“The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.” - Daniel Goleman
Many years ago I had a series of dreams about a boy I had a crush on when I was about 14. I didn’t realize it at 14, but my crush was really a deep admiration. In my waking hours, I pushed him away, couldn’t bear to look at him because the light he brought forth was utterly blinding but in my night dreams, I drew him towards me because the light I saw in him was really my own.
Carl Jung identifies the Shadow as an archetype consisting of elements of our psyches that are unknown to us. The Shadow is not what we know about ourselves, don’t like, and therefore keep hidden. Rather, the Shadow is what is true about us that we don't know and if accused of it, would adamantly deny. For instance, if we have a poor diet and don’t want our friends to know for fear of rejection or judgment, we might try to hide our poor food choices by always eating healthy, organic meals in front of them. This is not Shadow.
Shadow exists where we fail to notice. If we fail to notice that our diet is poor and find ourselves admonishing someone else for eating a bag of potato chips (and we’re not aware that we’re criticizing someone else who has the same habit as ours), that is Shadow.
Or I consider myself an easy-going person while admonishing my mother for being controlling and then micromanaging her every move. In my dream example, I fail to notice the light in myself but am able to see it glaringly in someone else. The key to reintegrating this Shadow element for me was to take notice, to see and acknowledge this same quality in myself, take responsibility for it, and then cease to project it onto others. When I began to do this, the dreams stopped.
The Shadow is what’s true about who we really are, but we haven’t a clue about it. It consists of both positive and negative aspects of ourselves that we hide away from consciousness as children out of fear of rejection or punishment from adults or from a society that deems those qualities unacceptable. Why do we disavow positive qualities, like in my case, my own light? Because as a child, it was too risky and dangerous for me to shine. Many of us disavow success, joy, creativity and similar traits for the same reasons.
The Shadow contains unknown qualities (unknown because we label them as “bad” and then hide them away never to be seen again in their true form) that we carry from our past and that remain hidden until they are brought into the light and reintegrated back into ourselves. Until that time, our Shadow chases us in our night dreams and in our waking hours, wreaking havoc in our thoughts, our actions and our interactions in destructive and dysfunctional ways and impeding our forward movement.
How do we know where to find elements of our Shadow if they have been hidden for so long? For starters, whenever we experience a strong emotional reaction (whether positive or negative) to someone or something, that is a clue that Shadow may be lurking, although it may not be. Consider this: who in your life do you admire, envy, or secretly wish you could be more like? Who are the people you cannot stand, who drive you into a crazy frenzy, especially if you know others don’t feel the same as you do towards these people? The qualities that you admire and dislike about these individuals perhaps point to qualities within you that you may have disowned. This is just the beginning.
Getting to know our Shadow is the key to reclaiming our wholeness, to living a fulfilling life, and to experiencing a more mature way of being in the world. Because our Ego can get profoundly overwhelmed by what our Shadow brings forth, it is wise to draw on all our established internal and external resources to support us in our self-discovery. I rely on an entire army of carefully chosen mentors, teachers, therapists and trusted friends who are intimate with their own Shadow to show me my blind spots and hold me accountable while at the same time loving me despite all that they see.
My 7-year old, who is by far my greatest teacher, challenges my self-concept by pointing out that I’m not as good a listener as I make myself out to be. “Mommy, I already told you five times. You don't listen!” Here I unconsciously act out my Shadow, sensing the threat to my Ego I convince myself with absolute certainty that this claim cannot possibly be true about me, and I retort in defense, “What do you mean, I was listening!” When approaching the Shadow, we can truly be blindsided by what we fail to notice.
Our strong emotional reactions always point toward something and it does not always point to Shadow. Regardless, the journey towards wholeness always involves taking notice, looking inward at the impact of our thoughts and deeds and consciously cultivating a more balanced, integrated, and compassionate way of being in the world.