Integrating Your Shadow (Part 2)
In an earlier blog I reflected on how to uncover your shadow. The shadow is where your blind spots reside—those parts of yourself of which you are largely unaware, but that influence you from behind the curtain. Today I'll build on the previous theme and explore how to integrate the shadow into awareness. I've found that certain attitudes support the unfolding of this powerful inner work. Three that are especially helpful are compassion, curiosity, and courage.
Compassion: A great deal of power lives in the shadow. So try not to label your shadow as a "bad" thing. It's simply those parts of yourself that you don't yet see clearly. This can encompass everything from your buried talents and dreams to your addictions or personality reactions.
Understandably, facing the hidden parts of ourselves can trigger anxiety and shame. Sometimes it's easier to look away. But our blind spots don't make us bad. Having a shadow is part of being human. It's okay. Often our shadow traces back to old wounds and the ways in which we tried to get our needs met as children. Then, in adulthood, it runs like an outdated program in our psyche, waiting for updates that fit our present-day life and goals. Taking a wider view, the shadow is part of living in a dual reality, as illustrated by the yin-yang symbol. So face your shadow with empathy. Approach both the light and the darkness within you in a spirit of compassion.
Curiosity: Curiosity sets a gentle tone for integrating your shadow. It’s a posture of self-inquiry, childlike in its desire to know more. Try this: Identify an aspect of your personality that you judge harshly and want to suppress. As you call it forward, breathe through any feelings that arise in your body without trying to change them. Hold this shadow part in your consciousness with as much acceptance as you can muster. Get curious: What does this part of you want? When did it arise? How has it served you over the years? Maybe it asserts your need for autonomy by rebelling against authority; maybe it seeks love and belonging by acting clingy. Give this part of you a name. Take it with you on walks. Talk with it over coffee. Invite it to the dinner table. Instead of pushing your shadow away, embrace it as part of you.
You can also set the intention to meet your shadow, free of judgment, and see what happens. This intention could prompt symbolic dreams or awaken hidden desires. It could support you in shifting behaviors that are causing problems in your life. For example: Under stress, do you sometimes manipulate? Overindulge? Hide? What alternate behaviors or choices would meet your needs more peacefully? Or consider asking people you trust deeply what they think your blind spots are. Their level of insight might surprise you. This exercise can make you feel exposed, though, so prepare the conversation in advance. You might share your vulnerability or what you hope to gain from this feedback.
Courage: Yes, integrating our shadow takes courage. It stretches us beyond our comfort zone. It leads us into situations that serve our growth but sometimes feel uncomfortable or scary. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago. Dan and I were riding in a taxi to the train station, where I was about to depart for southern China. As the cab crawled toward our destination, I grew increasingly anxious about leaving my husband. Separation anxiety has afflicted me since childhood, but only recently have I realized how deeply embedded it is in my shadow. Peering out the window, my heart began to pound, my head felt dizzy, and tears threatened to spring.
Two things gave me courage in those difficult moments. First, I remembered learning about fearlessness in a Buddhist Psychology class. Fearlessness is not the absence of fear, I recalled, but feeling the fear and moving forward anyway. It means not being afraid of being afraid. What a useful concept for working with the shadow. I was able to see that I wasn’t ‘wrong’ or ‘weak’ for feeling insecure. Second, Dan asked me a question that proved to be extremely valuable: What do you hope to get out of this experience? This simple inquiry unlocked my deeper motivations for going on the trip, and it buoyed me with strength and perspective. In the end, I boarded the train feeling a bit shaky…but I did board.
I have learned that integrating the shadow hinges on our ability to make peace with it. I recommend a course of diplomacy, not war. Until you begin to accept the shadow within, you will live at its effects. It will appear to come from outside, perhaps in the form of chronic personal or professional frustrations. But embracing your shadow lays a foundation from which you can create your life more consciously. This is a lifelong adventure that not only lifts the veil on your darkness, but also on your light. And a little compassion, curiosity, and courage will carry you a long way.