Me and my shadow: Becoming comfortable with who we really are

Each of us will have two distinct psychological parts; the part we present to the world and allow others to see which is the false self and the part that we would rather keep hidden and protected which is the real self or the “shadow” self. 

In his book, 'A Little Book on the Human Shadow' Robert Bly says a child is born with a 360º personality, a powerful globe of attractive energy. Yet by the time that a child gets to the school age he or she is already dragging behind a ‘long bag’ packed full of parts of him or her self that, first parents and then teachers, did not like and did not want to see. And we are all alone, we don’t know better so we repress these shadowy parts of ourselves and comply with their demands because we don’t want love to be withdrawn.

The ‘long bag’ is Bly’s powerful metaphor for the ‘shadow’, the dark unwanted and repressed part of ourselves. The Quaker concept of the ‘light’ is a useful contrast when thinking about the human shadow. When we are shadow-free we are bathed in the light of the spirit but sometimes our actions place us between that light of the spirit and our true selves and so we cast a shadow.

Bly says that by the time we reach our twenties we are an elegant, stripped away, thin slice of what we began life as. When we join with another in marriage, these two similar slim slices may struggle to make up one ‘whole’ person.

James Hollis believes that "at birth, each of us is handed a lens by our family of origin, our culture, our Zeitgeist, through which to see the world" and “we learn how to be in a relationship from our caregivers.”  If children are not encouraged to express their own views, their beliefs become part of their ‘shadow self’. They are at risk of developing a sense of ‘wrongness’ at an early age and the result may be to push this sense of wrongness down into the lower unconscious where shame may result. Children need to be encouraged to explore the powerful and ominous concept of “right and wrong” that exists in almost every culture throughout the world. The idea that “children should be seen and not heard” can be shaming in itself if used by adults as a weapon to silence children. However, although banished from view, indignity remains alive and it thrives in the shadow. Much like the light of the spirit creates goodness, the darkness of the shadow creates shame and guilt; wrong being and wrongdoing.  Here, the thought “there must be something wrong with me” may develop.

As puberty brings changes in body shape and hormones, many questions and curiosities will arise and develop. If caregivers are inhibited about, or unforthcoming in response to the curiosity of their children, their children may have no option but to explore and investigate for themselves. Resulting in a startling reprimand from a caregiver; through a horrified stare, an embarrassed silence or a threatening body gesture, may create a lifelong shadow if the transgression is left unexplained and the child is left feeling ‘unacceptable’. 

Close relationship relies on our acceptance of ourselves and of each other. That’s tough because we are often not aware of the influences at work in a relationship. James Hollis says, “that of which we are not aware, owns us.”

To be able to be i a successful relationship with others we must be in good relationship with our self; the part of us that looks out upon the world and assesses our prospective partners, friends and colleagues. 

Carl Jung wrote, “until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”  We need to understand and explore what is lurking in the shadows; our own personal shadow. Otherwise the things that make us anticipate in a certain way, react in a certain way, feel shame, guilt, reluctance through threats to personal security, ambition and good relations will continue to be disturbed by unknown forces within us.

This is where therapy is so valuable.  In the presence of another human being, a trusted non-judgmental soul, we can safely unpack these specters and explore them, we can speak about the unspeakable and become comfortable with who we really are.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Clapham Junction, London, SW11
Written by Paul Henry, PgDip MBACP (Accred)
Clapham Junction, London, SW11

Before I trained in psychotherapeutic counselling I spent many years in the creative industries so I am familiar with anxiety and stress related conditions, particularly performance anxiety. I also have twenty years experience of working with alcohol and substance misuse. I am also a professional mediator and a Quaker.

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