How to shed light on your shadow self
At times, we all feel like we’d love to escape the world to do our personal healing work, then come back all fixed and ready to continue. Yet, there’s an abundance of material in everyday life that we can use for our healing, if only we were more conscious of it. Our relationships, in particular, can provide the ideal training ground for any committed seeker of truth.
Have you ever thought: “Why is this happening to me again?” Some philosophies hold that whatever we came into this life to heal will keep recurring; our soul will attract this same conflict like a magnet until we have fully brought it to consciousness and learnt the lesson that’s necessary to deal with it. Only then will we be free of it.
We all have our blind spots, except perhaps those rare enlightened beings we hear about but don’t know. The rest of us operate day to day with a mask we show to the world. That mask, by its very nature, hides what we don’t want others to know. Robert Johnson, a Jungian scholar and author of Owning Your Own Shadow, describes our psychological makeup in such terms: “The persona is what we would like to be and how we wish to be seen by the world. It is our psychological clothing and it mediates between our true selves and our environment, just as our physical clothing presents an image to those we meet. The ego is what we are and know about consciously. The shadow is that part of us we fail to see or know.”
Careful what you wish for — you might just get it, as Peter and Alice did. When they married, they agreed they were ready to start a family. They’ve recently had their second child. Previously enjoying two incomes, the family is now having to manage on one. Money is tighter and the responsibility is bigger. Peter now feels more pressure than ever to perform at his job and is working long hours, including evenings and occasional weekends. Alice is feeling the strain of the demands of motherhood while taking time out from a rewarding career.
The demands of raising two young children, regular interruptions to sleep and a diminished sex life, combined with reduced opportunities to socialise, have brought their life back to a very basic level. Despite all the challenges, Peter and Alice still love each other and their children, but are experiencing recurring conflict. There’s a running argument about how much time Peter spends with the family. He feels unappreciated for his efforts in providing for them, while Alice feels unsupported in looking after the children. She wants Peter to be around to help more and feels there’s an emotional distance between them.
Can this recurring conflict be solved or is it something that can’t be fixed because of its very nature? The typical win–win problem-solving model would want Peter and Alice to both get what they need. Simply put, Alice would acknowledge Peter for his role and his hard work and Peter would be more available and prioritise his time so he could better assist Alice with parenting duties. They would both agree to make more of an effort to connect with each other. But is that enough? It should be, shouldn’t it? After all, the current situation is what both Peter and Alice thought they wanted.
Let’s consider that there may be another reality that’s actually driving the dynamic of their relationship. Peter and Alice’s shadow selves may be having much more impact than either is aware of and may indeed be sabotaging any attempt at problem solving.
Peter doesn’t like conflict and prefers to maintain the status quo. He grew up in a family where volatility was the norm. He was never sure what mood his parents would be in and was often told by his mother, “Don’t do that. It will upset your father and then you’ll be sorry.” His mother dominated the household and ran both his and his sister’s lives. As the second child, it was very important to him to be a “good boy”. His mother forced him to eat all his food and was very strict about what he could and couldn’t do. He received a lot of attention that at times felt oppressive and he was ever vigilant and on edge.
Alice, on the other hand, was the youngest daughter of four children and grew up in organised chaos. She was often cared for by her older sister while her mother was at work. Following a couple of turbulent years, her parents had divorced when she was seven. She had interpreted her father’s departure from the family home as a rejection of her. Her mother let the family know how disappointed she was in her ex-husband and passed on to Alice the belief that men were not to be trusted.
When we are fully in present time, we see reality as it is now and are not swayed to interpret everything in terms of our own history. We can take things at face value. There can be certain triggers, however, that cause us to seemingly overreact. When we do overreact, it’s often an indication that we’re not in present time, that the reaction is not purely to present circumstances. Our reaction to this trigger can cause us to project images and feelings from our past onto current circumstances and people we are interacting with.
So how might Peter and Alice be out of present time in their dilemma? What might they be projecting onto each other? To seek out what they could be hiding, we need to consider what each wants the other to believe.
The mask and the shadow
The masks, or personae, Peter and Alice use have both similarities and differences. Peter’s mask needs to be right and to protect him from being too vulnerable and having to face conflict. His persona is often that of someone who is serene, which hides his anxiety. He smiles a lot and is seen to be doing the right thing while keen to please. He’s a peacemaker. He’s also too busy at work to be at home. But he wants Alice to know he is actually doing the right thing by spending so much time at work.
