Shadow Work: How to Discover Your Other Half

Here are three examples of human behaviour. What do they have in common?

  1. Alex: Prides himself on his logical mind and even-mannered temperament. Except in fights with his girlfriend, that is. During those fights, he becomes a raving lunatic, saying and doing all sorts of things he regrets later.
  2. The Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal: Holy men of the cloth. Full-time jobs as celibate paragons of morality; staunchly against homosexuality. Part-time jobs as paedophiles preying on little boys.
  3. Maya: Generally considered selfless and “giving”. But when she gets stressed, Maya shows a strong sense of resentment and guilt-trips others about how much she’s sacrificed for them.

So how are these people alike? They’re all hypocrites, maybe? 

Actually, they’re all just… human.

Say hello to the shadow side.

Persona vs the shadow: You vs yourself

The persona

  • These are who we think we are: the opinions we share, the beliefs we proclaim, the values we stay true to.
  • These are all the kinds of labels we assign ourselves: husband, introvert, Buddhist, Greek, straight-A student, McKinsey consultant etc.
  • These are the roles we like to play: dutiful wife, rebellious teenager, shy employee, critical thinker.

All of these form what we call the persona. The persona is the public-facing part of our personality, where the public often includes ourselves. 

“The persona is the mask we wear in relation to the world and others…Our persona defines our social identity; it is constructed in relation to the roles we play in our lives and in our world, how we want to look and be seen. It is the face we wear to be presentable and acceptable to our society. It is not necessarily who we really are, but who we want and pretend to be to others and, many times, to ourselves.” (War of the Gods in Addiction, David Schoen)

But what about when we behave in ways that don’t conform to this image we have of ourselves? How does Alex justify his emotional volatility, Catholic priests their immorality, and Maya her resentment, which are all contrary to their personas?

We usually rationalize any “out-of-character” behaviour by assigning the blame to outside forces:

  • “I never would have shouted at her normally! It was only because the situation was stressful.”
  • “I don’t what came over me! The devil must have possessed me. I’m a good person, I swear.”
  • “I’m fine. It’s just dealing with you that makes me mad.”

Hard-truth: it is not the devil or anyone else that is to blame when we mess up in this way. It’s our own shadow that was at work.

The shadow

According to Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung (the man who developed the concepts of the persona and shadow) the shadow represents aspects of ourselves that we deny and have cut off from our conscious awareness of ourselves. We may say that we only behaved differently than we normally would have because of the situation, but there is nothing outside of us that can trigger any emotion or reaction unless we weren’t already primed to be that way.

In simple terms, the shadow is everything we refuse to fully acknowledge in ourselves.

"Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is." - Carl Jung

How does the shadow form

Everyone arrives on the planet with one core psychological need: to be seen, heard and appreciated for who we authentically are.

Unfortunately, almost none of us have this core need properly met.

What we must understand about human nature is that there is always a clash of opposites within us. To be human is to contain multitudes. Every one of us, depending on the situation, has the ability to be narcissistic or selfless, clueless or competent, factual or emotional, put-together or unkempt. As babies and young children, we move between all these different contradicting states spontaneously, without any judgement or ideas about how we should be. We feel free to be anything we want to be at that moment.

Then we get socialized.

We are taught – by our (usually well-meaning) families, teachers, peers and societies – that some of these qualities are “good” and the others are “bad”. “Good” behaviour gets praised or rewarded. “Bad” behaviour may be met with punishment, abuse, rejection or withdrawal of affection and attention. We then become conditioned to believe that if we are to receive love, acceptance or attention from others, we must behave only in certain ways. Rather than receiving appreciation for our authentic selves, we receive approval based on how well we conform to external expectations.

  • In every over-achiever, there is a “lazy” and “stupid” inner child that has been violently suppressed.
  • In every people-pleaser, there is someone who wants to put themselves first, but can’t because it’s “selfish” and “wrong”.
  • In every person proud of how “rational” or “logical” they are, there was once a child who was shamed for being “emotional”, “sensitive” or “weak”.

And so we start splitting ourselves into two. We display the parts of us that gets us approval from others (the persona), and hide away the ones that don’t (the shadow).

I want to emphasize that it’s not all doom and gloom with the shadow. The shadow can also contain many aspects that are usually considered “positive”. For example:

  • Many people repress their creative or artistic sides because they were pressured by their family to choose a more stable or prestigious career path.
  • Many “rebels” or “problem-children” grew up feeling entirely disconnected from their families. They found they could only gain attention by “acting out”. “Rebelliousness” became their persona while around their families, while their shadow contains their peaceful side.

