Your Shadow contains the parts of your personality you learned to hide, repress and deny as a child.
In fact your Shadow is made up of all the parts of you which weren’t acceptable when you were a child. Acceptable, that is, to the people around you.
Your parents, your teachers, your caregivers, they all wanted you to fit in with their ways of being, their expectations, and their beliefs about the way the world works. About the way things “should be”. Which may not have been your way….
We can think of every child as starting out in life with a complete set of emotions – anger, sadness, joy, fear, love, and so on.
But from the moment we’re born, we learn that some of our feelings are less acceptable than others – and some are not acceptable at all.
You might, for example, be familiar from your own experience with some common messages given to children. Little girls are often told they “should not” be angry. Little boys are often told that it’s weak or “sissy” to cry. These messages may be spoken or unspoken, but are always conveyed in some way that makes it obvious what is required.
And so, to gain acceptance, little girls and boys may suppress their anger or their sadness. They put it away, out of sight, in their unconscious. Into Shadow.
Perhaps you grew up in a house where sexuality was a taboo subject, not to be spoken of, but something to be kept in the darkness, even associated with shame. If you grew up in such an environment, it would be no surprise to find that your natural sexuality was suppressed, and that later in life you experienced difficulties around sexual issues.
As you can probably see, precisely what you put into Shadow during your childhood is going to be unique to you, the outcome of your upbringing.
And your Shadow contains much more than your feelings and emotions. Children, given the choice, will almost always adapt to please their parents rather than rebel against them.
So you might have put your power in the world, or your ability to get things done, or your capacity to change the world around you, into Shadow. This might happen, for example, when your parents and caregivers and others around you conveyed the message that you weren’t in control of what happened to you.
And children who suffered abuse, of whatever kind, may come to believe that they have no power to stand up to other people.
Or perhaps you are a person who was told in childhood you were stupid. Of course this message doesn’t have to be conveyed in such an explicit way. So you put your intelligence, creativity, and maybe your free spirit into Shadow.
So it goes. The details are different, the principle is the same.
There are a million ways in which children can be shown that what they bring to the world is not welcome or respected or appreciated.
There are a million different ways in which children can be shown that whatever they offer isn’t good enough or clever enough.
There are a million different ways in which children can be shamed and given a false image of who they are and what they can do.
However, things tend to follow a pattern. When faced with such a situation, children have a choice: to conform or to rebel. And given the choice, most children will conform, to get acceptance, to keep what looks like love, no matter that doing so is at the expense of their own wholeness, their own complete personality.
After all, how would they know any different? Children see the Adults around them as holding all the power, the knowledge, the keys to being in the world. Children rarely understand that what’s happening to them is not their fault. Is not caused by them, even.
And for a child, every choice to be something involves a choice not to be something. When a boy chooses to conform to his father’s expectations that little boys should be strong and powerful, he also makes a choice not to express vulnerability or sadness. So his sadness, grief, tears and vulnerability go into Shadow, perhaps never to emerge.
A little girl who chooses to conform to her family’s expectations that she is a “good little girl”, may also make a choice not to be angry, a choice not to express anger.
And then, she puts her anger into Shadow and as she does so, loses much of her power to express her needs and desires clearly, be forceful in the world, and perhaps even her ability to protect her boundaries, whether emotional, physical or psychological.
Thus it is inevitable that every child ever born has put a large part of his or her natural feelings, emotions, impulses, and drives into Shadow.
To put it another way – for a child to be accepted, to be approved of, basically, they must repress and deny much of who they are – the part which doesn’t match the family’s expectations. All this goes into Shadow.
Regrettably in many families and cultures, it’s not appropriate to show your power and magnificence, your strength, your capacity to shine.
This is the golden energy of what we call the Sovereign archetype, the leader, the achiever, the part of you that wants to seen as a competent man or woman who is good enough to stand tall and proud in the world.
So positive energy can go into Shadow as well. When it does, people begin to play small. They begin to misrepresent their potential, and eventually they may come to believe the story that other people created for them.
But whatever you put into Shadow does not lose its energy. Be it anger, sadness, vulnerability, joy, happiness, power or strength, your Shadow qualities retain the energy they had before you repressed them into your unconscious.
And because Shadow has that power it will always tend to leak out – indeed, sometimes it will erupt in a way that astounds you! Those uncontrolled bursts of anger, the tears that come from nowhere, the self-doubt that you simply can’t explain, and the lack of confidence that you experience in the world… all of these and more can be the outcome of the way you were taught to be. The outcome of rules, expectations and guidance given to you by your caregivers in childhood.
Over time, these unconscious Shadows begin to make themselves felt. They might make themselves felt in sudden outbursts of emotion or what looks like irrational behaviour that seems beyond your control.
And they can also make themselves felt as a murmuring discontent. This is your soul’s longing to find and re-establish the truth of who you once were, of the person you were born to be.
Ignored, your Shadows can turn their energy into illness, dysfunctional behaviour and disrupted relationships.
Explored and brought into the light, your Shadows can be your greatest asset. For one thing, all your power, all your sensitivity, all your compassion, all your magnificence and all your strength can be accessed once again, brought into the light and incorporated into your life.
Video – what happens in a shadow work session?
When we think of the Shadow, we also inevitably think of the emotional wounds which lie behind so much of the psychic energy that is in Shadow.
There are many ways a child is wounded emotionally. Whether it’s one large traumatic event, or persistent abuse, or the repetition of a million small insults to the child’s ego, the end result is the same – the suppression of parts of his or her personality to gain acceptance from the people around them.
But here’s the thing: to allow the emotional wounds of childhood to control your life as an adult is never going to lead to a happy and fulfilled life.
True fulfilment comes from rediscovering the essence of who you were always meant to be. It means growing into who you were designed to be before the world got in the way.
Now, as an adult, you have the choice to look at those emotional wounds, to begin to heal them, to resolve them, and as you do so, finally to become the person you were born to be. This is what is known as shadow work: a particular form of counselling or therapy.
By working with your Shadow, you can systematically explore each area of your personality, understand how it came to be the way it is, and bring what is hidden back into the light. That way it is under your control. You can start to rediscover the complete, 360 degree, all-round personality with which you were born.
You can become the man or woman you were always meant to be.