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Working with our Shadow

As we grow up, we receive both subtle and overt messages (from our family, care-givers, peer group, school, religious community, wider society and so on) that certain things are acceptable or not. So, we learn to hide and suppress those aspects of ourselves that are deemed unacceptable or shameful in some way, so that we are loved and appreciated. The 'good girl' and 'good boy' ego-ideal demand in early childhood means we learn to control and repress things, particularly in relation to our feelings, aggression, sexuality, power, sometimes even our creativity. These form our Shadow, and can contain both positive and negative aspects of our nature. And, you can see how the growth and contents of the Shadow are relative to our developmental and life context, as different things can be valued in varying

cultures and contexts across the world, and in differing times of history.

There are, however, difficulties with suppressing parts of ourselves:

  • They can become stronger in the dark, feeding on our denial and fear, and can erupt when we least expect and want. So, for example, if we have suppressed a strong, angry physical nature we may suddenly erupt in violent anger, and so our Shadow flares up effecting others in a noticeably charged way when we least want and expect. Hence, the passive-aggressive syndrome.

  • We project on to others that which we find unacceptable in ourselves. We see this when we react to others in judgmental, critical ways that are out of proportion. In a sense we see and react to a reflection of an aspect of our own Shadow that our ego-ideal rejects. If others carry for us the projection of our own hated dark side, we will react to them accordingly. We will hate or fear them and will not see them as they are, with the eyes of understanding and objective discernment, but we will see them in terms of our own despised Shadow. To truly love others we need to know ourselves to avoid our negative projections.

  • Repressing our Shadow doesn't make it go away. It goes on influencing us in unseen ways. We can see it in our fears, repulsions, prejudices and judgments of others; where we have strong reactive processes against another group, where we 'demonise' others. We have a tendency to want to destroy that which we fear and don't understand, rather than try to develop a healthy relationship to it. Repressing it doesn't resolve it any more than acting it out; both can cause harm to self and others. We can become masters of suppression in the spiritual path, to appear all that we would wish to be, but this is not the same as true transformation in Christ.

  • There are also positive aspects of ourselves contained within our Shadow - 'hidden treasure' that preferably needs to be brought into a healthy relationship within ourselves. For example, in suppressing anger we may also be suppressing our capacity to be assertive and react appropriately to intolerable situations with strength and resolution; in suppressing aspects of our sexuality we may also be suppressing aspects of the creative vitality that eros energy can bring.

So, in the rest of this article I explore how we can work with the Shadow more positively. If repressing it doesn't resolve it, nor does acting it out, then how do we relate to it? What do we do with those sides of our self that are not so easy to include in our spiritual journey?

First, it is important to understand that suppression of difficult feelings and reactions can be a necessary aspect of our psychology, for example to survive trauma, but that ultimately it is not healthy for us. It is also the human condition to have a Shadow and we need allow ourselves to be human and accept ourselves in all that we are. Self-acceptance is an important key in the human and spiritual journey rather than to view ourselves as being 'only acceptable if we are like this...' We are acceptable to God as we are. In this freedom, we need be honest and authentic about who we are and how we are, grounded in true self-knowledge. There is a real danger of emotional dishonesty in spiritual circles where we adopt a spiritual veneer in order to be acceptable and valued.

To work with our Shadow, we need hold within ourselves a free and safe space that allows what needs to arise to come, but within a clear ethical framework that maintains the integrity of the morality of our chosen spiritual path. It is important also to understand the 'hidden potential' of Shadow material when brought into the light.

How to work with the Shadow:

  • We can notice where we project it and discover something of ourselves and own it. This requires vulnerability and transparency, to confess and admit to those aspects of our self we find shameful or are embarrassed by.

  • We need to be careful not to create the conditions for the Shadow to get stronger, and not inhabit a mindset that strengthens the Shadow by keeping things hidden and buried within us.

  • We can develop a sense of humour around our Shadow, and our 'dark side', that helps make it feel more manageable, softening the guilt and tension that does not solve the problem but simply makes it worse.

  • Recognising our Shadow may mean that we have to live with a reality of ourselves as not perfect, but it does mean we don't get caught in pushing things down inside us, splitting ourselves. The benefits of having a spirituality that recognises the wisdom of imperfection has long been understood by the Christian mystics such as St Thérèse of Lisieux.

  • We can understand from Carl Jung that the psyche or soul is naturally orientated towards our healing. If we can allow, in prayer and meditation, the energetic processes behind our Shadow to simply 'be' within us, giving them some attention and space without undue expression, this can help us begin to connect with and start to address these in more positive ways.

  • We can pay attention to, and learn from, another level of ourselves in the dreams arising from our unconscious, which can help us understand and engage with our Shadow. Dreams are great conveyors of the truth of the unconscious, repressed parts of ourselves. There are ways of listening to, and understanding, dreams that can help us grow in self-knowledge.

  • When in knowledge and relationship to aspects of our Shadow, we can find out what the Shadow material and energy really needs to have a healthy expression. In this way we can release our suppressed vitality, adding to our life and strength, towards a more positive and creative expression. As we then nurture this, the Shadow material can begin to change and true transformation can take place.

Thomas Merton once said : 'Everyone is shadowed by a false or illusory self... The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of this disturbing stranger who occupies our psyche, and enter in by love into the union with the Life who dwells and sings within the core of ourselves.'

Growing in self-knowledge by recognising and acknowledging our Shadow is not easy, it requires great vulnerability and nakedness on our part that can then bear much fruit. It requires a compassionate embracing of whatever we have disowned, marginalised or rejected in ourselves. But, unless this dark side is given permission to rise into consciousness, there is no full integration or wholeness / holiness. Ultimately, the spiritual journey can be understood as our being released into the true freedom of wholeness, to be all that we are created to be in God; as Jesus pronounced, 'I have come to set the captives free.'

Carl Jung once said, 'Only saints have diabolical visions.' What he means by this is that saints have the capacity to hold all of themselves - the light and dark, and all the tensions of these opposites - in ways that others can't.

In Scripture too we understand that the Hebrew word for wholeness comes from the same Hebrew root as shalom, meaning peace. Wholeness is seen as a dynamic play of opposites balancing one another. The very letters in the common root, shin-lamed-mem, suggest wholeness involves the balancing of polar forces, for the first letter, shin, signifies fire, while the last letter, mem, signifies water. It is when water and fire, symbols of creation and destruction, coexist in balance that we find wholeness and peace. In this sense, peace and wholeness exist paradoxically when opposites are contained within a unifying vessel.

In the Old Testament, Jacob is the only character who is described as having become shaleim or 'whole'. But this process is not conferred on him until he undergoes a deep process of inner transformation. In this process Jacob must go beyond his familiar, limited sense of himself and find a way to incorporate his Shadow that he has projected onto his brother Essau. He must also shift from being the plain and honest man he was in his youth, to becoming a much more complex and paradoxical figure.

So, as the saints can hold the tension of 'diabolical visions' within them, so our journey to wholeness and holiness necessitates being able to consciously hold within us all the tensions and paradox of our full nature.

I have also recently authored an article 'The Treasures of Darkness: Working with the Shadow in Spiritual Direction' for a special Spiritual Direction themed copy of The Franciscan publication.

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