’t have a right to be listened to or heard. Or perhaps you are a person who was told in childhood you were stupid. Of course this message doesn’t have to be conveyed in such an explicit way. So you put your intelligence, creativity, and maybe your free spirit into shadow.
You may love spontaneous public singing. It brings you joy as you express yourself fully with abandon. When this happens on the train station platform, your father becomes embarrassed, people turn and look. Your father experiences a very unpleasant emotional reaction based on all his conditioning, and admonishes you. Unconsciously and reactively, he shames you. You feel the whole body sensation that accompanies shame, and sense in that moment that you (not simply your behaviour) are bad. The result is that your spontaneous singing never comes out again, the risk of having the love and connection withdrawn in the future is just too great.
Some of us have experienced specific events when we realised we needed to put a side of ourselves away. Perhaps we experienced others being punished or shamed for expressing certain sides of themselves and we learned to repress and hide these aspects of our personality. Others may have experienced a slow drip drip of ‘hints’ that parts of us weren’t acceptable. Implicit and unspoken rules, a sense of taboo, looks or actions, or a reliable withdrawal of attention and love that made us realise it wasn’t safe to express certain aspects of ourselves.
We all have shadows and we will all have our own individual experiences of how we learned to deny or hide these parts of our personality.
And so we move through our lives stuffing those exiled bits of our original energy and make up into our shadow bag. The shadow bag is a term coined by the American poet, Robert Bly, who says our first twenty years are spent stuffing 90% of our wholeness into ‘the long black bag that we drag behind us…’, and the rest of our lives trying to retrieve those items. The bag gets bigger and heavier. It is not just that we have lost parts of ourselves, it is also the behaviours we employ to keep them hidden that begin to cause problems for us.
"To own one's own shadow is to make oneself whole. The shadow consists of those aspects of your character that belong to you but that have not been given any conscious place in your life. ...assimilating your shadow is the art of catching up on these facets of life that have not been lived out adequately."
So what happens to these suppressed parts in shadow?
What is held in shadow can exert an emotional power over us. Exiled traits and energies, especially when accompanied by limiting beliefs and/or shame will have a powerful hold over us, limiting healthy emotional development, possibility, and growth.
One thing we do with these suppressed parts in shadow is to project them onto others. We are unaware of our projections because they happen unconsciously, but what we do is see in others that which is in fact in our shadow.
We do this as a defence mechanism to further distance ourselves from those very thoughts, motivations, desires and feelings that we were once told were unacceptable. We point the finger away: It is in them. It confirms our tightly held beliefs we have made about ourselves in order to keep us accepted, to keep us safe. The problem isn’t that we are simply projecting disowned qualities onto others, the problem is that we are distorting reality and not seeing these people around us as they truly are, we are seeing them through the veil of our shadow. Projection creates a disconnect between how we view ourselves and how we are in reality.
Our shadows make themselves known to us in the sides of ourselves we struggle to be with, or find it hard to understand or accept – those aspects which may bring shame or confusion, or those aspects we fear may emotionally overwhelm or harm us or those around us. We all have parts like this and they can be the source of much pain and suffering. Furthermore, the more we try to ignore or hide these sides of ourselves the greater their capacity to disrupt our lives in uncontrolled ways: stifling our emotional expression, causing issues in our relationships with the people in our lives, or creating barriers to personal progress.
As an adult our personality is largely formed. We have built the ego that hopefully has served us to navigate our society and culture and allow us to interact with some element of safety and success. What is inside our shadow bag may be largely unconscious but it still has an influence on our behaviour as it leaks out in uncontrolled ways. We may have put our anger into shadow since it was made very clear that anger was dangerous and not acceptable within the home we grew up in. Anger helps to let us know when we are being treated badly or when our boundaries are crossed, and it gives us the energy to take action in the world and to stand up for ourselves and protect those we love.
