Your Shadow Self: How To Face It, Bring It To Light & Transcend It

“What you most need will be found where you least want to look, but you have to look purposefully. If it chases you, then you’re the prey; if you confront it, you can transcend it.” – Jordan Peterson

There is a lot written about shadow and what it is. The direction is clear. Shadow is something we repress and hide from others, and in most cases, from ourselves. Where does it originate and what can we do to integrate or heal it?

Let’s begin by asking ‘why we have a shadow?’ Is it because we carry darkness at our core or does the shadow take shape over our lifetime as residue of fear, rage, shame and guilt, and their avoidance? I’d say a little bit of both. On the human collective level, we carry trauma related to suffering and aggression of our ancestors. But for the most part, our shadow develops during this lifetime in the form of a complex and sophisticated personality, that keeps us with a sense of control.

Deep down we feel vulnerable but try to hide it

Our inner world is complex and for some, unbearable. We continuously face and fear exposure of our contradictory complexity, towards ourselves and others. Instead of delving into the depth of our psyche and inviting more consciousness, we would rather guard ourselves. The more conscious we are, the more responsible we become for our actions. One of the reasons we so meticulously hide our shadow is because we don’t want to carry the consequence of our actions. And so, our vulnerability and shadow are closely linked.

There are many effective ways not to feel vulnerable and retain a sense of innocence. Abiding by a strict morality, adhering to ideologies, be they social, political or spiritual, or relying on religious dogma, all achieve exactly that protection. The kind of protection in which we cradle ourselves in feelings of righteousness and innocence. This is not to imply we shouldn’t seek for our actions to be moral or avoid believing but to become aware when they are used in service of feeling superior over others. Interestingly enough, our wish to remain innocent is a big shadow in and of itself.

So, while we’re busy repressing and controlling, the shadow feeds and grows with every attempt to fight off rejection, humiliation or punishment, as well as situations that leave us feeling guilty and shamed

Here are some examples of how our shadow hides our vulnerability. Let’s say we want to be recognized for something we’ve done. Instead of asking for acknowledgment, we hide it through false humility and become resentful for not getting the attention we feel we deserve. Another example is our need to belong and be important to others. But again, instead of communicating this need, which makes us vulnerable to rejection, we make others feel important in the hope of being praised for our actions. Over time we’ve developed innumerable sophisticated ways to sugarcoat our shadows and feel in control.

Shadow integration begins with an honesty that seeks nothing in return

We can see, that most shadow has to do with survival attempts of some kind. This happens when we try to control our environments by behaving as victims, gaining respect through false humility, moral superiority and other forms of manipulation. When we talk about shadow integration, it’s crucial we are precise as to what the facets of our shadow are.

We want to, for example, be able to say, while refraining from any judgment, that ‘I smile at others, in order not to be attacked’ or ‘I control my partner by making him or her feel guilty’. Any judgment of what we discover in ourselves is a hidden attempt at victimizing ourselves and finding excuses. The ‘why’ is of secondary importance here, because the list of reasons is endless and the absolute source is difficult to pinpoint, but the urge to limit our vulnerability is still there.

This may be a good moment to say, that shadow integration is not about redemption, but about understanding the inner workings of vulnerability and protection, which are closely linked to our sense of survival, both physical and emotional.

Furthermore, we want to face our shadows, not to feel better or lighter in the future, but in order to become more integrated within ourselves and lessen the sense of separation that the shadow produces. We want to return integrity that comes with the responsibility of belonging to a history and culture that experiences a great deal of suffering and is greater than our individual selves. Integrating our shadow implies allowing the darkness to be part of us, without the desire to surpass it.

Drop the hope for a pain-free life

When we face our shadow, we want to fully own the aggression, fear, selfishness or greed living inside us. We want to clarify first and foremost to ourselves how we play power games and seek control. This acknowledgment doesn’t necessarily reduce the hurt to ourselves or others or enable us to change. There is no certain outcome from shadow integration and that’s a tough pill to swallow. What we’re ‘simply’ doing, is bringing something hidden to light, without the attempt to make it more or less significant or dramatic, but rather see it as it is, thereby becoming more aware.

