by Richard Boyd, Body Mind Psychotherapist, Energetics Institute, Perth, West Australia
We all notice our own shadow from time to time when we are out and about walking around. Our shadow that exists is in the nature of the light that exists around us and is the outline made by that light being blocked by our bodies in that moment in time and space.
Nature has a way of existing in patterns. Just as that physical manifestation of shadow exists as a physical reality, then so too a psychological shadow also exists in the same way internal to us. Our outer physical shadow is a mirror and a symbol of the same inner truth.
Just as our physical shadow exists in direct relation to light then so does our internal psychological shadow. Just as our physical shadow will be seen emanating from the way our body traps and blocks the light then so too does our psychological shadow then arise as part of our human condition as a principle in our human consciousness and how the "light" aspect of our consciousness plays out.
We have previously considered how our bodies are one dimension to our reality which is capable of reflecting and expressing the other dimensions of our reality. We considered some of the ordering principles of illness in the body that we know as Psychogenic medicine or how mental based issues manifest and express through the body as conditions or illness.
Likewise we considered the field of psychosomatic medicine and how it is the recognition of how our emotions, especially when repressed, can likewise trigger bodily illness and conditions. Our bodymind reality is a dynamic system which seeks to adapt and balance itself in the world in which it lives.
The key consideration was how the blocked and distorted thinking and emotions of us all can wreak havoc in the bodymind. Our bodies then give us vital clues as to the unresolved emotional and mental issues we carry. In this way we can say that our bodies hold the shadow nature of our reality.
Carl Jung wrote a lot about how humans exist in a duality of light and shadow. He considered that the body held much of our shadow as the disowned aspects of ourselves and often these may be masculine or feminine archetypes or parts of self that are not safe or not permissible to own as an integrated and contained whole part of self.
Jungian based therapy often involves shadow work or the working through of subconscious shadow material that needs to be made conscious and re-integrated into our self, or released and brought to completion.
Shadow work involves both the body and often disowned "negative" energies and emotions that often are held in the body. The body serves an overall purpose of creating the overall muscular armouring which holds feelings in check, and is a mechanism to keep suppressed and disowned material out of the conscious realm.
The reason that we suppress feelings and memories is that they are often painful. Shadow work brings up any pain that we have been avoiding or suppressing for most of our life. The release of armouring and the feelings and unresolved issues that hide behind the armouring then lead one towards growth through healing, growth through feeling and growth through realisation and completion of and from our past.
The work is experiential and embodied. It cannot be mentalised or conceptualised as the healing. It is true to the notion that healing is feeling. I encounter many people who have read books on the shadow or on issues in therapy and then so conclude because they know the concept they have somehow healed.
This is just another mental defence. Our shadow is that part of us that is what we have not faced or can't or won't face about ourselves. Our ego colludes with us to either minimise, deny or rationalise why the shadow issues are not real, not really significant or not really relevant any more to us anymore or at all.
Whatever we disown then will run us from our subconscious and the earlier the wounding then the more deeply buried is the issue and its compulsive nature to now act out through us adults. It is shadow as it is unseen, in the dark and unacknowledged.
The shadow acts out through us without us being consciously aware that it is doing so. In this way it acts often as a saboteur for if the consciousness state is that of a three year old which was the age when the trauma or adaptation to ourself created this piece of shadow then we are effectively emotionally a 3 year old in that moment.
I have conducted board room facilitation of senior executives and watched as experienced Directors regressed to a child state as the stress of board room politics and dynamics activated a piece of their shadow. This is not the time or place for that to show up and it normally leads to an outcome where that person's standing or reputation is compromised, and their chosen actions and words may be petulant, distorted, explosive and generally not that of a professional adult.
Projection is a common symptom that we are acting out of our shadow. If what is painful and disowned in us activates again as an adult then like a hot potato we may handball or project it onto someone around us as "their issue".
In this, we are projecting our own shortcoming onto another with such conviction that we block ourselves from really seeing that we do in fact have such a shortcoming. Then in these moments we often lose mindfulness of our own state in these moments and do not realise we are acting out the very same qualities that we accuse the other person of now having or being.
The Narcissistic and Borderline personalities often have this underlying problem from a place of developmental trauma and are unable to see objectively how they are being in these moments and how their reality is distorted through some form on mis-attribution or projection.
