We all have parts of ourselves that we'd rather not show to the world. But as much as we may try to ignore it, this "shadow" continues to haunt us, which can manifest in ways like addiction, depression, and anxiety. Find out how mindfulness can allow us to get to know our shadow, and maybe even befriend it.
Is Your Unconscious Shadow Taking Control of Your Life?
Your struggles may be your shadow demanding to be heard.
The shadow is that part of us that our conscious self-identity, or ego, can't tolerate.
By getting in touch with your shadow side, you experience your whole being.
Mindfulness lets us tune into the ingrained patterns of shadow that speak to us—which command or suggest that we behave in a particular way.
In my years as a therapist, I've seen my share of clients struggling with addiction, anger issues, depression, and overwhelming anxiety, to name a few. There are behavioral approaches for these issues, and, without question, these methods provide relief and create new brain pathways.
But, sometimes, the problems persist because behaviorism doesn't always get to the root of the problem. When that happens, you just have to dig in the dirt and pull out that offending weed at its roots!
That is how I see shadow work, the work of finding the inner, unconscious forces that too often control us. They are forces that drive us into numbing states, that cause us to act out in cruel ways toward others, and, often, that are strong enough to take away our own willpower and leave us feeling empty and hopeless.
That's when you know your shadow is acting out.
But what is the shadow, exactly?
Basically, the shadow is that part of us that our conscious self-identity, or ego, can't tolerate. For whatever reason, the shadow doesn't fit in with how we want to present ourselves to the world, and so that part is banished underground. For example, your shadow could be something in you that was shamed or viewed as unwanted by your parents—such as your body, wild behavior, or creativity. And so, that part of you that was not given a voice or seen as adequate was hidden away.
The thing is, the shadow never really disappears. It might be out of view from your conscious mind and ego, but it is not hiding silently away.
One of radio's most popular shows through the 1930s and into the 1950s was a scary program called "The Shadow." The opening lines of that program are both chilling and revealing:
Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!
Your shadow knows as well, because the unconscious shadow never forgets. Not only that, but your banished shadow demands to be heard, even if it means sabotaging your life, career, and relationships! For some, the shadow takes over through addiction, numbing the pain that you cannot tolerate. It may crush you with depression, destroying your ability to be productive. It might terrorize you with anxiety, keeping you from enjoying your life. In each case, there is a hidden part of you that needs to be addressed and integrated into your life.
Mindfulness for Identifying and Accepting Your Shadow
The shadow can come from family or culture, and the problem comes when it is not acknowledged and is repressed. When that happens, the shadow acts out at the individual and collective levels. Is this bad news? Well, not if you use your shadow as a guide.
By getting in touch with your shadow side, you experience your whole being. That includes the good, the bad, and the indifferent. From this point of awakened awareness, you can start to integrate these exiled parts with compassion and acceptance, thus reducing the need to hit someone else over the head!
As written in the book The Mindfulness Code, mindfulness lets us tune into what I've termed as "mind whispers," the ingrained patterns of shadow that speak to us, which command or suggest that we behave or move in a particular direction. Awareness of these fleeting mind-moments can sometimes help us catch the shadow at work (or at play). At other times, the shadow can be identified by a feeling in the body, a sense of unease or discomfort.
Instead of mindlessly following the command of the mind whisper or trying to avoid the discomforting sensation, let yourself rest with it. Take a breath and get to know it better. The shadow has a message for you, and meditating on it may actually help you befriend it and know it better. Besides, instead of thinking of the shadow as an unwanted or bad part of you, why not consider it as the poet Rumi did when he wrote the following:
The minute I heard my first love story I started looking for you, not knowing how blind that was. Lovers don't finally meet somewhere. They're in each other all along.
Invite Your Unconscious Inside for a Cup of Tea
Don't diminish the role of the unconscious in the universe. As written in one paper originally published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, the authors concluded that "Unconscious processes are smart and adaptive throughout the living world [and] this principle extends to humans as well."
So, after noticing your shadow, you might want to invite it for a conversation. Ask it questions, such as, "Why do you act out in this way?" or "How are you trying to protect me?" Remember that the shadow is a part of you that was not heard. Now, by sitting down and listening, you are letting it see the light. Even if you're not sure what it wants or why it is here, the fact that you are acknowledging and accepting this shunned part of yourself can make a difference.
The next time you feel triggered to have your shadow act out, take a pause. Have a cup of tea with that part of you that you once knew so well—and, maybe, even loved.