Secrets of Magic No 45: Make friends with your shadow

Nobody’s perfect. This is a truism precisely because it is true. Even the most saintly among us have flaws. Every virtue can also become a vice. Those of us who pride ourselves on having integrity can sometimes be inflexible and unforgiving. If we are accommodating, we might fail at times to draw appropriate boundaries for ourselves and our loved ones.

Every living person experiences negative emotions as well as positive ones. They’re built into our body chemistry. We all feel anger, hate, and envy at times. Our human ancestral heritage includes the struggle to survive, to protect ourselves, to better the lot of our families. Our bodies experience hunger, pain, lust.

Each of us has a blind spot in our character where we cannot see ourselves. This is exactly like the place in a car that the rear view mirror cannot reflect. Psychologists call this blind spot our shadow. The shadow contains all the parts of ourselves we don’t want to admit are there, including our animal natures, the drive to survive, negative emotions, and our flaws.

We all want to think well of ourselves. Our culture, our families, and our own expectations shape our vision of the good human being. We don’t want to admit that there are ways we aren’t living up to that vision. We flinch to look in our blind spot, to admit that the shadow exists, and those impulses, drives and emotions are actually part of us.

All of us have made mistakes. We hurt people, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes out of a stinging need to strike out. We find ourselves doing things that we regret. We don’t live up to our own expectations, let alone the expectations of others. The memories of those mistakes, and how we feel about ourselves, drop into the shadow, where we hope we will not have to face them.

The driver who fails to check the blind spot runs the risk of a damaging accident. Failing to check the blind spot in ourselves is also dangerous. We think that looking away from the shadow will ensure that we don’t act out what we think of as our basest desires. In fact, the refusal to look at ourselves runs our lives. We twist ourselves into strange shapes to avoid having to admit our flaws. We think we are controlling the worst parts of ourselves by denying them. In fact, the shadow runs our lives, as we maneuver what we do to avoid admitting our mistakes and our imperfections.

Conscientious drivers know that car mirrors don’t show everything and glance over their shoulders to make sure the road is clear before moving the car. We can turn to face our blind spot as well. We can admit that our bodies have needs, that we experience a full range of emotions, that we have made mistakes.

It can be frightening at first to turn and face ourselves. When we admit our mistakes we might be overwhelmed with shame. We might release long-buried anger, admit to hate, or discover a suppressed desire that would change our lives if we acted on it. It is at the least startling to discover the range of our flaws.

Many of us find a therapist can help us with this work. Therapy isn’t just for when we are in trouble or something is broken. Therapy can help healthy people become happier. A therapist can act as a life coach, mentoring us through the process of facing the shadow, releasing what we have repressed, and integrating the new understandings into our lives.

For many of us the initial confrontation with the shadow may be uncomfortable and unsettling, but once we have worked through the first rush of pent-up emotions and ideas, we experience a sense of relief. Yes, we have made mistakes, we have animal natures, we are imperfect. When we stop denying these things we drop an enormous burden and free up all the energy we were using in avoiding that knowledge.

We discover that the shadow doesn’t just contain the things that shame us. Our blind spot hides power from us too. Sometimes our anger is justified, and when we admit to it, we can begin to make positive changes our lives need to move forward. We might discover a desire that frightened us, because others might disapprove of that desire, or because it did not fit our expectations of how our lives were supposed to be. Admitting that desire might bring that change that allows us to straighten up, stand tall, and find fulfillment.

Of course the shadow contains those impulses and emotions that, if we unleash them, would hurt ourselves and those around us, and cause great harm. That’s one of the reasons we refuse to look at them, because we are afraid that if we admit these impulses, they will take over. However, when we confront the shadow, we don’t put the shadow in charge of our lives. In fact, it is just the opposite. When we look at the shadow, then the shadow stops running our lives. We still make decisions about what we are going to do, but now those decisions don’t have to be built around the need to deny half of who we are.

The great lesson of the shadow is that we cannot cut ourselves in pieces and throw away the parts we don’t want. When we stop rejecting our darker selves and turn to make friends with our darker selves, we take a huge step toward becoming whole human beings.

This work teaches us to connect with others and in particular to accept help. One thing friends and spouses do for each other is to help each other through the process of self-discovery. Talking to the people who love us can help us to understand our failings, provide us emotional support as we look into the darkness, and reassure us that we are still loveable and loved.

I make friends with my shadow.

Practice: Look over your shoulder
Journals, dreams, conversations with friends, and therapy, are all ways we can begin to get to know our shadow. You can move slowly with this work, giving yourself time to integrate new understandings.

Here are some first lines that you can use to start journal entries to explore the shadow:

  • What frightens me is…
  • I am angry about…
  • Characteristics I dislike in myself:
  • I regret…

One of the questions in your regular journal entries is, “If I could do anything I want, I would…” Ask yourself that question and listen quietly for the answer. You might catch an answer flitting by that you automatically repress. Give yourself time to think about this. If you really could do anything at all, what would you honestly want?

Reread your dream journal entries. What images have most greatly disturbed you? Are there images you habitually do not record because they do not make sense to you or upset you? Renew your commitment to recording your dreams as they happen, without editing. The things we are reluctant to record often are messages from the shadow.

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