Shadow Work and the Inner Selves: the cornerstone of assessing and refining your personality lies in exposing what is hidden! Both refer to aspects, traits or energies within a person that show up to deal with, endure, enhance or somehow effect a specific situation.
You may be familiar with one or both terms, if you have been interested in personal growth or human psychology. But many people don’t have a clue that there are aspects of themselves they are unaware of, or that can “take over” without you being aware of it. My first taste of Shadow Work came about because of a relationship…I couldn’t believe it when I heard the words, “You are so negative,” coming out of a past partner’s mouth.
I never thought of myself as a negative person, and my first response was, “Me, negative? No, I’m not!” Now, I have always been someone who is open, even receptive, to feedback (10 years of ballet training early on in life, with a particularly cruel Russian ballet mistress, taught all of us girls to take criticism without falling apart). But here was something that did not jive with what I “knew” or felt about myself…
Welcome to Shadow work
In psychological terms, “Shadow material” is the phenomenon whereby parts of my personality, experienced by others as real as my arms or legs, remain outside my conscious experience. The reason why this happens has to do with the process of constructing a personality, especially in our first 20 years. In order to not just survive childhood but to thrive, human beings take on and practice many personas early on. In most families, it becomes crucial to identify more with the traits the family finds acceptable. That means we then push away—remaining ignorant of—the less desirable traits (even though they remain in the psyche). The weird part is, any trait can be seen as positive or negative—it all depends on the culture you grew up in. If there is trauma, mental illness or addiction in the family-of-origin, this of course deeply impacts a child’s process of development. Any further trauma deepens certain imprints and tendencies, as each person develops specialized mechanisms to cope and survive.
It turns out that the feedback given to me in the above example was true…Yet under the circumstances, justified. For many years I was in a relationship with someone who wouldn’t commit to me, and instead of getting out, I ended up getting stuck. I tried to make myself “a better, more attuned person,” suppressed the anger I felt, drank more to push away fear and uncertainty of what to do, saw the world through an increasingly negative lens, got depressed, and relied on various old coping mechanisms in order to avoid making a difficult decision…
My situation was painful, but that was nothing new. I had experienced a high degree of emotional pain and loss in my life. So much so that I couldn’t see how I was caught in the “Victim” archetype. My partner’s attempt to communicate this to me was a taste of Shadow Work in Relationship. And because I was intent on healing myself, I deepened my commitment to personal growth. I sought consistent therapy for many years, and worked on developing a steady meditation practice. I did come to see my Shadow material… And I finally got out of that relationship!
Ready to create a Big Shift?
Interested in shifting some patterns that clearly no longer serve you or your relationship? Are you ready to get to know your stuff? If so, Shadow Work is for you! And while you can get traction on your shadow material on your own, if you are disciplined, receiving feedback from those that are closest to you is one of the fastest ways to develop your consciousness. That could be a partner, family member, best friend or therapist. Of course, we’re talking about communication that is the opposite of easy or comfortable. But for the health of your most important relationships, it is a necessary step. Essential, really.
One problem that crops up a lot: if you aren’t ready when a certain aspect of your personality is pointed out by others—even if those traits may actually be positive—if you aren’t open to receiving the information, there’s a likelihood to deny any connection, or see any truth there, since you do not experience those attributes as “yourself.”
Two examples of Shadow material we see a lot these days:
- The super bossy or boundary-busting woman. She is clueless as to how controlling she is, or how much she inserts herself into situations. Underneath, this is often due to deep caring, but which shows up as unrecognized anxiety, and often has undiagnosed trauma at its base.
- The intellectually arrogant man who uses judgment and superiority to ward off having to deal with uncomfortable emotions. If he was in his “feeling body,” he would experience being a vulnerable and imperfect human being. Instead, he wields intellectual power without recognizing how disdainful or cruel he can be.
Waking Up when a Self takes over
Within each one of us there are many different parts of the psyche, sometimes referred to as Inner Selves. As an evolving, conscious person, there’s a responsibility to get to know all these various selves. The wounded parts are the especially difficult ones to deal with in relationship. As we discover all these Inner Selves, we develop more awareness as to which part “takes over” in any given situation. With practice, one can wake up right in the midst, and—recognizing what’s happening—become more choiceful about which part is creating the action. Taking a breath, I can choose to work with my “Perfectionist,” for instance, who is always comparing and critical, and who sees it as her “right” to find and voice what’s wrong or who is at fault. Instead, when I’ve worked with that sort fr awhile, I will recognize her sooner, and can choose to “turn down the volume” of that voice and practice being more curious, or kind.
Wielding the Sword of Discernment with Care
Working with one’s Shadow, while not pleasant, yields tremendous fruit. It is precisely because it is not ego-enhancing that we all need it and benefit from it, as long as we wield the sword of discernment with care and compassion. We do this by releasing judgment that these parts exist. We don’t condemn ourselves for having Inner Selves! Through an inquiry process, we actually come to appreciate that these Selves showed up early on to protect us! Then, those who also directly benefit from our mindful awareness—our intimate partners, friends and family members—may have a greater sense of ease when it comes time to look at their own stuff.
Learn how to work with the Shadow
In order to go deeply into the Psychology of the Inner Selves, it is helpful to have a guide and a process. The method that I have studied in-depth is called Voice Dialogue, and I can facilitate complete sessions using the Voice Dialogue method. Or, just learning about the Inner Selves more in-depth can also create positive change. If you are interested in learning more, please reach out and we can discuss. Also, here is the website of Hal and Sidra Stone, who developed the Voice Dialogue method: www.delos.org. As well as offering a complete introduction to the work, there are many wonderful articles that go greater in depth. Here’s one of my favorites that focuses on how the Inner Selves show up in intimate relationships.
Hope your curious, “Personal Growth” self finds it edifying, and that you keep learning and loving as you go!