What are Shadows?

Our ‘Shadows’ are those aspects of ourselves, our behaviours and feelings that we have learned should not be, that we must not express or shouldn’t have in everyday life

Our ‘Shadows’ are those aspects of ourselves, our behaviours and feelings that we have learned should not be, that we must not express or shouldn’t have in everyday life. They become the part of the Self that Carl G. Jung termed ‘the Shadow’ and one definition is “those parts of ourselves that we hide, suppress and deny either consciously or unconsciously”. These parts may be ‘negative’ parts or ‘positive’ parts (often referred to as ‘golden’ shadows). And, quite unconsciously, we can spend so much time just keeping those things at bay that we don’t have enough energy left to live the way we want.

However, the core of every shadow contains a nugget of power and strength. Your shadows are like a gold mine of buried treasure, filled with forgotten creative, useful energy. Remember how, as a very small child, you were able to let all your emotions out without holding anything back? Can you also remember how young you were when you began to learn that such uninhibited displays were wrong or unwelcome in some way?

As you grew up, it is likely that people around you - parents, teachers, siblings and friends - taught you which behaviours were acceptable in this culture and, even more strongly, which ones were not. Unrepressed displays of big emotions such as anger, fear, grief and even joy, may have been frowned upon. Were you ever shamed for crying, punished for being angry, ridiculed for being frightened, or belittled for being proud of yourself?

Maybe you were very young when you began to feel the deep hurt of these things and learned that the best way to protect yourself from such wounding was to hold your feelings back.

What you did then, most probably, to get rid of the unacceptable parts of yourself, is graphically described by the poet Robert Bly in his ‘Little Book of the Human Shadow’. Bly suggests that all of us throw these parts over our shoulder and out of sight, into a metaphorical 'bag' which we’ve been dragging round behind us ever since.

All of us have issues in the bag which slow us down in some area of our life. Some of us can barely move because we have so much in the bag! In that bag is everything that you think you can’t be or shouldn’t have or can’t express in everyday life. It’s become the part of the Self that Carl G. Jung termed ‘the Shadow’.

One way to spot a shadow is to look for things you find yourself doing by accident. No matter how hard you try to keep your bag sealed, your shadows may leak out in a way that seems beyond your control. For example, you may promise yourself that you’re going to spend more time with your family, when you actually spend more time at work. You may find yourself jumping into a questionable relationship when In fact you don’t need to know, before you come to a session or workshop, specifically what it is you want to have happen - just that you want to have something happen!

In Shadow Work, we believe it is fine and useful to have a shadow bag, and to keep some shadows inside it. But when the weight of the bag slows you down and prevents you from being who you really want to be, it is time to open it up. It is time to find a safe place to look in the bag, examine its contents and see what needs to come back out.

It was appropriate to put parts of yourself in the bag when you were a child while you learned about other things, but now you can take them out piece by piece, and use them to mature into the fullness of your whole personality. You won’t ever become a shadow-free person, but by working with it in this way you can learn a great deal about yourself and exercise more conscious choice over how you live your life.

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