The shadow self is that which is buried deep in our subconscious and which manifests as negative traits. Sharmila Bhosale reveals how we can turn this shadow from foe to friend by practising awareness
Do you know that there is something walking along with us all the time, casting its influence on our thoughts and behaviour throughout our life? We cannot escape its control over us. It is this entity which dictates our destiny, which calls the shots for us, presents our face to the world, and determines our decisions. The only way to curtail its charge over us is to befriend it. Make it our ally. Get to know it deeply. Trust in it so that we can walk tall into the brightest sun where our shadow is at its smallest.
It’s no wonder that this being that we carry along with us in all our moments is called ‘the shadow.’ It is at its deepest and darkest when we fail to shine the light of awareness on ourselves, just like the long eerie enveloping shadow cast at twilight.
The term ‘shadow’ was coined by the famed Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung.
What is the shadow self?
According to Jung, ‘the shadow’ is the uncivilised, even primitive side of our nature. He believed that we needed to fully see this dark side of ourselves if we were to be a fully integrated human being. It is the side of our personality that contains all the parts of our self that we don’t want to admit having. “Most of our subconscious mind is the shadow—stuff which we don’t know about, since it’s been repressed or denied during childhood. It surfaces due to some triggers, and then it rises like a demon and takes over everything. That’s when you act it out, like someone who is possessed. You are taken over by blinding rage or a sudden crippling sadness,” says Leena Jacobs, PLR therapist, Inner Child healer and Meditator for the past 11 years.
The shadow is the ‘dark side’ of our personality because it consists chiefly of primitive, negative human emotions and impulses like rage, envy, greed, selfishness, desire, and the striving for power. All that we deny in ourselves—whatever we perceive as inferior, evil, or unacceptable—becomes part of the shadow. Anything incompatible with our chosen conscious attitude about ourselves is thrust into this dark side.
The secret is out: all of us, no exceptions, have qualities we won’t let anyone see, including ourselves—our Shadow. If we face up to our dark side, our life can be energised. If not, there is the devil to pay. This is one of life’s most urgent projects.—Larry Dossey (Healing Words)
If we are truly honest about growing, changing, and living life to the fullest, we will, at some point, come across many parts of our self that we will find difficult—if not completely disturbing—to accept. These ugly and frightening parts of us are elements of the shadow self: the darker side of our nature.
Splitting our self
Jung differentiated between the persona and the shadow self. Our persona represents who we would like to be and how we wish to be seen by the world. It is essentially the different social masks that we wear with different groups of people and situations. On the other hand, our shadow self is a part of our unconscious mind and is composed of repressed ideas, instincts, impulses, weaknesses, desires, perversions, and embarrassing fears. It is the darker side of the psyche, representing wildness, chaos, and the unknown. Jung believed that this latent energy is present in all of us, in many instances forming a strong source of creative energy, if acknowledged and accepted.
“A man is whole only when he takes into account his shadow.”—Djuna Barnes
“There are parts of us which are either not easy to accept or maybe it’s just not the right time for those aspects to come out in the open. Both could be a part of the shadow self. So, if it’s not the right time for those parts to come out, for those seeds to open, it is better they remain as the shadow self till then. Like a child, if given too much information at a young age, when he is not ready for advanced cognitive functions, it’s better those shadow aspects remain within him,” explains Shalu Mehrotra, a psychotherapist.
We are all like a blank slate when we are born. But at some point during our childhood development, we are conditioned to separate things into good and bad. The moment we internalise this good-bad distinction, our shadows are born and we begin to divide ourselves into multiple parts. As we grow up, we begin to sort out those traits within us that are acceptable to our family and society (the persona), and those that are unacceptable (which are later hidden away— the shadow). Over years of conditioning or trauma, the shadow is pushed deep within the recesses of the mind, out of any conscious awareness, till we are cut off from its existence, plunging it into the black hole of our mind.
Watch your reactions
“The shadow escapes from the body like an animal we had been sheltering.” —Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation
The only way it breaks through is via our reactions to situations and people. They act like a trigger pushing what’s beneath the surface into the open. Like a crack in a dam, the unresolved emotions, the darkest part of our being gushes out, drowning all that comes in its path.
