“One must have chaos in oneself in order to give birth to a dancing star.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
We all carry an image of ourselves in our minds of who we are, what we are like, and what qualities we have. We form this sense of self through repeated experiences in the world with others and through self-reflection. We are inextricably linked to the world around us – interconnected.
People throughout our lives have given us direct and indirect information about who we are through what they see in us and how they respond to us. We then internalize these reflections from others and take what “fits” with how we would like to see ourselves and reject what “doesn’t fit.” Through this process of filtering information, we (hopefully) form a coherent sense of identity in the world.
However, there is more to the self than just what we would like to see and what we tell ourselves we are like. Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist, called this the shadow. Jung wrote, “Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants himself to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is” (Jung, 1938, p. 131).
An important idea here is that the less awareness we have of the shadow self, the “blacker and denser it is.” For me, this calls to mind a mental image of a very dark area inside a house that never has any light cast on it. If you think of your conscious awareness as that “light,” then consider the importance of casting the light onto the very darkest places inside your “house” (i.e., the self).
Jung wrote, “To confront a person with his shadow is to show him his own light. Once one has experienced a few times what it is like to stand judgingly between the opposites, one begins to understand what is meant by the self. Anyone who perceives his shadow and his light simultaneously sees himself from two sides and thus gets in the middle” (Jung, 1959, p. 872).
How to Accept Your Shadow Self
In “The Mindfulness Solution,” Siegel provides a simple exercise to begin to identify your shadow self:
- Make a list of 5 positive qualities that you see yourself as having (e.g., compassionate, generous, witty, etc.)
- Look at each positive quality that you wrote down – describe its opposite (e.g., unfeeling, stingy, dull, etc.)
- Picture a person who embodies these negative qualities vividly in your mind. Roughly, this is your shadow.
Benefits of Accepting Your Shadow Self
Siegel (2010) aptly describes the benefits of this exercise:
“By illuminating how we construct our identity, mindfulness practice helps us recognize and accept our shadow moment by moment. Every desirable and undesirable feeling, thought, and image eventually arises in meditation, and we practice noticing and accepting them all. We see our anger, greed, lust, and fear along with our love, generosity, care, and courage. Seeing all these contents, we gradually stop identifying with one particular set and rejecting the other. We eventually see that we have a great deal in common with everyone else – including those we are tempted to judge harshly. We see for ourselves why people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”
Try to mindfully pay attention to each time someone around you does something, says something, or “is” a certain way that irritates you or upsets you. Notice what bodily sensations arise out of this experience. Do you find yourself tensing up or clenching your jaw when something “irritating” is said? Many things that annoy one person will have little to no effect on another. Ask yourself why certain qualities are so bothersome to you?
If you highly value one of your positive traits, such as being organized/orderly, then being around someone who is sloppy or unorganized can seem quite painful. In a similar vein, if you highly value a trait such as modesty, then it can be almost unbearable to be around a braggart. Each time you find yourself giving in to these feelings of annoyance or irritation, instead ask yourself, “In what ways am I sloppy, cocky, etc.?”
Practice slowly getting in touch with those qualities that you are fighting so hard to repel and push out of your experience. It is true that we often don’t enjoy surrounding ourselves with people who remind us of those qualities that we claim to abhor, but there is much to be learned here. Try looking at those experiences as opportunities for growth, self-knowledge, and self-awareness. Open yourself up to meeting your shadow self head on. Welcome it to the proverbial table. Once you accept its presence, its power to irritate and fluster you begins to fade away.
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Jung, C.J. (1959) Good and evil in analytical philosophy.
Jung, C.J. (1938). Psychology and religion. Binghamton, NY: The Vail-Ballou Press, Inc.
Siegel, R.D. (2010). The mindfulness solution: everyday practices for everyday problems. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Featured image: ninja cat by Robert Couse-Baker / CC BY 2.0