Inside a little white box with a blue ribbon tied perfectly to wrap around each corner was an 18-karat gold chain and a charm that hung from it.
Written in bold script letters, the charm spelled out the word: Brat.
It was my 12th birthday and by far the worst gift I had ever received.
I was learning that I had undesirable qualities and that the world around me didn’t appreciate them. As most children do, I internalized this disapproval and began to regard those parts of myself as bad.
My perceived badness (or my brattyness as my parents called it) would be cast away into the darkness of my psyche and into what psychologists and spiritual teachers call the shadow.
The concept of the shadow was first brought to the Western world’s attention by the well-known, analytical psychologist Carl Jung. He believed that the shadow is a product of our interactions with individuals and caretakers during childhood.
During our formative years, the human psyche (or the ego) is not able to tolerate our badness and will suppress the undesirable traits and their associated toxicity. As we develop, we are led to believe that some parts of ourselves are more redeeming and superior than others.
Jung felt the rejection and denial of our inferior qualities resulted in the emergence of our dark side. According to Jung, each one of us has a shadow side. It is a natural and inescapable aspect of being human.
We may outgrow the tendencies and behaviors others consider undesirable; however, the energies we squashed down remain within our psyche. The shadow becomes the culmination of all our insecurities and the place where we become triggered, blocked, or held back from realizing our potential.
In Jungian psychology, it is believed that we must fully attend to the shadow in our conscious life to lead an actualized and enlightened life.
Most of us, however, spend much of our time hiding this shameful part of ourselves, consciously and unconsciously—from others and even ourselves. The self-contempt we carry around with us makes it impossible to be ourselves—fully and authentically.
Dr. Phil Stutz, an acclaimed psychiatrist, and co-author of The tools: Transform Your Problems into Courage, Confidence, and Creativity, expanded upon the Jungian idea of the shadow self and created a manner in which to work with our shadows and alchemize our personal darkness into light.
Stutz suggests that the forces of self-expression and inner authority are intrinsically embedded within our shadows. Further, he feels these forces are returned to us once we learn to partner with our darkness.
When a bond is formed with our shadows, we uncover all of our flaws and all that we believe is wrong with us. But in this process, serendipitously, we reveal and acquire their hidden gifts as well, such as humility, self-awareness, strength, and integrity.
We learn to be honest with ourselves, and as a result, we are able to express ourselves more clearly than ever before—and with sincerity. We are no longer concerned with others’ opinions. Rather, our attention is placed on taking care of the parts of ourselves we dismissed early on and learning to stand in our own power.
Dr. Stutz outlines three steps to help us embody our shadows and become one with our hidden powers.
1. Create a mental image of our shadow.
For many of us, this is the hardest step because so much of whom we don’t want to be has been buried deep within us. Projecting our perceived weaknesses into an image is difficult. Yet, if we can resurrect a memory of ourselves at our most awkward stage, or what we may have looked like during an embarrassing encounter this is what our shadow looks and feels like. I like to think of my seventh-grade yearbook picture.
2. Stand together with your shadow.
Imagine standing on a stage in front of an audience. It can be a large or small crowd, seated or standing, or an audience of just one person. Your shadow is standing across from you, facing you, and together you call out to a crowd that fades into the background. Together, in the forefront, you and your shadow, forcefully say “Listen.”
3. Make your shadow your partner.
What is most important when doing this exercise is to feel a warm connection to your shadow self. We can look into our shadow’s heart, peer into their eyes, and let them know they’re seen, heard, loved, and accepted by us. We can let all our judgments dissipate and allow our shadows to stand with us and speak.
Eventually, in time and with practice, we become one powerful voice.
“Shadow work is the path of the heart warrior.” ~ Carl Jung