The more emotionality we induce into the characterization of our shadow, the less integration takes place. Shadow integration should be a non-dramatic act, surrounded by a hint of coolness, where we observe who we’ve become. We will feel the pain of lies, betrayal and hurt to others during this observation. And in the process of doing so, holding back judgment, positive or negative, is truly challenging. How is it possible ‘not to comment’ on what we regard as a personal experience? We need to understand that any commentary also contains the attempt to change the experience, be it freeing or punishing to us.

Healing the shadow is a magical process in which we are the participant, not the director

The great challenge in shadow integration is to grow our capacity to be with or hold an experience without having the ability to change it. What has been done is in the past and can’t be undone; it can only be held and by holding it patiently, more facets can emerge and be seen. Like when a child injures itself, we can only hold them to share the pain of waiting for healing to take place, but the magic of healing has its own mysterious timeline.

When we own our shadow, it puts us in a helpless and humbling place. It shows us our limitations and that is something we don’t want to feel. Maximizing our potential for our own feelings of greatness is just another shadow. Acknowledging the limitation of our potential, without minimizing our strength or exercising false humility, allows us to share our light.

Life comes with a lot of limitations and the shadow tries to interfere with life itself. Facing our shadow is a spiritual act as we embrace and allow a little more of our human totality to be included. Through this experience, we can get in touch with a humility and simplicity, that can often touch something at our core, which is mystically meaningful and expanding.

Integration comes from a place that is non-dramatic, because drama always takes sides, and it makes us miss the simplicity lying in the acknowledgment of human complexity. Shadow integration is a lifelong and even a magical process. It happens when we are completely truthful, giving up all deals with God or fate, and surrendering to what we essentially are: vulnerable. We want to invite feeling the pain our shadow reveals to us without seeking redemption. In a way, every time we say yes to a shadow part in us, we agree to re-enter continuous vulnerability of being human.

This is where integration begins.

Loving The Truth Acknowledges We Are Both Darkness & Light

Speaking my truth doesn’t change a thing, but it does create connection.

With a little painful smile at the age of 52, I can say that I’m a person who’s often impatient and dissatisfied. Characteristics have developed through the course of my life. Those close to me have witnessed the fallout of these traits over the years and I, myself, have experienced them. I’ve tried diligently to change these qualities in me and get to their root, but real improvement remains outstanding. Talking about honesty and being truthful about these traits hasn’t changed anything about their annoying effects, and yet, it has brought comfort to my soul.

The relief came by no longer having to pretend I’m focused, efficient, or content. Sharing truthfully about the darker sides of my personality has taken away some of the exhausting and painful efforts of trying to be perfect. 

So really, speaking our truth has little to do with the Absolute Truth and everything to do with our human need to acknowledge and share with others things the way they affect us. Both in pain and in pleasure. It has been about learning how to voice my total experience, the experience of who I’ve been, who I am, and who I’m becoming, thereby allowing a flow, instead of stagnation.

Authenticity is About Letting Go of The Armour

Being truthful is a risky and yet, deeply empowering path to walk on. We are talking here about our capacity to hold two defining experiences that are in conflict by nature, reconciling our wishes with what is.  

Our identity or personality, which makes us ‘special’ and demands constant reinforcement, is always telling us what it wishes for and drives our imagination. It’s who we believe we are, but not always necessarily who we really are.  On the other side is the ‘conscious’ choice of experiencing life the way it actually happens. This demands simplicity, a quality rarely taught. A choice-less truthfulness, which has no other intention other than stating and accepting what is. 

The magic of speaking honestly is that we gain integrity and dignity through our words. We don’t hide behind false intentions or manipulations. We express things the way they are. 

Our needs don’t magically get fulfilled nor does our personality change by speaking our truth, but something else happens; suddenly there is the acknowledgment of our experience. Something that has been denied during childhood and other important junctions, and left open wounds. The pain of having to be someone else, pretending, or hiding out of shame leaves its scars.

Our Fixation on Saying The ‘Right Things’ Limits The Expression of our Truth

Speaking your truth can be confusing. We may think that we say things the way they are, but most of the time our focus shifts outwards to how we are perceived instead of remaining true to our experience.

“Will he be favourable or judgmental towards me?”

“Will she like what I say or do, or disagree?”

