In individual psychology, there’s an experience called by different names, but the more poetic and evocative term is “shadow work.” This is a process during which a person begins to face the denied, disowned, rejected, and suppressed parts of her or himself—and integrate them.
The psyche cannot be whole or healthy without engaging in this process in some way. A person must gradually begin to invite their orphaned parts home and welcome them into the inner family or they will always struggle with a sense of falseness or feel lost at odd times. If left unintegrated, these orphans often become saboteurs, thwarting a person’s best efforts to create a life they desire.
The trouble is that the psyche resists this process with all its might. The identity it has patched together does not want to acknowledge those aspects that don’t fit its tidy self-concept. It does everything it can to avoid looking closely at anything that might be revealed and threaten what it believes to be true. “This is who I am and how I operate, I am not these other uglies.”
Now imagine America as an individual. Pretend that we, together, are this developing national psyche that has entered a period of deep shadow work.
If this were true—could be true—we are in the midst of a time during which so much is being revealed that doesn’t fit our national narrative.
These things threaten our collective self-image as a nation founded only in goodness, a beacon and example for all other nations to follow.
We are being asked to honestly face how we’ve treated others—even those within our own borders. What did we do to establish this country? Whom did we harm? Whom did we enslave?
We are being asked to face our inconsistencies and outright lies. Our pledge of allegiance says, “… one nation under God,” but did the founder of the Christian faith teach exclusion and subjugation of women, minorities, and those with sexual orientations other than hetero? Did the Jesus, in whom many claim to believe, preach the amassing of wealth above generosity and care for all?
These are only a few examples. I’m sure that you can think of others.
I’m sharing this today because I feel so strongly that what we are experiencing right now is valuable. As I see it, we are working through an extremely humbling, difficult process. It’s one in which no stone can be left unturned, no lie left unchallenged.
As I know from experience, the person who engages in this and comes through it emerges a kinder, saner, happier, and more powerful individual. Things become possible that weren’t before. It’s a good and important experience. It’s also not a one-time thing and it can’t be put on a schedule with a deadline for completion. When it begins in earnest, the only thing to do is acknowledge that it’s happening and commit to staying in it all the way.
Shadow work gives birth to health.
You can stop here if you like. It’s something to think about and that may be enough for now.
If you’d like to go a little deeper, there’s more.
Because this topic of shadow work is abstract and, well, shadowy, it’s often hard to get a concrete understanding of what it means.
I included “Jung’s Model of the Psyche.” It has some psychology geek terminology and it’s not important that you absorb all of that right now (unless you’re a fellow psych geek). This sketch shows the relationship between the inner world—which includes edges of the things we’re aware of such as feelings, dreams, desires, intuitions, and impulses or motivations—and the outer world that encompasses how we see ourselves, how we wish to be seen, our conscious beliefs and surface-level desires and motivations.
What’s important to understand is that every human has a shadow self. I like to also use “unknown self” or “unexplored self” as they sound a little less ominous. If you’re at all introspective you’ve bumped into this at times. Even the least self-aware among us sometimes think, “Huh. I wonder why I just did that? That’s not like me at all.”
“That’s not like me…” Out of character behavior or impulses can often be the simplest clue to spot the shadow self trying to be seen.
If you ever find yourself telling a friend about a rough situation and say, “Well, what I wanted to say was _________________, but of course I didn’t…” you just heard from your shadow. You didn’t utter that thing you wanted to say because it’s out of character, it doesn’t fit who you believe that you are.
Sometimes the disowned (shadow) self, exhibits in “bad” or socially unacceptable ways:
Ugly or Mean vs. Nice
Extreme vs. Moderate or Reasonable
Depressing vs. Positive and Cheerful
Doubtful vs. Confident
Afraid vs. Brave
Angry vs. Agreeable or Understanding
Jealous or Insecure vs. Admiring or Generous and Secure
Self-absorbed vs. Others-focused
Restless vs. Mindful, At Peace, or Present
Greedy vs. Liberal, Abundant, or Generous
Ungrateful vs. Appreciative and Thankful
Another way I’ve found to recognize when some repressed or orphaned part of me is trying to find expression is to notice when I am repulsed by someone else’s behavior.
As Carl Jung famously said, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
“Well, wait just a goddamned minute! That person is arrogant, showy, self-aggrandizing, cruel, rude, and a bully. I’m nothing like that!”
I have said and thought those exact words when grappling with the mirror image of some part of myself reflected in the repulsive behavior of another person. I’m nothing like that.
This is where a lot of us get tangled up, abandoning what could otherwise be a powerful moment of reflection and growth. I know that I have done this many times.
The truth is that something about what this other person just did or said triggered a part of me that I am not comfortable with. It doesn’t fit my self-concept.
For example, I really, really hate bullies. It’s hard to make me angry most of the time and many people have believed that I’m a pushover because I tend to be tolerant and understanding in most situations. However, if you show me a bully who is abusing someone they perceive to be weaker than themselves, my inner tiger roars. When this happens, it can come as a surprise to everyone present—including me.
So if Carl Jung isn’t full of shit, something about this bully wants to give me a greater understanding of myself. What could that be?
This one took me some years of integration to understand better.
I’m not a bully and I reject bullying behaviors, but how about the parts of myself that weren’t comfortable with being assertive or using power appropriately?
Oh. Ouch. Yeah, that hits home.
At what point or points did I reject the parts that could stand up for myself easily and well?
In the process of my own shadow work over the years, these parts have been willing to come out of hiding when I show them that I’m ready to listen—able to give them space to be seen and heard without judgment. Because at some point I consciously or unconsciously made an inner pact that this wasn’t how I wanted to be or be perceived.
In this example, welcoming this orphaned attribute has yielded a stronger, more confident way of living.
How or why do these parts become orphaned in the first place?
This is a huge question—and an important one!
In my forthcoming book, The Creative Cure: How Finding and Freeing Your Inner Artist Can Heal Your Life, I’ve identified three primary “enemies of creativity”:
This is related because the deep well of your creativity also exists largely in the shadow or subconscious. If you’d like to preorder a copy of this book, click here. For now, I suggest that you think about the attributes you’d love to strengthen in your life—the ones you believe to be lacking—and let yourself find memories of when you became afraid to exercise them naturally. You will likely retrieve scenes of being trained that these things are unacceptable, getting rejected for being your natural self, or traumatic moments that overwhelmed your greater selfhood in some way. As you do this, I invite you to be very gentle with yourself and these memories. Treated with care, they can become keys to unlock important doors.
Returning to an earlier part of this essay in which I suggested that we are embroiled in collective shadow work, think about the other side of whatever political issue absorbs you right now. Those hateful, bigoted, narrow-minded, greedy (or sloppy, weak, overly-sensitive, mushy, liberal) people are reflecting things. They are holding up a mirror for us and if we’re willing to do the inner work of integration, we can begin to discover new resources and previously inaccessible attributes that can help us create a world that’s saner, kinder, healthier, and more sustainable.
There’s so much more to discuss on this topic, but if you’re like me, you have other things to do today. If you’d like to read a book that I found transformative, look up Robert A. Johnson’s, “Owning Your Own Shadow.”
You are also free to download my complimentary ebook, “How to Establish Your Creative Self Journaling Practice.” This explains a very simple, three-question process that I’ve used and taught for years. I find it highly practical in tuning into the inner creative self (which is also largely in the domain of the shadow) and decoding messages that are often hard to receive or understand. Click here to download that at no cost
Thank you for being here with me at this time on Earth. We have a lot of work to do together, don’t we?
P.S. If you have insights or “ahas” about self-discovery and integration after reading this piece, please feel free to post them in the comments below.