Vengeful, easily victimized, lazy, bad, untrustworthy. Excel at hopelessness and rage, an expert on greed. Not creative. Never finish what I start. Stupid, a loner, damaged goods. Nurture evil thoughts. Certainly unlovable.
No one wants to admit to a dark side—it can be a frightening and shocking experience to our self-image. We spend vast amounts of energy denying and repressing this unwanted inferior self.
What many of us don’t realize is that the shadow can be a helpful aspect of ourselves that holds the key to transformation—a loyal friend bearing the gifts of depth, integrity, vitality, and wholeness—if we choose to meet it and love it.
“Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once, beautiful and brave,” said poet Ranier Maria Rilke. “Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something that needs our love.”
How the Shadow Develops
Many forces play a role in forming our shadow selves: parents, siblings, teachers, religious leaders and friends all have their part.
When little Ethan's mother entered the hospital before the birth of twins, Ethan was suddenly left alone with a new nanny during the day and put to bed by his distant father.
When his overwhelmed mother and the newborn twins came home two months later, the toddler was not-so-subtly encouraged to “be independent” and a good big brother. Anger that erupted was quickly reprimanded.
Afraid that his parents would leave or stop loving him, Ethan learned not to rock the boat. He took care of himself, became a pleaser and kept his needs and feelings to himself.
The Shadow’s Gift Revealed
Today, the single father still prefers to depend on himself, struggling with the amount of intimacy he can experience in his relationships. He smiles a lot and has trouble saying “No” to requests for help, works late into the night, and rarely takes a day for himself. He doesn’t “do” anger publicly, but at home, he sometimes explodes at his children.
Working to integrate these painful shadow elements into his conscious life is challenging, Ethan says. But doing so is helping him to stay in a profoundly nurturing relationship, from which he would have fled earlier in his life.
“I realize now how much energy it has cost me to keep this stuff underground,” he says. “What I’m working on is saying ‘Yes’ more often to myself—and teaching others by example. And I silently cheer when my children tell me how mad they are!”
These, then, are the gifts of subconscious behavior work that can benefit each of us—and the world:
• more genuine self-acceptance
• fewer adverse emotional eruptions during our daily lives
• less guilt and shame associated with our negative feelings and actions
• a more precise and accurate picture of others (uncolored by subconscious projections)
• the opportunity to heal relationships through more honest self-examination.
What’s in Your Subconscious?
Awareness of patterns is always the first step towards the treasure box that lies within your subconscious behavior. But the elusive nature of our mysterious character can make it tricky to discover the content of one's shadow. Here are some useful detective tools:
Examine your exaggerated negative feelings about others. Look at the characteristics of the people in your life whose behavior pushes your buttons, at people you dislike or hate, at what irritates or angers you the most. When we are blind to our subconscious characteristics, we often “project” these characteristics onto others. We see in the other person something that is a part of ourselves, but which we fail to look at in ourselves.
Notice what you admire in others. Perhaps, growing up, it was not acceptable to be powerful, creative, intelligent or empathetic. When we dismiss these aspects of ourselves, we project this “greatness” onto others, not realizing that it is indeed our own.
Examine others’ perceptions of you. When two or more people independently perceive a shadow trait in you, it is worth more in-depth exploration.
Examine your impulsive and careless acts. A slip of the tongue or behavior can sometimes be very revealing. So can “forgetting” to do something you agreed to or getting sleepy when it’s time to talk over a fight with your family member or mate.
Consider your humor. Humor is often much more than meets the eye; in fact, what is said in humor is often a manifestation of subconscious truth. For example, what hidden, inferior or feared emotions do dirty or racist jokes express? We can also use humor to shake loose repressed fears and feelings and take the bite out of embarrassment and shame.
Study your dreams. The subconscious often appears in our venting dreams. We may dream of ourselves as a someone whom we react to with fear, dislike or disgust; observing this figure’s actions, attitudes and words can offer helpful identifying information.
Examine situations in which you feel humiliated. When we are possessed by intense feelings of shame or anger, or when our behavior is off the mark in some way, the unconscious is erupting unexpectedly. Keep “over-reaction notes” in your favorite journal app.
Observe your distractions. Do you work too many hours? Overeat? Numb your feelings with alcohol, food or drugs? What emotions are you avoiding?
Can you track down your inner critic and victim? Try journaling the internal dialogue between the powerful, critical part of you that demands change and the weak part that apologizes and makes excuses. Both are voices of the maladaptive subconscious.
Ultimately, as author James Hillman says, the cure of the shadow is rooted in love. “How far can our love extend to the broken and hurt parts of ourselves, the disgusting and perverse?” he writes. “How much charity and compassion have we for our own weakness and sickness? How far can we build an inner society on the principle of love, allowing a place for everyone?”