What is the Shadow?
The psychologist Carl Jung used the word ‘shadow’ to refer to those aspects of our personality that we are not usually conscious of. It is the content of the mind that does not easily fit in with our ideas about who we are and is therefore either ignored, denied, or otherwise suppressed. The shadow not only contains negative aspects of our personality but often also positive ones – especially if we have developed some ill-will towards ourselves.
How is the Shadow Created?
Our shadow arises as soon as we develop an ego-identity. In order to protect this personality, we then need to adopt rules about how we should behave what we are ‘allowed’ to think. Any content of our brain that doesn’t fit in with our rulebook becomes the shadow.
The nature of the ego-identity and shadow may be better understood if we use an example of how it works in reality. Imagine you are driving in your car through a busy town center when somebody cuts you off in traffic. Your initial reaction may be to stick your head out the window and scream your head off at this maniac for being so stupid (your shadow is appearing), but before you can do this, you remember you are a ‘nice person’ (ego identity) who wouldn’t dream of expressing rage in public.
Mindfulness of the Shadow
Much of western pop psychology is based around teaching us how to develop a ‘healthy’ ego identity. There does seem to be some benefit in doing this, but it also tends to involve denying aspects of ourselves we don’t like to look at. It also ultimately involves believing in a lie because our identity is at best only a weak description of who we are.
The danger with ignoring the shadow is it can lead to a situation where it becomes almost impossible for us to like ourselves. This happens when we have so many rules about what we have to do to be lovable (the criteria created by our identity) that it is no longer possible for us to ‘tick all the boxes’. It means that every time the shadow raises its ‘ugly head’ (which it will), we can be left full of shame and regret and feel like a failure.
Mindfulness uses a different approach to dealing with the ego. It is based on the understanding that our identity is merely thoughts about who we are and thoughts can only ever be an attempt to describe – they can never be the reality (i.e. the description of a rainbow will never capture the rainbow no matter how detailed it is).
The reality is our shadow side is as much a part of us as the bits we approve of. Sometimes we get angry, sometimes we have ‘impure’ thoughts, sometimes we feel weak, and sometimes we think silly things – it doesn’t mean we are a ‘bad person’. Thoughts are like clouds passing through the sky, we have no real control over them, and they only cause us problems when we try to resist or deny them.
So, rather than treating some thoughts as good and other thoughts as bad, in mindfulness, we treat them all as just thoughts. This way there is no need to suppress anything, and there is less likelihood these thoughts will trigger negative behavior. Also, once we stop relying so much on thoughts to tell us who we are (thoughts which are always limiting in some way), we can begin to discover who we really are.
Shadow Work as a Path to Unconditonal Love
As babies, before we developed an identity, we didn’t need to tick any boxes in order to feel fully accepted. It is only through outside conditioning that we began to limit our experience of unconditional love. We have been tricked – we are like a beggar who is sitting on top of a chest full of gold but refuses to open it.
What if you don’t need to do or be anything to be worthy of your own positive regard? What if it is only by allowing yourself access to this unconditional love that you begin to behave and perform better in life?
Working with the shadow allows us to slowly begin removing the obstacles to unconditional love. It means we can begin to let go of shame and live a more honest life – it means we become authentic human beings.
How to Work with the Shadow
The fact our ego works so hard to ignore the shadow side means it can be mostly hidden from our conscious experience. Here are some suggestions about how you can begin to investigate this side of yourself:
Pay attention to those who irritate you because they are likely breaking one of your ego rules about how ‘likeable’ people should behave (this will also be a rule you apply to yourself).
Shadow content can often appear in dreams so keep a dream diary and reflect on the content.
Meditation can allow us to better understand the workings of our mind – over time, we can begin to release the shadow into the light.
One of the insights we can arrive at through mindfulness practice is that our thoughts are impersonal (they are like like memories of things we have heard), and they are usually triggered by something in the environment – there is no reason to feel ashamed about them.
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