Tag Archives: Self-awareness

Welcome to the Dark Side: Understanding Your Shadow

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“There is no other way. To be known is to be pursued, examined, and shaken. To be known is to be loved and to have hopes and even demands placed on you. It is to risk, not only the furniture in your home being re-arranged, but your floor plans being re-written, your walls being demolished and re-constructed. To be known means that you allow your shame and guilt to be exposed – in order for them to be healed.” Curt Tompson

Those who have an understanding of the Enneagram, would know how much the Ones (Moi!) need to have their shit together. As a result, like most people, I find it difficult to face my dark side. However, let me
assure you, suffering and failure tends to make you far more open to face your own Darth Vader. Learning to welcome your own dark side can be most confronting.

It was Carl Jung who first used the idea of our shadow or dark side in a psychological context. He used the idea of a shadow to describe the part of ourselves that we consider ‘bad’ or ‘evil’. As a result, our shadow is what we try to keep hidden from others. We are ashamed of our dark side. Unfortunately, what we hide or repress always ends up controlling us.

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It is foolish to dismiss our shadow as an evil entity, existing apart from our personhood. When we ignore our own darkness, or repress it, we build a bogus identity or ‘false self’, as Thomas Merton suggested. This denied shadow self can often present itself as virtuous and righteous, whilst its underlying motivations are fear, control or manipulation. It is important to remember that the shadow self is not of itself evil; it just
allows us to do evil without calling it evil. It is this sort of hypocrisy that caused Jesus to get really upset.

If we are serious about growth in our lives, we need to be serious about ‘shadow boxing’ or facing our shadow. Sadly, this is something that
religion, which tends to focus on being an exemplary model of virtue,  is not very good at. When our belonging is based on believing ‘right’ and keeping up appearances, vulnerability and authenticity, two elements crucial for growth, are sacrificed on the altar of ego and denial.

So how do we recognise our shadow? By asking ourselves what causes us to overreact? There’s a clue in that. Most of us have never been taught, either in our homes, education, or our religion, to recognise our shadows, and, therefore, we tend to respond in irrational over-reaction when we catch glimpses of it – often reflected in others! Richard Rohr says this, “Invariably when something upsets you, and you have a strong emotional reaction out of proportion to the moment, your shadow self has been exposed. Watch for any over-reaction or denials. When you notice them, notice also that the cock has crowed (Mark 14:72)!” We often try to deflect from our own shadow by pointing to the apparent deficiency in another person and in this way we can avoid confronting our own evil or hateful behaviour. History bears
witness to this: Nazism, the Spanish Inquisition, violence agains women, Colonialism, Apartheid and some of the religious hatred levelled at LGBTI people.

Jesus had an antidote. He suggested concentrating on the plank hanging out of our own eye before trying to pick the speck out of our neighbour’s eye (Matthew 7:5). This is an insight that would have most mystics smiling, realising that the process of confronting your own darkness or removing the plank from your own eye really is a lifetime work. It takes a long time before we stop all the excuses, denials, and self-justifying story lines and face the fact: I know Darth Vader – he lives within me 🙂

So when you are ready to meet Darth Vader, here are some suggestions that may help:

  • Don’t kid yourself. Shadow work is humiliating. Personally, for me, it meant learning to face the motives behind my often high ideals and the resentment that brews when these are not reached. Yet, it is the only way forward for enlightenment and growth. Carl Jung said, “Where you stumble and fall, there you find pure gold.
  • Begin to notice and be mindful of your patterns and reactions. What is the narrative you use to justify these? Confronting ourselves is … well, very confronting! To the pointed question, “What is wrong with this world?”, Chesterton replied, “I am!” 
  • Learn to welcome and embrace our shadow in times of prayer. Rohr calls this mirroring: “What’s happening in prayer is that you’re presenting yourself for the ultimate gaze, the ultimate mirroring, the gaze of God. It is also important to have the sort of community around you that allows for vulnerability, openness, and authenticity. Sadly, this is rarely found in modern religion where the emphasis and affirmation is awarded for right behaviour and belief, according to each faith tradition’s interpretation of their sacred text.
  • Remember, your shadow is not evil in itself, it simply is the repressed and hidden part of you. It is the part of you that you are denying or neglecting and therefore often appears in your dreams (but that is a whole different post). The more you face your false, idealised self, accepting the fact that the ludicrous, perfect self-image is not a reality (and extremely stressful to manage), the more you will experience a great sense of freedom. The necessity to judge yourself and all those around you begins to slowly drift away. Jesus said he came to light up our darkness and to give us life. May you live it to the full!
“God comes to us disguised as our lives.” Paula D’Arcy
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