A guide to getting to know the shadow of your self
Have you ever said or done something that you’ve later come to regret? Something that wasn’t ‘really you?’
I have. I remember being in school, withstanding the torments of my classmate only as much as I could tolerate them. After a while, I snapped. I confronted him, let my emotions override my composure and I punched him.
Sometimes the reasons for our actions might seem justified and obvious. Perhaps I only took as much bullying as I could, and it was only rational for me to lash out.
But it’s not as though I had much control of my actions. They were impulsive. I just hit him, without really thinking, and only came to regret the decision afterwards.
We’ve all had moments like this. Not necessarily violent moments, but times during which we’ve acted ‘out of character’ and have committed acts that we later wished we hadn’t.
That lack of control betrays the existence of another element of our self. It proves that there’s more to our personality than we and others might think.
Deep down, we all have a dark side. The dark side of our self. For as long as we pretend that it doesn’t exist, we’ll continue acting impulsively and without thinking. We’ll continue upsetting people. We’ll continue being a person that we don’t want to be.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
In 1886, writer Robert Louis Stephenson had an unusual dream. In it, a male character being pursued for a crime swallowed some powder in an attempt to escape. The powder transformed his personality instantly, providing him a disguise to use as an escape.
That dream inspired him to write the classic novel, ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’.
Whether or not you’ve read the book, you’re probably familiar with the story. Jekyll is a respected doctor and a well-to-do man. He cares for others, striving to be a good member of society and present a positive image of himself.
Early in the novel, Jekyll decides to craft a potion that allows him to separate the good and evil parts of his personality. As a result, he creates for himself a split identity, made up of Dr. Jekyll and the newly distinct, darker side of himself — Mr. Hyde.
Hyde is an evil man with wicked tendencies. Early in the novel, Hyde tramples a young girl before leaving her injured and screaming in pain. Later, he commits murder.
Interestingly, Jekyll never thinks of himself as Hyde. He always thinks of himself as Jekyll. As he puts it,
‘I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.’
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, although extreme, can serve as the perfect example of our darker side at work. It shows that there’s more to ourselves and our personality than we might think, and that, unless we get to know our dark side, it’ll rule our lives.
An Introduction to The Shadow
The concept of the darker side of the self was developed by world-renowned psychologist Carl Jung in the mid-1900s. He calls it ‘The Shadow’.
The idea of the shadow was used to depict the elements of our personality that we tend to reject — the less-favourable aspects of our identity that we usually hide from society.
We all possess characteristics that we dislike about ourselves and wish to conceal. Perhaps we’re short-tempered, embarrassingly selfish or lacking self-confidence. Whatever it is, we tend to push those parts of our psyche deep into the corners of our mind so that they can’t be seen by others.
Instead of confronting the traits that we dislike, we often pretend that they’re not even there. Biases, judgements, impulses, irrational wishes, sexual desires, fears — we hide all of these things in order to make others like us.
And then, when we betray that facade and act out of instinct, like my own outburst towards my high-school bullies, we’re left asking ourselves who was that person?
We become so disconnected from our shadow that we often forget it exists. Or rather, we deny that it exists. We pretend that, whoever that person was, it couldn’t have been us. Not the real us, anyway.
In the same way that Jekyll was unaware of Hyde’s presence, many of us spend our entire lives failing to come to terms with the existence of our shadow.
Recognising Other Peoples’ Shadow
In truth, whether we’d like to admit it or not, we all have a shadow. We all have parts of us that we hide from the public eye.
We might frame selfish requests in an altruistic light. We can be manipulative. Unkind. Psychopathic, even. We’ve all had intrusive thoughts and unexpected desires and confusing outbursts that not even we can explain. All in an attempt to conceal our true selves.
Seeing and accepting the shadow within ourselves is incredibly difficult. As Jung puts it,
‘The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort.’
What isn’t so difficult, however, is observing the shadow in other people.We do it all of the time.
We’re quick to criticise. To condemn, judge, chastise, discriminate, gossip, reject and assume. Truth be told, we do all of these things and more on an almost daily basis. Some studies even say that we’re genetically hard-wiredto judge other people.
Clearly we’re very good at identifying the shadow within those that we meet, but not so skilled at recognising our own. And this isn’t a good thing.
Although we might be avoiding our flaws, they’re still affecting us on a subconscious level. We still wish to deal with them on a deep down, and that’s why we’re so quick to pick holes in others.
