Own Your Shadows Series (Part 1): Defining Our Shadow Self

Have you always been afraid of the darker parts of yourself? The parts that you wish to keep hidden? The parts that make you uncomfortable? We are always trying to put on a face that is decent and acceptable to the world around us. And the aspects that are deemed otherwise are expected to be purged. But the thing that most will not tell you is that these parts of ourselves can never be purged. They are just buried deep within our psyches; waiting to spring out unexpectedly the harder we attempt to suppress them. Robert A. Johnson, author of Owning Your Own Shadow says, “The shadow is that part of us we fail to see or know.”

How do our shadows originate? When we are born, we are born as whole beings. But sometime when we are young, Johnson says we take a huge ol’ bite of that forbidden fruit of knowledge and begin learning about good and evil; and this is where the shadow begins to form. As children, we begin placing the characteristics we are born with (good and bad) and the characteristics treasured by society into two separate bins. The ones that must be “put away” are stowed in the back of ourselves in hopes they will never surface again. Yes, this is in a way, a good thing. There wouldn’t be much civilized behavior without this sorting. But these “refused” and “unacceptable” characteristics never actually go away. And after a long time of being neglected and made to wait in the darkest corners of ourselves, it is said they begin to take a form all their own. This is called the shadow life. The shadow isn’t on the forefront of our psyches. Unlike our egos, they are not as connected to our consciousness; so we are not as actively aware of them. This can result in them having just as much power or energy as our egos do. If our shadows accumulate more energy than our egos–all hell can break loose! They could slip by us in the form of pure rage, severe depression or could result in a serious accident occurring. So as you can see, ignoring them is NOT an option.

To keep order in society, we are expected to live out only part of our nature and truth. Culture insists we behave in a particular manner which is why the dividing of ego and shadow occurs. But let us not be confused! It is absolutely possible for GOOD characteristics to end up in the shadow.

Johnson states, “Generally, the ordinary, mundane characteristics are the norm. Anything less than this goes into the shadow. But anything better also goes into the shadow! Some of the pure gold of our personality is relegated to the shadow because it can find no place in that great leveling process that is culture.”

Bonkers, right?! We could seriously be hiding away some of the greatest parts of ourselves without our conscious knowledge of doing so! (This also highlights the idea that shadows are NOT made up entirely “bad” or “evil.” ) Johnson also says that, ironically, people tend to fight harder against the “noble aspects” of their shadows than they do hiding their darker sides.

“To draw the skeletons out of the closet is relatively easy, but to own the gold in the shadow is terrifying.”

Although both the “gold” and the dark sides exist within us, we can only deal with working with them at different times; we can’t work with both at the same time in our life. So if you were sitting there thinking to yourself, “Oh nice! If I just work on these all at once, I’ll be my ideal self!”, pump the brakes. The gold side is related to our higher calling and can be hard to accept at certain stages in our lives due to our inability to realize their importance/inability to be aware of their existence at all. But ignoring this gold can be just as damaging as ignoring the dark! Johnson states that you may even suffer severe shock or a serious illness before actually accepting and utilizing this gold!

No matter what culture we start in, we all grow up having defined egos and shadow selves. The goal is to restore our “wholeness”: to unite both our egos and the parts of our personality deemed unfit for society.

“Generally, the first half of life is devoted to the cultural process-gaining one’s skills, raising a family, disciplining one’s self in a hundred different ways; the second half of life is devoted to restoring the wholeness (making holy) of life. One might complain that this is a senseless round trip except that the wholeness at the end is conscious while it was unconscious and childlike at the beginning.”

Consider a seesaw. All of our needed/desired traits go on the right; and our forbidden ones on the left. Unfortunately, a pretty annoying law exists in our world….If you indulge characteristics on the right side of the seesaw, it MUST be balanced by equal weight from the left side. This means if we break this law- WE LOSE OUR BALANCE! And when we lose our balance, that’s when we can flip to the opposite of our usual nature. Johnson gives the example of the alcoholic who suddenly becomes fanatical in his temperance, or the conservative who throws caution to the wind. When you do this, you’re not gaining anything. You are simply replacing one side of the seesaw for the other.

Johnson gives a perfect example and explanation with the medieval illuminated manuscript called Tree of Life and Death. Miniature by Berthold Furtmeyer.

“Here a stylized tree of knowledge, with its golden fruit, rises up from Adam’s navel. Adam is looking a little sleepy as if he does not entirely comprehend what he has produced. Two women stand beside the tree. The Virgin Mary is on the left, clothed as a nun, picking fruit from the tree and handing it out to a long line of penitents for their salvation. Eve, naked, stands on the right, picking fruit from the same tree, handing it out to a long line of people for their damnation. Here is a vivid commentary on a single tree giving out a duel product. What a strange tree! Whenever we pluck the fruit of creativity from the golden tree out other hand plucks the fruit of destruction. Our resistance to this insight is very high! We would love to have creativity without destruction, but that is not possible.”

We can have no light without this darkness; this shadow will always be a part of us. Although incredibly difficult, this balance between dark and light is possible. We live in a world of of opposites: light and dark, good and evil, creation and destruction. The German term doppelgänger literally mean’s “one’s mirror image” or opposite. As Johnson says, most people believe they are the sole master in their house; the one calling all the shots in their psyche. But in reality, our shadow is like our twin that follows us everywhere we turn. The term ‘shadow self’ was coined by Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist Carl Jung  whose encountered his own shadow self first hand. Through a vivid and somewhat scary dream, Jung found himself walking through dense fog and while holding a light that “threatened to go out at any moment,” traveled through to the shadow portion of his psyche and came face to face with a figure made entirely of his shadows. This was his doppelgänger; the mirror image of his “right” side.

Jung came to the conclusion after this dream that to “own” one’s shadow is to come to this place of balance–our inner center.

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