If you met Derek, you’d be impressed.
Such a gentleman. A charming flirt. Gracious and sociable. The kind of man you’d want on your arm at a social function.
If you talked to his ex-wife, you’d hear a different story.
You’d hear about his rages, his lies, the nasty emails she still gets from him.
You might even conclude she’s a bitter woman. Still harping on what happened years ago. She should get on with her life, as he’s clearly done.
If you met Macy, you’d be impressed.
She’s a social butterfly. Uses her retirement years to do good works for the community. Everyone loves her. She’s generous with her time and passionate about her causes. Perhaps she has a tendency to bring every conversation back to herself, but at her age she’s earned that right.
If you talked to her adult daughter, you’d hear a different story.
You’d hear about the narcissism, back-biting gossip, the way her mother still treats her as if she were a teen.
You might even conclude that the daughter has issues. She clearly hasn’t got over the fact that she’s never risen as high in life as her mother. She should stop blaming her parents and get on with her life.
By now we should know that who a person is in public is not always the same person they are in private.
But we still get shocked each time someone is revealed to have behaved in ways completely at odds with their public image.
Jungian psychologists wouldn’t be surprised.
They know that everyone has a shadow.
In fact, the more someone needs to control how others see them, the longer their shadow stretches.
So what is the “shadow”?
And why does it matter to you or me?
Yes, You Have a Shadow
The shadow is the part of us we don’t take into account when we’re trying to be authentic, transparent, and real.
It’s the ugly side of “You do you.”
No matter how wonderful you are—and you could genuinely be a saint—there are parts to your personality you’d rather keep to yourself.
Like those feelings you know you shouldn’t have. Feeling angry at your kid. Fed up with being the supportive friend. Secretly hating your sister’s new husband.
Most of us stuff those thoughts right back down again. We don’t want to be that person.
But those dark thoughts are a valuable clue.
They’re a trail that leading to your shadow.
Although the term was pioneered by legendary psychoanalyst Carl Jung, shadow work burst into popularity two decades ago thanks to the late Debbie Ford.
Ford claimed that every one of us is made up of both darkness and light.
Simply because we’re human, we’re born with all possible human traits, from the murderous hatred of a serial killer to the selflessness of a Mother Teresa.
If you look inside yourself right now, though, I doubt you’re going to see any murderous hatred. You may not see any saintly selflessness, either. 😉
We simply cannot see certain traits within ourselves.
But that doesn’t mean they’re not there.
Why The Shadow is So Hard to See
If you supposedly have all these traits inside you, why can’t you see them?
It all goes back to how personalities develop in childhood.
As children grow up, they learn that some traits are okay to express (such as obedience, politeness, humility), while others are not (such as selfishness, rudeness, arrogance).
Our parents teach us our first lessons in what’s acceptable and what’s not.
Maybe they got mad at you when you expressed anger, so you learned to stuff your frustration down. Or maybe they praised you when you behaved aggressively on the sports field, so you embraced hard-core competitiveness.
Your parents shaped you, but ultimately YOU made the decision about which parts of yourself you wanted to embrace and which parts you’d reject.
You planted your flag on the personality of your choosing. Maybe you decided, “I am shy, smart, and committed to justice.” Or you decided, “I am popular, friendly, and the life of the party.”
Whatever traits you chose described you to a T. That’s who you became.
For most people, that’s the end of the story. They know who they are. They know who they’re not. They’re not interested in finding out more.
But there is more.
So, so much more.
The Truth of Who You Are
Here’s what most people never discover:
Who you think you are only a fraction of who you REALLY are.
You may choose to see yourself as shy, but you also have the capacity to be gregarious.
You may choose to see yourself as a social butterfly, but at times you crave solitude.
You’re both shy and social, gregarious and retiring. You’re everything you thought you were AND everything you thought you were not.
How you describe yourself was always just a choice. It was never based on any truth. All it shows is how you want to see yourself.
And making that choice means you compressed your big, sprawling, multitudinous personality into a little tiny box.
How The Shadow Sneaks Up to Bite Us
When you decide you’re one thing, you’re giving up the chance to be the opposite.
A man who thinks of himself as macho may believe he can’t be tender with his kids.
A woman who thinks of herself as sweet may be unable to stand up for herself.
The more committed you are to being who you think you are, the fewer choices you have.
And that’s where things get tricky.
If you think of yourself as a nice person, you know that being nice is the opposite of being mean or cruel. But that doesn’t mean you’re never mean or cruel.
If you think of yourself as competent, you know that being competent is the opposite of sloppiness. But that doesn’t mean you’re never sloppy.
Once you plant your stake in the ground and say, “I am X,” you drive your dark side underground. You can no longer see it. Not because it’s not there, but because it doesn’t fit with the identity you’ve chosen for yourself.
That’s bad for self-awareness.
When you do something that’s mean or thoughtless—as you will, because it’s impossible to be perfect—you won’t even notice.
When you do something that’s sloppy—as you will, because it’s impossible to be perfect—you’ll make up excuses.
That’s where people like Derek and Macy get into trouble.
The Shadow in Action
Derek sees himself as a good guy. That’s how he presents himself. That’s how other people see him.
Because he spends so much energy keeping up his “good guy” façade, he’s worn out by the time he comes home. He’s ready to let his guard down. He ends up raging at his wife.
This is where the shadow kicks in.
Instead of realizing that a good guy wouldn’t rage at the woman he loves, he rationalizes his behavior. He blames it on her. He’s a good guy, but even a saint would have a hard time handling this woman. She shouldn’t provoke him the way she does. He has to yell at her, because otherwise she won’t listen.
Even after his marriage fails, he’ll never see himself as anything else but a good guy taken advantage of by a manipulative woman…
And nearly everyone who knows him (but doesn’t live with him) will take his side.
Macy sees herself as the ultimate do-gooder. She lives her life for others. That’s how other people see her, too.
But when she comes home, she drops the act. She behaves in ways that her family perceives as selfish and controlling. She doesn’t notice the difference.
Nothing is ever her fault. It’s always her family’s. They’re selfish. They’re demanding. It takes a saint to deal with them.
And nearly everyone who knows her (but doesn’t live with her) will agree.
That’s the power of the shadow.
It keeps us from seeing how our behavior contradicts the image we have of ourselves.
But I don’t want to scare you.
The shadow is not some dark and scary power making us do things we don’t want to do.
It’s simply ignorance. A lack of self-awareness.
Breaking its power starts with knowing it’s there. We can’t heal or change what we cannot see.
How do you think the shadow might affect the behavior of some of the people in your life?
How do you think your shadow might be affecting your behavior?
Let us know in the comments.