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Facing Your Shadow

Note: Shadow work can be extremely challenging. If you want to pursue working with your shadow, I highly recommend you seek out the support of a trained professional. This guide is for informational purposes only.

Everyone has a shadow. It's called a shadow, not only because of its connection to your dark side, but because it tends to remain hidden. You can think of the shadow as a storage space under a trap door in your subconscious. It's the place you put things that are so scary or so difficult to deal with, you just don't know what to do with them. Think toxic waste or dead bodies. If you're like most people, there's a lovely rug over that trap door, and everyone living in the house has agreed to forget it's even there.

Carl Jung defines the shadow as an unconscious personality aspect that the conscious ego doesn't identify with. That means your shadow is made up of all the things that don't fit with your idealized image of yourself. Even though we all have a capacity for evil and cruelty, we're more likely to identify with the good guy or heroine in a story. It's confusing to come into contact with primal fears and desires that don't fit with your conscious understanding of who you are. That's why the shadow is an important part of a healthy psyche. It gives you a place to store your darker thoughts and desires, so you can maintain a cohesive and positive self-image.

In all of that darkness, however, there's a whole lot of trapped creativity, pure life force and healthy instinct longing to be claimed. And because it's so packed full of juice, it acts like a magnet. You're drawn to it. Despite how dangerous it feels, you're seduced by it. Like Pandora's box, you really want to take a peek.

One of the ways we peek at our shadows is through entertainment. Violent, pornographic or scary movies, books and video games offer a safe way to engage your shadow. They're popular because they allow us to peek at our own darkness from the safety of our well-lit living rooms. Fictional characters allow us to touch our own dark desires without having to claim them as our own. We can take pleasure in murder, bloodlust, violence, the desire to dominate and control, cruelty, vanity, immorality or greed without having to question our positive self-images.

Another way shadow tries to get your attention is through "projection" and "reflection." Projection happens when you believe an aspect of your personality belongs to someone else. In other words, you see your shadow in them, not recognizing it as something that exists within you. Like the fictional characters on a screen, projection offers an opportunity to look at your shadow without having to claim it. Because you don't recognize the negative trait as your own, there's a certain amount of psychological distance from it. You can feel free to judge it, dismiss it and reject it, while consciously aligning with higher, more noble or true virtues.

An example of this would be a man who doesn't recognize his shadow need to exert control over others and repeatedly experiences people as trying to control him. The dark desire (i.e., a need to dominate or control) gets witnessed, without being claimed or acknowledged. Without recognizing that the experiences he's having are reflections of his own shadow nature, he's free to judge and reject them. He can pretend the desire to dominate or control that he's experiencing through others belongs to them, perhaps a domineering boss or demanding wife. Each time his boss does something controlling, he has an opportunity not only to witness his own shadow aspect, but to consciously align himself with healthier expressions of the primal energy behind it.

This process is fueled by the fact that shadow is highly creative. A lot of your creative energy is trapped there, and it's always attracting or creating experiences that match its vibration. That means the man with control issues will have lots of opportunity to project his own unacknowledged desire to control onto other people and situations. He'll have lots of experiences where he'll feel like people are trying to control him, because he'll be attracting people who resonate with his own shadow desire to control.

Your power to reclaim some of the juice that lives in shadow-land lies in recognizing the reflection. Usually the things that we reject most strongly in others are the things we've rejected most strongly within ourselves. You can think of life and all the people and experiences you're having as reflections of what's inside you. True freedom, as well as the power to create your reality the way you want, comes only once you're ready to look at and claim what's hidden within your shadow.

Although I don't recommend actively engaging your shadow without the support of a trained professional, sometimes an aspect of shadow demands to be seen in more obvious ways. Sometimes, the projection is a little too close to home, or the reflection isn't vague at all, and you're forced to face something about yourself you didn't know was there and aren't happy to find. When shadow breaks through in this way, it can be deeply upsetting. That's because your conscious identity is being challenged. Your cohesive and healthy sense of self doesn't know what to do with the new data. It can quickly escalate into a full-on identity crisis.

If you ever find yourself in that situation, here's some of the things I've learned from doing shadow work over the years.

1. Awareness. First and foremost, you need to be mindful enough to recognize that what you're dealing with is a shadow aspect. Perhaps a dear friend just told you how hurt they were by something you said or did, and you didn't realize how selfish or mean it was until they pointed it out. Or maybe you just caught yourself doing something you're ashamed of, and you don't even know why you did it. Personally, I know I'm glimpsing some reflection of my shadow whenever something "bad" happens to me, I start thinking I'm a "bad" person, or I have an interaction with a "bad" person.

