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June 21, 2022

Shadow Work: a Path to Authenticity & True Self-Expression.

We often hear about how important personal development and growth is, but what does this actually mean?

We grow as we become more aware of ourselves and all parts of us that make up our sense of self.

There is a tool used in therapy referred to as the Johari Window (Luft & Ingham, 1955). This is essentially a drawing of a window split into four quadrants. The first being: the parts of ourselves we know about and others know—the open section. The second is what others see in us but we don’t see—the blind section. The third is what we know but hide from others—the hidden section. The fourth is completely unknown—the unconscious/non-visible section.

A target in therapy is to expand the open area and reduce the blind and unknown areas—resulting in greater knowledge of self. When we resist being ourselves, something is misaligned; we are not appearing as who we are meant to be. There is an inauthenticity. Something is off, and something feels missing.

It is in these scenarios that we see destructive behaviours manifest to try to compensate for the lack of alignment. Addictive behaviours can emerge as a form of self-medication. Pain, chronic or acute illness, and repetitive ailments also evolve.

It is not only the individual who can be damaged by a misalignment with self. Offending behaviour emerges when needs are not being met through functional means. As a clinical psychologist specialising in forensic settings, I have led offender behaviour programmes (Gannon & King et al., 2011), utilising something known as The Good Lives Model. This model looks at key aspects or “goods” we need to live a functional life.

None of this can happen if we are not aware of who we are, our values, and what we like and don’t like. If we don’t have that inner compass to Self, we don’t know where we are going, and we can’t possibly know when we have arrived. We are often unsure if we are even present. A football game could never end without goalposts. We need to see the goals and celebrate the wins. However, the posts we set and aim for need to be the ones we’ve set up and not be representative of another team.

Many of the people I see therapeutically don’t have that inner compass or goalposts, as their formation has been disrupted in early life with childhood traumas and attachment difficulties in caregiver relationships, where basic needs have not been met. Self-development here is focused on survival and recovery. It is through the stability and safety of the therapeutic relationship that a sense of self with security is born.

The people I see for coaching come with an aim of self-development in some area of life, with specific goals. However, even without early adverse childhood experiences, they still have a compass that lacks calibration to their true self if that fourth quadrant of the Johari Window is never explored. That unknown part—the unconscious. The part of the iceberg that Freud (1915) refers to as below the surface—the largest aspect—needs to come into view.

The importance of this is evident as clients may have had effective coaching experiences and met desired goals and yet still something will feel off-centre for them. They have aimed for ways of being and goals that have been conditioned by childhood experiences—be that parents, other authority figures, or culture. What they are is not who they are.

This supports what Jung would refer to as humans having a persona. This is like a character in a play, performed with such prowess that the intended audience not only claps but demands an encore. Before long, the show is a sell-out and the true self is lost. We wear a mask to the outside world in order to survive the things we are exposed to. The need to survive is based on our fears of what may happen to us if we are not seen in a certain way. It takes courage to let go of who and what we think we are. This brings us to Jung’s process of shadow work.

The shadow is all that we can’t see; it is always right behind us but just out of view like the iceberg and the forth quadrant—hiding in plain sight. It contains the very depths of who we are, and it needs to be seen to optimise our authenticity, creativity, energy, and personal potential. The shadow contains primitive emotions that may be perceived as negative. It can hold a need for power and control, rage, envy, greed, and desire.

Essentially, it is the estranged self that we would be horrified if anyone saw and we can’t even bear to see. It does, however, also contain positive aspects—our gifts that have never been valued by others, so we’ve learned to suppress them. For example, a child amazing at art may have been forced to excel in sciences. Barriers are put up on our natural path. Traits associated with “being good” are accepted, while others associated with “being bad” are rejected. True self-expression is thwarted.

So what do we lose if we leave all these parts of self in the darkness and never shine light on their presence? The drama of the Greek amphitheatre tells a narrative of ignored deities turning against us. In support of this ancient view, our shadow can go rouge and run amok. This happens if it remains a lone traveller in the cargo hold, flicking a switch for the conscious mind to go on autopilot. We act in involuntary ways.

What we deny in ourselves, we see in others. If we feel extremely angry when someone pushes in line, we may be denying an element of rudeness in ourselves or a fear of being perceived as rude, even if that is not our intent. It doesn’t mean the person was not inappropriate, but the degree a behaviour triggers us and we show attachment to it indicates more about us. Additionally, many of us will not wish to be rude to others, but if we spend energy overcompensating and ensuring we are not, another part of us will suffer.

This process is known as projection. We are not aware of our projections without undertaking deep introspection and exploring the contents of our shadow. As we integrate the shadow, we meet our whole authentic self. By accepting the darkness and gifts within, we accept these in others far more and experience a life with less obstacles and more harmonious relationships.

Others may behave in any way around us, but we will not be triggered to react to this. We will respond within our own set of boundaries calmly and with purpose. There is greater compassion and understanding of others. If we do react, we are quick to understand this and mend any ruptures.

With shadow work, an untapped energy resource is unleashed and exhaustion and illness can shift once we stop directing energy to keep aspects of the self unconscious. We can find a new inner strength and stability leaving us better equipped to take on life’s challenges. Only once this work is engaged with can we be sure the goals we aim toward are really our own.

Although there are many beneficial self-led exercises we can do to explore shadow possibilities, a true deep-dive to the bottom of the iceberg needs an underwater buddy (be that a therapist or coach) to help our vision and ensure we’ve enough air in the tank to tolerate the intensity of what we may fathom.

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