The fixation on being important and saying the right things limits the expression of our truth. It’s deeply healing to take the time as we find our own words, but instead, even the listener has a hard time being present without judgment or giving advice. Both sides, speaker, and listener, have learned that presence is less valuable than the narrative of our story itself.

Interestingly, the attention we receive from the listener actually backfires. Instead of owning our own experience, we are waiting for someone else to accept our own vulnerability and humanity. With the focus shifting outwards, no receptivity is possible.

What we rather want to learn is to face our fear of rejection. No doctrine can do that for us. What doctrine usually does, is create more sophisticated protections, without the possibility of love entering us.

Speaking Truth is a Love Affair That Needs Time to Unfold

We are both good and evil, both happy and unhappy, satisfied and unsatisfied, fulfilled and lonely, patient and intolerant, moral and immoral, and the list goes on. We want to reach a place of balance not because we create it, but through acknowledging its existence.

No doubt, it is hard to live with this confusing duality and the unpredictability it causes. How do we create stability in our relationships, if we have so much inner division? Usually, our response is to become one kind of person and repress the other person living inside us. 

What supports us most in facing this inner division is to become intimate with the pain of lying, manipulating and cheating. Not the pain caused to others, but the pain we cause ourselves when betraying others. Usually, focusing on pain caused to others creates more guilt and shame and keeps us locked in a cycle of self-punishment. And even though it can be helpful in creating some urgency for change, it’s the pain of self-betrayal we want to get in touch with. The pain we sense when noticing the immense effort we exercise to stay above water, to be seen, touched, heard, to belong, and loved. 

This pain, when it gets strong enough, ignites an understanding that only ‘I’ can take charge of my destiny. Only ‘I’ am the one who can stand up for myself or ask for help where needed. To face this inner split though, we, strangely enough, need a kind of playfulness. If we take our dark side too serious, then we end up making ourselves and our experience too important. Instead, if we allow ourselves to approach this lightly and with heart we can arrive at self-forgiveness, understanding, and find a new path for being.

So essentially, we are a work in progress. Maybe for one lifetime and according to many teachings, for many lifetimes.  Our soul is on a journey of finding completion through integration.

Practices To Help Being Comfortable With The Language of Truth

Inquiry | In inquiry, we sit with another person. Instead of telling a story in which we repeat our known narrative from the past, we let a question sink in and allow words to arise. This is a deeply nourishing and healing practice in which we become vulnerable and are confronted with our inner judge that filters what we are allowed and forbidden to feel and express.

Using the word ‘AND’ instead of ‘BUT’ | Using the word BUT minimizes our experience. When we use the word AND our experiences suddenly have room to breathe. Notice the difference between the two sentences: “When I met Paul, I remembered our painful argument from 2 years ago, but I didn’t say anything to him.” or “When I met Paul, I remembered our painful argument from 2 years ago and I didn’t say anything to him.”

Slowing down when we speak | Slowing down allows us to choose and feel the words that arise. Suddenly an intimate connection between us and our words is created. They are no longer arguments, opinions or express roles we take, but simply reflect our experience.

Looking at the mirror and hearing our own voice | Seeing our own eyes, which are also windows to our heart and soul, as well as hearing our voice is a unique meeting between the personality and our being. We can sense the effort that goes into ‘making it’ in life.

The Power Of Vulnerability

Vulnerability is about being honest, and this includes embracing our dark side. No matter whether we find ourselves on the conservative spectrum or liberal, we often abuse morals and ideals in order to avoid our own shadow. In this turbulent ‘Trump era,’  where values fly high for all sides, vulnerability could become the currency that returns our sanity. My intention here is not political, but recent events coinciding with personal ones have created some urgency around the issue.

In the name of righteousness and higher ideals — personal, social, or political — we often establish a perimeter of comforting beliefs around us. This way we don’t need to face our own fear and insecurity. Instead of taking responsibility for our insufficiencies, we respond with judgment and morality. Fearing to face our simplicity and delicate humanity, we try proving our sophistication through how good, spiritual, or moral we are. Survival at any cost justifies the means to an end, but is basic survival what we really want?

If you’re interested in understanding how comfortable you are with your own vulnerability, take a moment to sense how you respond to abandonment, rejection, judgment, or betrayal. 

