Our shadow, by its very nature, is out of our sight. Either it is completely unconscious or it is right out on the periphery of our consciousness. The shadow consists of parts of us we have hidden away and are trying hard not to see. One way of thinking of this is to imagine that we have a bag which we drag along behind us, and in this bag we have hidden away all the parts of ourselves that we don’t want to show to the world – the parts we have cut off, repressed or denied. This bag forms our shadow. We can’t see it, and we hope against hope that others can’t see it either.
So when we want to explore our shadow side we have a problem – although we may have an uncomfortable feeling that something is hiding there in the shadows, we have no direct way of knowing what it is. At some point in our lives we have hidden it from ourselves. This article offers ways you can explore what might be in shadow for you. Since we can’t see our shadows directly, some detective work is required. Below I describe five ways that we can use to help us spot our shadows:
What we judge in others
Firstly we can look at what we really judge in other people – the qualities that really irritate, annoy, or enrage us. Take the example of anger – If, as a child, I have been told I mustn’t be angry, or I have learnt that anger is dangerous or hurtful, then I may have decided to put my anger in to shadow. I tossed it away over my shoulder in to my shadow bag, out of sight to me and out of sight to others. I tried to pretend I didn’t have anger. Now, one way of looking at this is that when we toss the anger away over our shoulder we can miss the bag altogether – instead, the anger travels all the way around the world and shows up in the person in front of us! This is the idea of projection. We are disowning anger in ourselves and projecting it on to the people around us, where we judge it strongly. It really grates with us when they allow their anger to be expressed – that just seems so wrong! We want to squash it down in them in the same way we squashed it down in ourselves many years ago. Please note, when you have this response it doesn’t mean the person in front of you isn’t an ‘over the top’ angry person, they may well be, it just means that it will really bother you in a way that it may not bother others who might be able to hold it more lightly.
Now most therapists believe that the healthy clean expression of anger can be helpful to us, and if we don’t have access to our anger we can encounter all sorts of problems in getting along in life. So if we notice ourselves judging angry people it doesn’t mean we need to start behaving in extremely aggressive or hostile ways, it just means we may want to look at our own connection with our healthy anger:
Is this something I’ve lost touch with?…
Have I disowned my anger?….
Are there times when it might be helpful for me to express my anger?
What’s it like to say to yourself
‘I get angry sometimes’?
This could be a first step in re-claiming this part of yourself.
Similarly with other qualities, such as selfishness for example. If we judge selfishness in others what might we be disowning in ourselves? It’s possible that you may have thrown other things away in to the bag – by mistake as it were – along with your selfishness. Putting yourself first, believing you are important, and having a sense of self worth are all sides of selfishness that you might find missing in your life, that might be a good thing. So you can ask yourself:
Am I losing something by denying my selfishness?…
Are there times when it would be helpful to be able to put myself first, or to have a sense of my needs being important?…
What is the kernel of gold that I may have thrown away along with my selfishness?…
What’s it like to say to yourself:
‘I like to put myself first sometimes.’?
The invitation here is to unpick things in this way. Notice something you really judge in others. Ask yourself if you have cut off that part of yourself and ask yourself if there is anything of value here that you might like to reclaim.
What we admire in others
The flip side of looking at qualities we really judge in others is to look at the qualities we really admire in other people. Sometimes this is known as the golden shadow. Let’s take the example of confidence. We may really admire people who have confidence, who can speak up in public, act or sing, or take on a challenging role at work. In our childhood we may have got the message that we were annoying or a nuisance if we spoke up, or we may have been told our gifts didn’t amount to much. We may have been told we were too big for our boots or too bossy. One way or another we may have got the message that it wasn’t ok to be bright and to shine. We put our confidence in to shadow in order to get along and be accepted by those around us. So when we see someone else with confidence we really admire them. We think ‘I could never be like that… they seem to have something magical that I don’t have.’ Well, in Shadow Work we believe you DO have confidence, it is a natural part of us all, but it has been hidden away for a long time, and some work will be required to re-claim this part of yourself.
The invitation here is to look at things you really admire in others and ask yourself if this is something you have put in to shadow. You can then start to own this in yourself. With the example above, you could try saying to yourself ‘I am confident. I could do what they’re doing.’ and see what it feels like. You don’t have to believe it right now, but rather just play with it and notice how it feels to speak like this. This could be a first step to owning your golden shadow.
What we do by accident
Another way we can get a hint of what might be in shadow for us is to notice things that we do by accident. It’s not actually possible to get rid of a part of ourselves, and if we squash something down for long enough at some point it will come bursting up and out. This usually happens without our deliberate intention – we just can’t help ourselves. Another way of looking at this is to say that the bag we’re dragging around with us, where we’ve hidden our shadows, is not hermetically sealed. However hard we try, at some point what’s in there will come leaking out. This can be very shocking and confusing for us. It is common to hear people say ‘That’s just not me – I don’t do that kind of thing!’ Yet they did, and in Shadow Work we believe it is them, just a part of themselves that they have hidden away for a long time and lost touch with.
Anger again is a great example. If we spend our whole lives trying to be calm and balanced, gentle and thoughtful – not having any anger in us – there will come a moment where that is unsustainable. Something has to give. When something catches us off guard we may snap at someone, say something hurtful, or even lash out in rage, immediately regretting it a moment later. We quickly regroup and get back in charge of our anger, but the incident is confusing to us. ‘What happened there?…I’m not an angry person!’
