When you feel a dark cloud gathering over your head, do you sweep it over onto your loved one's head, thinking it must belong to them? Consider acknowledging your "shadow self
" for greater intimacy with your most important relationships. Shadow work can help us gain clarity and reclaim our whole, higher selves.
Everyone has a "dark side," but when we make others responsible for our negative feelings, it can cloud our perception and keep us from recognizing the parts of ourselves that want to come into the light of awareness and be healed.
Shadow work is not for the faint-hearted. It involves seeing and taking responsibility for your own "dark side"—those parts of us that feel envy, greed, deception, blame and even allow self-abuse.
The concept of shadow work was defined by C.G. Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist who founded analytical psychology. Jung's "shadow" is based on a mental complex of all those parts of the personality rejected by the ego, which Jung defines as the focal point of consciousness. In other words, all those traits, aspects, feelings and urges within ourselves that we wish to deny or not face.
When we are born, we are at one with nature. All the contents of our unconscious are jumbled together in a single, swirling mass of life energy or Ki. This is the meaning of the number 1
, an undifferentiated, complex unity. Then, somewhere between one and two years of age, we develop a glimmering of awareness that we are separate from others: that "myself is here, and everyone else is out there." Over time, our ego puts our negative experiences and personal struggles into the "not me" or "other" category, and what our ego rejects feeds the shadow. As C.G. Jung says, "Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. At all accounts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions."
Those tendencies that we usually most passionately deny as being a part of ourself usually indicate a part of this shadow complex. A shadow can be negative and dark or positive and light, or both. We can deny that we possess qualities we find both abhorrent or otherwise objectionable ("negative") or qualities in others that we envy, long for, or admire ("positive").
But, just as the moon still hangs in the sky during daylight, even though we deny parts of ourselves, they still exist. So, where does the negative or positive energy go? We project them onto others.
We can recognize our shadows best when we react too strongly to another person or group. When we react with moral indignation, anger, disgust, and passionate distaste, especially when that person's or group's behavior does not directly affect us, the energy we put into denying that we are anything like that person, or are ever guilty of the same behavior is a good indication that we are making them the object of our projections.
The childhood taunt, "It takes one to know one," aptly describes the dynamic of the shadow relationship. But in fact, relationships don't usually mirror our egos. Instead, they mirror back our shadow selves. That buried, unacceptable part of ourself we deny and find it easier to see, or want to fix, in another person.
That person being rude to the sales clerk puts your stomach in knots. That girl with the too short skirt and wearing all that bling really upsets your inner prude. Or, how about that sports fan with the face paint and sweaty beer belly shouting into your ear? Does he make you recoil in disgust?
Believe it or not, our "mirror relationships," uncomfortable as the feelings they bring up can be, are here to show us our own shadow.
Here are five ways you can tell if you are in a "shadow" relationship.
- Blaming - Do you continually blame your husband, daughter, co-worker for making you late, losing important papers or going over your head for important decisions? Take a moment to assess how it makes you feel. Then, be honest with yourself, add up how many minutes or hours per day you spend feeling this way, about that subject, toward this person. We blame someone else when they are exhibiting parts of our own shadow.
- Denying - Part of the ego's job is to deny that you even have a shadow. Your ego wants to believe that you never have bad intentions, would never do or say mean things, or secretly wish for bad things to happen. Are you cringing just reading this? But, your shadow is a part of yourself. When you become fully enlightened, your ego will no longer need to be separate from your shadow.
- Judging - Is there someone you constantly complain about, or mock? Maybe it's the way your boyfriend peels his orange, or you seek other's opinions about a classmate, hoping they will bring up her awful taste in dress, so you can feel validated in your judgement of her. Something that isn't truly a part of you doesn't rankle. If you find yourself being super irritated or repulsed by something in another person's habits or personal expressions, chances are you are seeing shadows of something you are hiding from yourself.
- Obsessing - Do you put aside your own needs, desires and obligations to make time for being in someone else's business, worrying over where they are, what they are doing or what they are thinking? Putting this much energy into someone else is a sign that your shadow is fearful that your own soul is not worthy of its own life or purpose.
- Jealousy - Jealousy is the ego shadow's way of saying that you are not enough, or is fearful that it will never have what it desires. A healthy ego admires and is inspired by what it enjoys about others and sets out to learn what it can do to give the same to itself. The shadow wants to take away that prize-winning athletic performance from the other person. The healthy ego wants to know what type of training would be best to give the same performance herself.
You can reveal your shadows, and help them integrate with your higher self, with some simple writing exercises. When you feel angry, anxious or sad about another person's behavior or looks, write down the top three adjectives your ego assigns to them. Is Jane's sweater "ugly," "flashy," and "outdated?" Then write down how those words make you feel. "Disgusted?" "Embarrassed?" "Lonely?" Next, write out what you think is motivating Jane to wear such a sweater. Meditate on your notes for a few minutes. With this exercise you will soon discover what's really behind your reaction.
When the shadow is exposed to the light of our consciousness, it ceases to be shadow, a behavior or limiting belief that literally overshadows our lives. Instead of residing in the depths of our unconscious, it takes its rightful place in our conscious awareness, becoming an agent for change whenever we find ourselves dealing with a situation in which the soul calls for action.