Most of us tend to like it when we do things well, win, feel confident, assured, or loved. We enjoy reflecting on these experiences and positive interpersonal exchanges. Psychologists often call these experiences egosyntonic; they fit in with our self-image. However, other experiences that are not quite so positive in nature which reveal our less than urbane qualities or inferiorities are more egodystonic; they do not fit with what we like to experience as “me”.
These disowned propensities often get banished to the dark side. They sleep safely in the unconscious – untouched- seemingly gone- sometimes for months or even years- until triggered- – and then they constellate as if awakened from a long nap- these unknown energies appear, the shadow is untamed and but well kept, and because we do not know her, we are utterly powerless. The shadow energy takes over- we act in ways our “normal” egosyntonic self would never allow.
But note these two things about the Shadow. One, Shadows always appear behind a great light. You simply cannot have the light without the darkness, the good without the bad, the night without the dark. It is the nature of our very creation, the polarity of opposites. And two, Shadows often appear when we are afraid. Specifically, when we fear we won’t get something we think we need or will lose something we already have (e.g., a relationship, good enough, job, finances, approval, health, status…) which we believe we “need”. The Shadow awakens.
True Shadow energy, thinking and behavior feels somewhat uncontainable, even uncontrollable. When your behavior feels out of control, but strangely familiar, or historical in nature or you experience true powerlessness to act any other way in that moment – you know you have hit Shadow material.
After a Shadow episode, hiding at home under your covers only works for so long, then you have to get up and face the day. And truly, everyone does this at some point, everyone acts in ways they wish they hadn’t. Perfect thinking deed and action is not a reasonable expectation or goal, nor is it sustainable, or life giving. Jungian Analyst, Marion Woodman, explained the deadliness of perfection in her book Addiction to Perfection, paraphrasing her words, “perfection is col, sterile and lifeless; it is for statues, immovable and dead”. The Shadow is imperfect, unknown, but very alive. We are alive, I am alive. To be alive is to be imperfect, light, dark and ever changing.
If you’ve recently had a visit from your shadow, don’t be ashamed, be delighted. Dialogue with, get to know and welcome your dark visitor. Carl Jung said, “Know Thyself”, and Shakespeare, “to Thine own self be true”. Your shadow is a friend, a doorway to Thine own self. The Shadow is rich with clues pointing to deeper Self knowledge. It is not something to get rid of. The shadow holds your fears, your darkness and your light, because it is part of you. To Know Thyself is to be open to all that exists within you now, before, after, above and below. All pieces and parts make up the beautiful whole of the Self, none are denied or abandoned. Each are welcomed, heard, embraced, and finally loved. All is valued, as divinely “I”, not just the polished parts. Relating to and thus Integrating your shadow side in this way is paramount to the Jungian process of Individuation; becoming a whole person, embracing the unique “I am” that you are.
When the shadow reveals herself, remember not to judge or beat yourself up. Instead remind yourself that the Shadow’s energies never feel comfortable, but they are always providing information – always giving us an opportunity to learn more about our selves, our histories, legacies, depths… Shadows always show up to foster more growth, more consciousness.
In his Collected Works, Carl Jung says about the Shadow:
Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it…But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.
In “Good and Evil in Analytical Psychology” (1959). In CW 10. Civilization in Transition. P.872, Jung says:
To confront a person with his shadow is to show him his own light. Once one has experienced a few times what it is like to stand judgingly between the opposites, one begins to understand what is meant by the self. Anyone who perceives his shadow and his light simultaneously sees himself from two sides and thus gets in the middle.
Embracing your light as well as your dark side is about living in “the middle” as Jung describes above. It’s not about denying the shadow sides of ourselves, but more about getting to know them, integrating and loving them. This is also a popular 12 step adage, learn to fly in the middle, “become a worker among workers”, not the best, not the worst…
The shadow is part of our beauty, our wholeness, our humanness. Practicing love and acceptance for this part that feels vulnerable, depressed, “needy”, jealous or fearful is healing. Developing a gentle compassionate presence for the shadow side is truly empowering. By default, it will also increase your capacity to tolerate the imperfect behaviors in others, such as your children, spouse, co-workers and friends.
MEDITATION to Greet the Shadow: I often use this “Shadow Meditation” in therapy when processing, experiencing or feeling Shadow thoughts and energy. This meditation is taken in part from Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing work, which is a somatic method for fostering mindful self-awareness, allowing and acceptance.
The first step entails closing your eyes or focusing on a spot on the floor, then begin to become aware of your breathing, place your attention on the fact that you are breathing. Notice that your breath is moving in and out, noticing specifically as it enters and leaves the tips of your nostrils, follow this breath from this point of focus, in and out, for a minimum of 10 cycles. Allow yourself to sink into the “just thisness” of the breath flow. Just simply and only notice the breath flowing in and out at the tip of your nose. Do not adjust breathing to be deeper or slower or faster, just allow it to flow in and out naturally. (IF you want additional mindfulness meditation instructions please look for blog articles of meditation on this site), Then allowing your attention to locate the place in your body where you are most clearly experiencing painful thoughts & feelings about a recent event or something that has been weighing on your mind. Often people feel sensation in their chest or belly area, but it can be anywhere- just tune in to find yours. The instruction is then to simply breathe and be with that place in your body. You don’t attempt to change it, but merely cradle that space with loving kind awareness, breathing in and out, staying there for several breaths and then returning to the room and opening your eyes. Thank yourself for paying loving kind awareness and attention to yourself.
An additional more advanced piece to add to this meditation is – while cradling the painful feeling in your body as described above- simultaneously expand your consciousness outward to first the sounds in the room, then take your mind outward to the roof, the tops of the trees and continue expanding and broadening your consciousness while continuing to return to and briefly touch into this pain in your body. Bounce back and forth between the two- expanded consciousness and acute pain-. Then when you are ready return to the room and open your eyes.
Best to you- all parts of you,
Love and Light,
Carl Jung Collective Works (CW) References:
1. “Psychology and Religion” (1938). In CW 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East. P.131
2. “Good and Evil in Analytical Psychology” (1959). In CW 10. Civilization in Transition. P.872
3. “The Philosophical Tree” (1945). In CW 13: Alchemical Studies. P.335