“Once I was standing near the checkout counter of a shop waiting to pay for my purchases. Just as my turn arrived, another lady came through the side and paid for her item telling the cashier she had just one and to take her money first. As the cashier accepted her payment, I suddenly felt a blind rage. In front of everyone, I nearly threw all my items on the counter and yelled at the cashier saying I didn’t want any of the items if he had taken someone out of turn as I had been waiting in line. After that, seething with rage, I just left the shop,” says Pooja Shenoy. The next day, she wondered what had come over her. “I started observing my reactions, and then I came across a pattern. I would get irritated or simply fly off the handle when someone else got more attention or managed to upstage me.” Through a desire to break the pattern, she began to observe her reactions and stay with her feelings without trying to deny what was happening in the landscape of her mind.
Over time, she realised the deep insecurity that was at the root of her feelings, and the sabotaging behaviour that consequently arose from it stemmed from feeling lonely and unwanted as a child. Her parents had dismissed her feelings, and thus she came to see these feelings with guilt. She had pushed away these feelings of sadness and anger, distracting herself with denial. She had created a shadow that sprung on her like a crouching tiger.
“I embrace my shadow self. Shadows give depth and dimension to my life. I believe in embracing my duality, in learning to let darkness and light peacefully co-exist as illumination.”—Jaeda DeWalt
Have you ever done or said something and then wondered why you did or said it? A part of you was taking charge. Every so-called ‘accident’ is an aspect of yourself hijacking your behaviour.
Traits associated with ‘being good’ are accepted, while others associated with ‘being bad’ are rejected. We all have basic human needs, which include physiological safety and security needs, and a need for belonging. Expressing certain parts of ourselves as children invited negative feedback from those we wanted love and attention from. Maybe we got angry and threw a tantrum. Our parents reprimanded the outburst and withdrew affection. Or perhaps we acted with abandon or behaved silly in our first-grade classroom. Our teacher shamed us for our manner in front of the class. All the consequences of our behaviour threatened some of our basic needs, and so we adjusted our behaviour to gratify our needs and learnt to adapt in different ways to the external world.
These unaccepted or discouraged parts of our self in our early years were swept out of view and buried deep beyond our conscious awareness. As poet Robert Bly says in A Little Book of the Human Shadow, the child puts all of these unwanted parts into an invisible bag and drags it behind him. Plunging us into dark moods and draining our energy.
The real light
Interestingly, a lot of modern spiritual and religious work revolves around moving towards the ‘light’ and seeking the ‘light.’ A lot of life coaching involves positive affirmations, which, while being very upbeat, deny the existing reality of feelings. By continually focussing on the positive and the ‘light,’ we ignore the wholeness of what it is to be human! In fact, many of the spiritual and New Age teachings provide an escape for those who do not want to be responsible for the integration of their life. Facing our own dark side is the only way, ironically, to see the light.
Among the spiritual stalwarts, Osho was one of the first and perhaps the only one who talked about repressed feelings and the need to accept our dark side. The more our darkness is avoided, the more it grows within us, waiting like a volcano to gush out at any unexpected moment.
The agony and ecstasy of the shadow
“Every pain, addiction, anguish, longing, depression, anger or fear is an orphaned part of us, seeking joy, some disowned shadow, wanting to return to the light and home of ourselves.” — Jacob Nordby
What happens when you ignore your shadow?
Jung believes that when the human shadow is shunned, it tends to sabotage our lives. Repressing or suppressing one’s shadow can result in addictions, low self-esteem, mental illness, chronic illnesses, and various neuroses.
The personal shadow is the disowned self. This shadow self represents the parts of us we no longer claim to be our own, including inherent positive qualities. Our shadow doesn’t go anywhere. It stays with us, as our dark brother or sister. The trouble starts when we fail to see it. It is at these instances that it takes over, and then we become the shadow. Another person altogether. We fly into an uncontrollable rage. We sink into depression. We become addicted to substances, eating, shopping, and working. The shadow asserts itself and devours us.
