We all do it.
Things are humming along nicely, then — from out of the blue — something triggers us.
We lose our filter. Honest feelings rise and pop.
We say or do something that surprises or shocks us, and everyone within earshot.
Someone gets hurt, and we feel lousy.
When this happens to you, you probably spend the rest of the day scrambling to fix the mess. “I’m sorry.” “I wasn’t thinking.” “I’m under a lot of pressure.” “I just wasn’t myself.”
You beat yourself up, vow to get a handle on yourself and never to let loose again. You don’t want to be like that, ever.
The fallout of your sudden outburst can be a hiccup or a hurricane.
A sarcastic comment, a disgruntled rant, and a punch in the face will each elicit a different response. As will a teary outburst, a jealous accusation, and a racial slur.
Those caught in your line of fire may easily forgive you, never speak to you again, or see you in court.
If you weren’t yourself, who were you at that moment?
Where did the other you come from?
That other you is another part of you. It’s the unwanted you — the part you keep hidden, most of the time.
You keep this part of yourself hidden because you find it unattractive, unacceptable, or abhorrent. It’s not how you want your family, friends, and co-workers to see you.
The unwanted you corrupts your self-image and is a blight on your ego.
The psychological term for the unwanted you is the shadow.
Your shadow is the refuge for all the traits, behaviors, feelings and impulses that your ego rejects.
How Your Shadow Is Created
“Everything that is, casts a shadow.”
― Neil Gaiman, American Gods
Your shadow forms from influences that have impacted on your life; parents, siblings, teachers, friends, society, environment, and culture.
Your shadow is primarily constructed in childhood when you learned which aspects of you were accepted and safe to express, and which were not.
Your rewarded traits, behaviors and feelings find their place in the sun, in your conscious, and become your expressed personality.
Conversely, your shunned or punished aspects get sent into the darkness and in your unconscious, construct your hidden personality.
You may have been rewarded for holding back tears when you wanted to cry, or for attending to the needs of others before your own, or for acting sweet and ‘ladylike.’
If so, you will develop a sense of safety and acceptance around expressing these aspects of yourself, and over time they become the person that you most identify with. You equate these aspects with being good.
Perhaps you were punished for telling the truth, or for failing in sports or academia, or for being loud and clumsy.
If this is the case, your sense of alarm around these behaviors will ensure that you hide or disassociate from them because you deem them as bad.
Reward and punishment from a parent can be as subtle as a smile or a frown. Subtlety does not reduce their power. Many grown men and women carry a parent’s disapproving look throughout their entire lives. A look that reminds them to act a certain way.
Your shadow is unique to you
Just as your influences are unique to you, so too, your shadow is unique to you.
While you may have been encouraged to express vulnerability, sadness, and humility, your brother may have learned that the opposite traits; resilience, joy, and pride, are admirable.
Symptoms Of Your Shadow Controlling You
Your ego is the picture of yourself that you’ve been building over your lifetime.
If you haven’t challenged that picture, your shadow will be significant. You may even be unaware that you have a shadow.
If you have never looked at your shadow, chances are it has enslaved you.
Here are some common symptoms of your shadow being control:
- Sudden unexpected, explosive anger, or rage.
- Frequent moodiness for no obvious reason.
- The desire to hurt yourself or others.
- Falling in and out of love quickly.
- Blaming others.
- Resenting the “dirty” work.
- Being accident prone.
- Addiction (e.g., to work, drugs, alcohol, food, sex, exercise, people.)
- Striving for perfection.
- Lying, deceiving and betraying.
The Laws Of Nature
It takes a lot of effort to keep your shadow in check, both consciously and unconsciously. The more you fight your shadow, the more it fights back.
“The brighter the light, the darker the shadow.”
– Carl Gustav Jung
If you focus only on your goodness and light, to the neglect of your darkness, clouds gather in your psyche, and you become blind to your inner and outer reality.
We’ve all met or seen people who can do no wrong; beacons of the community, pious religious leaders, politicians who promise paradise, perfect wives, golden lovers, and infallible friends.
You may even be one of those people. Although, I doubt you would be reading this if it were the case.
These temporary identities eventually falter. They must, because they go against the laws of nature. Despite our beliefs and desires, we are bound by these laws.
“The shadow escapes from the body like an animal we had been sheltering.”
— Gilles Deleuze
Gods And God-like People
Many religious folks have a storybook image of a perfect God. They fall under the spell of the popularized version of the omnipotent dude (and it is always a dude) that sits at the top.
The image of a perfect god has the power to infantilize followers into dependency and self-denial. They will do anything to project themselves into the god-like image, and escape their ‘vice’ and ‘folly.’ The intention of many organized religions is to castrate male followers and en-flower (my word) female followers.
The real story of the gods is another story (and another article) altogether. For now, if you can suspend belief, let’s just agree, it wasn’t perfection that made the gods. All gods have a shadow, but it’s better business sense to hide the fact.
