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Shadow Work

The shadow in a psychological sense, is a term coined by Carl Jung to describe the area of our psyche that is outside of conscious perception. Everything that is not included in our immediate awareness represents the shadow. It represents everything within us that we cannot consciously include in our self image.

Where did this so called "shadow" come from?

The origins of the shadow begin with the origins of life itself. From the very beginning of life on earth, organisms had to consume one another to survive. For this simple reason all biological life if programmed to eat and reproduce at all costs. In humans we developed a sense of "self" or ego for this same adaptive reason, to survive and hopefully eat and not be eaten before we can pass on our genetic information. The ego is evolutions best adaptive mechanism and is responsible for keeping out everything that we don't regard as "the self". When it is functioning properly our lives generally work well. When it is not functioning well our lives can seem chaotic and safe. "the Shadow" is the psychic storehouse for all of the things that we cannot include in our self narrative.

In my last article I gave an example from Freud describing the ego as being like a tiny captured garrison within the immensense city of Rome. Another good metaphor is a large iceberg where only ten percent of the iceberg is above the water- this ten percent represents the conscious ego or the “I”. The remaining ninety percent of the iceberg represents the unconscious, which within it contains many dark elements which can be described as shadow elements. This part of the iceberg that is underwater, is the part of ourselves we tend to suppress or deny.

On the other hand, we tend to suppress or deny parts of ourselves which we reject as unseemly, and together these form our Shadow Self. As humans, our fears of rejection are greater than our needs for authenticity -- and so we continue to conceal who we truly are, and we shove parts of us deeper into unconscious, shadow parts of the psyche (mostly without even knowing)

When our shadows are repressed or suppressed long enough in the unconscious, they may even take over our whole lives, causing psychosis or extreme forms of behaviour such as cheating on one's partner or physically hurting others. We may judge Shadows, and then we feel judgmental toward others when we see their Shadow qualities in them. Being unaware of personal Shadows harms our relationships with spouses, family, and friends, and it impacts our professional relationships as well as our leadership abilities.

Also contained within the depths of the iceberg are lighter elements, known as the Golden Shadow. These are generally regarded as positive characteristics that we push down and repress because at some point in our development they were not safe to express. Depending on how our development occurred we may struggle to potentiate our positive potential until we “go back” into our history and examine our shadow.

Within the Golden shadow often lies the depth of our creative expression, which is at its best a positive representation of our life force.

Because creative energy is linked with sexual energy- the deep expression of our creativity is often hindered by our core beliefs about the world and ourselves. These commonly show up as a convicted belief about the world and our role in it.

In terms of the emotional system, these beliefs are nothing but imprints, which can be re-written. In order for this to happen one must work with Shadow material in a conscious way in order to rewrite our old imprinting.

Working with Shadow Material:

These are some concepts and exercises that I have found useful over the years:

Self Awareness - without some level of awareness shadow work or any type of personal growth is impossible. Of course awareness happens in stages naturally throughout the life cycle but one can consciously work on awareness through meditation, group work and a variety of other practices. There is of course a caveat to this, often as one advances in a meditation practice, awareness expands and one begins to re-engage with previously repressed or suppressed shadow material. This is where psychotherapy can often be necessary in rooting out shadow material so that it may be effectively worked with.

Self compassion - This point seems simple but it runs deeper than most people care to know. We commonly think of self compassion as self love or wanting the best for yourself. Although this is true there is a deeper level of self compassion that comes from living one’s life in a way that is total and uncompromising. This means emphatically saying yes to every moment of your life, even the unpleasant parts of it. Taking this seriously can be quite painful as staying present with one’s suffering is difficult. This of course doesn’t mean ignoring unethical or immoral behavior, it means making a consistent effort to find meaning in even the most difficult of circumstances. This can be very difficult in a culture that is shallow, materialistic and nihilistic.

Radical Honesty- Being ruthlessly honest with oneself is the most important skill to cultivate if one seeks self knowledge. The word Radical comes from Latin “Radio” which means root. Getting to the bottom of what we believe and why is crucially important. “Why do I believe the things I do?” All too often we take for granted certain ideas about ourselves and others without subjecting them to scrutiny or criticism. What ideas do you hold that are sacrosanct or beyond questioning? These are great starting points to begin working with shadow material.

Remaining open in the face of suffering- We live in a world where suffering is avoided or reduced at all costs. Everything that is harmful is neutralized or removed from the public arena including deep expressive forms of grief. Knowledge of the darker aspects of our nature cannot occur unless we allow ourselves to grieve in an unashamed and open way.

Reactivity where in life do you just habitually react to someone or something without giving yourself enough time to properly respond to the situation? Where are your reactions so visceral that you cannot think clearly or rationally about them?

Working with dream imagery - During the night when we fall into REM sleep, we begin to dream. Many people cannot recall their dreams, but we know from brain imaging technology that they are in fact dreaming. Dream imagery can be very potent imagery to work with when it comes to our unconscious mind. The human mind stores imprints from every bit of sensory information that it receives. The conscious mind can only process a small amount of this information- the rest is relegated to the realm of the unconscious mind. Recording dreams when one wakes up has been the most powerful technique for working with shadow that I have experienced. The power in this practice comes from simply recording one’s dreams in their own words as they come. There is no need to interpret or analyze these dream images, simply noting them, writing them down or drawing them can be incredibly powerful.

Identifying your core wound - The core wound is made up of our biggest emotional imprint from our childhood. This can usually be identified by looking at what we could not express about ourselves or others as children. There are many core beliefs that can form around our core wounding. Starting with this is helpful if one cannot immediately identify their “core wound” Identifying core wounds can also involve reliving the event in one’s mind which brings consciousness back to the original painful event. This may have to be done many times in order to get to the core beliefs about ourselves. Once the core beliefs are identified then the work of dismantling them can begin. This is the gateway to the “core gift” which will show up as the inverse of the core (negative) beliefs.

One example from my own experience comes from my relationship to my mother. I had a few early life experiences of her being unreliable. This led to a deep visceral feeling in my body of being alone and lost. Whenever I would be separated from her around the age of five I would experience intense anxiety and dread.

Later in my adult relationships with women- this memory of separation would haunt me and often creep in when romantic relationships had the potential of becoming more intimate.

This is an example of how latent shadow material can steal consciousness from us- I was stuck in that emotion for a long time and as a result of my romantic relationships we also stuck at that same level.

This would show up as me projecting unrealiability onto my partner and onto women in general. Because I could not consciously accept my own fears about the realiability of the other, I had to project it outwards.

It was only when I committed to a consistent course of shadow work that I began to regain those bits of consciousness that were not accessible to me. After this I could then recognize the emotional wave that was coupled to the feeling of being lost or alone. Once I could recognize the emotional energy, I could begin to see myself going into the story about others. Eventually I was simply able witness this process instead of letting my primal emotion of fear dictate my actions.

Taking a course in shadow work can be one of the most beneficial things that one can do in their lives in order to free up energy that may be stuck. Freeing up this stuck energy allows one to show up in a more honest and authentic way and more importantly gives those around us permission to do so as well.

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