“Your Shadow is a dark omen, a powerful teacher that reveals to you the places in your life where you are energetically blocked. When you continue to ignore these signs, you perpetuate the cycle of your suffering.” —Mateo Sol
Pssst….Your shadow is peeping
Of course, the shadow self or subconscious does not know it is sabotaging us. Because it is hidden, it can seep into our life, our beliefs, and everyday behaviour in unexpected ways—sometimes even as protective defensive mechanisms meant to keep us from owning our full power—hidden from the world or from potential scrutiny.
That’s why it becomes essential to bring the shadow self to the surface, to perform the necessary inner work. To be aware and understand our dark side, to accept it fully so that we can integrate it into our self to create a positive and wholesome change.
“Some people are not aware that they are angry. They will even deny that they have said a few things; it’s as if they are possessed. All the repressed energy comes out, and the more you suppress it, the more intensity it will come out with,” says Jacobs. “Sometimes we know we are angry but cannot control it— rather the anger controls us. Also, people who don’t see their shadow pin their anger on to someone else. Blame others for their outbursts.”
“The disowned part of self is an energy—an emotion or desire or need that has been shamed every time it emerged. These energy patterns are repressed but not destroyed. They are alive in our unconscious.”— John Bradshaw
Are you a habitual people pleaser? Are you prone to blaming others every time you lose your temper or get irritated? Do you deny that you acted in a certain way or that someone else made you do something? Do you play the victim every time? Do you feel that others around you are controlling you?
Taking the example of someone who feels bullied or subservient in a marriage, Jacobs explains how shadows are played out as you grow: “In this case, your shadow is this helpless child who has been bullied by a sibling or a parent and that part is now being played by the spouse. Your subconscious stuff is always being emitted outside through your energy. Like a colour spectrum, what you are not absorbing or accepting is thrown out, becomes visible. The subconscious stuff is getting projected outside and the other person is catching that subconscious stuff of yours and reacting to that, bullying you or whatever. So the only way to handle this drama is by integrating your shadow or your inner child. This is done by awareness or meditation-telling yourself that you are a capable person, not helpless. You catch your thoughts before they become something else because thoughts are energy bodies, creating vibrations, with a field around you. So if you are aware and conscious and the other person is not, he is going to play his drama, and you have to be aware that you don’t get sucked into it. You have to be in control of your stuff.”
Some people have an identity. I have an alibi. I have a shadow self.—Andre Aciman
We project our weaknesses or unacceptable parts onto others. Our shadow shows through our reactions to people and situations and the repeated patterns in our behaviour. “There are aspects which we find difficult to accept like deep jealousy within us or some insecurity. Yet, life wants us to face them. So we start seeing those aspects in others. Now, after we see them in others, it depends on us whether we are willing to recognise that it is something to do with us and work on those aspects or choose to ignore them. But life will keep giving us signals through discomfort arising within us. Whether we choose to listen or not depends on us,” says Mehrotra.
“I would get irritated by people who tried to be the centre of attention by talking about their achievements or ‘showing off’ on social media. I could not laugh away these things as other friends would do. I would feel annoyed and find reasons for calling their bluff, thinking they were lying. Today, I know that it was my shadow. That I felt jealous, and beneath that jealousy was my deep-rooted insecurity and a feeling of incompetence. I was offloading all these on to other people instead of facing them,” says Anjali Mathur, who gave up her career in finance to be a stay-at-home mom.
“In these ways, the personal shadow reinforces, encourages, and becomes dependent upon the addictive behaviour to express itself, to have any existence in the light outside of the closet, the attic, and the basement where it has been locked up and hidden for so long. Often, the addictive behaviour allows the personal shadow the only opportunities to live and to be. The more cut off and unconscious we are of our personal shadows, the more vulnerable we are to having those shadows break out and be set free for a time by addictive behaviours.” (War of the Gods in Addiction, David Schoen)
Often our finest shadow traits are projected onto the people we like, admire, or fall in love with. The opposite is also true, and the most defenceless of beings can become the carriers of our negative projected shadow self traits. Children, for example, provide the perfect outlet for our anger, frustration, and other negative emotions. The smallest of accidents or naughty actions can be punished with disproportionate and destructive wrath. Pets and those who work for us are just as vulnerable. Projection, for many of us, is always easier than integration.