Our own flaws are making their way out of us and being projected onto those we meet.
As Jack E. Othon writes,
‘First we reject, then we project.’
If you dislike something in another person, chances are, it’s an aspect of yourself that you dislike but have been repressing. You reject it in yourself and then project it onto somebody else, separating you from your shadow.
The Solution: Making the Subconscious Conscious
We don’t want to be like this. We all wish to come to terms with our own flaws so that we can accept and overcome them. Because unless we do that, we prevent ourselves from ever growing.
Thankfully, Jung didn’t just offer us his observations. He also proposed a solution to the problem. He suggests that, to overcome our flaws, we should conduct what he calls ‘shadow work’.
See, the flaws that we repress and hide don’t just vanish. They’re still there, locked deep within our subconscious mind — the part that we can’t access. And despite what our ego might have us believe, our subconscious mind is still running the show.
So what should we do about it?
Positive affirmations and words of praise might help, but Jung doesn’t advise them here. He writes,
‘One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.’
It’s not enough simply to input positive words and phrases into our minds in an attempt to replace the darker ones. Instead, he suggests that we must bring those repressed parts of us out. We must make them conscious.
To do this, it’s imperative that we take a step back. That we practice observing our behaviour from a point of detachment. That we observe what is happening within us.
Meditation is one way to achieve that. In meditation, we spend our time watching our thoughts. And in doing so, we disconnect from them. We can see our behaviour as it is and watch as the contents of our subconsciousness trickles into the forefront of our mind.
The next step is to question. When observing our behaviour, we have to ask questions about it. If we see ourselves responding to impulses or triggers, it’s important that we ask ourselves we we’re reacting this way.
Doing this enables us to backtrack to our memories — the origins of our behaviours. Perhaps I lashed out at my high-school bullies because I’d heard stories of my father doing the same thing when faced with a similar situation. Questioning our behaviour allows us to see it more clearly and make sense of it.
3. Use the 3–2–1 process
It can also help to notice the things that irritate us in others and use them as a source of introspection. If we grow frustrated at the rudeness of another person, we should question our own rudeness.
As said earlier, the things that annoy us in others are often a reflection of ourselves. Jung put it slightly differently,
‘Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.’
Ken Wilber looks at this concept in a little more detail. His idea of shadow work encourages us to observe the things that annoy us in others and to recognise them as elements of our own psyche.
He breaks down his methodology into a series of steps called the ‘3–2–1 Process’.
- Find something to work with. Think of somebody that’s been irritating or upsetting you recently.
- Face it. Imagine that person vividly. Describe the qualities about them that most upset you. Talk about them out loud or write your thoughts into a journal. Express your feelings. Forget about saying the ‘right’ thing, just say what comes to mind.
- Talk to them. Talk directly to the person as though they’re right in front of you. Tell them what’s bothering you. Ask them why they’re doing this and imagine their response. Speak or write their answers down.
- Become them. Be that person. Take on the traits of theirs that annoy you. Use first-person language (I, me, mine) and express how they would feel. It might feel awkward, and it should. After all, these are the traits that you’ve been denying in yourself.
- Own their qualities. The final step in the 3–2–1 process is to become the traits that you despise in the other person. To own the shadow of yourself rather than rejecting it. Finish the exercise by acting as that person would, forming a connection between their behaviour and the darker side of your psyche.
By engaging in this exercise, you close the gap between yourself and your shadow. You acknowledge that the behaviours you dislike are, actually, fragments of your own being.
As a result, you become more acquainted with the darker side of yourself. And by doing so, you gain more control over it.
There’s more to all of us that meets the eye. Almost all of our behaviour is governed by our subconscious mind — a vast ocean of thoughts and feelings that we’re completely unaware of.
Within the subsconscious is our shadow. The dark side of our self. The Mr. Hyde to our Dr. Jekyll.
Most of us ignore our shadow and pretend it doesn’t exist. But it does, and it demands to be seen, so it comes out of us in the form of criticisms and condemnations directed at the people we meet.
Ironically, we dislike the qualities in others that we possess in ourselves.What’s really happening is that we’re rejecting our true self and projecting those repressed characteristics onto other people.
Thankfully, by observing, questioning and acting out both our behaviour and other peoples’, we can learn to accept our shadow. And only when we begin to gain control over it, refusing to let it govern our lives.