For the unfamiliar, one’s “shadow” side is a colloquial expression referring to everything we can’t see in ourselves. A term formulated by psychologist Carl Jung, it essentially refers to our subconscious behavior. As Robert Louis Stevenson notes in his book The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, man is not one, but two: a conscious personality and a shadow.
To learn more about this shadow side we each supposedly possess, I recently explored an “Introduction to Shadow Work” event hosted by Sanctuary Imports, a metaphysical wonderland nestled in the heart of Plaza Midwood. Crystal lovers and essential oil junkies beware; you’re paycheck may have met its match.
The afternoon session was lead by Heather Darnell, an intuitive reader, ritual practitioner, teacher and energy healer. Her personal journey into shadow work began over 20 years ago, so I trusted her navigation through this seemingly intangible concept. Also along for the ride were a self-proclaimed practicing witch and another woman on the precipice of a spiritual awakening. Together this motley foursome would dive headfirst into the nebular topic of shadow work and self-healing.
Considering I’ve only heard of shadow work in passing, I showed up to the workshop with pen, paper and a naïve sense of curiosity. I learned that, while the shadow is an inherent part of being human, most of us are oblivious to it. We all tend to hide our negative qualities while always pointing out the flaws in others, in turn making ourselves seem superior. It’s like showing up to an interview as your best self. You don’t want them to see the shadow version of you that cusses under your breath while reading work emails. Are you identifying with me yet? If so, keep reading.
This “persona”, according to Jung, defines how we hope to be seen by the world. And even more interestingly, I found that the word “persona” is derived from a Latin word that literally means “mask”. Mind, blown.
According to Connie Zweig in Meeting the Shadow, “The shadow goes by many familiar names: the disowned self, the lower self, the dark twin or brother in Bible and myth, the double, repressed self, alter ego, id. When we come face-to-face with our darker side, we use metaphors to describe these shadow encounters: meeting our demons, wrestling with the devil, descent to the underworld, dark night of the soul, midlife crisis.”
To add to this insight, perhaps you’ve heard terms in yoga class like “love and light”. These refer to virtuous qualities like joy, non-judgment and kindness. But the amalgamation of our shadow side is a unique blend of counter-qualities; anger, fear, jealousy, etc., and to ignore these traits is unhealthy. In this case, non-confrontation is akin to ignoring a festering flesh wound. These defense mechanisms were born out of trauma, and to heal them requires much reflection and self-care.
A key takeaway from the afternoon’s lecture was to not only confront your shadow side, but to embrace it. By embracing it, we can learn to understand it and even integrate it into our lives in a healthy manner. Circling back to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as an example, if the duality of our psyche is not kept in check, our darker side can threaten to take precedence. Addictive behavior falls under this umbrella.
For instance, I’d love nothing more than to drink wine and shop online all day. However, since this behavior is socially unacceptable and counter-productive to my life goals, I choose to go to work instead. It’s this sense of self-awareness I can credit to maintaining a successful job while not falling prey to credit card debt.
But during this self-realization process, it’s important to remember that there can be no light without the dark. Consider for a moment the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang. According to Mark Cartwright in “Yin and Yang,” published on Ancient History Encyclopedia, “The principle of Yin and Yang is that all things exist as inseparable and contradictory opposites, for example, female-male, dark-light and old-young.”
This dark-light concept of dualism says that, although seemingly conflicting at first glance, these traits are actually complimentary of one another.
As a homework assignment, take note of your reactions. How do you respond to the daily minutiae: traffic, emails, texts? What you notice may surprise you, and odds are you’re probably a bigger asshole than you’d like to admit. As a corrective measure, see if you can create some mental space around your trigger points, then name them to claim them. And know this seemingly ambiguous endeavor requires time, patience and self-discipline. Making this path even muddier, however, is the fact that there’s no distinguishable finish line to becoming your best self.