Vulnerability Wasn’t Top Priority Growing Up

For most of us, childhood experiences left lasting imprints. When we got out of line, according to the values and needs of others, judgment or ridicule often followed. It became unsafe to express feelings and fears. Almost as a natural consequence, we began pretending that we don’t need anything and can do it ourselves. Hiding our true needs became the best strategy and we embarked on a journey of manipulating our way through life. To say the least, we became creative in coming up with ways to keep our true needs hidden — even from ourselves. 

We learned to trust that suffering shown through sadness, crying, or pain point to or represent our vulnerability, though even these seemingly obvious markers may not really be signs of such at all. Often they are more representative of (un)conscious of manipulation of our partners. It’s safer to express needs through suffering. Not from bad intentions, but because it’s not as exposing.

What we call a ‘need’ easily turns into ‘demand.’ And what we often call ‘vulnerability’ becomes our personal way of blackmail and punishment. Even waiting silently and lonely for a response after an argument can ‘look and feel’ vulnerable. However, deep down hides a righteous expectation to be seen or heard. If we look close, we can discover pain buried beneath.

Practicing Vulnerability With Those Close to Us Makes Us More Human

When we’re truly vulnerable, we don’t use morality as a weapon in judging who’s right or wrong. What we do is recognize and acknowledge our feelings, fears, and needs. We do not generalize or base our arguments on past events, but respond to the feelings stirred through a specific event. We take off our masks and become available to ourselves and others. In many ways, we actually choose to become choice-less.

Betrayal, sacrifice, and other patterns that result in disappointment become central themes in our close relationships, but this is mainly because we enter those connections protected and guarded in the first place. Sacrifice, for example, is a tricky form of manipulation. We feel pain and righteousness at the same time. Sacrifice always leaves us with anger in our belly and the sense of missed opportunities.

I remember the deep pain I felt when my partner rejected my attempts to ‘help’ her time and time again. My response was to shut down and give her the silent treatment, while at times also throwing some moral judgment her way, such as “I give you everything I have, and what about you?”. But was I open when I gave so much, or rather feeling morally superior by loving ‘more’? I placed myself in an untouchable place and at the same time lost my vulnerability.

In relationships with those close to us we have a rare opportunity to exit the spiral of survival that gives us the illusion of staying on top of our game. That place which makes us believe we’re protected by high ideals, values, and other virtues — and sometimes also by self-judgment that we’re evil beyond repair. 

Search for truth is a delicate process and doesn’t follow any defined path other than facing the complexity of our human existence as honestly, responsibly, and sincerely as we can. So long as we choose our personal safety and false importance, we prevent the power of vulnerability to guide us back to our hearts.

Vulnerability Can Be One of Our Greatest Teachers

There’s a big difference between saying and feeling things, and so a sentence like “I don’t need anything and can do it alone” can easily slip off our tongue. Nevertheless, the pain of loneliness and abandonment remains. There is no doubt that we can and could do many things by ourselves, like raising children, being without close friends, a lover, touch, recognition and the list goes on. 

But what we really want is to learn to express our fears, and needs. Our demand for acknowledgment, the requirement to have our needs satisfied, or maintaining moral high ground, all leave us in a state of fight, in which receiving becomes impossible. Vulnerability forms the basis for our receptivity.

In expressing true vulnerability we hold the ground for our feelings and needs. We sense it as a state of integrity in which we accept the totality and complexity of our human imperfection. It’s a place of power, in which we accept that we need and thereby acknowledge our dependency on each other. It’s empowering when we connect with our humility and simplicity.

Where to begin being vulnerable?

Vulnerability is best expressed in the “I” form. We take responsibility for our own state of mind and feelings, and don’t hold our partners prisoners to our moral standards and ideals. We don’t use sacrifice, guilt, shame, or judgment to drive our point across.

It’s challenging, since it leaves us with little or no protection other than the acceptance of who we are. The “I” form takes the guessing game out of the relationship, where we expect our partners to ‘know’ what we fear, feel, or need. 

This way those close to us can decide to satisfy our needs or not. Everything else turns into an expectations game in which there are no winners, and this triggers resistance. They feel manipulated. And for us, vulnerability holds the key to accepting more parts in ourselves, which forms the basis of coming out of hiding and denial, and into our light.