How Personal Shadow Work Is Integral To Perceiving Reality
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”
As a psychological concept, Shadow, refers to all things which are not a part of conscious awareness, but still reside in the human psyche. Personal (and collective) Shadow is neither ‘positive’ or ‘negative,’ ‘good ‘or ‘bad.’ It is both, and neither. It’s what IS, but is not yet conscious. It encompasses all the hidden potentials, and unrealized talents of a person or culture, as well as representing the repository of unprocessed, (sometimes destructive and painful) emotions and drives. It is that which has been unexamined or unacknowledged, yet still underlies our motivations and affects our actions.
Shadow can be looked at on multiple levels: individual, group, family, community, cultural, or planetary. It can be applied to any situation or system where human actions and ideas are involved. For example, there is the shadow of capitalism, the shadow of spirituality, the shadow of marriage, and many others. Where anything is repressed, hidden, denied, not made conscious in any context of human thought or activity, there is Shadow.
There is more to Shadow than its negative side. That we should try to ‘overcome’ our Shadow or celebrate when we have ‘torn it down’ is a mistake, especially if the goal is to gain greater self direction, or mature into a more integrated human being.
Rather it is exposing Shadow–bringing it into awareness and coming to terms with its message–that is worthy of celebration. We can reveal the meaning of subconscious thoughts, feelings and drives and embrace the reality of all that we are, light and dark. When we are willing to really look at what might seem ugly, or overwhelming, things which go against our cherished notions of what it means to be a ‘good’ person, or challenge our preconceived ideas of what we are and aren’t capable of (in both creative and destructive ways), we gain an understanding which is foundational to evolving consciousness. We begin to free ourselves.
Along with it’s ‘negative’ aspects, Shadow, also refers to our “hidden gold;” the unpainted painting, the unwritten novel, the things we admire or envy in another, yet fail to recognize in ourselves. When we notice a strong attraction or repulsion to someones’ talents or qualities, it is a good indicator of Shadow projections; a process wherein we see our own, as yet unearthed or unrecognized (positive or negative) characteristics in someone else. When these qualities aren’t acknowledged they are held in our subconscious and unconscious, affecting our day to day behaviors without our even knowing.
When we “fall in love” with someone, there is undoubtedly some degree of such Shadow projection taking place. It therefore behooves us (as well as our relationships) to make a conscious effort to reclaim these qualities, to do our Shadow work. Otherwise we risk the tragedy of spending years, even a lifetime, blind to whom it is we love. Also, to the extent that we remain in love with our projections, we spend that time not knowing who it is we fully are.
Repression vs. Integration
When emotions we haven’t encountered before, or disturbing thoughts arise, its usually because there’s a message to be heard. Its important that we don’t repress them and relegate them back into the recesses of our psyche. That they have emerged from our subconscious (and unconscious) is an opportunity we can take advantage of. We can choose to welcome these events as gifts. It helps to remember that not all things which feel uncomfortable are bad. And it helps to remind ourselves that we have the strength to bare our uneasy feelings.
Though our initial urge may be to push these aspects away, so far away that we THINK we have ‘overcome’ them, it would be a mistake. It’s the biggest lie we can tell ourselves (and religion encourages us to do this–big time). The only way to true self-transcendence is to first come to terms with what is present. We must include and integrate the good the bad and the ugly in some fashion. We must learn to accept and love ourselves regardless of collective messages which say we aren’t lovable unless we behave properly, act right, be nice.
Most religious traditions act as though we are healthiest when we split off what they call the ‘good’, spiritual, selfless loving side, from what they label as the ‘bad,’ primal, aggressive, material, erotic, sensual, sexual side. In cases where sexuality is acknowledged as ‘good,’ it is often distorted for the purposes of the leader. It becomes twisted…skewed. These ideas mirror the self-hatred and fear held around healthy, raw human expression.
In many New Age communities too, there is often a misplaced emphasis on ‘love,’ ‘light,’ and ‘compassion.’ In these cases, there is an almost frantic rush for people to become ‘enlightened,’ to transcend their ‘dark’ qualities. This often occurs before completing the primary developmental task of building a strong, balanced ego, and learning to embrace the fullness of ones humanity, which includes Shadow. Putting the cart before the horse in this way, ironically, holds people back from internalizing the deep self-acceptance and self- love they need in order to truly evolve. It also prevents them from genuinely understanding what it means for compassion to spring from a place that has nothing to do with devaluing the self for the sake of others.