What part of ourselves we express and repress is less about universal ideas of “good” and “bad”, and more about what gets us acceptance (or at the very least, attention) from our own families and peers.

Shadow Work: The Basics

The act of bringing the hidden aspects of ourselves into our conscious awareness is called shadow integration or shadow work. Jung considered shadow work an essential part of becoming whole and a fully “individuated” person. (Individuation, according to Jung, represented self-actualization or reaching our full potential.) 

Why we should integrate our shadows

Despite the importance of shadow work, it’s not exactly popular. This is understandable: few people enjoy owning up to their flaws, weaknesses, nastiness, anger and overall “badness” as a person. It’s no accident that “Look to the light!” and “Follow your bliss!” and “Good vibes only” are de-rigueur in the personal development world. Focusing on developing our strengths and what makes us feel good is far easier on us emotionally.

Many people also panic at what it means to accept their “evil” nature: “Why should I? My shadow likes to hurt people! It belongs in hell! How can I accept it?”

As a counter, I have 3 points:

  1. Our shadow is a part of us, so we cannot deny it and still be whole. In fact, the more we deny our shadow, the less control we have over it. It will show itself when we least want it to, in ways that will harm both us and others.
  2. Shadow integration is key to both self-improvement and self-acceptance. We cannot hate ourselves into a version of ourselves that we love. And if we want to love ourselves, we need to especially love the parts of ourselves we currently think are unlovable.
  3. It comes with a bunch of benefits. Shadow work can help us:
  • Increase our creativity and energy through discovering long-lost aspects of ourselves and uncovering our “inner gold”
  • Shift our old patterns of thought and action that no longer serve us (we can’t change anything unless we accept that it exists in the first place and understand how it came to be).
  • Transform our fear into insight, anger into power, and grief into wisdom
  • Increase our compassion, empathy and understanding of both ourselves and others
  • Become physically healthier by releasing trapped emotion (repressed emotion commonly shows itself as chronic physical pain and illness. I highly recommend reading Dr. Gabor Mate’s book “When the Body Says No” to understand how this works.)

How to integrate our shadows

Shadow work is not about giving ourselves the permission to do anything unethical, illegal or harmful. The process of shadow work involves:

  1. Acceptance of our dual nature: We must recognize and accept that we may always have the impulse to think and act in both socially “acceptable” and “unacceptable” ways, and extend ourselves compassion and understanding rather than hate and denial. Robert Greene’s “The Laws of Human Nature” is a good read to come to terms with the less savoury aspects of ourselves.
  2. Questioning Assumptions: A re-think of our long-held assumptions about “acceptable” and “unacceptable” behaviour is in order. How many of our beliefs did we blindly inherit from our families and friends that no longer serve us? An example would be someone who grew up in a family where achievement and discipline were strongly emphasized. This person now needs to learn that they can relax and even be “lazy” once in a while, and still be a “good” and “worthy” person.
  3. Developing the “positive” shadow: For example, someone who is too passive and lets people walk all over them has repressed their natural assertiveness. They would highly benefit from assertiveness-training. Another example would be introverts re-discovering the part of them that is happy to be social, and extroverts re-gaining comfort with solitude.
  4. Healing the “negative” shadow: If we can’t act out our negative shadow emotions without hurting ourselves and others, we need to find a healthy way to express them. For example, lots of people have trouble with repressed anger, which commonly shows itself as chronic back-painapathy, and passive-aggressiveness. Mindfulness techniques, yoga and journalling are some constructive ways of dealing with this issue.
  5. Developing non-attachmentNon-attachment is a way of relating that combines empathy with detachment. In this context, it is about learning to have compassion for both our shadow and persona, while realizing we don’t have to be attached to either of them.  

Identifying your shadow behaviour

So how do you identify what makes up your particular shadow to start your shadow work?

The key to understanding your shadow lies in understanding your persona and your idealized self-image. How do you most like to show up in the world? This will also tell you what you most fear to see in yourself.

Here are the top three ways to identify your persona and shadow.

1. Personality Typing: The Enneagram

Research supports the existence of different personality types. It is important to be aware of your particular psychological type, as each type has its own path to development.

Of all the different personality frameworks out there – and believe me, I’ve tried several, including the more popular Myers-Briggs – I’ve found the Enneagram to have the most insight into the human condition, as well as the most useful in its descriptions of growth. The Enneagram is a model of the human psyche consisting of nine different personality types, with 9 different health levels for each.