Our fantasy of perfection and denial of the shadow lives beyond the domain of religion. Anyone who follows a guru in any field can become spellbound by their guru’s light (and shadow). It depends on the integrity of the guru, and the level of self-awareness of the follower, as to how the guru-disciple relationship turns out.
If you meet someone who projects only god-like qualities, i.e. lacks integrity, you’d better run a mile. Sooner or later, the earth will crack beneath their feet, and you’ll get sucked into their snakepit.
More importantly, do not become god-like, for yourself or anyone else, because you don’t want to swallow or administer snake venom.
How To Play With Your Shadow
“If any help was going to arrive to lift me out of my misery, it would come from the dark side of my personality.”
— Robert Bly
Begin with the unwanted feelings, thoughts, impulses, and behaviors that show up in daily life.
Every time you say to yourself, “I wish I didn’t feel this way,” or ‘I wish I didn’t think like this” or “act like that” (or want to act like this), you can be sure your shadow is being activated and trying to teach you something.
Wishing that you do not feel, think, or act this way does not make it go away. In fact, it strengthens it.
The uprising in you is your intelligence speaking to you, telling you how you are traveling. And this is the knowledge that your ego doesn’t have.
Simply give it your attention.
Considering this part of you has been pushed into the darkness for most of your life, this very act of giving attention is powerfully healing.
It’s important to be patient with what’s coming up because it may be a very young part of you.
The deeper your attention, the more healing occurs.
For example, if sadness comes up, instead of locking your jaw and holding your breath, relax your jaw, breathe, and stay focused on the sadness.
Start an imaginative dialogue.
Once you have a steady focus, engage in imaginative dialogue. e.g.
“I have pushed you away for so long.”
“Where did you come from?”
“What do you want?”
You may not receive an immediate, literal response.
The answer commonly comes as a feeling or sensation that wants to be allowed to experience itself. To just exist without your shutting it down.
How healing would it be for your sadness to be seen, acknowledged, and held consciously in your heart, to have its day in the sun?
Through the imaginary dialogue process, you may be able to thread the feeling back to its origin. This can also be more easily done under guidance.
Stop Sugar-Coating Who You Are!
Once you get acquainted with lesser-known, shadow parts of yourself, you can begin to share them with others.
> Show your partner you are not always sweet, or brave.
> Let your friend know that you sometimes feel jealous of him.
> Express your anger without yelling.
> Allow someone to see your tears.
You do need to be sensitive to the feeling of others, but not at the cost of self-denial.
This process will strengthen your relationships with others because it strengthens your relationship with yourself. Others begin to see who you are; a living, breathing human being, full of contradictions.
Contrary to popular belief, contradictions are healthy.
Let Your Shadow Out Tonight — Through Humour
It’s called comic-relief for a reason.
Comedy is relief from a deadly-serious world, filled with hypersensitive egos, and it’s one of the most useful ways to give the shadow oxygen.
Comedians perform a great service to the world; they are healers. No, I’m not joking.
Personally, I love to be in the company of people who can sniff the humour in the most serious of situations. They tend to laugh easily, work joyfully, and live happier lives. My healing and dream sessions always include a good dose of comedy. I prescribe comedy all the time, not as an escape but as a release.
The most spiritual people I’ve met joke around most of the time. A constant holy serious demeanor is often a sign that true spirituality has vacated.
I don’t know if Mother Teresa joked much but the Dalai Lama certainly does. He is a great example of the harmonious relationship that can occur when spirituality meets humour.
Comics have a unique take on the world. They send the status quo reeling and mess with personal and cultural beliefs. Political correctness, perfection, pretense, and arrogance all shatter in the face of comedy.
We all love to see the comedic annihilation of a huge ego. It brings us back to the undeniable reality that we’re all fallible people. Comedians tell truths that we cannot otherwise hear.
If you can never laugh at your own expense, you’ve got an ego and a shadow problem. It’s very likely that you bore the pants off everyone, including yourself.
I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.
Using comedy to air your shadow is a great gift to yourself and everyone else in your life. You get to breathe out your crazy, flawed, vulnerable side in a most joyous way. Your openness invites others to show you their odd bits, and a whole-lot-o-fun ensues.
Keeping unwanted you in lock-down ties up an immense amount of energy, mostly unconscious energy. It wears you out, robs you of self-knowledge, and undermines your confidence.
You only see a fraction of yourself, and it’s the part the belongs to your ego; it’s all light, and all light is not alright!
Your shadow needs a little time in the sun and is going to do everything in its power to get it. Instead of waiting for the next sudden explosion of darkness, give it your attention and care… now.
Remain in a dance of connectedness with all of you, light and shadow, and all the bits between. You will become bigger, bolder, happier, and so much more fun. As you were meant to be.
This article was first published on Medium.com