"The self that God consistently loves is not my prettied-up pretend self but my actual self—the real me. But, master of delusion that I am, I have trouble penetrating my web of self-deceptions and knowing this real me. I continually confuse it with the ideal self that I wish I were." — David Benner, from The Gift of Being Yourself
Let’s try a little thought experiment:
What if you dropped ALL the pretense in your life—every mask you wear, and every strategy you employ to hide or deny what’s really going on inside you? Who would the world get to see then?
It’s a shocking question. It may even be a little terrifying to consider, depending on how much you think you hide who you really are. But even if you don’t often think about a “hidden self” you hide from others, you still have one. We all do. Whether we realize it or not, that hidden self, or “shadow” side of us drives many of our choices, and powerfully shapes the life we create (or fail to create) for ourselves.
In the book Meeting the Shadow, Dr. Connie Zweig defines shadow as "the part of the unconscious self that a conscious mind sees as undesirable and tries to define as the 'other.'" Your shadow is that part of who you are that you deny or hide or suppress or project onto all those other people you mistakenly think that you don't like...but what you don't like is really you.
However, the shadow isn't just about what we might call the False Self. We also stuff our brilliance into the shadows as readily as our weakness. Ever meet a beautiful woman who thought she was ugly? Or a strong man who thought he was weak? Your shadow contains all that is true about you that you do not own or accept—both the brilliant and the bad. Having an unknown or unowned shadow side is what keeps us from a true and honest experience of life, from authentic relationship and community, and from becoming all you are created to be. This isn’t just true for us as individuals. Families, churches, organizations, even nations—all of these have shadow sides too, which, if unowned, will eventually either spell their downfall or make them into miserable places to be.
"What you can't be with, rules your life." I often say this to my clients, whenever we step into shadow work together. For example: If you can't "be with" feeling rejected, just think of all the energy you'll expend trying to avoid that feeling. You’ll pretzel yourself into all kinds of inauthentic shapes to please others, or hide yourself away from those you fear will not accept you. Avoiding rejection becomes the dominant imperative in your life. Your shadow is running the show.
And yet, shadow work is not a witch hunt. The goal is not eradication, but a full compassionate acceptance of all that you are—light and dark, the brilliant and the profane. Only then can you actually change or grow. This is the astonishing paradox of transformation: Loving self-acceptance must precede authentic life change. As the great spiritual shepherd Brennan Manning wrote:
“To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story, the light side and the dark. In admitting my shadow side I learn who I am and what God's grace means." — Brennan Manning
So how can you begin to get to know your shadow? Here are a few practical suggestions:
1. Notice where you hide yourself from others or pretend to be (or feel) something that isn't authentic. What do you fear would happen if you stopped hiding or pretending in the way you do? What are you trying to protect?
2. Notice those qualities or behaviors you see in others that upset you the most. How might those qualities actually be (in whole or in part) projections of what you fear is true about you? In other words...are those qualities you hate in others actually qualities you "can't be with" in yourself? This kind of projection is a sure sign of your shadow at work.
3. Finally, notice the ways you regularly sabotage yourself. Is there a goal or desire you've been going after for years but have never achieved because you keep "blowing it" over and over again? If so, it's possible that your shadow is running the show in that area. If you’re ready to break free of that exhausting self-sabotage cycle, coaching can really help. To learn how, click over to my connect page to drop me a line, and we’ll set up a free exploratory call.
Again, the goal of shadow work isn't to "fix" ourselves by duking it out with our dark side once and for all. It's about graciously accepting all that it means to be an authentic, messy, beautiful human being. It's about being who we really are with ourselves and with others—which is the only way to experience true community. Most of all, it’s about extending ourselves the same compassion and love that God has already extended to us—the very thing we need to authentically become all we were meant to be.
"In my deepest wound, I see Your glory, and it dazzles me." — St. Augustine