You may have noticed that the word “shadow” has been showing up with great frequency lately in popular culture and in the media. Most of those references do not refer to the literal definition of the word but use the term as a metaphor for what is known as the dark side of one’s personality that includes those tendencies that are considered unattractive or even destructive by society.
The shadow refers to those aspects that we tend to deny or disown, to both ourselves as well as others, aspects that are deemed unattractive or even destructive by the culture in which we live. Since being seen by others as possessing socially unacceptable traits diminishes us in the eyes of others, it is natural to wish to conceal what we deem to be any negative qualities that we possess.
Unfortunately, doing so has serious and potentially damaging consequences, many of which show up in our relationships with others as well as with ourselves. In focusing on the concealment of what we deem to be unattractive, we create a split between our true self and our public or false self. This split results in us feeling incomplete, insufficient, and inauthentic. Disowning our undesired parts also results in feelings of guilt, shame, and inferiority, since we tend to believe that others don’t share our situation. In fact, they do.
The process we’re describing isn’t unique to certain people or certain groups of people. It’s universal and gets played out in a variety of forms in all cultures since all humans share a common need to feel secure within the context of whatever group of which they are a part. And the members of all groups share common ideas in regard to the qualities, behaviors, and values that they identify as positive and negative.
Consequently living an authentic life, being genuine and true to yourself and simultaneously honoring and conforming to the values of the groups with which you are identified proves to be far more difficult than most of us believe it should be. Anyone who has ever taken seriously the admonition “To thine own self be true” (from Shakespeare’s Hamlet) knows only too well how profoundly challenging that commitment can be.
One of the things people in great relationships have in common is that they have integrated those aspects of themselves that had been relegated to the shadow into their lives in a way that allows them to live with greater authenticity, integrity, and emotional honesty. Unless our relationships embody these qualities, they will not fulfill the deeper needs and longings that we seek to experience in true partnership.
While the process of living a life of “wholeness” may seem like a daunting challenge, it is possible. There are many examples of people who have done so and people who are currently doing so. And no, you don’t have to be a Gandhi or a Mother Teresa to do so. These folks do, however, share a common intention that unites them in a community in which the highest value is integrity. This community is not defined by adherence to commonly held beliefs but is characterized by an acknowledgment of an inner drive to become a more loving human being who is unencumbered by the burden of concerns about rejection, failure, or other fears that are shared by most of the population. They are what Malcolm Gladwell refers to as “Outliers”.
The process that offers support and tools for the transformative work of creating a life of integrity is often referred to as “shadow work”, and it involves the reclaiming of those parts of ourselves that we have denied and retrieving them from the shadow. If you are intrigued with the possibility of finding out what this journey looks and feels like, we invite you to join us in Santa Cruz on Saturday April 8 when we will be offering our workshop, The Hidden Gifts of the Shadow. (Scroll down for details.) We have been teaching Shadow work courses at the Esalen Institute since 1995 and it has consistently been one of our most powerful and popular workshops
Whether you accept this invitation or not, we urge you to consider the possibility of becoming truly free to be yourself unconditionally, authentically and effortlessly, and to imagine how doing so could transform the quality of your life and all of your relationships. There are many paths to the realization of one’s true self. What is most important is not which one you choose, but that you choose a path that you can make a wholehearted commitment to. Think about it; then make your choice.