You are here in this world for a purpose. Even if that purpose isn’t entirely clear to you, it’s very likely that you have goals and dreams that you’re reaching for—a list of things you want to experience, to achieve, to offer and to share. But perhaps you, at times, find yourself making choices and engaging in behavior patterns that leave you disempowered and doubting yourself rather than ready to set the world on fire. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t felt this way. As human beings, we are a delicate balance of strengths and weaknesses, of light and dark aspects. However, one of the biggest impediments to the growth and achievement we want, individually and collectively, is seeing these polarities as the enemies of each other.
What if you knew that the way to access the very best in yourself—the light side of your humanity—was by facing your darkness? What if you knew that your greatest power could be found in the hands of the parts of yourself that you believed to be the most shameful, or powerless?
As a Depth Psychologist, I am dedicated to helping people find a pathway into their own psyche, allowing them to gain new insights into who they are and what drives their choices throughout the course of their lives. Being deeply immersed in the work of the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, I’ve come to understand the vital importance of investigating the function and mysteries of the unconscious. Our greatest opportunities for growth and transformation arise from its depths. Beneath the threshold of our day-to-day awareness, the unconscious holds the complex tapestry of the many parts of ourselves, of our personal traits—the ones we are aware of and the ones we are not—and our ways of being in the world. It is the journey of a lifetime to reconnect with the aspects of self that we have been hiding from or in denial of, or even afraid of, in the return to our essential wholeness.
The parts of ourselves that we subconsciously repress or disassociate from out of fear or pain (or both)—usually in order to adapt to our family and societal circumstances and dynamics—comprise what is known as the shadow. In Depth Psychology, the shadow is not seen as a concentrated image that is cast onto the cement below our feet, but rather a distinct part of our internal psychological make up. It is an amalgamation of everything about ourselves that we have lost, cut off, ignored, hidden, denied, and run from throughout life. One of the primary reasons the shadow is perceived as dark and threatening is because it holds the aspects of our nature that we judge as “bad”—as unacceptable or wrong in some way. In essence, the dark shadow is the deep well of our unwanted character traits. For example, anger and rage often live in this category next to jealousy and greed. Anything we do not like about ourselves, feel threatened by, or cannot accept gets thrown into this repository of fear and shame.
Every time we silently criticize ourselves and stare disapprovingly in the mirror, we are feeding the shadow. Every time we are mean to ourselves in thought or action, we are feeding the shadow. When we act incongruently with our value system and core beliefs, we strengthen the shadow. As an example, if lying goes against our value system, but we do it anyway, a small trauma takes place in our psyche. As we continue to be dishonest, these traumas start to collect like heavy stones, and before long we are weighed down, with less freedom of movement in life. Lying, controlling, manipulating—when not in alignment with our values and beliefs, these are some of the types of behaviors that lead to depression, anxiety, restlessness, and dis-ease of all kinds.
Carl Jung wrote of the shadow,
“The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.”
The invitation of the shadow
One of the most powerful turning points in life comes when we begin to understand the shadow as a great teacher, one that serves as an integral part of our psyche rather than an enemy to outrun. Besides, no matter how fast we try to run, our shadow follows. As we grew up, the shadow grew with us. It has been our traveling companion for the whole of our lives. In darkness, it waits for the light of our own awareness—to be seen, heard, understood, and embraced.
When we negate some of our most vulnerable and fearful parts, they feel abandoned and act out in ways that are consequence-inducing in order to get our attention; in order to help us grow and evolve. If we continuously ignore or deny them, they can show up in the form of challenging people, patterns, circumstances, and events. Sometimes these are distractions that keep us from our true path, and sometimes they turn into powerful saboteurs that are capable of destroying the things we have worked hard to build in our relationships, careers, and other areas of our lives. The wise saying that “what we resist, persists” is at play in this dynamic.
Healing the wounds we have accumulated from past experiences of pain and trauma requires our attention and understanding in the present, as conscious, loving adults. As we learn to accept and care for the once-rejected parts of ourselves, an extraordinary thing happens: they become our allies. It is attending to the difficult or darker aspects that allows us to grow and evolve into our best selves. Learning to dialogue with the shadow helps to diminish its power. Gradually coming to love the shadow gives us access to the wisdom that it holds for us at its core.