Your Shadow Uncovered:
Exploring Your Unknown Inner World
Shadow: the parts of yourself which you hide, repress and deny. Maybe the parts of yourself which old the tings which stop you finding love. You know – all those issues you had with your sister/ mother/ brother/ dad / teacher / priest or whoever when you were a kid. The issues that stopped you trusting anyone enough to get really close to them: betrayal, loss of love, manipulation, abuse, neglect….
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But is it? For one thing, how would you know which parts of yourself you’ve put into shadow? And what does this really mean, anyway?
Robert Bly summarised the concept of shadow very well. He wrote about young children having a “360 degree personality”. They are complete, whole. The energy of life energy radiates out from young children, from both body and psyche.
A child running, says Bly, is “a rounded, living globe of energy”. And it’s certainly true: when you look at children you can see their energy so clearly. Sadly, you can also see how parents quickly convey to a child that certain parts of his or her rounded globe of energy are less welcome than others.
They ask a child, “Can’t you just be quiet?” “Can’t you sit still for a minute?” “Why can’t you be more like your big brother?” “Why can’t you just be a good boy for a change?” Each comment conveys a message infused with disapproval, rejection or disappointment, and each message changes how the child behaves, thinks or feels about himself. Sometimes the messages are very direct; they may take the form of physical, emotional or sexual abuse which really conveys the message to a child that he is bad, worthless, has no power, or something else hugely damaging.
Parents also send messages about what is expected of a child when they say things like, “Big boys don’t cry.” (Which really means, don’t be vulnerable or show your sadness.) “You should stand up for yourself more.” (You’re weak, and we’re not going to help you.) “You want to be good at sports, don’t you?” (Your talents, wishes and choices are not what are wanted from you.) “Boys should be strong and brave.” (Your fear is not welcome here.) Some messages are cleaner, healthier and more useful than others: “It isn’t nice to hit your brother.” “Don’t tease the cat.” “Be nice to the other boys and girls.”
Of course children may well fare better in life if they are socialised, but often parents go beyond explaining what might not be a good idea, such as hurting the unwelcome new baby brother or sister. Instead, they may express disapproval or even try to suppress natural parts of their child’s personality such as his tears, anger, self-confidence, creativity, wildness, exuberance, spontaneity, joy, and sexuality.
This is all stuff which a child can put away, out of sight, if the parents don’t want it, don’t like it, or won’t tolerate it. And where does it all go? Into the shadow bag, a highly expandable imaginary bag, conveniently slung over our shoulder, into which we put everything our parents, friends, siblings, teachers, and society don’t like or want in us.
As children we put things into this bag because we want our parents to love us now, and to continue loving us into the future. As children, it seems that stuffing parts of ourselves out of sight, into what we call shadow, is an obvious and easy way to be what others want us to be.
Youtube video – the shadow
To make the whole idea simpler, you can think of your shadow as your unwanted childhood characteristics (unwanted either by you or by others), and your shadow bag as your unconscious mind.
And so we put into our shadow bag the parts of ourselves which don’t meet with our parents’ approval. (This is why we call the emotional process work needed to regain emotional well-being “shadow work”. You can read more about how facilitators are working with the shadow here.
Even then we are not safe. Siblings and peers exert pressure. Even the society we live in has many expectations of what boys and girls should put into the bag. Girls may put away their anger so it’s out of sight. To be angry may not be lady-like. Boys may put away their tears. After all, it’s not manly for a boy to cry, is it?
Early childhood is only the start of this process, however. When we move on to junior or elementary school, high school and even university, we stuff more and more parts of ourselves into our shadow bag. That’s because peer approval is an extremely important part of our social world – no matter what age we may be.
And while some of us might bemoan the need to be a certain way, and see it as a by-product of modern civilisation, Robert Bly wisely observed that traditional cultures have a different but perhaps even larger bag all of their own. In fact, many non-westernised cultures tended to put individuality, creativity and inventiveness into their bags. This cultural pressure developed because conformity and tribal loyalty, rather than freedom of expression, was needed to ensure survival.
A shadow bag slung over your shoulder is a perfect metaphor for several qualities of your shadow. First, this imaginary bag lies over your shoulder, behind you, and this reminds you that your shadow, which carries all the repressed parts of you, is out of sight.
Second, just like a real bag which you have to carry around, the shadow bag over your shoulder can be very heavy, and can drain a great deal of energy from you. Yet it’s not so much carrying the bag that drains your energy as the effort required to keep the things you’ve stuffed into the bag, inside the bag. Strangely, no matter how hard you try, they’re always going to leak out anyway – often at the most inappropriate moment, as you may have noticed.
And third, if you stuff a large proportion of your emotions and behaviour into your shadow bag, you’re obviously stuffing a large proportion of your personality into that bag, out of sight. And by the time you’re an adult – say 21 years of age – you may be left with only a small fraction of the complete 360 degree personality, the rounded ball of energy, you were born with. (Here’s some info on how to reclaim it.)
Fourth, like your sunlit shadow, you can’t get rid of it. It’s always with you. Sometimes you see it, sometimes you don’t. But it’s yours for life. Unless, that is, you take the infinitely courageous step of opening the bag and taking the contents out, and reacquainting yourself with the parts of your personality you stuffed away long ago. Why do that, you might ask? After all, those parts of you went in the bag for a good reason.
Well, yes, that is true. And yet they can come out for an equally good reason: so you can become more of who you were always meant to be, before the world got in the way. And if you want to do that, there are people in the world who can help you- those who practice shadow work, also known as emotional process work.
In our next post, we’ll look more at this whole area.