Some of the thoughts for this writing and most of the quotes are taken from Ali Shultz's article "It's Time to Meet Your Shadow Side." Ali is a contributing editor to onbeing.org, a website that explores all kinds of angles and topics relating to religion and things of the soul.
"The shadow," says Ali, " is often referred to as a black bag that you drag behind yourself, filled with all the things that you haven’t been able to consciously look at for a variety of reasons: you weren’t ready to, you couldn’t, it was too much, etc. And yet, wherever you go, there it is: behind you in the dark." Our shadow self or shadow side is indeed real. It is part of us, perhaps mostly hidden but still there nonetheless, influencing us all the time. It is part of our past, part of our story, shaping our values and view of things. If it isn't faced with honesty and courage, it will deal with us, "[showing] up everywhere projecting its own reality in front of us like a bad movie," says Schultz.
The shadow self speaks to us in a variety of voices. Here are three of those:
1. My childhood wasn't so bad after all.
"Yes," says the shadow self, "there were some difficult things - some forms of abuse - but at least I had a roof over my head and I knew somehow that my parents still loved me." This voice speaks loudly in order to minimize dysfunctional family patterns and in doing so, helps us hold on to some form of normalcy. We admit that our family of origin wasn't perfect but it did not significantly harm us. This denial keeps us in bondage to old - even generational - destructive patterns and hinders the process of personal growth and positive change.
2. My past is in the past. It doesn't affect my future.
"I will live differently than my parents or relatives," says the shadow self, "because I know better and have gained the skills to avoid the same mistakes." But is it really possible to live completely separately, to not let any historical baggage affect us? Our story, in many respects, has formed us. It has given us a certain script that plays over and over in our heads. It has defined what was "normal" for us. Don't we have to look at the past - the family and value systems we grew up with - in order to determine what was good or bad, healthy or dysfunctional? Don't we have to face the past, learn from it, name the "demons" so that it doesn't possess us and in some way control our future?
Generational sickness runs very deep for all of us and has a powerful presence. It takes a certain love of self and a determined courage to face our history, look at the dark pieces of it and say bravely: "That wasn't good or right or normal and it will not be a part of my life." This is an essential step to becoming a healthy, differentiated human being.
According to Ms Schultz, the shadow self says: "It’s better to be small and inauthentic than emotionally crushed." It's safer that way, so we think. But hiding or denying the past means we are allowing the shadow self, not the true self, to control and lead us. The true self knows what is ugly and what is not, what is healthy and what is not. The true self was designed to be free and whole and although it passionately seeks to be authentic, it must be nurtured and affirmed so that lies can be dispelled and truth embraced.
3. If I acknowledge the shadow self, I and/or others will be irreparably hurt
"I don't want to suffer pain or hurt those in my family or circle of influence," says the one refusing to deal with the shadow self. The truth is, the shadow self prevents us from being all we could be, which means it is hurting us today! And certain triggers - connected to our shadow self and personal story - are causing us to hurt those with whom we are currently in relationship. If others are telling us that everything is alright and one doesn't need to talk about anything from the past - the "dark side" - it's because they don't want the truth to be exposed and disrupt the illusion of homeostasis. Plus, as we begin to deal with our shadow selves, it may well highlight their own brokenness and that is simply too uncomfortable.
Author and professor, Barbara Brown Taylor - in her book, "Home by Another Way" - says that the "torn place your fear has opened up inside of you is a holy place. Look around while you are there. Pay attention to what you feel. It may hurt you to stay there and it may hurt you to see, but it is not the kind of hurt that leads to death. It is the kind that leads to life."
To do this kind of interior work is not easy and it takes time, perhaps even a life time. And it requires trusted friends who will stay with us for the whole journey. But learning to work with our shadow self could be one of the most freeing things we ever do. It will help us discover our true identity and value ourselves more deeply. It will improve our relationships and help us live more fully and purposefully. Though our shadow self will never leave us, we can diminish its presence, quiet its voice and reduce its power, allowing our beautiful unique true self to emerge and be the face and soul of us.