Integration: Towards a more wholesome you
In order to step out of our shadow into the light, integration is necessary. It starts with awareness—when we are conscious of the feelings within us and we actually acknowledge and accept the dark parts. We dare to look at what makes us uncomfortable within us. This is like shining a torch in a tunnel and highlighting the dark areas. With the light, one can see into the darkness clearly and enable it to merge into the light.
“You can meditate to understand your triggers—what happens within you every time you cry. What did you feel because of a comment made by someone? You are an adult now, so what made you suddenly feel like a child? What triggered the childhood state? Why did the statement that person made cause this reaction within you?” Jacobs suggests.
One of the best ways to identify your shadow is to pay attention to your emotional reactions toward other people. Agreed, your colleagues might be aggressive, arrogant, inconsiderate, or impatient, but if you don’t have those same qualities within you, you won’t have a strong reaction to their behaviour. If you’re paying close attention, you can train yourself to notice your shadow when you witness strong negative emotional responses to others.
As Jung is often quoted saying: ‘Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.’
“If we review our emotional life every day, become aware of and accept our feelings without judgement, we will not build too many shadows. Accepting does not mean that you agree to your dark side always but to at least become aware of those feelings. Once that is done, the next step of resolution develops,” says Mehrotra.
Whatever bothers us in another is likely a disowned part within our self. When we get to know that part, we must accept it and make it a part of our self. Over time, it will evoke a progressively weaker emotional charge within us when we observe it in someone else. Focus on what and who evokes an emotional charge in you. It doesn’t matter what the emotion is; it’s a clue that you are denying something within you.
“Parents can help children not develop a shadow self by accepting various traits within them and talking about them. Like if a child is angry or jealous, it’s healthy expression needs to be allowed rather than just ignoring or saying one should not feel like that,” clarifies Mehrotra
Anger, selfishness, violent tendencies, the quest for uncontrollable power, and sexual desires are all undesirable traits which are frowned upon by society and are concealed to avoid scrutiny. Thus, we have an idealised self and a shadow self, and we are a combination of the two. But interestingly, there are benefits of confronting and developing the shadow, and as such, Jung often referred to this neglected part of ourselves as the ‘golden shadow,’ hinting at the gifts which this part can give us if we are brave enough to look at what we’ve repressed from childhood.
“Anger, when channelised, can become the power to change. Jealousy, when looked into with awareness, can be used to grow ourselves to acquire the qualities we are jealous of in the other person. All feelings are indeed gifts and messages from life. If listened to, they are not shadows, they are messengers to bring us growth for self and society,” explains Mehrotra.
Shadows hide as much as they reveal. They shield as much as they uncover. They work against us or for us. The crucial differentiator is the amount of awareness we bring to our feelings and the choice we make to act on that awareness to bring about change.
Dragging around this invisible bag of stuff behind us is draining. It is exhausting work to continually repress and suppress all of the parts of ourselves that we don’t want to face in our adulthood. Fatigue and lethargy can plague the unexamined life. Mental suppression can also lead to physical pain and disease. Not to mention creating toxic and unhealthy relationships, both personal and professional.
To fully examine these subconscious programs operating on autopilot, you can’t just work on the surface-level beliefs you think you have. You have to go into the dark underworld of thoughts you don’t want to own. Bringing them to the surface is the only way to heal them, understand how they came to be, and ultimately replace them with healthier beliefs.
Pay close attention with gentle curiosity at what these repressed parts are trying to tell you. Are they trying to protect you from something? Listen to their reasoning. Engage in a conversation with your inner parts to trace their origins and what they’re trying to achieve. For example, you may have an inner part that opposes your conscious desire for beautiful friendships with trustworthy people. Maybe that inner part has been hurt by people in the past, so it doesn’t allow you to consider the possibility of people who may be good for you entering your life. In doing so, it tries to defend you ferociously. This is a noble cause, but without moderating this desire, it can take over your life to the point of isolating you from those who could be compatible friends.
