Where there are archetypes there is also shadow. Your shadow is the part of your unconscious where you put all of the energies, emotions, thoughts, feelings and behaviours that for one reason or another were not acceptable when you were a child. Not acceptable, that is, either to you or to the people around you. And shadow work is, unsurprisingly, the act of exploring the shadow.
Robert Bly described how a child is born into the world with a 360 degree personality – an all-round, complete, whole personality. As Alice Miller put it, this is the child’s gift to the world: he arrives in the world “trailing clouds of glory”. Fortunate indeed is the child who discovers a world which welcomes his wholeness and glory, the gift of himself just as he is.
Many, perhaps most, children do not. Instead they soon discover their parents do not want the gift they have to offer, at least not in the form on offer. Their parents wanted something different. A boy rather than a girl, or a girl rather than a boy. A quiet baby or a compliant child. A “good” boy or a “feisty” girl. An amenable child, not a defiant, angry one. A placid child, not a needy, demanding one.
And so a child soon learns which parts of himself need to be suppressed for maximum love to be bestowed upon him; and the parts which are not wanted by the world or the people in it usually get shoved forcibly into the child’s unconscious, into what Robert Bly aptly termed the “Shadow Bag”.
This attempt to suppress those parts of his energy which are not acceptable to the all-powerful adults, siblings, or peers in his world can massively impact every aspect of a child’s later life. So much so that one day he (or she) may well arrive at the door of a counsellor or psychotherapist’s consulting room. He may be looking for help as he tries to find the parts of himself that he senses are missing, or he may be wondering why he constantly experiences unhelpful and repetitive patterns in his life. In short, he wants to know what is in his shadow.
Talking therapies can, without doubt, be a great introduction to self-development work. Yet there is often a point where deeper work is called for, and this may be where the pursuit of one’s true self could be made easier by consulting a man or woman trained in a self-development system such as Emotional Process Work, Healing The Shadow, or Shadow Work. Men and women so trained (see this for details of how that training takes place) can help you explore your shadow and reincorporate the energy it contains into your whole being in a healthy and useful way.
The shadow and manifestation
A shadow work facilitator or “Magician” understands how and why things are put into shadow in the first place, and knows how to get them out again. With this training, the coach, counsellor or therapist will be better able to get the repressed material out of shadow and integrated back where it belongs, in its owner’s consciousness.
Later in this website we’ll take apart the shadow and look at it from the inside out. For the moment it’s convenient to simply think of it as made up of the parts of yourself you attempted to hide, repress and deny as a child. And although the word shadow conjures up darkness, let’s not forget that many positive energies are repressed as well.
To take a simple example, children often repress their power, their magnificence, and their glory. These are all qualities that make them stand out and shine in the world – or at least, qualities that could make them stand out and shine in the world if they were supported emotionally in their growth through life.
The problem is that our culture can be very hostile to Sovereign energy, particularly in children. The unthinking small-mindedness of parents, other adults, siblings, teachers and friends doesn’t necessarily encourage children to show themselves in all their glory. So into the shadow bag goes a child’s “golden” qualities as well as his “darker” energies (all of which are a natural part of being human, remember).
There’s a big problem here. What you put into shadow doesn’t lose its energy – far from it. Imagine a child who puts his anger into shadow because his parents don’t like that particular energy in their little boy. Think of a child who suppresses his tears and pain because Dad doesn’t like his little boy crying; in fact Dad thinks it shows the boy is a sissy, and somehow the boy knows that, even though Dad may not explicitly say it. The message always gets through somehow. Regrettably, many times the message couldn’t be clearer, for the child is directly told, harshly and cruelly, about his inadequacies and shortcomings. (This is the foundation of child abuse, a strange aspect of human behaviour which has pervaded society through the ages.)
And so to please his all-powerful parents, on whom the child knows his survival depends, the child may well repress his anger, sadness and weakness – or any other quality his parents don’t accept or approve of.
But putting these feelings and behaviours out of sight and out of mind into the unconscious mind, into the shadow bag, doesn’t take their energy away: in fact their energy can intensify. They are a part of who the child is and they continue to be energetically supported by his psyche. The question is, how do you look at what’s in your shadow – and how do you take repressed thoughts and feelings out of shadow and own them again?
Over time this energy may grow to a level where it can’t be contained any longer by unconscious repression. Then it may emerge unexpectedly and uncontrollably in a distorted form. This is almost always unhelpful or even downright destructive to the child or the adult man whom the child has become.
These shadow energies can make us behave in ways that cause difficulties in our relationships. Shadow energies make us do things which cause embarrassment and shame. They often lead to low self-esteem and self-criticism. They may manifest as strong emotions: anxiety, guilt, depression, shame, rage, jealousy, sadness, and so on. They are irrational. They make us say things we regret and which destroy harmony and goodness in our relationships. We do not understand what comes out of our shadow, and no matter how much we try to control it, nothing ever seems to change.
The point about shadow energies is that they’re out of our awareness (it’s dark in that shadow bag!) and when they emerge into the light they often do so unexpectedly and unhelpfully. They get in the way of us expressing who we are, getting what we want, telling others what we expect and desire, and expressing our needs. To put it another way, shadow energies stop us being who we truly are.
Our shadow can prevent us from getting into relationships or ruin existing relationships. It can keep us lost in a cycle of addiction, unable to stop self-defeating behaviours. Shadow makes people compulsively behave in ways which are harmful to them and seek out things which are destructive to them, and it all happens in a way they can’t understand and which makes no rational sense.
In fact your shadow lies behind every dysfunctional, unhelpful, unexpected and unwanted thought, feeling and behaviour you’ve ever brought into the world.