Where is my shadow self?
Do you sometimes find yourself acting in ways that are ‘out-of-character’?
Do you struggle with powerful surges of emotions such as anger or envy and cannot legitimise their causes?
Do you sometimes feel surprised by aspects of your personality?
In the the realm of psychology, Carl Jung’s idea of the ‘persona’ and ‘shadow self’ have a profound influence on how we understand the above phenomena.
Jung used the term ‘persona’ - ‘mask’ in Latin - to describe the side of us that we like, accept, and wish to present to the world. It is made up of notions of ourselves that we recognise, acknowledge, and attach to; these are often influenced by what society and our upbringing have taught us. They are labels and descriptions that we sit comfortably with: ‘I am a man’, ‘I am a loving mother’, ‘I am a good citizen and I obey the law’, ‘I am a caring person and I genuinely want my friends to be happy’. They are true aspects of yourselves, but perhaps not the full picture.
‘The persona is a complicated system of relations between individual consciousness and society, fittingly enough a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and, on the other, to conceal the true nature of the individual.’ - Jung
On the flip side, we have a tendency to suppress or disown parts of ourselves that we reject as ‘indecent’, and collectively they make up our shadow self. Since we do not like to think of these as parts, we keep them dormant and untouched in the unconscious, until the day they get unexpectedly triggered by people and events. It is in those times that you find yourself acting out in ways that surprises or even frightens you. For example, if you identify as a tough person, and disown your own vulnerability, you may be caught off guard and suffer from internal conflicts during the times when you do feel weak or dependent.
Sometimes, we project our shadows onto others - when you find yourself feeling irrationally irritated or disgusted by aspects of someone’s behaviours, it can point to something you are deeply frightened of seeing or having in yourself. (On the flip side, if you find yourself immensely attracted to certain attributes in others, you may have disowned your own light!)
‘Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it… But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.’ - Jung
When suppressed or projected, your shadow can become destructive; it may erupt in depression, self-directed aggression or interpersonal hostility. It takes a lot of energy too, to constantly push down parts of ourselves. In fact, many people who find themselves chronically fatigued are able to benefit from psychological shadow work.
Therapy/self-development is a process of uncovering both your light and shadow, as holistic health and true self-esteem come when we can accept all dimensions of ourselves. Through cultivating the capacity for self-compassion, you can learn to integrate your shadow - including our natural propensity to sometimes be angry, self-preserving, needy, and be burned with envy.
Learning to accept the fullness of who you are is the first and final step of self love. Shadow work is not only the foundation, and also one of the most powerful steps you can take towards true peace and aliveness.
Take home: How do I recognise my shadows?
‘It takes one to know one’. You can start spotting your shadows by seeing what others trigger in you.
Do certain traits in others stir up out-of-proportion emotions or reactions in you? Who do you look up to? What qualities do you see in people you admire?
When you find yourself reacting strongly to certain aspect of others’ personality, either positively (your light) or negatively (your shadow), dig deeper.
Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.
About Imi Pui Yin Lo
Imi is an award-winning mental health professional, accredited clinical psychotherapist (UKCP), art therapist (HCPC, BAAT), supervisor and trainer. She specialises in emotional intensity, sensitivity, and borderline personality traits. She is the founder of Eggshell Therapy Practise, based in London, UK.