Embracing the Shadow Self
The secret is out: all of us, no exceptions, have qualities we won’t let anyone see, including ourselves – our Shadow. If we face up to our dark side, our life can be energized. If not, there is the devil to pay. This is one of life’s most urgent projects.– Larry Dossey (Healing Words)
Our journey of Self-Realization is a bit like Dante’s Inferno.
Before making our way out of “hell” we must walk through the depths of our inner darkness. Many religions symbolize these experiences well. Two famous examples include the case of Jesus who had to face Satan in the desert and Buddha’s encounter with Mara (the Buddhist Satan) before his spiritual awakening.
When I write about embracing or integrating your shadow self, I do not mean to indulge in any desire that arises within you.
Indulging your anger, for instance, will simply result in more anger. By embracing your inner darkness I mean that it is necessary for you to “accept” it. Accepting your darkness will allow you to take responsibility for yourself, and once you truly acknowledge one of these dark traits instead of avoiding them, suddenly, they will stop having control over you.
Honesty and Courage Are Crucial
By being honest with ourselves and accepting our shadow elements, it frees us up to truly witness the uncharted areas of our minds, allowing us to see that we are not these elements, but simply possess thoughts, feelings, and drives that come and go. You cannot simply go “beyond hatred” if you don’t first admit to yourself that you do in fact possess hateful feelings.
To completely experience self-love we must learn to honestly face our Shadow Selves, and voyage into the dark, murky waters of the unknown courageously. Otherwise, every time we condemn other people for their shadow traits, we’re in essence condemning our hypocritical selves in the process.
A whole and balanced self is a reconciliation of all parts, an inner unification.
It is not an indulgence of the darker parts of our natures, but acceptance and direct experience of them in the light of mindful awareness and deep honesty. This is the entire opposite of many self-denying traditional spiritual methods of subduing, denying, or ascetically disciplining the self. To live differently (as is the aim and motivation of this website), is to be authentic. And in order to be authentic, we have to face and embrace all parts of our inner selves – that which is culturally uncommon or bizarre.
There Are Empowering Qualities Hidden in the Shadow
It’s astounding to realize that often the mundane characteristics in people are the ones that are socially acceptable.
In essence, any “primitive” traits within us get sent to the Shadow, but at the same time, any creative, unique, innovative, and different qualities within us also get confined within the Shadow because they’re not socially acceptable.
Exploring your darkness is not necessarily all doom and gloom. In fact, you’ll likely be surprised by the endless array of creative and interesting things you find that have been secretly buried away for years.
To accept and embrace your Shadow Self is to become Whole again and thus taste a glimpse of what authentic “holiness” feels like.
3 Illuminative Ways to Encounter Your Shadow Self
I must also have a dark side if I am to be whole.
– Carl Jung
There are several different ways to get to know and explore your Shadow. If you wish to become a more whole and integration human being, it’s crucial that you face your Shadow and do some shadow work. I explore some simple shadow work practices below:
1. Draw or Paint
Art is the highest form of self-expression and also a great way to allow your Shadow to manifest itself. In Psychology, an effective way to better understand a client is through art therapy: to allow them to draw whatever they’re feeling or thinking. But you don’t necessarily need a therapist in order to do this activity.
Simply get a blank piece of paper, find a quiet place, and turn your attention inwards. You may like to ask your Shadow, “what do you want me to know right now?” and then paint or draw whatever comes to mind. Even the strangest mental images or scenarios can hold a seed of wisdom, helping to reveal hidden feelings, thoughts, or memories.
Make sure you approach this activity non-judgmentally and with an open mind. When you fear judgment from yourself, you’ll be inhibited and won’t be able to benefit fully from this practice. So be gentle and receptive. Allow whatever to arise, arise. Remember that your Shadow is a part of you, but it doesn’t define you.
Goethe’s Faust is, in my opinion, one of the best works featuring the meeting of an Ego and his Shadow Self. His story details the life of a Professor who becomes so separated and overwhelmed by his Shadow that he comes to the verge of suicide, only to realize that the redemption of the Ego is solely possible if the Shadow is redeemed at the same time.
Writing a story where you project your Shadow elements onto the characters is a great way to learn more about your inner darkness.
If stories aren’t your thing, try journaling or keeping a diary every day for a few weeks where you record both good and bad emotions, thoughts, and habits. This practice will help shine a light on the bright and darker elements of your nature. Reading through your journal entries can also help you recover the balance you need in your life, and accept both light and dark emotions within you.
3. Use the World as a Mirror (Projection Technique)
The Shadow describes the part of the psyche that an individual would rather not acknowledge. – John Elder
Projection is at the very heart and soul of the Shadow: it’s how the Shadow hides and protects itself.
Quite simply, we project the qualities of ourselves that we dislike onto others so that we don’t have to deal with them within ourselves. Projection also helps us to avoid taking responsibility for ourselves and instead helps us to make others the culprits and scapegoats for our unresolved issues.
However, projection is actually a powerful shadow work tool that helps us explore our Shadow Selves when done deliberately. When you approach other people and the world at large with mindfulness, you’ll be able to discover who and what you project your Shadow onto (and why).
What’s interesting about the Shadow is that we not only project our negative traits and elements onto others but our good ones as well. It’s as if we unconsciously refuse to embrace our noble elements because the Ego is afraid that these positive elements will change and upset our current personality structure.
So how do we practice the projection technique?
In a nutshell, use the world as a mirror. Observe what you secretly like or dislike in other people, entertainment outlets (TV, books), and situations.
For instance, current movies and television shows reflect our deep interest in the darker aspects of ourselves. Why else would we have such fascination with this constant battle between good and evil forces? Superhero, fantasy, or action films depict the Heroes vs. Villains dichotomy, while we also fall in love with charming characters that embrace their dark sides such as Dexter, The Joker, or Walter White (Breaking Bad).
Often our noblest Shadow traits are projected onto the people we like, admire or fall in love with. The opposite is also true: and the most defenseless of beings can become the carriers of your negative projected Shadow Self traits. Children, for example, provide the perfect outlet for our anger, frustration, and other negative emotions. The smallest of accidents or naughty actions can be punished with disproportionate and destructive wrath. Pets too are unfortunately just as vulnerable. Projection, for many of us, is always easier than assimilation.
Projection, no matter whether light or dark is always something detrimental. You not only burden another person with your dark elements or pressures of idolization, but you also avoid taking responsibility for your Shadow and lose the opportunity of finding a state of ecstatic Wholeness.
So use the word as your mirror. Write down what you observe about yourself. Be open-minded and receptive. Show kindness toward yourself. Soon you will be on your way to reclaiming all parts of yourself and move closer and closer toward Wholeness.
Finally, a few more ideas for meeting your Shadow Self might include:
- Practicing meditation each day (for 30 minutes or longer) often shines the light on Shadow parts
- Developing more self-awareness (this allows you to become more conscious of your words, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, thus allowing you to identify your faults more easily)
- Asking friends, partners, or loved ones what they feel are your greatest personality faults
- Ensuring that you adopt an analytical, non-judgmental, and compassionate attitude toward yourself, rather than playing the role of the prosecutor, judge, or defender which hinders your ability to embrace your Shadow Self fully
For more guidance, see our shadow work article.