What's Hiding in Your Shadow?
"I'd rather be whole than good." Jung
Thought Experiment Below: Befriending Your Shadow Self
As you may have noticed in my previous post, Are Your Dreams Trying to Tell You Something?, I’ve been experimenting with applying some of the of the theories of psychoanalyst Carl Jung to my daily life. In particular, I’ve been focusing on the notion of The Shadow, one of Jung’s Four Major Archetypes. The Shadow is the self you would rather not be— a persona made up of all the thoughts and behaviours that are deemed inappropriate. Strangely, according to Jung, “The gold is in the dark,” and your shadow actually contains the material that has the most potential to transform you and to make you feel whole.
Debbie Ford, author of the self-help book ‘The Dark Side of the Light Chasers’, does a deep dive into finding the the value in your shadow sub-personalities. She also really bothers me. I just don’t like her. Ironically, since I’ve not only read Ford’s book but also done all of the exercises in it, I know that I likely can’t stand her because she represents an element of my personality that I have rejected. Damn you, Debbie! In a spirit of reconciliation, I’m going to use some of Debbie’s own techniques here to explore my Debbie aversion.
Much like Jung, author Ford believes that, “What you can’t be with won’t let you be,” and she aims to support readers in identifying and integrating these hidden parts to bring about well-being. But how do we know what’s hiding in our shadow? A big clue is the qualities that we find unbearable in other people. Thanks to the magic of projection, qualities that we disown, both positive and negative, are attributed to others. As Ford puts it, “We give away our most treasured aspects to those we love and those we hate without knowing it.”
In my own case, the first thing that irked me when I started reading Ford’s book was her statement that the book had sold thousands of copies and that since, “…this journey has worked for me it will work for you.” Uggghh. After considering if arrogance was one of my shadow traits, I was left wondering if it was really so unique to me that arrogance is repellent. Aren’t certain qualities just objectively unpleasant? Thankfully, Ford does answer this question. She makes a distinction between qualities in others that affect us and those that merely inform us. Debbie’s seeming arrogance did affect me both physically and mentally. I felt tense and irritated whenever it came up and I noticed I was having little imaginary debates with her. However, her admitted ongoing ‘fat-phobia’ towards others, while definitely not a quality I’m down with, did not plug into my emotions. It more so informed me of her personal history. My emotional reactivity to the perceived trait of arrogance led me to suspect that I had struck on some shadow gold.
But I’m not arrogant! Wait…is it arrogant to think that? These kinds of thoughts can continue in a loop when you discover a trait that bothers you. Ford cuts through this internal debate with a holographic model of the universe. According to this theory, every piece of the universe contains the whole. “Each of us possess every existing human quality. There is nothing we can see or conceive that we are not…” It is important to make a distinction here between potentially having a trait and acting on it. For example, we are not expected to condone murderous behaviour, merely the possibility that under certain circumstances it could be possible for us to have a murderous thought or impulse.
Unfortunately, just believing in the abstract concept of a holographic universe does not bring about transformation. Ford starts off by recommending that you lean into your resistance to a trait by asking yourself the following questions:
1) When have I been (arrogant) in the past?
2) Am I being (arrogant) now?
3) Could I be (arrogant) in the future under different circumstances?
Upon doing this exercise it became pretty clear that judging someone as arrogant was in fact a superior arrogant attitude, so yes, the trait was clearly within me. Furthermore, I could see how in the past I had withheld appreciation for the talents of others because I had viewed their confidence as arrogance and then (arrogantly) judged them as lacking in humility. It was clear that I was capable of arrogance but that I tended to disguise this trait in its opposite- a humble persona. As Ford writes “When we deny certain aspects of ourselves, we overcompensate by becoming their opposite.” Now came the hard work of accepting and integrating the trait into my conscious life.
One interesting technique that Ford recommends for this purpose is a sort of reverse positive affirmation. The idea is to stand in front of a mirror and repeatedly own the trait out loud. So in my case, I stood in front of the mirror and said, ‘I am arrogant’ over and over again. The idea is to do this until your emotional resistance to the trait begins to loosen. And it sort of did! After a few rounds, a mild sense of relief came over me, possibly at not having to do the hard work of hiding this trait from myself anymore.
I was now able to see my arrogance and I sensed how I could free up some energy by allowing it to be seen. The problem was that I still didn’t know what to do with it. According to Ford, we have to look deeper to see what a trait, “…has to teach us, what gift it brings, and then we must be able to view it with awe and compassion.” I still had some work to do. The final exercise I engaged with was thinking about whether there was a time when arrogance had been helpful to me. Did it have any gifts to offer? Upon reflection, I could see how my feelings of ‘humble' superiority had tried to protect me from having to face my average or inferior abilities in some circumstances. I could also see how convincing myself that I was better than others had sometimes allowed me to take healthy risks.
And then it happened. I began to feel some affection for my arrogance. I understood what Ford was talking about when she described a piece of advice she had received at a personal growth retreat. “All of the things that you don’t like about yourself are your greatest assets. They are simply over-amplified. The volume has been turned up a bit too much…all you have to do is call on these personality traits in amounts that are appropriate to the moment.” In my case, my arrogance had been over-amplified into a falsely humble public persona, one intent on ignoring both my own strengths and those of others. I could see how focusing on the positive aspects of this trait could help me to use it productively in moderation.
As a result of these reflections, I’m beginning to sense that there is a happy medium somewhere between arrogance and humility. When I turn down the volume on these traits, I can tune into a confidence that is informed by both my successes and my failures. I suppose I’m gaining confidence that I’m more complex and contradictory than I had imagined. As it turns out, being a perfect and complete muddle has moments of being wholly satisfying.
Thought Experiment: Befriending Your Shadow Self
On a day when you are feeling ‘affected’ rather than ‘informed’ by the qualities of someone else, take a moment to write down a list of the traits that are bothering you e.g. selfish, disorganized etc. Circle the one that stands out as the most offensive to you.
Write down the following 3 questions: When have I been (offensive trait) in the past? I am being (offensive trait) now? Could I be (offensive trait) in the future under different circumstances?
Go for a walk. Take some deep sighing breaths. Observe the world. Feel your body in motion. You don’t need to consciously think about the questions, but if thoughts come up, imagine that they are like images on a movie screen-- notice them playing out and then return to the present moment of walking.
Once you are home, take 10 minutes to write down your answers to the questions above.
Within the week, experiment with owning the trait in the mirror over and over again e.g. “I am selfish.”
Within in the week, write down times in your life when that trait has been helpful to you. Does it have any gifts to offer? E.g. being selfish has helped me to ask for what I need. This step could be similarly done as a separate walk-- write down the question, go for a meditative walk and then write down your answers when you return home.