How to Make Friends with Your Shadow Side
“To confront a person with his shadow is to show him his own light. Once one has experienced a few times what it is like to stand judgingly between the opposites, one begins to understand what is meant by the self. Anyone who perceives his shadow and his light simultaneously sees himself from two sides and thus gets in the middle.” - Carl Jung
Whether we like it or not, we all have a shadow side. For every choice we make, there is the choice we don’t make. Acknowledging and integrating my own shadow side is very much a work in progress, but it's been an integral part of becoming who I am.
Much of our shadow side stems from childhood, the rules for living we learned growing up and the aspects of ourselves we’ve repressed or disowned as a result. A common example of this is the baggage that comes with traditional gender conditioning. Boys don’t cry (and so tenderness and vulnerability become a shadow side). Girls don’t get angry (and therefore anger becomes a shadow side). The shadow is our “unlived life” the parts of ourselves that don’t get an airing. Usually, these things have been relegated to the dark for a good reason. They frighten us, we feel threatened by them, they provoke feelings of shame or disgust, and/or they feel unacceptable.
Just because they don’t get an airing, however, doesn’t mean they disappear. And, because they don’t get an airing, they tend to emerge in unconscious ways. Taking one example above, an inability to express healthy anger might manifest as depression or outbursts of uncontrollable rage. Whether we accept our anger or not, it’s there (as are all aspects of our shadow side). Because it’s unconscious, we lose control over how we express it.
You’ve probably heard the saying that the things we find most annoying about others are things we struggle to own in ourselves. This is another example of the shadow side. If we get ticked off when someone expresses a judgement, we might struggle to acknowledge and own our own capacity to be judgemental. If we notice ourselves labelling someone as “bossy” or “bolshy,” it could be a sign we're struggle to own our own desire to be more assertive.
How to make friends with your shadow side
Jung explains we can integrate our shadow side by bringing the dark into the light and making the unconscious conscious. Everyone has a shadow side (even—especially—if you’re reading this thinking “Who, me?”). We do ourselves a huge favour when we can acknowledge those undesirable aspects of ourselves are part of what makes us human.
The shadow is often talked about in the negative, but it’s not just about dredging up our deepest, darkest, weirdest bits. Alongside the less shiny-shiny aspects of ourselves, we can also uncover the “golden shadow.” This can show up as a higher calling, unexplored potential or submerged greatness. It can manifest as things we admire or envy in others.
Start in a private, safe environment
Whether we’re exploring the shadow, the golden shadow or an as-yet unknown combination of both, the best place to start is in a private, safe environment, for example in your personal journal or in partnership with a counsellor.
Explore the stories and meanings you attach to your shadow side
Our shadow side might feel uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean it’s “bad.” Remember, we can learn a lot from it about outdated beliefs we’re holding on to, about needs and desires we haven’t yet honoured, and about untapped potential. Our shadow side becomes our shadow side because we’ve attached negative beliefs and stories to certain aspects of ourselves. Identifying and unravelling these stories is an important step towards being able to accept all parts of ourselves
Remember that shame thrives in secrecy
The more we can acknowledge and own the different aspects of our shadow sides, the more we can face any residue of shame that might come with them. In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown talks about how shame loves secrecy and therefore the antidote to shame is connection and sharing. If we can own our story and share it with someone who has earned the right to hear it, shame cannot thrive.
Integrating our shadow side doesn’t mean sharing it all with everyone. Sharing with the right person or people is important as not everyone will handle our shame experience well. A negative or unempathic response can do more harm than good and only contribute to the shame spiral. Find the right person or people and sharing, however, can be a cathartic, healing experience.
The prospect of exploring and befriending our shadow side can feel daunting. When we start out, we’re faced with uncertainty that, for some people, can feel overwhelming. I hope this post has also shown how within the darkness we can find strong sources of light, not to mention the possibility of living whole-heartedly, accepting ourselves for everything and all we are.
What have you found to be most helpful for making friends with your shadow side? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.