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Understanding The Shadow Self

Coined by Psychiatrist Carl Jung, ‘the shadow self’ refers to our suppressed thoughts, feelings, longings and impulsions that reside deep in our subconscious. These ‘darker’ facets of our personality always have a source but may not always have a complete solution. Therefore, by learning to find acceptance in them, we are encouraging immeasurable amounts of personal healing and learning to utilise these shrouded characteristics in far more productive ways. By better understanding our shadow selves, and making a conscious effort to ‘tune in’ to this veiled aspect of our beings, we can begin incorporating our less-than-desirable characteristics into our lives in a healthier way. After all, if we can’t beat them, we might as well join them.


So, what actually is our ‘shadow self’? 


It is commonly believed that our subconscious drives a large proportion of our personality and behavior. Often our childhoods are responsible for this, as during the early stages of life we are highly malleable to different variables surrounding us. Those of us who have experienced more disruptive upbringings may have a more profound shadow self baring negative belief systems and characteristics. However, this is not necessarily the case for all who have faced instability in their formative years - many of the most privileged and fortunate amongst us possess their own troubling subconscious traits as well.


These traits permeate our lives in ways that we wouldn’t expect, often in the form of defensiveness and preventing us from utilizing our full powerful potentials. Most of us fear criticism and shy away from conflict, but often embracing this aspect of life is what is needed to facilitate a better understanding of your shadow self and thus encourage self-improvement. In sum, virtually all of us will be harboring certain self-sabotaging behaviors and desires within our ‘dark side’ and it is our job to own them if we want to overcome them.


How do I get rid of my shadow self?


Unfortunately, our shadow selves are a part of lives that we will never be able to expel. However, it is important that we learn to bring this aspect of our lives to the forefront, and face it head on. By engaging with the three methods outlined below, we can learn to ‘own’ our darker traits and overcome their detrimental impact on our lives.


Method 1) Understand that you are worthy and deserving


Years of childhood damage can convince people that they are undeserving of some of life’s most beautiful gifts. The division of students according to ability, being picked last for the school sports team and facing the harmful rhetoric that certain love interests are ‘out of your league’ are just some examples of the myths of worthiness we all face when growing up in society. While it is hard to unravel these fallacies, understanding the root of their presence is the first place to start.


For example, do you find it hard to form deep and meaningful bonds with individuals that go beyond surface-level affections? Perhaps this aspect of yourself has been damaged by mistreatment experienced in past relationships so the concept of trustworthiness is skewed as you go forward in life. Rather than isolating oneself as a result, learning to acknowledge when this initial mistreatment occurred and fully coming to terms with it can help heal the internal unrest caused. It may require you to pick up the phone and talk to an ex-friend, or it may mean that you have to find internal forgiveness for those who have deeply hurt you in previous years. Whatever it may be, the key is to find peace from within in order to rise above and let go of the heartache.


In addition to seeking forgiveness, implementing positive affirmations into your daily routine is another fantastic way to ‘own’ this negative thinking. Repeat to yourself, ‘I am deserving, I am worthy, I am loved.’ Eventually, this mantra will start to stick and override the oppressive chatter of the shadow self. 


Method 2) Do not suppress your emotions


Psychologists highlight that many of us will have had to suppress our emotions during childhood. Temper tantrums, hyper-activity and other highly emotive behaviors are often reprimanded by parents. As a result, this suppression during development can lead to the censoring of our natural human emotions within our shadow selves later down the line. 


We need to remind ourselves that it’s perfectly okay to not be okay. Our vast spectrum of innate feelings need to be celebrated and truly felt, rather than bottled up and hidden away indefinitely. Once we accept that our emotions exist and can’t be shunned, we will naturally become far more receptive to seeking help when we really need it. Often the toughest part of the battle is taking the first step in accepting your current emotional and mental state - it only gets easier from there. 


Furthering this point, it’s perfectly fine to acknowledge the parts of your life that are deeply unfair and to highlight areas in which you have been wronged by others. Our shadow selves are great at hanging onto these resentments and emotional burdens, meaning we sometimes lash out in ways that we can’t explain. In a similar vein to the first method discussed, in order to combat these suppressed emotions, we need to unearth them from our shadows and face them head on. Ruminate over the injustices you have faced, write out a list detailing how you have been deceived in the past and sit with the negative feelings that these exercises conjure. However, the most important part is to actively let these feelings dissipate once you have thoroughly acknowledged them. Finishing this exercise by recalling and appreciating all of the areas of life that you feel gratitude towards is a sure-fire way to leave you feeling more positive and alleviated moving forwards.


Method 3) Seek acceptance in who you are


By facing your emotions directly and acknowledging how certain aspects of your past have shaped who you are today, the next step is finding acceptance in who you really are. To find greater self-acceptance, one needs to appreciate that we have all been fed negatively biased concepts of ourselves at one point or another and that the feelings of guilt, shame and self-critique ought to be revaluated as a result. While it is hard to do so, we must ask exactly what aspects of ourselves we find hard to accept and delve into why these feelings of shame have clung to it. Were you branded ‘strange’ or ‘awkward’ from a young age due to your quiet personality? Or were you deemed ‘annoying’ and an ‘attention-seeker’ as a result of being naturally extroverted? The many harmful criticisms we have faced early on in life find themselves looming in our subconscious opinions of ourselves and thus form deep-seated insecurity within our shadow selves. Once we have pinpointed what insecurities we have, and why they may have arisen, we can begin the process of becoming more compassionate to who we are. 


What activities is it that you really enjoy? What kind of people do you most want to surround yourself with? What is your favorite aspect of your personality? Ask yourself these questions and listen closely to the answer in order to undo the damage caused by the strict social conformity many of us were forced into as children. By breaking down these walls and appreciating that as long as you are not hurting anyone else, that it truly does not matter how you wish to conduct your life, you will soon feel the weight of external validation lifting from your shoulders. We must shatter the fallacy that it is self-indulgent to truly love who we are.


In summarizing the concept of our shadow self, it is helpful to think of life like a broken plate. Sometimes we get chips and cracks and other times we are left completely shattered. In times like these, all we want to do is turn back the clock and go back to the way things were, but it’s impossible. All we can do is start putting in the work to rebuild.


Kintsugi is the Japanese process of repairing broken objects and turning them into something even more beautiful than the original piece. The craftsmen repair not to hide the cracks but to highlight them with gold and celebrate their value so they become a part of the story and not the end of the story. Now the repair, just like personal healing, takes a lot of hard work and effort, but instead of throwing things away or pretending the worst never happened, we give those cracks meaning and purpose by using them to enhance our beings as a whole and celebrate the fact that they helped you become who you are today.


Our shadow selves can be conceptualized just like this broken plate, and the work we put in when ‘repairing’ is what makes our lives extra beautiful. Just like these cracks and chips can never be masked, we cannot hide the pain and suffering we have endured in life. What we can do, however, is view our personal battles as something beautiful that simply adds to the wonderful uniqueness of who we are, and doesn’t detract anything at all. 


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