Encountering Your Shadow Self

March 19, 2021

Have you ever sat through a meeting with your fists clenched? Do you snap when your partner comments on an unfinished task? Perhaps you overreact to a broken plate or a lost pair of glasses and wonder, “Where did that come from?” These moments may have tapped into the underbelly of your psyche: The Shadow Self.

You may notice your shadow most within the actions of others. Feeling more annoyed than usual at your child’s defiance or your best mate’s laziness? This may indicate that you need to look inwards at how these qualities exist in your own shadow. Your response is fuelled by and reflects a projection of your own disappointment or annoyance at these traits in your own personality.

The shadow self, as developed notably by psychologist Carl Jung, is the unconscious part of your personality that you do not identify with. You perceive these thoughts, feelings, actions and impulses as inferior or unacceptable and have thus disowned them. These are the parts of you that you secretly and unconsciously don’t like.

Jung believed that recognising and accepting your shadow was a key step towards personal fulfilment. The shadow self is YOUR space, fertile ground for self-development. With the right amount of individual honesty and some hard work, you can reclaim this space and grow. 

Casting Your Shadow

The development of your shadow is a result of moments in childhood where your traits or expressions were met with disapproval or rejection and thus hidden away behind protective adaptations in your behaviour. Trauma also contributes to your shadow, amplifying the self-preserving habits and behaviours while diminishing those perceived to have contributed to the trauma.

You may find parts of your shadow are useful, even appearing as a great strength to others. An overly generous spirit may belie a fear that people will not appreciate you. Decisiveness and efficiency in the boardroom may hide your inability to make big decisions in your personal life. However, without recognising the role your shadow plays in each day, you may simply be doing what others perceive as the right thing for all the wrong reasons, limiting your potential to be your most genuine and effective self.

You may notice your shadow most within the actions of others. Feeling more annoyed than usual at your child’s defiance or your best mate’s laziness? This may indicate that you need to look inwards at how these qualities exist in your own shadow. Your response is fuelled by and reflects a projection of your own disappointment or annoyance at these traits in your own personality.

Reclaiming Shadow

While your shadow is not your fault, it is yours to face. The first steps are to become aware of and name your shadow.

Analyse your reactions

Awareness of your shadow requires reflection on your responses and triggers. If you notice your frustration at a bad driver on the road or your aggressive response to a colleague’s spiteful email, reflect on these feelings. Is it anxiety about not meeting a certain standard? Do you feel anger or resentment towards a particular person? Are you jealous of someone else’s achievements? While opening your awareness to the origins of these feelings is most effective in the moment, evening journaling may be more realistic. It is important to identify what leads to your reaction, providing the opportunity to name that part of your shadow.

Bad drivers frustrate me because I don’t always drive perfectly and I worry about what an accident would do to my family.
Passive aggressive emails rile me up because I struggle to respond over email and lack the courage to broach the issue in person.

Naming this aspect of your shadow begins to give you power over it. You become the owner of that part of your shadow rather than victim to it, opening your self-awareness to navigate through your own reactions.

Make the Time

Scheduled time for journaling and reflection is important. You may not always have shadow work to do, but regular time for self-reflection makes space to engage in this work when necessary. Try also to consider your experience more broadly. Explore the physical and internal sensations and name your emotions. Reflect on the possible role that factors like fatigue or stress may have play in drawing your shadow forth.

Traps of Shadow Work

Hard Work is Hard

Working with shadow is like felling a tree with a butter knife: hard work! You need to be willing to make the time and space for engaging with your shadow – a task which is often put off at the end of a long day after you have made it home from work, walked the dog, cooked dinner and put the kids to bed. Just like everything else in life, if you want to make a change in the way you encounter your shadow, you must be willing to put in the hard yards and get the ball rolling. Confiding in a brother on the work you are doing may help keep you accountable.

Brutal Honesty Takes Courage

Brutal honesty is often required for shadow work. If you spent Sunday night binge-watching The Last Dance and then snapped at your boss on Monday for questioning your productivity, there may be multiple aspects of shadow to consider. You might be feeling self-resentment for making a poor choice before the working week. Maybe the boss is always on your case and ignores the great work you do, engaging with a shadow craves recognition. While both may be at play, focusing only on the immediate event limits the scope of your self-reflection. Brutal honesty, while challenging to employ, is essential in exploring your shadow.

The Worth of Encountering Your Shadow

The hard work involved in confronting your underbelly can be reason enough to maintain your internal status quo. Yet, ignoring the power of shadow denies the opportunity for growth and self-knowledge. Your shadow is one of your greatest teachers, revealing barriers within your psyche that can only truly be seen and made sense of by you. When you have the courage to encounter and name your shadow, you reclaim autonomy over your most genuine self. When it comes to your shadow, braving your darkest depths will elevate you to the greatest of heights.

Stay Legendary

Pricey and Grego

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