Notice the focus on "bad." Shadow is comprised of the things you've rejected about yourself. It's made up of all the things you've judged against. That's why it feels scary. If you find yourself face-to-face with your shadow, it helps to remember that we're all capable of darkness. In my experience, shadow aspects are revealed when you've matured and evolved enough to reclaim that particular part of yourself. It's a signal that you're ready to step to the next level in your spiritual evolution. It's an opportunity.

Other examples of shadow revealing itself might be:

  • A doctor who realizes he wants one of his patients to remain sick.

  • A father who feels some degree of pleasure when he's learned his athletically gifted son was hurt at practice and will be out for the season.

  • A mother who slaps her child across the face and feels shocked at her own cruelty when she sees the devastated look in her child's eyes.

2. Get some help/create sacred space. Much of what gets relegated to the darkest regions of shadow is what we consider evil. In that way, shadow is a lot like a container to hold your personal demons. Without the containers, we'd all be running around acting badly. People who are living through their shadows, without trying to transform them, are capable of doing truly bad things (think Hitler or serial killers).

That's why we need some kind of sacred container to do any kind of shadow work. Because it's generally of a very low vibration, we also need to call upon a higher power to help transmute the energy locked in shadow. That may mean enlisting the help of a counselor, shaman, healer or other trained practitioner to hold a safe space for you to process in. At a minimum, it means creating an energetic container and calling upon the highest spiritual power you can - archangels, Christ, Buddha, Virgin Mary, St. Germaine and the Violet Flame, etc. You can see my method for creating a sacred container here.

Ask for help. Asking for help is a way to not only acknowledge your shadow, but to align with the highest energies for transmutation of it.

3. Try to name the shadow aspect. Call your shadow demon out into the light by naming what you've uncovered. Remember, shadow is some aspect of yourself that you find so distasteful or uncomfortable, you've denied it's very existence. It's a negative intention you don't even know you have. It's not the fears or wounds you can easily identify. There's always a bit of a surprise factor to it. It'll be hard not to judge yourself. Usually it has a bad or evil feeling to it. It may make you totally question what you've previously thought about yourself. Name it anyway, remembering your intention to now transform it.

For the doctor, that might mean admitting to a trusted colleague how he really feels. The father may need to seek out a family therapist or other trained professional where he can share his experience without judgement. The mother might explore her revelation in a private journal or seek the help of a support group.

4. Find the primal fear or desire behind it. Once you've found the courage to name the shadow aspect, you may be able to feel the energy that's been trapped within it. This is usually primal in nature. It's what we think of as our animal self. It may feel sexual, evil, seductive, cruel, power-seeking, selfish, greedy, envious, harmful, destructive or full of rage.

The doctor may be harboring a desire to punish the patient for what he sees as his bad choices. The primal feeling might be "I want to control you." The father may feel the primal competitive desire to "be top dog." He may secretly want to conquer or overcome his younger, more vibrant son. The mother may want to dominate her child, as a way to establish her spot in the "pecking order."

5. Release the energy through movement or breath work. Once you've identified the feeling (i.e., a desire to destroy, rage, a desire to control), set an intention to clear it and reclaim what's been trapped. Clear it by allowing yourself to feel it while doing intentional movement or breath work. For example, if the primal desire you discover is to destroy someone you actually love, set your intention to release it, feel your energetic container and your connection to the earth, and then allow the "desire to destroy" to flow through you while punching a pillow, stomping your feet or kicking a ball. Hold an intention to discharge the feeling rather than identify with it. Your strong intention to be in integrity, to raise your vibration and release, aligns you with the highest powers to assist in transmuting these dark energies.

As you're releasing the energy, you may be aware of it funneling into the earth and then returning to you cleansed. Or you may feel how your spiritual guides and guardians are transmuting the energy and returning the essence back to you. For the doctor, that transmuted energy might result in a newfound capacity to be more heart-centered and accepting of his own "bad" choices and the challenges his clients are facing in their lives. The father may reclaim the healthy competitiveness that's been lacking in his work. The mother may discover a new sense of self-control, that contributes to her overall sense of self-worth.

6. Set your new intention. Set a new intention based on what you've discovered and transformed. Your new intention might be to practice surrendering control or to practice kindness and acceptance of others as they are.

7. Give yourself time to integrate the experience. You can help to integrate this work by journaling, meditating and resting. Take good care of your physical body as you integrate these newfound energies. As you integrate the healed energy that was trapped within these ancient fears and desires, you may notice profound changes in the way you feel, the way you want to live and move through the world, and in your sense of personal empowerment. Be patient with yourself. Allow lots of time and space for understanding and integration to take place. You've taken a big step on your path of spiritual evolution.

Please see my Year of Sacred Ritual mailing for 1/23/18 for a shadow journaling exercise.

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