What Is The “Shadow Self”?
The shadow self or shadow therapy are things you might not have heard of, but knowing about your shadow is crucial. Why is this? Because you have one and by not understanding it, you’re at a great disadvantage in many ways and many areas of your life. So first let’s think about how the Oxford University Press defines the word ‘shadow’:
A dark shape cast on a surface by an object blocking rays of light; more generally, an area of relative darkness.
This definition hints at why Swiss Psychoanalyst and Psychologist Carl Jung termed the hidden parts of ourselves ‘The Shadow’.
So what is your shadow self? According to Jung, who was one of Freud’s most promising mentees, the shadow in Jungian psychology refers to the parts of you that are out of your conscious awareness. These are your base, primal, chaotic, impulsive parts, the things your ego represses from you, the things that are ugly, terrifying, narcissistic, painful, aggressive, greedy, embarrassing, or shameful. These are the very things you would never want to see in yourself because they conflict with your values or those of society. Because of this, these instincts, qualities, desires, urges, impulses, or feelings are buried into a part of you that is hidden and will remain hidden to you unless you look at the shadow self and learn about, and from it.
Do We All Have A Shadow?
In short – yes. Jung said:
“Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.”
Indeed, if you consider what the shadow in psychology means, you will notice that no one can be without it. The shadow self is where our egos can push all the stuff that we think is too threatening, uncomfortable, or harmful to us.
Imagine you receive a horrible letter from someone you believe treated you badly. In the letter they’re saying lots of awful things about you, how you’re a disappointment and should be ashamed of yourself. You screw up the letter and chuck it in the drawer and forget about it. Now you don’t have to be reminded of it – out of sight, out of mind. In this example, the letter contains ‘shadow traits’ and you are playing the role of your ego, which does a good job of filing it away, into your unconscious mind, specifically the shadow – you guessed it – the drawer. We all have this function and ability, it’s fantastic at what it does, and it protects us from that which will make us feel bad but there’s a downside – we’re unable to learn about our pain points, the parts of us that might benefit from some mining…
Why Do I Need To Know My Shadow Self?
Now that you understand the shadow in psychology, I will explain further why it’s so important for you to consider the shadow self and more specifically question what is your shadow self because by identifying your shadow you can bring to your conscious mind the parts of you that are stunting you, and whether alone, or starting shadow therapy, you can achieve personal growth by accepting and integrating your shadow.
Let’s take a relatively contemporary way of looking at it. In The Lord of the Rings, we can think of the Mines of Moria as the unconscious. The Fellowship (our conscious self) must enter the Mines and face the Balrog. This is our shadow. It’s repressed and supressed because it’s terrible and could do a lot of harm. It’s angry, tyrannical, dangerous, impulsive, violent, destructive, and terrifying! But according to Jung, to know oneself is to know one’s shadow. Sometimes, we must travel a deep, dark, winding, and challenging path to get out the other side. Just as the Fellowship did and so the journey continued toward their greater goal.
Furthermore, the shadow doesn’t just contain the parts about you that you would deem ‘bad’, it also houses the good of you that you have been unable to perceive in this way because you’ve been criticised or shamed about these aspects. For example, imagine a child talking to her family, and suddenly her mother blurts out: “Wow I didn’t realise how crooked your teeth are!”. Since then this child has found it hard to smile fully because she’s become self-conscious. So in her shadow lies her smile. She cannot smile with abandon, cannot be present in moments that would evoke a true and genuine smile because she’s very conscious about lifting her hand to her mouth or staying quiet. This takes away from the ability to experience true joy. How sad, right? So imagine if this is just one way someone can improve their existence. What else might there be to learn, and what might come of this learning for you and your relationships, opportunities, and overall well-being and life? More on the risks of an unknown shadow below…
How Negative Emotions Affect My Shadow Self
The shadow self is affected by “negative emotions” in a few ways. Firstly because your shadow is made up of the parts of you that you disapprove of or find reprehensible in some way, you will notice the same traits in others. So just think about some of the qualities or attributes you see in others that you feel strongly averse to. Jung tells us that the reason you may have a strong reaction to these traits is because they’re the parts of you that you’ve pushed into your shadow.