Another example could be someone who is very happy-go-lucky, never gets upset about anything and is always cheerful. It may be that one evening something doesn’t go quite right for them, an event they were looking forward to gets cancelled, or they may have an accident and spill something – some minor incident has them crying uncontrollably. They find themselves overwhelmed with emotion. They feel silly and embarrassed and don’t understand where this might have come from. They may think ‘I’ve got nothing to be so sad about.’, yet their overwhelming response suggests otherwise. It’s possible that something very sad happened when they were young and there was no one around to help them process their grief. It may be that sadness was met with little sympathy in their childhood, or it may even have provoked disapproval or punishment. Alternatively it may have been their role in the family to keep everyone cheerful, so they had to learn to put their sadness to one side. There are many different ways in which someone may have come to lose touch with their sadness. After so many years of not feeling this side of themselves they may have stored away a well of grief that feels scary to touch in to, it is so unfamiliar. Yet it will eventually find ways to express itself that take the person quite by surprise.
Another very public example of shadows coming out by accident is that of the groom who leaves their bride standing at the altar. This person may have put all their doubts and fears around being married in to shadow and not allowed themselves to acknowledge them. This means they haven’t been able to explore these feelings with anybody or work them through. Then the day arrives and they just find themselves unable to go through with the ceremony, not really understanding why. This happens totally by accident. They would never have planned it this way.
Again, the invitation here is to ask yourself if maybe you have put your anger/sadness/fears/arrogance, or whatever else it is that has taken you by surprise, in to shadow. Then, as a first step, see what it feels like to say ‘I get angry sometimes.’, ‘I get very sad sometimes.’, ‘I feel frightened sometimes.’, ‘I think I know best sometimes.’ or whatever is relevant for you. Reclaiming conscious ownership of these parts of yourself is a first step in having control over these behaviours and stopping them from bursting out by accident.
Leaking through our body
Another way our shadows can leak out by accident is through our bodies. It is usually other people who will notice this, as we are likely to be completely unaware of what is happening. For example a friend may tell us that we look terribly sad, when we ourselves are not aware of feeling sad. Or we may be talking confidently, while our body language and facial expression betray our hidden fears. We may be doing our best to be calm and patient with someone, yet our fists may be clenched, demonstrating the anger inside us that has no outlet for expression. These things are beyond our control and out of our awareness. However, if someone does point them out to us, or if we notice them when for example, we watch a video of ourselves then we have the option to explore things further.
If my friend tells me I look terribly sad I could reflect on whether or not there may be something I am very sad about that I have pushed away in to shadow. Did something happen, maybe a very long time ago, that I have not wanted to feel? If someone tells me I look angry, even though I’m feeling very calm and loving, I could ask myself if there may be anger about some past event that I’m not expressing.
It’s important to only take notice of what rings true for you. Other people’s observations can be helpful, but they can also be clouded by their own shadows and unowned material.
Our bodies may speak out in other ways too – by giving us migraine, rashes, backache or more serious illnesses. It is always worth exploring what unowned part of us might be trying to find expression through our body. Again, please be aware this is for your own interpretation only. It is never wise to put too much trust in others interpretation of our bodily ailments.
Things that we do compulsively can also offer a glimpse into our shadow world. Over eating, smoking, gambling, cleaning…. any habit we have that we just can’t seem to stop gives us clues as to the parts of us that are driving things from behind the scenes. Parts of us that we haven’t owned can have a lot of power over our actions. Consciously, we may want to lose weight and be fit, yet we just find ourselves eating automatically in a way we can’t control. Here we might want to ask – what is going on for this hidden part of us that wants us to eat? Is it feeling like it needs nourishing or nurturing?…. Does it want pleasure, sensuality or comfort?…Is it fed up with obeying all the rules we impose?…. Can we listen to this part and try to find out what it really wants? Similarly, if we find ourselves compulsively cleaning we could ask what it is that this part really wants – Is it requiring order, or safety?…Does it need a sense of control?…Is it a frustrated energy that needs an outlet?…. How could we meet the needs of this hidden part of us in a more wholesome and conscious way?
Over time the above five explorations may well reveal some insights for you as to aspects of yourself that you may have put in to shadow. This can be painful work. There are always good reasons for us to have hidden parts of ourselves away. There may have been much pain, fear, shame or guilt associated with these sides of ourselves. As children we have to do everything we can to survive and to get along with those around us, so it is sensible to hide away sides of ourselves that seem unwelcome, overwhelming or unsafe. Yet in adult life we can find we really miss out when we don’t have access to the full breadth of our personality. We may find we get constantly walked over and can’t stand up for ourselves because our anger is in shadow, or we may find we don’t take opportunities in life because our confidence is in shadow. Alternatively we may find ourselves stuck in a relationship or job that isn’t nourishing us because we have put our own needs in to shadow and we spend all our time pleasing others. Or we may find we can’t have successful relationships because we have put our need for intimacy in to shadow. There are many ways our shadows can cause us to live a difficult or limited life and for some people there comes a time when they decide the pain of discovering these shadow parts is worth the potential gain. They want to have their life back under their own control and to be able to form rich and nourishing relationships with those around them. Shadow Work is here to support people who are going through this process, and although painful at times this work can be incredibly joyful as people break free from past restrictions and experience the relief of owning and inhabiting the whole of who they are.
For more information on exploring and healing the shadow, including Group Workshops, Individual Sessions and Couples Work please visit Marianne’s website: