Shadow Work - Integrating Your Dark Side
The shadow is the side of us is what we don't see in ourselves. It's a part of our subconscious and is created over the course of our lives as we understand what is "good" and what is "bad". We hide the bad and try not to bring it up. Thus, creating our shadow. Shadow work helps you to identify what you've put in your shadow and learn how to acknowledge is so it no longer has subconscious power over your and your life.
Alan Watts uses the metaphor of embroidery to explain our shadows. On the front of embroidery is it beautiful, but on the back it can be very messy. The embroiderer often takes shortcuts on the back in order to create the design of the front. This embroidery is like the relationship between our personalities and our shadow. We show the world the wonderful, beautiful, put together things about ourselves and our lives, while hiding the mess in the back from the world. Everyone takes shortcuts, deceives and presents the "best" versions of themselves.
He goes on to profoundly say "To be is to deceive". And unless we consciously confront our shadows, we're not only deceiving everyone in our lives, we're deceiving ourselves.
I recently started doing some shadow work and though this process I realized how I pushed away feelings of being “less than” for my entire life. My life has been a constant struggle to prove I am enough - smart enough, hard-working enough, athletic enough, witty enough, driven enough, pretty enough. And the reason for this constant struggle was to prove it to everyone else. It was all to control how people perceived me.
If I got good grades and someone noticed by calling my smart, I was happy. If I did worse on a test than I expected, I would quickly put it in my folder and bump up my test score by a few percentage points when my friends asked how I did...just so they wouldn’t think I was “less than”.
This struggle for worthiness went on for years and years in my subconscious and I always pushed it away. So much so that until recently I thought I was a deeply happy, fully-functioning person, free from the blocks so many others faced. I was in deep denial of my shadow. This isn’t to say that I am unhappy or that I don’t function in society now that I’ve looked at my subconscious. My point is that that is not my whole story. It’s not all of me.
It’s the me I want you to see. The me that got me on the dean’s list, was in a “top” sorority, go a great job right after college in an economy pulling itself out of a recession, lives abroad and has her own company. It’s the me that had an amazing childhood, supportive parents and kickass girlfriends.
But, for every “good” thing that I show the world, there is also a “bad” thing I keep hidden.
I can get jealous when someone is doing what they’re meant to be doing since I don’t really know my path. I over-analyze and get stuck because I’m afraid of putting myself out there. And oh boy can I judge when someone puts herself out there and “wants attention” since I really want someone to notice me for what I’m doing.
We’re taught from a very young age how to categorize everything. Be “good” and do your homework. It’s “bad” to not want to share your toys. On and on. We’re rewarded for being good and punished for being bad. Over time, these bad things get pushed further and further away into the depths of our shadows. The good things become our personalities and the bad things become our shadow.
We can go for years never acknowledging our shadow side. Some people go for their lifetime keeping their shadows hidden. And while some people may seem like they have a perfect life, they may just have the deepest shadow (hello social media).
When we don’t acknowledge our shadow, it can be triggered in tough times when we’re not in the mindset to process it and handle it correctly. So we let the bad things out - shame, jealousy, a need to please and be liked. Angry words come out like word vomit and we even put our shadow on someone else.
No one is immune from having a shadow. And if you’ve read until this point and can’t think of what makes up some of your shadow, try to think of the last person who annoyed you and why. Odds are that was a projection of your shadow.
Robert A Johnson says “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.”
We all have a shadow because we live in a world of polarity. I am coming to realize that unless you acknowledge what’s in your shadow, you can’t wholly be present or transparent. Once you hold space for the feeling of lack (or whatever is in your shadow), you can then begin to process it and move beyond it. But if you keep pushing it down, it will stay in the back of your mind, limiting your growth.
So, how do you do begin to identify your shadow’s contents and integrate them?
1. Start by reading more about shadow work so you can get a better grasp of the concept from people who have worked on it for years and years.
-Owning Your Shadow by Robert Johnson is the perfect intro to shadow work. It describes the shadow vs the ego and also some far better metaphors than I could ever come up with for explaining the shadow.
-A Little Book on the Human Shadow by Robert Bly uses poetry to deconstruct the shadow. I am not a huge fan of poetry, so I skipped some parts, but the introductions in each chapter alone are worth a read.
-Scott Jeffrey’s site has an in-depth guide on shadow work.
2. Once you’ve grasped the concept of your shadow, it’s time to start reflecting on your own experience. This can be done with a professional (recommended) or in your own time through journaling or shadow work guides. This stuff is pretty deep and may be uncharted territory for you, so it’s always best to work with someone who can help you along the way.
If you do opt to work on your shadow solo, there are still some resources out there.
Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself by Dr Joe Dispensa is a very practical how-to guide for rewiring your brain and breaking your limiting beliefs.
The Dark Side of the Light Chasers by Debbie Ford has exercises for identifying your shadows and integrating them in your life.
I’m still at the early stages of doing shadow work, but I can already see the benefits in having a deeper awareness that goes beyond the self-awareness most people talk about. If you aren’t manifesting what you want in your life and have read all the traditional self-help books, I recommend you take a different approach and start to work on your shadowy side.