So if our anger has been placed in shadow, we may have issues being able to assert ourselves or we may have a sense of being invaded or infringed upon as we struggle with our personal boundaries, not knowing what they are or how to hold them with gentle confidence. We may then find ourselves reacting in rage in a situation in an uncontrolled way that may concern or bring harm to ourselves or others. We may also find ourselves using passive aggression, manipulation, coercive or controlling language or behaviour in order to get what we want in our lives. The people in our lives may find this confusing and challenging and we run into problems in our lives because we do not have access to our clean, healthy anger.
So our shadows are comprised of the parts of ourselves that we experience as overwhelming or controlling. The aspects of ourselves we try hard not to be like but then burst out unexpectedly. The things we find ourselves doing by accident, even though we may have previously decided that we didn't want to be like that. They are sides of ourselves that we spot and ridicule in others. Certain beliefs that restrict our progress, aspects of ourselves that frighten us or we cannot accept, behaviours for which we are unable to forgive ourselves, and those personality traits that we deny we have. The contents of the shadow bag influence us, impacting our inner emotional environment, creating a veil, and obscuring the true nature of the people and the world around us.
Why work with the shadow?
We may experience painful or traumatic life events and experiences that disconnect us, close our hearts and make it feel risky to open to love or trust. We may lose our connection to our full range of emotions, our sadness, joy, loss and healthy anger. We may struggle to create powerful boundaries and make our dreams manifest. We may have a harsh inner critic that disables us and causes us pain. We may shame ourselves viciously. The repression of these natural energies within us can be seen as the outcome of earlier internal censorship, the only intention of which was to keep us safe but which leaves us as adults with a catalog of limitations and a lack of access to the whole of ourselves. From this perspective it can be understood that our power, life force and energy can get hidden within, bound up with these repressed parts of ourselves.
Shadow work is about exploring how we are in the world and how we operate. It is about being held in such a way that we can look within, at the dynamics that play out again and again in our relationships, to see where we are hurting, where we are lost, what we have lost and need to grieve. It also offers us the opportunity to see what is holding us back, the greatness that we have suppressed. It offers a place to explore our inner life in a respectful way that truly welcomes all that we bring. Being held in a way that allows everything to have a place can have a deep effect on integrating our inner life and finding more peace. Trauma can be released, resolutions found and situations reframed. We are invited to explore and discover parts of ourselves we may have hidden, denied or repressed. In order to regain the richness of our full humanity we need do more than talk about these aspects, we must inhabit these energies, allowing them to flow fully through us so that we can truly know them.
By bringing these parts out of shadow in a safe, experiential setting where we are given permission to follow this, and where there is no risk of anyone getting hurt, we can begin to understand and reintegrate these energies.
Even if we see no good in some of these energies and we see nothing good in allowing these energies to flow within us, stepping in and getting to know these energies does something significantly healing. Once embodied and brought out of shadow, they are brought much more into conscious awareness where before, outside of awareness, these energies were able to run our thoughts, feelings and behaviour. As this happens, the power in these energies diminishes and we gain greater control over whether or not to act out, speak from, or listen to what this energy or this part has to say.
With this comes a greater internal trust, and with this greater trust in who and what we are, comes a reduction in fear as we unlock the power of our true selves, with all our gifts and strengths.
There are many reasons to work with our shadow and we may come up with just as many excuses not to. The decision to take a look at what is going on may come as a growing murmuring of discontent, or it may come with clarity and as an absolute necessity as a result of an emotional breakdown, or other life-changing event.
Carl Jung coined the term individuation. Individuation can be seen as the psyche’s natural tendency to move towards wholeness. Just as the physical body strives for balance physiologically and anatomically, so the emotional body strives for balance, health and completeness through the process of individuation. When the circumstances are fertile and the adult is ready, the psyche brings to the surface those buried emotional pains, those damaged relationships, those core wounds that need healing.
Either way, we make the decision that something has to change in our circumstances, that life cannot go on like this. As we reach out for help and find support, we begin to realise that there is much to be gained from looking within.