A holy person is actually a whole person and one who owns their shadow consciously and mindfully. They have acknowledged and embraced their shadow back into wholeness. They know their shadow and recognize its manifest qualities, its constituent parts, its modes of operation and causation from the past.
The New Age movement tries to collectively bypass our shadow and instead and transform ourselves into some "higher self" or "light" instead of dealing with the shadow. It is these people who are often destined to act as gurus and a mask of godliness and then act out their shadows on their followers in the ways I mentioned before.
The truth is the more we avoid our shadow the more be become fixated on it in terms of it wanting expression and the more amplified it can become over time, either destroying us through bodily or mental/emotional illness, or destroying others through abuse and corruption.
The spiritual and the psychological paths of wholeness and growth compel us to become more mindful and aware of our shadow so we can contain it, heal it, and transform it over time. There are some tell tale signs of when our shadow is manifest in our personality and behaviour.
The key ways of telling are:
- Which aspects of myself do I hate or reject the most?
- Which aspects of myself do I conceal the most?
- Which aspects of others trigger me the most?
- What behaviour of emotion do I hate the most or feel uncomfortable with?
- Which situations do I have a reaction to that is over the top?
- Which qualities or feelings in myself do I tend to judge or suppress?
- What qualities or dynamics have I been accused of projecting onto others?
- What aspects of myself do I know I project onto others?
- Which emotions and feelings do I believe to be bad or negative?
- What am I scared of in others and in myself?
Self awareness is built in part on our ability to know our own natures and to be aware when aspects of ourself are activated. This includes our shadow which our ego spends considerable effort in trying to hide from our conscious self.
Therapy is useful in this regard as when we are objectively witnessed by another we can be mirrored by that person and re-introduced to our disowned parts of self. We originally learnt as babies through the mirroring and attachment processes of infanthood and so these become powerful forces in self development as adults.
The great myths all contain the "hero" archetype who must slay the dragon or monster to get to the treasure or holy grail. This is just a metaphor or symbology for the process of facing and subduing our own shadow to find the richness of our creativity, aliveness, curiosity and health that often lies waiting to be reclaimed by our courage to face the shadow in ourself.
In dreams which bring us face to face with the imagery of subconscious life we may find ourself running away from monsters, shadows and persecutors who are again all symbols of parts of ourselves in shadow we have yet to face and deal with.
The "very righteous" in our society also project it and act it out through rules as well but often couched in the light of their values or often some religion. They will judge others, think themselves as saved, better, chosen, and special, but all the time disowning any negative qualities now that they have "found religion" or because they 'are good".
We can also over-identify and almost become our shadow. This aspect means we get negative pleasure from acting out shadow parts of ourselves and we have no intention of giving up those activities. Such people are addicted to their negative self and become their shadow as their conscious self.
In this event they are at risk of becoming merged with their shadow self and consciously taking on with their free will all sorts of negative qualities and actions. This is the embodiment of evil.
So either the avoid of our shadow or being consumed by our shadow leads to the same result. We are being run by our shadow. The only way out is to embrace it through integration and not by acting it out where it remains in focus through mindfulness.
In a sense we are in union or in intimacy with our shadow. We are united by it and not consumed, and integrated but not so lost in it that we lose the capacity to keep it in focus. This gives us a deep integrity of being where we are transparent and accountable to ourself and others.
Becoming intimate with our shadow allows us to open to and embrace all others around us in their light and shadow without judgement. Compassion is able to develop as we see ourselves in others instead of projecting ourself onto others.
We learn that we are dark and light, and our humanity is flawed but perfect in that flawed nature. Perfectionism cannot take root in such a realisation nor shame as we see what our embodied nature is.
Perfectionism is an outcome of both low self esteem and shame. Shame and guilt are toxic elements which bind a person into their shadow defences where a cover-up of a felt sense of failure and self loathing exist.
We learn to be with our internal shadow just as we cannot be anything other than with our external shadow. Life is much easier to navigate when you are at one and peace with yourself in this way.
The deep embodied and experiential work of IBMP that we do is one sure way to come face to face with your own shadow and from where you can commence or continue the process and path of self integration and healing.