An example of this might be someone who is actively homophobic, they denigrate gay people, and may even go as far as committing hate crimes against them. This person may be hiding their homosexuality from themselves because whenever the subject of being gay has been discussed within their family or peer groups, they’ve heard derogatory and upsetting things. So the shame they internalise, and the disappointment they believe others will feel cause them to hide a part of themselves, from themselves. Indeed, the way we’ve appraised something affects what goes into our shadow. If we deem it to be bad or threatening to our psyche in some way, it’s going in the drawer.
How To Embrace Your Shadow Self
Use Shadow Work Prompts
Shadow work prompts are questions we can ask ourselves to bring forth awareness of our shadow. They aim to access our emotions, perceptions, beliefs, and darker thoughts that have been repressed. For example, let’s say you’ve noticed that some friends tend to avoid you and you wonder what this is about. During shadow therapy, I might ask you if there’s anyone who you’re close to that you dislike being around. You may answer: “Well, actually, my mum, she was quite a depressed person and she always made me feel down and bad“. You may realise then, that actually, you often feel down and maybe this is why your friends avoid you at times. So, because of this exploration of the shadow self, you decide to ask one of your friends (or maybe all of them) if they think that you’re a bit of a ‘downer’ at times, as casually as you can of course. One of your friends who is usually quite straightforward says: “Well, you know, I do find that sometimes you can be quite pessimistic and negative“. Now of course this won’t feel good, but it does give you some things to consider. Indeed, any questions about people around you that provoke a strong reaction in you, may teach you about yourself and offer opportunities for growth. Other examples of prompts involve thinking about emotions you regularly feel and attempting to understand these via description. A skilled therapist can help you to dig into them if this is difficult for you to do by yourself. Other ways to consult your shadow may involve times in which you’ve felt criticised, shamed, or shut down in some way.
Talk To A Therapist
So as you can probably imagine the shadow self is much more likely to emerge via shadow therapy, this does not mean that you have to find someone who does “shadow therapy”, it means you have to find a therapist who’s familiar with Carl Jung’s shadow self, or at least the idea of the shadow. Most decent therapists will be able to help you access your shadow traits via explorative questioning. It’s what most good therapists do; help you to bring forth to consciousness, that which may be hidden. Now although it was hidden for good reason, it may no longer be serving you. It’s likely hindering you so working with your shadow in therapy, whether it’s named in such terms, or not, is important for learning about yourself, and how you’re impacted by what you don’t know. So by talking to a therapist, you can go from being in the shadow about the darkest parts of yourself to knowing what it is that you’ve put into that drawer and forgotten about. By knowing this, you can make informed and better choices . Furthermore, you can accept the parts of yourself that are good but have been subdued, and integrate them.
Try Shadow Journaling
Now whether you’re partaking in shadow therapy or not, you can still start shadow journalling. This is something your therapist may recommend if they think you’ll benefit from it. Clients often report the benefits of journalling; it offers them a different mode of expression which can allow them to reflect and express a stream of consciousness that may involve shifts, such that things come into awareness that would not have so easily, without this mode of expression. And it may be helpful to focus on shadow prompts when journalling to access the shadow self or ask your therapist what questions they would recommend as useful for you specifically.
Pay Attention to Your Dreams
Freud called our dreams the royal road to the unconscious. This is because dreams are thought to reveal unknown parts of ourselves, that’s right, your shadow. Indeed, when we dream our ego is less able to keep a tight lid on that jar, so unconscious smatterings of truth seep and filter out of that tightly guarded inner sanctum. But the ego is very clever, cunning, and robust. It still uses some ingenious ways to disguise the dream content. According to Freud, there are two types of content in our dreams: latent and manifest. The latter is what we perceive and describe when we recount the dream, the latent content is the underneath of this, the real meaning of the dream that the ego is still hiding.
You might wonder how meditating can help someone embrace their shadow. First, it’s important to understand what meditating means, and not in the loose way that some words take hold when they enter the daily lexicon. The term ‘meditate’ comes from Latin and means to measure or contemplate. So when meditating on the shadow in psychology, this means that instead of attempting to enter a passive or inactive state in which you quieten your mind, you reflect on the conflicts, triggers, or emotional difficulties you’ve experienced in your day and think about the qualities that really bother you in other people. Then going further by exploring what this might teach you about your shadow self, that is, your deeper self.