As an infant or small child we are extremely vulnerable both physically and emotionally, relying on others for safety and security. When these needs are threatened, the child learns quickly to devise strategies to keep safe. These strategies are about survival, plain and simple. They are not moral choices based on the best way to navigate the situation, they are made from a place of fear and vulnerability and the child will incorporate whatever is necessary for protection. These strategies may include stealing, lying, duplicitous behaviour, blaming, framing and worse. The problem with such strategies is that they will continue to be used and expressed into adulthood albeit unconsciously. So these strategies continue to play out into our adult life, even when the original threat is no longer in our immediate environment. Until these childhood strategies are identified, explored and reintegrated, they will continue to play out in the adult’s internal and external world, influencing their behaviour and inhibiting growth. Furthermore, these unconscious strategies obscure the present day support that may be available and accessible by the adult.
Energy is most likely coming out of shadow if it takes you by surprise, if it does not seem like a part of you, if it is out of your control, or if it controls you rather than you controlling it.
Since working with shadow energies brings these parts out of the unconscious, you are much less likely to be triggered into reacting unconsciously. You start to see situations, and hear words with greater clarity, not through the veil of your shadow, and since you start to see a little clearer what it is you are reacting to before you react, you stop acting unconsciously, responding rather than reacting, bringing greater control and choice into your behaviour, feelings and emotions.
When we move beyond our ordinary relationship to the world through shadow work, the conscious self can look at it's own psyche from a different perspective, from a unique angle and place of altered awareness. This process offers the opportunity for deep healing and a subsequent deeper alignment with the world and our true selves.
Ultimately, what is in our shadow is energetically ours. All that energy contained in the shadow parts as well as the considerable energy taken to keep it all hidden due to previous threats which perhaps no longer exist, is energy that is not available to the adult to be used effectively in their everyday lives and their growth. We don't always allow ourselves to use all the energy we have, and often we have lots of power held in our fears, anxieties or doubts. As we work with our shadow, we unpick the intractable situations in our lives, the dynamics that reappear in our relationships and the energy contained in these shadows can be reintegrated.
When ignored, our shadows can turn their energy into illness, dysfunctional behaviour and disrupted relationships. When faced, Shadow Work is a way to explore the inner landscape and discover the gold that is hiding there.
Somewhere within our deepest wounds we will find our greatest gifts. As we begin to reclaim our wholeness and the reality of who we really are we become able to show up more wholly and intentionally for our commitments and relationships in life, whether that’s being a better partner, sibling, friend, parent, teacher, mentor, or any of the countless other roles we inhabit throughout our lives.
Shadow work also allows us to feel a greater sense of power and personal agency in an ever-changing and sometimes limiting world. Through this process, we learn that we have a core inner leader, a grounded central essence that is untouched by life's traumas. This is our Sovereign and it is in every one of us: King or Queen, it holds the wonderful qualities from which we can step more fully and consciously into our lives, in deeper alignment with the world, our vision, and our true selves.
Why work with your shadow aspects?
To identify and resolve the unconscious drivers behind those unhelpful thought patterns, beliefs and behaviours
To work with and bring healing to your addictions, compulsions or obsessive behaviours, thoughts or feelings
To identify, clarify and work with your personal needs and boundaries
To gain a greater ease in relationship, both outer and inner
To become less triggered by other peoples behaviour and external events, moving towards a place of response rather than reaction in your interpersonal relationships
To move into a space of self-regulation, ease and safety
To grow a greater inner trust and source of inner support. A clearer perception of who you are and a movement towards authenticity, integrity
To make peace with traumatic patterns and assist in your journey to recovery from childhood trauma
To unblock limitations to progress and growth in your life, and your emotional, spiritual and physical development
To meet and integrate your healthy anger, embodying this energy to create transformation in your inner and outer relationships.
To explore your grief to bring expression and flow to your emotional body
To become more clear and present
To re-integrate of all that latent potential: all those positive qualities, repressed for whatever reason, that can truly serve your adult Self and empower you to go where you want to go
"The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are."