Alice describes herself as fiercely independent but is disappointed when her generosity goes unrewarded. She’s outgoing and is often the one doing most of the talking in conversations with Peter. She conveys a sense that it’s unfair that she has to work so hard but it’s something she will bravely bear. When Peter and Alice are in conflict, their masks are fighting to be right. Any suggestion that either is “in the wrong”, no matter how subtle, will prompt each to defend the image they are presenting.
The thing is, the more we invest in offering a favourable image of ourselves to the world, the more shadow material we have. Or, as Robert Johnson puts it, “The more refined our conscious personality the more shadow we have built on the other side.” We hide the shadow because we are ashamed of it. Our culture conditions us to believe we should behave in a certain way. The family we grew up with is normally the strongest influence in forming our beliefs about how we should behave in order to be loved and avoid being hurt.
As this shadow material is something we want to hide, we expend a lot of energy forcing it underground. It never truly goes away of its own accord and cannot be forced out of sight forever. In Owning Your Own Shadow we learn: “Unless we do conscious work on it, the shadow is almost always projected; that is, it is neatly laid on someone or something else, so we do not have to take responsibility for it.”
This is why our relationships with others provide some of the greatest opportunities for personal growth. If we can observe ourselves honestly, or receive and accept clear feedback on how we are acting and reacting — defending ourselves or projecting our distortions onto one another — we can learn a great deal. This is certaily difficult and even painful, though. But without these relationships and interactions, it would be even more difficult to work with our shadow selves for our own benefit.
When Peter and Alice’s shadows trigger each other, the conflict becomes less pleasant but more honest. It’s the battle of the lower selves (Pathwork terminology www.pathwork.org), which though not necessarily played out in exactly this way, goes something like this:
Peter: “I won’t ******* give it to you! Never!”
Alice: “Give it to me! Help me!”
Peter: “********** Stay away from me!”
Alice: “Come closer. Give it to me! You ******** owe it to me!”
Peter: “All women are dangerous!”
Alice: “You will let me down like my father!”
Peter: “I hate you!”
Alice: “I hate you!”
We can see how each partner’s shadow triggers the other. Peter’s refusal to open up and give to Alice triggers her neediness, which causes Peter to dig his heels in even deeper. Once they are out of present time like this, the conflict will accelerate quickly. Each will likely be reacting to painful memories from their personal history and not really seeing the other. It can be a difficult cycle to break free of, even if this exchange is not fully acted out — or even conscious.
Working with the shadow
There can be a sense of power in the lower self, and even a negative pleasure. It’s more truthful than the mask, but obviously less socially acceptable. It’s destructive to act out this shadow material in a violent way or to take out its frustrations on someone else. However, it can be very beneficial to work in therapy with a trained practitioner to expose this darkness and feel the emotions that have been hidden for so long. This kind of therapy can heal the deeply entrenched patterns that contribute to life’s difficulties.
The old adage that you can’t be your partner’s therapist holds true when exploring the shadow. Even when you think you are innocently pointing out their shadow, you are probably acting out yours. You cannot change someone else at this level without their consent. You can only work on your own shadow material. By doing this, you are withdrawing your projections and returning to present time, where you can choose how to react and to have compassion for another rather than be stuck in your own reaction.
Many approaches to therapy and personal development consider it essential to expose and heal this negativity in order to achieve emotional and spiritual development. This is not a recent development. Consider, for example, the Catholic Church’s Sacrament of Penance, often referred to as Confession. The Catholic Encyclopedia says of the process, “The penitent is at once the accuser, the person accused and the witness, while the priest pronounces judgment and sentence. The grace conferred is deliverance from the guilt of sin.” Similarly, the 12 steps followed by Alcoholics Anonymous include: “Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves” and “Admit to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”
The benefit of working with the shadow is the relief it brings. Remember, the shadow is not the end we are seeking but part of the journey. By owning more of ourselves we no longer expend all the energy we used in suppressing our shadow, thus freeing ourselves to enjoy our relationships and give more to ourselves as well as others.
Alice and Peter’s example illustrates how we need to go deeper than face value — mask — and into our shadows to resolve the issues that arise in relationships.