I vividly remember my first known encounter with shadow, it was in a dream. I didn’t have my own garbage service so I was secretly dumping my garbage into other people’s dumpsters. I was very frightened someone would find out, so I carefully went through my garbage ahead of time to remove items with my name and address on it. I didn’t want anything traceable back to me. Unfortunately, on one occasion, two men saw me dumping my garbage into a dumpster. I was terrified and took off running but they ran after me and caught me. I begged them to let me go, promising I would never do it again, that I would get my own regular pick-up garbage service from now on. They relaxed immediately and said, “Why didn’t you say so, that’s all we wanted”, and then they turned and walked away. This confrontation with my shadow left me a little stunned and shaken but also intrigued. I began to get curious about this ‘garbage’ that I was not owning and dumping onto others, so I set out on my journey to discover and uncover my shadow.
Everyone carries a shadow. It is what makes us human. It contains all the parts of ourselves that we have tried to hide or deny. Whatever doesn’t fit into the idealized image we have of ourselves, or the expectations our family and culture has for us, we banish into shadow. Poet and author Robert Bly calls the shadow the “long bag we drag behind us.” We spend the first half of life deciding what parts of ourselves to put in the bag, and we spend the last half trying to get them back out again. Most of us fear if we look closely into that bag, or ultimately, at what lies deep within us, we will find something horrible. But instead of trying to suppress our shadow, we need to learn to seek it.
Shadow work refers to the process of healing the split between who we think we ought to be and the trapped life energy caught in the pretense of trying to hide and conceal what we can’t accept about ourselves. Shadow work is soul work, it holds the essence of who we are. It includes all of ourselves, our darkness and our light, our meanness and our greatness. By facing and embracing all of our parts, we begin to cultivate freedom to choose how we want to be in this world. Until then we have no choice, we are bound by our shadow, and again and again it will sabotage our best efforts, destroy relationships, kill our spirit, and keep us from fulfilling our dreams.
When we start to realize that what lies beneath the surface of our consciousness is not evil but simply unresolved thoughts and feelings that can be healed and integrated, we begin to relax, we breathe easier. When we no longer have to prove we are someone we’re not, we no longer live in fear of being found out, and our shadow becomes less scary. Our shadows exist to teach and guide us and when we allow all of these parts of ourselves that we have hidden to come to the surface, we begin to see our true personality, our real authentic self.
Many of us are so disconnected from our shadow that the only way we see it is by reflection. We can’t face this darkness in ourselves so we project it in the world onto our family, friends, and even strangers. If we can muster the courage, we will find that the more of our self we own, the less we will need others to embody our disowned darkness. It takes a strong, positive adult ego to do shadow work.
You may wonder how we can see our shadow if it is hidden? Since shadow shifts and changes in the light of our ego, we cannot gaze at it directly, we need to know where and how to look. There are clues that lead us to our shadow. Shadow weaves itself through our dreams, we find it lurking in our secret shames. It embarrasses us with our slips of the tongue, it thrives in our cruelty. We can unearth shadow in our judgment and criticism of others, it hides in our illnesses, we see it erupt at mid-life, and it can wear the disguise of addiction. These are all clues to uncovering our dark side and the emotions and traits that we fear the most in ourselves. As demonstrated in my dream, shadow knows its purpose; it seeks to make the unconscious conscious, it tries to tell us its secrets. Our job is to learn how to listen and to discover our shadow’s purpose.
For anyone wanting to do shadow work, an excellent book to begin is Debbie Ford’s The Dark Side of the Light Chasers. Another great resource and more in-depth study is Romancing the Shadow by Connie Zweig, Ph.D., and Steve Wolf, Ph.D. Romancing the shadow means listening to the voices that have been silenced and honoring what they have to say. In this book the authors say that when shadow work is attended to and invited into our life, our soul comes alive and becomes aroused with passion; we awaken to the sacred.
So the question is, what stories do your shadow characters have to tell today, what secrets do they whisper? What parts of your soul long to be retrieved and integrated back into your life? Or as the psychoanalysist Carl Jung in his exploration and development of shadow asks each one of us; “Would you rather be whole or good?”