Shades of Gray: Embrace Your Shadow Self
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” ~ Carl Jung
“Light,” could easily be thought of as a concept. An idea of something bright and beautiful, radiating positive energy, drenched in the sun’s warmth. Who wouldn’t want to linger there?
So if you manage to find this blissful light-state, where does all the darkness go? After all, no one is all smiles and sunshine. Not really. It was Dr. Carl Jung, psychiatrist and founder of analytical psychology, who originated the theory of a “shadow self.” This alternate side of one’s nature is comprised of hidden parts lurking in the shadows. In his book, “Psychology and Alchemy,” Jung writes, “People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls.”
Exactly who or what is this mysterious shadow self? Even though the idea may bring to mind a foreboding presence, akin to Jekyll & Hyde, it’s not. According to Dr. Alexandra Stockwell MD, relationship and intimacy expert, “While your shadow side is sometimes understood to be the parts of you which are negative, that is not a complete understanding… it is truly the parts of yourself that you are unaware of.”
The downside of modesty is that it doesn’t allow you to step into your greatness. As Dr. Stockwell explains it, your shadow “can include aspects which are beautiful, powerful and inspiring…” And they reside alongside the other parts which may be “sinister, shame filled, and otherwise problematic,” says Dr. Stockwell.
So if the shadow self isn’t necessarily harmful, why hide it? Because this fragmented way of living is familiar… Dr. Stockwell explains that as you grow up, “you build an identity, an internal definition of who you are,” and cling to this image. So everything that’s in line with that persona you accept. And “anything that doesn’t fit with your identity, you tend to avoid and find incredibly challenging,” says Dr. Stockwell. The stories you tell yourself are powerful… It’s no wonder facing your shadow isn’t easy... Doing so risks shattering the image you’ve taken a lifetime to create.
Ironically, denying the existence of your shadow means living in the dark. It can cause you to “turn away from knowing a huge part of what motivates you, which means you are prey to its whims and inconsistencies,” says Dr. Stockwell. But don’t fool yourself. Whether you realize it or not, each day you use components of your hidden self. And “the fact that you are unaware of your shadow in no way strips it of its influence.”
Luckily, like life, identity can be fluid, if you’re open to evolving. And the process of discovering your shadow can be enlightening. Dr. Stockwell says, “Most of the qualities you find difficult and scary to accept in yourself create this dynamic tension within.”
Ready to tango with your shadow self? Read on for some ways to get acquainted…
Proceed with Curiosity
Delving into your hidden self, means facing your blindspots. “The first step is to acknowledge you have a shadow self,” according to Dr. Stockwell. So engage in a sense of wonder… Always with compassion. Replace fear with learning, discovery and a thirst for self-awareness. Dr. Stockwell suggests, “engaging in any kind of personal inquiry with a professional guide, or by doing Byron Katie’s The Work, yoga, or another personal growth modality.”
Become a Self Explorer
Notice your reactions, especially when they seem out of character. Dr Stockwell advises, “anytime you have a response which surprises you, or you aren’t in approval of, rather than dismissing it as an anomaly, or suppressing it, lean in… discover why you responded that way.” Present moment awareness will help you understand yourself on a deeper level. According to Dr. Stockwell, it can reveal “a wealth of information about who you are and what drives your preferences and desires.”
Keep in mind, the journey will likely challenge and surprise you.“You will discover things you don’t expect and probably won’t like about yourself,” says Dr. Stockwell. So approach your shadow with bravery. And be prepared to give up control. To venture into the unknown safely, Dr. Stockwell recommends, “being with someone you trust when getting started,” for example, a coach, therapist, or else a good friend.
Be kind to yourself. And have patience. According to Dr. Stockwell, “you have to both learn to accept the new quality and also discard your old identity… because it is in direct contrast to your new awareness.” As complex as that may sound, it’s definitely worth the effort. Because, according to Dr. Stockwell, “The greatest benefit of accessing the darker part of your nature is that you can become fully aligned with who you are, which in turn leads to a life with more purpose, authenticity and connection.”