Integrating the shadow brings us one step closer to realising a sense of wholeness. It’s a critical step to achieving mature adulthood and that unlocks more of our creative potential. We feel free, alive, and energetic. Not the frenzied, manic energy that drives compulsive busyness, but a calm, constant feeling of enthusiasm for our life and an enhanced ability to face all the challenges that life throws our way.
When we are disintegrated, we are fragmented. A person who ‘breaks down’ or ‘falls apart,’ for instance, is someone who has been unable to handle stress and who has ignored too many of their personality traits, especially their shadow self traits, to function normally. In reality, a fragmented person can never handle adversity because they have no whole centre, and they’re always handling life from the corners of their personality parts. This is why integration is so essential: it helps us to become whole again.
The shadow, once integrated, transforms from being an ominous dark entity into a life-affirming, gentle shade, quite like the shelter provided by a giant tree under whose canopy we find rest, revival, regeneration, and a refreshing renewal.
Types of shadows
• The egotistical monster
Root cause: primal fear of ‘not being good enough’; not existing, being a nobody
This person displays the following characteristics: arrogance, egocentricity, pompousness, inconsiderateness, self-indulgence, narcissism, and excessive pride.
• The neurotic monster
Root cause: fear of life, others, and self; desire to regain control
This person displays the following characteristics: paranoia, obsessiveness, suspiciousness, finickiness, demanding attitude, masochism, and compulsive behaviour.
• The untrustworthy monster
Root cause: fear of life in general
This person displays the following characteristics: secrecy, impulsiveness, frivolity, irresponsibility, deceit, and unreliability.
• The emotionally unstable monster
Root cause: basic feeling of being ‘unlovable’ and powerless; reaction to unresolved emotional pain
This person displays the following characteristics: moodiness, melodrama, manipulation, weepy and overemotional disposition, impulsiveness, and unpredictability.
• The controlling monster
Root cause: basic mistrust of life, feelings of abandonment and ‘not being good enough’
This person displays the following characteristics: suspicion, jealousy, possessiveness, bossiness, obsession.
• The cynical monster
Root cause: protection against feeling too vulnerable
This person displays the following characteristics: negativity, over-criticism, patronisation, resentment, and cantankerousness.
• The wrathful monster
Root cause: fear of others, mistrust of life, closed heart
This person displays the following characteristics: ruthlessness, vengeance, bitchiness, quick-tempered nature, and quarrelsomeness.
• The rigid monster
Root cause: fear and rejection of the unknown, chaos, and ego death
This person displays the following characteristics: uptight behaviour, intolerance, obstinacy, uncompromisingness, inflexibility, and narrow-mindedness.
• The glib monster
Root cause: distrust of life, others, and self
This person displays the following characteristics: superficiality, cunningness, inconsistency, slyness, and craftiness.
• The nonchalant monster
Root cause: buried grief, fear, and shame (numbness is a defence)
This person displays the following characteristics: emotional detachment, reservedness, indifference, callousness, and unexcitability.
• The perverted monster
Root cause: repressed sexual energy, possible unresolved childhood wounds
This person displays the following characteristics: sadism, lust, depravity, and corruption.
• The cowardly monster
Root cause: fear, disbelief in self
This person displays the following characteristics: a weak will, timidity, fear.
• The naive monster
Root cause: refusal to grow up, lack of individuated ego
This person displays the following characteristics: puerility, pettiness, immaturity, illogicality, simple-mindedness, and vacuousness.
Books to read
• The dark side of the light chasers: Reclaiming your power, creativity, brilliance and dreams by Debbie Ford
• Owning your own shadow: Understanding the dark side of the psyche by Robert A Johnson
• The Shadow Effect: Illuminating the hidden power of your true self by Deepak Chopra
• Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche by Robert Johnsonw
How your shadow shows up
• You harbour harsh criticisms or judgements of others
Being hard on other people is usually indicative of things we judge harshly in ourselves but haven’t yet acknowledged. Judging others is also a sign that our shadow self is afraid, feels lonely, or finds it difficult to accept those who are different from ourselves.
