What is the shadow? And why does it matter?
Have you ever really disliked someone but didn’t know why? Have you ever had a reoccurring dream, that when you woke, put you into a tailspin of anxiety the rest of the day? Have you ever had a fear that is so instinctual that you can’t even begin to wonder where it comes from?
Chances are, these things are all rooted in your shadow.
The term shadow was coined by Carl Jung, a Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist, and the founder of Analytical Psychology. If you’ve ever taken the Myers Bring personality test, you’ve encountered Carl Jung’s work. Isabel Myer’s Brigg took Carl Jung’s theories on psychological types turned it into a personality test that was more easily understood by the layperson.
Carl Jung said, “our shadow is the person we would rather not be.” Jung described the shadow as the things we hold in our unconsciousness and believe are evil, taboo, off limits, or bad. We all know what it’s like to have an impulse or a pull towards something that we think is bad, evil, or taboo. Whether it is evil or not, doesn’t matter as much as whether we believe it is off limits or that it would make us bad. We learn what these socially unacceptable traits or things are at a very young and subconsciously begin to suppress them or avoid them. Then, often in times of stress or pressure, they surface and can really startle us. This is our shadow.
Within our consciousness we have an ego, or a persona, that makes up the person you think yourself to be. Otherwise known as your personality. But there is also the UNCONCIOUSNESS, the part of you that you’re not aware of and don’t acknowledge. And as it turns out, your unconsciousness is more defining for your behavior and actions then your consciousness. Neuroscientists have done studies on the unconscious and conscious mind and found that only 5% of our cognitive activities – our decisions, emotions, actions, behaviour – is conscious (intentional or in our conscious control) whereas the remaining 95% is generated unconsciously. That’s staggering!
I first started to become interested in the shadow when Maddy Moon spoke in episode 207 of her podcast about the gift of being triggered. In a time where everything comes with a trigger warning for fear of upsetting someone or causing someone discomfort (including ourselves), Maddy was talking about the gift of pissing people off, of putting people in an uncomfortable state where they have to question themselves. The reason this is a gift is because feeling triggered is one way our shadow can reveal itself to us! Someone says something that really bugs us, our ego feels threatened and we get our defenses up, and decide that person is “stupid” and don’t know what they’re talking about. This reaction is coming from something we have hidden within our shadow! Often we can feel shame for these reactions because we’ve been conditioned to believe that feeling angry, critical, or straight up not liking someone is bad. But this is our shadow’s way of trying to bring something from unconsciousness to consciousness. And all we need to do is allow ourselves to feel safe and loved enough to listen. This is shadow work, and without it we cannot become emotionally mature adults (which is more rare then you might think).
Why is the shadow important?
Carl Jung said that until we heal our shadow, we will see patterns and habits in our lives that inhibit us and simply call them fate. We will assume that our reactions to people are simply justified and that the behavior we carry out and despite is not our own by coming from “the devil” or we’ll simply be so disgusted with ourselves we’ll deny the behavior in the first place.
One of Carl Jung’s followers, Liliane Fray-Rohn, said that “Bringing the shadow to consciousness is a psychological problem of the highest moral significance. It demands that the individual hold himself accountable not only for what happens to him, but also for what he projects. . . Without the conscious inclusion of the shadow in daily life there cannot be a positive relationship to other people, or to the creative sources in the soul; there cannot be an individual relationship to the Divine’’ (cited in Diamond, p. 109).
Another reason that the shadow is so deeply important is because the shadow is the key to greater authenticity, to being who we truly are (unconsciousness), instead of who we think ourselves to be (consciousness).
“This brings us to the fundamental fact that the shadow is the door to our individuality. In so far as the shadow renders us our first view of the unconscious part of our personality, it represents the first stage toward meeting the Self. There is, in fact, no access to the unconscious and to our own reality but through the shadow. Only when we realize that part of ourselves which we have not hitherto seen or preferred not to see can we proceed to question and find the sources from which it feeds and the basis on which it rests. Hence no progress or growth is possible until the shadow is adequately confronted and confronting means more than merely knowing about it. It is not until we have truly been shocked into seeing ourselves as we really are, instead of as we wish or hopefully assume we are, that we can take the first step toward individual reality.” (Connie Zweig, Meeting the Shadow)
So, for me, the drive to understand and heal the shadow comes from the quote above. I’ve been passionate about self acceptance, finding healing for trauma, and becoming my best self for long enough that I know those things don’t happen that easily as we might like. We can do all the “work” of self acceptance and still find that the same old lies and triggers come up again and again. Why? Because there is something within our shadow self that we have still not fully healed. And until we face the shadow, there is no true representation of Self.
A month or so ago I saw my therapist and explained to her that I was feeling this deep senes of self rejection and that there was something wrong with me. My anxiety was high, my self awareness was in over drive, and I just felt like I couldn’t get past my own inner critic. Will I ever be free of this perpetual need to be perfect and free from being my own worst critic, I asked her. She didn’t give me an answer, but what she did suggest was that I take some time away from self improvement and self help books. It was a tall order but I trusted her enough to know this was probably a good idea. And while I was on this hiatus (and listening to a self help podcasts…shhh, don’t tell!) I heard a quote that struck me to my core:
“Reversing this self -rejection – looking for what’s wrong with yourself – everything can look great and you’re still focused on the one thing you don’t like.” (Dr. Jenniver Finlayson-Fife
She was talking about body acceptance, but it was like a light bulb went off. I have been passionate about self acceptance for quite some time and had become SO frustrated with the same reoccurring lies and anxieties coming up again and again. But once I started learning about the shadow (and once I took a break from self improvement all together) I realized that even the desire to heal the shadow was coming from a place of self rejection and criticism. If only I could FIX myself, I would be OK. I would be lovable. No one would be able to hurt me. I would be PERFECT.
But what I finally realized, by looking to my shadow, was that my self acceptance was rooted in self rejection.
This was the shadow side of my self acceptance and the drive that I have had for years to grow, improve, and love myself more. Yes, even the desire to love myself more had a shadow, and it was self rejection.
Stay tuned for Part Two (how to heal the shadow and practical ways for distinguishing what is your shadow self) next week (on the blog and IG TV)! And in the mean time, what is one thing you see come up again and again in your life that concerns you, that hinders you, that bothers you? What is something you really see in other people that you dislike that rubs you the wrong way or ticks you off?
Be you, be bodacious,