Take a free Enneagram test here. You can also take a scientifically-validated version of the test at the Enneagram Institute website ($12 USD).

After you get your results, read more about your type and see if it resonates. (You’ll know that you’ve landed on the right one if reading the detailed description hits a nerve.) The core fears of each type are usually unconscious, by which I mean they are repressed in the shadow. People who are psychologically unhealthy are operating mostly under the grip of their unconscious fears and shadow side.

For more about the Enneagram, I recommend Riso and Hudson’s book The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

2. Recognizing Triggers and Judgement

Fill in the blank: “I hate people who are __________ “

Identifying what really pisses us off about other people will help us understand what makes up our shadow side. This is because the things that we find “bad”, “irritating”, “strange” or “stupid” in others are usually the parts of ourselves that we are too afraid to look at closely.

Sure, someone might be aggressive, arrogant, thoughtless, or intolerant, but if we didn’t have those same qualities somewhere within us, we wouldn’t react strongly to their behaviour. We are primed to project onto others anything that we bury in ourselves (psychological projection).

Think of someone who goes on a rant if they have to deal with a person showing up ten minutes late. Most of us wouldn’t have such a strong reaction. It’s because we recognize that we may not have always been punctual in the past and so we extend some grace to both ourselves and the person who is currently late. Any behaviour can only trigger a strong judgemental reaction from us if we’ve repressed our own ability to commit that same behaviour.  

  • “I hate people who are late” = “I’m terrified of being late so I’m never late myself. There’s actually a part of me that can be late occasionally just like everyone else, but it will get me into trouble, so I make sure it never shows up.”
  • “I hate emotional people” = “My emotional and sensitive side was discouraged as a child, so I’m going to act like I don’t have any emotions at all and talk about how logical I am instead. I will shame others for being emotional the same way I was once shamed, because I can’t stand any reminders that this part of me ever existed.” Note: this is common in men who were raised hearing “boys don’t cry”.
  • “I hate people who are incompetent” = “Nothing terrifies me more than appearing stupid, unskilled, or helpless. I cannot allow myself to make mistakes or fail at anything without experiencing deep self-loathing and utter worthlessness, so I’m going to be hard on others when they mess up as well.”
  • “I hate people who are selfish” = “I was made to believe growing up that my value lies in how much I can serve others. I always put other people first, even if I’m secretly resentful about it. I dislike the part of me that wants to put myself first, so when I see others who act without considering anyone else at all, it makes my blood boil.”
"People do not seem to realize that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

3. Dream Analysis

Jung strongly advocated the use of dream analysis in shadow work as he believed dreams to be a direct portal into our unconscious mind. I’ll admit to this being my least used method; I can never remember any of my dreams and I’m too groggy in the morning to write them down as soon as I wake up to analyze them later. If you’re someone who likes the idea though, here’s a guide to dream analysis to get you going.

Now, if you don’t want to analyze the dreams you have when you’re asleep, you can at least analyze the visions and fantasies you have while awake, and what they might say about you. Since we tend to fantasize about our “forbidden fruit” – what we feel is not appropriate for our persona to engage in – our fantasies can give us direct insight into what aspects of ourselves we are repressing.

For example, here’s an interesting piece of research about the differences in sexual fantasies of political liberals vs conservatives in the United States. Republicans, who pride themselves on supporting “traditional family values” tend to fantasize about sexual activity outside of marriage: orgies, partner swapping, visiting strip clubs and plain old infidelity. Democrats, who have made equal rights for all their rallying point, favour fantasies involving domination, unequal power-dynamics and BDSM acts.

Wholeness and Completion

At first, embracing the shadow might seem terrifying, because it represents such a huge threat to our persona – it is literally everything our persona is not. But once we get into the process, we realize shadow work may be the most liberating thing we can ever do for ourselves. We are no longer rigidly attached to playing a role that might not even serve us anymore and confining ourselves to only one way of being and doing.

Ultimately though, true healing arises when we realize for ourselves that we are neither our persona nor our shadows. We are neither as good and well-intentioned as we like to think, nor are we as bad and unworthy as we secretly fear. We are also vastly greater than the sum of our persona and shadow, as well as our hopes and our fears – we are the awareness that experiences it all. Integrating our shadow is the first step in the process of discovering this true essence.  

Your other half? It’s not another person. It’s you yourself – your own shadow.