Owning Your Own Shadow
All evil is potential vitality in need of transformation. — Sheldon Kopp
“Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” — Carl Jung
We all have a shadow–that unconscious junkyard where we dump all the thoughts and feelings we don’t, or don’t want to, recognize as our own. From the time we can take in the world around us, we also subconsciously avoid taking in what we don’t want to deal with. This is a completely normal survival mechanism. Some things are too threatening to deal with, and others just don’t make the cut into conscious awareness because of other priorities. The psychological shadow is as ubiquitous and unavoidable as the shadow cast by sunlight. If anyone tells you they don’t have a shadow, they’re lying, far more to themselves than to you.
We all have a shadow. But, depending on many factors, the shadow’s contents will vary greatly. If you grew up in a stoic family that frowned on emotional displays, for example, you probably have a lot of repressed feelings lurking in your shadow, anger and joy alike. And if you grew up with trauma or abuse, you will not only have repressed feelings, but perhaps large chunks of self-hood that you are completely out of touch with; the greater the severity and frequency of the trauma, the larger the disowned aspects of self are likely to be. This is nothing to be ashamed of, as it is how people survive traumatic experiences. But if you are avoiding looking at these shadow aspects of yourself, you are doing yourself a grave disservice.
It’s understandable, though. The shadow is threatening; many prefer to ignore, avoid, and project their shadow aspects rather than embrace them as viable and essential parts of their identity. But shadow is a viable part of our identity, and trying to ignore it requires a great deal of effort and energy. And also, it doesn’t work. The shadow is there, and it will have its say whether you “let” it or not. So far better to consciously embrace it.
My own experience with one of my major shadow aspects is a good illustration of this whole messy, complex process; that aspect is anger. I am an angry person! I can say that today without shame or remorse, and with a pretty good idea of how it has affected and continues to affect my life–but only because I’ve gone through the process of integrating this most threatening part of my shadow. I grew up in a family where I had a lot to be angry about. My parents were alcoholics, rageful, depressed, and uninterested in parenting. My mother was not nurturing, my father was not understanding. They fought a lot, loud and long and without regard for what their children heard them say to each other. There was a lot of yelling and name calling as well as physical abuse. Both my parents were even somewhat sadistic, seeming to enjoy making my sisters and me feel bad ourselves in ways too many and detailed to go into here. It is little wonder that both my sisters had left home (run away, actually) by the time they were 16; I was gone for good at 18.
If I sound angry in sharing this, that’s because I am. You might think in such an environment, I would be in touch with my anger, maybe even too in touch. But the opposite was true. I was terrified of anger. I avoided confrontation, and when I felt angry I could never, ever own it, always insisting–usually at a high decibel–”I’m not angry!” and engaging in the sort of angry behavior that comes out sideways from lack of acknowledgement: passive-aggressiveness, hostility, rageful crying and carrying on, and projecting that anger onto the people around me, constantly asking them if they were angry about something or, horror of horrors, mad at me for something. In any shape, form, or avenue, anger terrified me.
After a few years of therapy–okay, several–I had nowhere left to hide, and believe me, I had tried. The thought that I was an angry person was completely unacceptable to me, and when I finally had to face it– both my level of self-awareness and understanding about the issues involved made it impossible for me to avoid it any longer–I went through months of grief in accepting this horrible fact about myself. I was angry. I was an angry person. And not only was I angry, but that anger had been at my core, the primary factor behind almost every thought and feeling I’d had and every choice I’d made thus far in my life. My depression, my addiction, my fear, my lack of self-esteem; all were rooted in this anger that I had worked so long and so hard to avoid.
It is so true that if you don’t own your feelings, they own you. The process of accepting my anger was not easy, but it was probably the most important self-discovery work I’ve ever done, or ever will do. Through it, I was able to embrace a major part of who I was. How sad to think of going through life not having done this! It would be like knowing only half your self, and not even the interesting half, at that. For this is the true gift of embracing those parts of yourself that you’d rather ignore: they are your power, your dynamic energy, and your vitality.
I could only see my anger as a terrible curse, but it turned out to be exactly the opposite. I had always had anger and power fused, and only in owning my anger was I able to begin owning my power and getting in touch with my vitality, my drive, my dynamic energy. These I also had to repress in order to survive my childhood, and they all got lumped together into one very threatening ball of psychological clay. If I had not done the work of embracing my anger–which itself is a source of power–I would never have unearthed all of these other wonderful gems.
Shadow work is ongoing. We never get at it all, as the unconscious is integral to the conscious and serves a necessary purpose in the psyche. The crucial part is embracing the idea of the shadow, to honor and make room in your life for it rather than push it away or deny its existence.
How tragic to think of all the people out there who, in avoiding the threatening parts of themselves, live only a weak, stilted version of the life and self they have the potential for. I am so grateful I stumbled upon my shadow, and that I had the wherewithal to stay with the process of bringing it into the light. I shudder to think what my life would be like if I hadn’t.