Identify Your Fears and Insecurities
Another thing you could meditate on then are your fears and insecurities. Of course, these could be further explored in therapy as well, because having that mirror (the therapist) might allow you to go deeper and see parts of you that have been placed in your shadow precisely because you feel insecure or fearful about them. For example, you may have a fear of public speaking, this usually links to some deeper insecurity that developed in you and because you haven’t confronted this, you’re stuck with the way it impacts you – the anxiety you feel any time you have to speak publicly. Or you may simply avoid speaking in front of others altogether, and this limits your opportunities and keeps you feeling afraid and insecure. Knowledge of why, will give you something to build on.
Practice Nonjudgment toward Yourself
This is very important in general but especially when attempting to work with your shadow self. Remember, much of what you’ve pushed down into that drawer is because it disagrees with the morals or values that were instilled in you by others and wider society. This means that even things like the previous example of a fear of public speaking are not your fault. So rather than blaming or comparing yourself to others and judging yourself as incapable, which impacts your self-esteem, you can instead accept this part of your shadow and show compassion and kindness. This will help you integrate and progress rather than add to your burden,
Types Of Shadow Selves
Although there are ‘shadow types’ and systems of shadow types mentioned on some websites, it is important to know that Jung himself did not create a formal system of shadow types. There are however things in the shadow that we might call qualities, traits, or feelings that are deemed undesirable or unacceptable based on one’s own beliefs or values, or those of society. These are what are termed ‘types of shadow selves’ by some. These ‘shadow selves’ are personality traits in effect and may include things like envy, ego, greed, neurosis, prejudice, hate, or aggression. Some ‘shadow systems’ may give these ‘personality types’ names like Magician, Maiden, and so on, each with their own attributes.
What Happens When You Suppress Your Shadow Self?
“A man who is possessed by his shadow is always standing in his own light and falling into his own traps…living below his own level.”
When you suppress your shadow self, you perpetuate friction and conflict within yourself and it continues to impact your life in very real and limiting ways. For example, you will remain unaware of the undesirable and unacceptable parts of you that you will keep unconsciously projecting into other people around you and this creates problems in relationships.
Who hasn’t heard of the person who cheats and is prone to jealousy? They project their untrustworthiness onto others in a general sense, but especially in romantic relationships. This person is often unaware that their suspicion of others is due to their own untrustworthiness because it’s in their shadow. So they will genuinely believe others cannot be trusted. Thus the risk of a suppressed shadow means we feel and behave unconsciously and this could manifest as defensiveness, possessiveness, anger, and aggression. Our ego will compensate by creating false narratives like others cannot be trusted. This makes us feel validated, effectively enabling our shadow but keeping us in the dark, and perpetuating destructive behaviours that ruin relationships, for example, and mean we struggle in life.
What Happens When You Accept Your Shadow Self?
Confronting the shadow self, whether that’s via formal or informal shadow therapy, or by doing your own work, offers your shadow self meaning. It means you are no longer ignoring a big part of you, and you are able to do some digging into your psyche and mine gold! When I say gold, I say this not simply because you will find some wonderful parts of you that were unfairly relegated to your shadow self due to the erroneous messages you internalised. No, also because by confronting the aspects about you that you or others deem undesirable or unacceptable, you can accept and integrate them. You will experience difficulty along the way because these are parts of you that you’ve pushed down for good reason. But, by facing pain and delaying pleasure, you will experience true pleasure. Because when you know yourself, you can choose who you truly wish to be and live your truth.
So let’s summarise: as children we are more free and we seek pleasure and want to avoid pain. This is the part of us that Freud termed the ‘id’. So we do what we instinctively feel like doing to attain pleasure and avoid pain. It’s also easier because we have fewer conditions placed on us.
As we get older, we become more restricted, by parents, siblings, friends, school teachers, partners, employers, and society at large. We must assimilate all these rules, therefore the ego emerges. This part attempts to balance the desires of the id with the superego, which houses all those mentioned who want us to conform. But this conformity is not without a cost. Indeed there’s always a battle between the id (pleasure seeker) and superego (society) and therefore the ego has to suppress the parts of us that come from our deeper self, this is the shadow. But knowing your shadow might bring you closer to your true values and self, and make you happier. Indeed, we cannot simply act on every desire or impulse but knowing what these are, and accepting that we cannot act on them is healthier than locking them deep down where they remain in stasis.
So instead of remaining in perpetual conflict with our shadow parts by resisting and rejecting them and unknowingly projecting them onto other people (which creates problems of its own), we can own our ‘stuff’ and accept the good and the bad. But also, work with and through it toward what Jung called the ego ideal – a more integrated self.
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