• You point out someone’s flaws as a reflection of your own insecurities
Mirror, mirror on the wall. . . The famous scene in the Disney movie where a witch asks a mirror who is the fairest of them all, is the perfect example of how we project our insecurities on others. We want to be beautiful, smart, outgoing, and cheerful all the time. We want others to only mirror these traits in us, and, like the witch in Snow White, be told how wonderful we are, but the mirror of life reflects all that we are—the good, the not so good, and the terrible.
• You exercise unnecessary power over those who are in subordinate positions
As a means to compensate for one’s own feelings of helplessness, people in positions of power will exert their will with force or violence (even if it is just verbal) to cover up their own feelings of worthlessness, ineffectiveness, or vulnerability.
• You play victim
By never taking responsibility, we never address our innate power to direct our lives and to affect change. We’re not martyrs or victims. We are the architects of our own reality. A victim believes that they are at the mercy of everyone and everything around them. And this can be used as an excuse for the lack of progress in their lives. If you can’t be assertive, feel powerless, don’t trust others, can never see the silver lining, constantly see your life as lacking in some way, get into arguments easily, feel sorry for yourself, or constantly compare yourself to others as a means to put yourself down, then you are playing the victim. Realise when you are doing this, and lovingly allow yourself to choose a different way of living.
•You refuse to confront your own bias or prejudice
We’re all biased and prejudiced. It doesn’t matter how many black friends, gay friends, people of different religions and cultural backgrounds you have, you still have many biases and prejudices. The minute you use the terms ‘me,’ ‘my,’ ‘mine,’ or ‘I,’ you leave space for bias to creep in. It’s that self-referential universe the ego is constantly creating. To truly address the shadow, we need to vigilantly address our own likes and dislikes, acknowledging that we live with bias on a daily basis. Bravely enter into self-examination to uncover ways where you are privileged, or you have been using stereotypes to define the people around you. If you have no friends who are different from you, actively seek to make friends with others who are likely to break down your stereotypes. This man who made friends with members of the KKK is a great example of how to eliminate bias.
• You jockey for position by using others
Self-confidence has nothing to do with ego. If you listen to others’ advice but rarely follow it, always look for ways to ‘get ahead’ while ignoring the well-being of others, find that you alienate others over time but you aren’t sure why, or think that the bottom line is more important than your relationships with other people, you have some shadow work to do. Speeding ahead to take that spot in traffic while cutting off the car to your right and almost causing an accident is a perfect example of this, but there are obviously thousands of other ways we try to step over (or on) others to inflate our sense of self.
• You have a messiah complex
If you think you were put on this earth to save everyone from themselves, consider that your shadow self is asking you to save yourself. This is a dangerous delusion that can cause a world of pain for you and those you try to ‘save,’ as you will rob them of the power to save themselves.
How to discover your shadow
• Make a list of five positive qualities that you see yourself as having (e.g., compassion, generosity, wit, etc.)
• Look at each positive quality that you wrote down and describe its opposite (e.g., callousness, stinginess, dullness, etc.)
• Picture a person who embodies these negative qualities vividly in your mind. Roughly, this is your shadow.
• Try to mindfully pay attention to each time someone around you does something, says something, or behaves in a way that irritates you or upsets you. Notice what bodily sensations arise out of this experience. Do you find yourself tensing up or clenching your jaw when something ‘irritating’ is said? Many things that annoy one person will have little to no effect on another. Ask yourself why certain qualities are so bothersome to you?
• If you highly value one of your positive traits, such as being organised or orderly, then being around someone sloppy or unorganised can seem quite painful. In a similar vein, if you highly value a trait such as modesty, then it can be almost unbearable to be around a braggart. Each time you find yourself giving in to these feelings of annoyance or irritation, ask yourself, “In what ways am I sloppy, cocky, etc.?”
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