Last time we looked at practices for the spirit and how to awaken to your true nature as one with the divine. But it’s not all glorious visions and choirs of beaming angels! Sometimes you have to get your hands dirty and deal with things you’d rather not deal with. So in this post we explore how to face the darkness of the shadow…
The shadow is the most problematic area of human experience and is often misunderstood. It can undermine and sabotage every other part of your life, from your body, emotions and mind, to your relationships, community and work. This makes it the most important area to work on because its impact is so huge.
Practices for dealing with the Shadow include things like:
- Dream work
- Voice Dialogue
- Feeding your Demons
- Art therapy
- Transmuting emotions – see Emotions
The shadow is only dark because it’s hidden from your awareness, buried in the unconscious. It’s made up of parts of your psyche that have been repressed or denied by the ego, and includes positive as well as negative traits. The ego rejects anything it finds unacceptable for a variety of reasons, but mostly due to conditioning by parents, schooling and society. More on how the shadow is formed here: Evolution of Consciousness: The Dark Side of the Ego
The psyche is a big place and it extends well beyond your personal self into the collective psyche. So the shadow can include many things that haven’t been repressed or denied – you’re just not aware of them because they haven’t reached your consciousness yet.
This may involve parts of the Golden Shadow, the side of your shadow that includes positive qualities and traits that you deny, as well as hidden talents and gifts that you’re not aware you have, and qualities you possess but aren’t aware of. An example of this would be the reality of your spirit, or true Self, before awakening.
The real problem that underpins the shadow – whether positive or negative – is your lack of self-acceptance. But the rejected elements of the psyche aren’t necessarily bad, as I said in Evolution of Consciousness: Embracing the Shadow:
“All sorts of things end up in the shadow – it’s not all bad. Even some of the bad stuff isn’t really that bad, it’s just got twisted out of shape. When you repress something, it doesn’t go away. It roams around in the darkness of your unconscious feeling aggrieved and waiting for the opportunity to come back into the light. In the meantime, it might grow a few heads, develop a limp, or perhaps begin breathing fire.”
The psyche is dynamic and constantly changing and always seeking to achieve balance. So the shadow has a way of popping back up, no matter how often you push it into the darkness. It wants to be known and seen – the unconscious wants to become conscious.
Repressing parts of your psyche also uses up a lot of energy and this often ends up making you ill, physically and/or emotionally. To relieve the pressure, the shadow leaks out in projected form, and you see the thing you’ve repressed all around you. The good news is you can work with this tendency in order to become aware of your shadow and integrate it.
Before you can work with your shadow you have to recognise it and be willing to change. And if you think you don’t have a shadow, then you probably have a massive one!
The easiest way to spot the shadow in action is to observe your reactions to others and the events of your life. The shadow tends to work though projection, but it can also manifest in persistent neuroses, health crises, and other mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. Polarised black and white thinking about anything is also a sign that you’re repressing one side of the equation and projecting the other.
We tend to project qualities we don’t like about ourselves, as well as qualities we do like but can’t accept, or simply aren’t aware of. We may admire, attack or criticise others for being this way, as individuals or as groups of people. All prejudice is driven by shadow projection.
To spot your projections, pay attention to anything that makes you overreact or get emotional in a way that’s out of proportion to the trigger. For example:
- Things that make you resentful, fearful, anxious, angry, and so on
- Things that make you jealous or envious of others
- Anything you criticise to an excessive degree
- Excessive pride in any particular quality you possess
- Things/people you think are amazing or brilliant or the saviours of mankind
- Qualities/talents you admire in others but think you could never be like that
- Any kind of catastrophising, exaggeration, or extreme reaction
Be mindful of your reactions and look for patterns. Do you always react the same way to a particular situation? Do you always avoid certain people? What are your triggers? You don’t necessarily have to do anything about what you discover – just notice it and be aware.
Spotting projections can be tricky because you often feel justified in your reactions – and you might be! When you project a quality onto others, it may be that your perception of them is accurate. However, if you project your anger onto someone who’s actually angry, for example, it doesn’t change the fact that you’re projecting. You’re disowning your own anger and putting it on them.
This doesn’t mean you should never get angry or put up with crap from other people. It’s not about spiritual bypassing or ‘idiot compassion’ where you allow people to walk all over you in a misguided belief that you need to let it go. You don’t have to be nice all the time and focus on ‘love and light’ and not take anything personally because you’re just soooooo spiritual!
Doing shadow work means discerning the difference between your shit and other people’s shit. Once you’ve become aware of your projections, you can begin to accept the parts of yourself that you’ve rejected. That doesn’t mean acting out whatever you happen to be feeling. It means taking responsibility for yourself and opening up your identity to include more of who you really are.
This process isn’t about getting rid of your shadow – and you can’t do that anyway. The more you reject or fight against something, the stronger it gets. In extreme cases, the shadow can take over and control you from the unconscious, driving self-destructive behaviour that can totally derail your life. So the key to dealing with the shadow is acceptance and compassion.
Doing this work can be challenging because you have to allow yourself to feel things you may have been avoiding for a long time. Some people say you shouldn’t do shadow work if you feel vulnerable or struggle with low self-worth. But if your conscious attitude towards yourself is negative, it’s a sign there’s a lot of good stuff hiding in your shadow. However, you may want to practice other techniques first to increase your self-worth.