At the same time there are elements within the New Age, where the necessity of Shadow work is foundational, and a sophisticated understanding of developmental levels is held. For example, Pacifica Institute and Esalen Institute, both of which have been home to many brilliant pioneering thinkers in the human potential movement, offer a repertoire of cutting-edge coursework in the psychosocial/psychospiritual disciplines. Yet, even in these places I have found a certain split in their philosophy vs. actions, as there still seems to be at times, an overemphasis on transcendence despite speaking to the need for healthy ego development. Also at times, certain proscriptions against sexual expression seem to echo the older repression, despite a stated and seemingly earnest valuing of eros. I have also encountered a heavy bias toward relativism. Still, we have much to thank for the work pioneered in both places and much progress has been and continues to be made.
As for the aforementioned religious traditions, instead of helping to elevate us as conscious beings, the denial (explicit and implicit) expressed in their doctrines acts as a force to quash the fullness of who we are, and move us into a state of somnambulance. Ironically, all the hidden qualities (‘bright’ and ‘dark’) that these institutions repress and condemn, are the very energies of life itself. Creativity and beauty are rooted here–the literal process of birth, full of blood, amniotic fluid, shit, pain, and screaming. Its not ‘nice.’ But unlike the Scientologists, we need not be quiet or ashamed.
For it is out of that muck and noise that a child, full of potential, is born. Likewise, it is out of our courage to journey through often harrowing, wrenching internal struggles that we are able to figuratively give birth to new aspects of ourselves, to profoundly transform our own psychological lives. We need to embrace this. We need to embrace the ambiguity and paradoxical nature of life, not try to ease our angst by splitting it all up into neat categories of light and dark, right and wrong. When we learn to hold the tension of opposing forces, through working with Shadow, we step into a truly transformative zone. Its not easy, but if we don’t, the energies we deny and repress cause our experience of life to stagnate, our awareness to distort and atrophy. By facing that which lives in the Shadow within us, by giving these energies a mode of expression, we can begin to uncover the messages they hold for the individual and culture possessing them. We can channel them such that they no longer control us. When these energies no longer operate beneath the radar of consciousness we become free to choose how to begin to integrate them.
The Power of Acknowledgment
Sometimes, the very act of acknowledging Shadow dissipates its power over us. It’s like when we’re faced with a kid who’s screaming, who just wants to be seen, heard and held. If we don’t respond, they will find some some way to eventually get our attention, as unpleasant as that may be. The longer we wait, the more we ignore their cries for attention, the more outrageous and unpleasant their acting out becomes.
More often than not, the screaming kid, like our emotional cries and uncomfortable thoughts, has something important to say. It may not be clothed in polite language, or politically correct terms, but it’s usually an expression of what is true. Energies (powerful emotions, psychological ‘complexes’) which don’t dissipate upon acknowledgment, need to be channeled in some fashion. If we try to deny them, telling ourselves (through sheer will power) that we are the masters of our own being in these circumstances, we deceive ourselves. In times like these, it is these unrecognized energies which are at the helm. They will eventually have their say, and usually in ways that create drama and wide detours, (emotional oubursts at inopportune moments, other self-sabotaging behaviors, even physical symptoms) from the things we truly want.
To the extent that we are at the mercy of these subconscious motivations, we are slaves, robots, and we do things for reasons we don’t understand–yet we think we do. We must shed light on the shadowy aspects of ourselves, and see these qualities for what they are. We must learn to become comfortable with the reality that these energies live inside of us all.
As Ray Kurzweil and others have said, “Consciousness is subjectivity.” Indeed, to be human is to be subjective and our understanding of what is objective is always filtered though our subjective senses. This raises the question: how can we ever know objective reality? The best we can do is to come close, and the closest we can come is by making sure our psychological, mental, and perceptual filters are as clear as they can be.
This entails ongoing psychological archeology: excavating our ‘stuff’–Shadow work. The more we get our consciousness cleared and integrated as I have?encouraged above, the more of our mind and mental energy is available–not just for knowing ourselves –but also for perceiving the world as it actually is. To the extent that portions of ourselves remain repressed and unconscious, there is less of our awareness (quantitatively and qualitatively) present to discern what is our ‘stuff’ versus what is really true. As long as we deny what is in the Shadow, our senses, perceptions, deductions, rationalizations, and insights will be colored by these unconscious/subconscious forces.
Shadow work does not necessarily require having a counselor or therapist. However, if you have not done any psychological work before, some reliable support system is highly recommended. For folks with more serious psychological/mental challenges, and for anyone experiencing an unusually difficult life crises, having some form of professional guidance may be crucial to safely delve into the subconscious waters of the psyche. Otherwise you could risk making matters worse.
For those who are ready and able to do begin some internal exploration on your own, there are several ways to begin exploring Shadow work in a solitary fashion. I will address some practical methods and tools that can expedite this process in a later article.
I hope this review was clarifying. In my experience, there is hardly anything more far reaching and relevant than the benefits to be gained or losses to be had, when we do or don’t attend to the parts of our psyche that reside in Shadow.