In Dreaming through Darkness, Charlie Morley explains that before you explore problematic areas, you should begin with what he calls the Three Pillars of Shadow Work. These are:
Shadow work is about learning how to make friends with yourself and showing love to the parts of yourself that have been rejected. Acceptance doesn’t mean that you approve of harmful or destructive behaviour and feelings. It simply means acknowledging them and treating them with kindness.
Underpinning this idea is the fact that most ‘bad behaviour’ is driven by a lack of connection to your true nature, which is fundamentally loving, kind and friendly. Reconnecting with your true nature allows you to put the wounds of the past into a larger context and return to wholeness.
Many of the most rowdy and disruptive denizens of your shadow are just trying to get your attention. Once you acknowledge them, they often settle down and begin to transform into something more positive and productive. This happens because the dark side of your shadow has hidden gifts. It only appears to be negative because it’s been repressed and denied.
In fact, the dark and golden shadows may be two sides of the same coin. The golden shadow is created when you hide your light or limit yourself for various reasons. This can manifest as dark shadow elements that sabotage your growth and happiness. You may think you’re dealing with repressed anger or fear, for example, but in reality, you’re avoiding the responsibility of living up to your highest potential.
This means it can be harder to accept your golden shadow than to deal with all the negative stuff sloshing about in your unconscious. Sometimes it’s easier to stay small. But denying these positive qualities can have a devastating effect on your health and happiness.
Despite this, it can be hard to change because you’re used to things being the way they are. Your current sense of identity feels familiar even if it’s painful, so you tend to resist opening up to new possibilities. If you find yourself getting stuck like this, it can help to ask: What do I gain by staying in this situation, or by staying the way I am? The answer will reveal where you need to focus your shadow work in order to shift your resistance.
For more on dealing with resistance to change, see Feel the Fear: Taking Responsibility
The really tricky part is that the deeper you go in spiritual practice, the greater the resistance. As you get closer to transcending the ego, the resistance gets worse because the ego and shadow appear to solidify – which is probably what causes the dark night of the soul (in my humble opinion). More on that here: Getting Serious about Spiritual Practice
It took me a long time to realise I was resisting the light and sabotaging my spiritual practice. The truth was revealed in a guided visualisation that didn’t go the way I’d planned – you can read about that here: An Unexpected Gift
If you go deep enough, you eventually reach the bottom where you discover the darkest part of the shadow and what can only be described as archetypal evil. This often manifests in the form of the predator, an inner figure that tries to steal your light because he doesn’t have any of his own. More on that here: Surviving Bluebeard: How to Deal with the Predator and here Sympathy for the Devil: The Nature of Evil
There are many techniques for working with your shadow which involve bringing it into consciousness so you can see it in action. Then you can practice compassion and acceptance for what comes up and allow it to transform naturally. We’ve already touched on a couple, so for details on transmuting emotions and feeding your demons, see the Emotions post.
Art therapy and journaling are also good ways to explore different aspects of your shadow and give them a voice. You can write, draw, paint, sculpt, dance, make a collage – whatever works for you – but the key is to not be critical of what you’re doing. You’re not making great art and nobody needs to see the results. It’s just for you.
Describing or drawing your shadow gets it out of your head and into a form where you can look at it objectively. It puts some distance between you and your feelings so you can get a clearer view of what’s going on.
Once you’ve visualised your shadow, you might want to try having a chat. Voice dialogue is similar to the technique of Feeding your Demons where you choose a particular part of your shadow to work with and then ask it questions to find out what it wants. You can do this using active imagination, in meditation or a guided visualisation, or in written form.
The idea is to listen to what the shadow aspect or sub-personality has to say without judging or criticising. Ask them what they want from you and what they have to offer. Don’t force the issue and if they won’t talk, respect their boundaries and perhaps try again later. Or try a different technique, such as tonglen or a loving-kindness meditation.
Try to answer each question without over-thinking it. Your answers should be spontaneous and immediate. If there’s too long a pause before the shadow answers, you’re probably interfering with the process and censoring yourself. Any answer you get after a long pause is probably your ego talking, not the shadow.
Look for the strengths and gifts that each aspect of your shadow has. For example, many years ago I did an exercise from the Psychosynthesis book that involved visualising a sub-personality by imagining the house in which they live. You go for a visit and chat, and make note of their appearance, the state of the house and their responses to your questions.
I was working with my repressed anger and the sub-personality was a tall woman who wouldn’t even look me in the eye. Her house was falling to bits and she refused to answer any of my questions. In the end, she punched me on the nose!
It took me a while to connect with her but eventually I discovered that she wanted me to stand up for myself. Her gift was assertiveness and self-confidence – not that I should go around punching people 😉 .
What comes up when you do these exercises can be very challenging and will probably make you feel extremely uncomfortable – which is the whole point. But it’s worth doing the work because those uncomfortable feelings will change over time as you come to accept more of yourself with compassion.
Remember: You’re not the stories you choose to identify with. You’re not your shadow or your ego. You’re more than that. You are the Self, or spirit, having all these experiences.
For more techniques and ideas on how to deal with the shadow read this post on Loner Wolf, or try the 3-2-1 Shadow Process from Integral Life here. I also recommend Dreaming Through Darkness by Charlie Morley for loads of exercises and advice on shadow work.
Next time we’ll explore practices for Relationships…