Growing with Intention: Shadow Work

This series exploring engines of our spiritual growth has shifted this week to look at practices designed to bring our unconscious into conscious awareness. The other day, I focused on the murky but fascinating world of our dreams. Today, I’m going to turn to shadow work, the process of becoming aware of, accepting, and integrating aspects of our personality that we reject.

I’ve written on this theme before, most notably in a post describing my own process of coming to terms with my racial identity as a white man. There, I introduced the idea as follows:

The Shadow works like this: As we go through life, we make decisions, conscious or unconscious, about what is ‘us’ and what is ‘not us’. The problem comes when, through messages from our culture or families of origin, or because we don’t have the resources to manage them on our own, we push away things that are a part of us as being ‘not us’. In doing this, those things are still in fact a part of us, but we cannot see them — they are part of our ‘Shadow’. And this makes them dangerous. If we leave our Shadow unexamined and un-dealt-with, it ends up making itself known in dysfunctional ways. Take for example something like anger. Every single human being gets angry from time to time. But if we are taught that anger is a ‘bad’ emotion or aren’t taught healthy ways of expressing it, we can try to disown it and thereby push it into Shadow. And when it’s in Shadow it can come out either through a complete inability to deal with situations that require anger — for example, when we experience or witness injustice — or to dangerous, uncontrolled outbursts of anger that seem to have a life of their own and not be ‘us’.

It should be noted that the shadow isn’t always something bad. Sometimes we reject positive parts of our personality, often because they were not valued in our family or culture of origin, or because we were falsely told we didn’t possess them. We might think here of a woman who was told as a child that she wasn’t smart because she struggled in school or because intelligence wasn’t considered ‘feminine’ in her family. Her innate intelligence might now be hard for her to access, not because it isn’t there but because she doesn’t believe it is. This aspect of the shadow is important because it means that some of the things we’ve shoved into that dark closet are things we need; Jung went so far as to comment that in his experience as a psychoanalyst, it was easier for people to access their greatest fears than their greatest potential.

Shadow work is ultimately an acknowledgement that, in the famed words of the Roman playwright Terence, “I am human and, I think, nothing human is alien to me.” While we have our specific tendencies and predilections, innate and learned, at the end of the day, we all have a bit of everything in us: the cheat, the coward, the whore, but also the champion, the genius, and the saint. We need to learn to admit, accept and love the parts of us we struggle to acknowledge (both the ones we consider good and the ones we think are bad), in order to be whole. This is not an endorsement of all of these traits, but simply a recognition that they are there and part of us, even as they do not define us, so that we can engage with them in healthy ways. (Remember, the Scriptures don’t tell us not to get angry, but “In your anger, do not sin.”)

This is an important process not just for ourselves, but for our communities as a whole. In the words of James Hollis, a Christian Jungian thinker:

Furthermore, paradoxically, only in the act of loving these unlovable parts of ourselves, which our ego consciousness sees as other, can we ever love others. This acceptance of others starts at home, by accepting the other that resides within us as well. (Living an Examined life)

The point of all spiritual growth is not self-aggrandizement but a life of increased faith, in which we are better able to show up for ourselves, but also for one another and for God. As we acknowledge our own shadow, we can grow in compassion and love for those around us, and thereby strengthen our relationships and communities.

One final aspect of shadow work I’ll mention today is that shadow functions on a collective level as well as on a personal level. This is a big part of what is happening today in the West. We have been fed stories that we history’s ‘good guys’, champions of human rights, democracy, and freedom, the vanguard of a bright future for the whole world. But now, we are being confronted in big ways by our cultural shadow: that the West’s engagement with the world has been bad news for the peoples of the world, that our championing of human rights has too often been narrow, that we have valued others’ freedom only when it has suited our own agendas, and that our technological progress is not only unsustainable but actively destructive to the planet. In response to this confrontation, sadly, many today are simply rejecting these truths, pushing those parts of history deeper into shadow, instead of doing the hard but necessary work of confronting it with vulnerability and honesty. Such a perpetuation of a myth of cultural innocence is not only unhealthy, but actively dangerous. As Jung wrote in the 1950s in response to a Western Cold War official saying he had “no imagination for evil”:

None of us stands outside humanity’s black collective shadow. Whether the crime occurred many generations back or happens today, it remains the symptom of a disposition that is always and everywhere present — and one should therefore do well to possess some ‘imagination for evil,’ for only the fool can permanently disregard the conditions of his own nature. In fact, this negligence is the best means of making him an instrument of evil. Harmlessness and naivete are as little helpful as it would be for a cholera patient and those in his vicinity to remain unconscious of the contagiousness of the disease. On the contrary, they lead to projection of the unrecognized evil into the ‘other’. (The Undiscovered Self, 53 (CW par. 572))

What, then, does shadow work actually entail? To some extent it’s just a matter of accepting that we are a mixed bag of good and bad traits. It is, in Integral jargon, a commitment to growing by transcending yet accepting who we have been and who we are, instead of trying to transcend our past and present by rejecting them. And so, in place of rejecting a ‘negative’ aspect of our personality (e.g., by saying “I don’t get angry”), we acknowledge it (“Sometimes, I become angry”), and then integrate it healthily (“I am not my anger; I can express my anger without harming others”). This is a simple practice of identifying with something in order to dis-identify ourselves from it. At their best, traditional Christian practices like the Examination of Conscience or the formalization of repentance in sacramental confession and absolution function in this same way: They help us to consider us as we really are, and bring to light not just what we have done but also our motivations, and reframe them all within the light of the way of Jesus. (For example, back in the day, one of the major themes that would come up in my preparation for confession was a question of whether I was cultivating humility or using this virtue as a cover for timidity, fear, and an abdication of responsibility. I never came to a solid answer, but bringing this into my awareness was really helpful.)

A similar process has been codified by Integral psychologists in the so-called 3-2-1 Process. (For a full exploration of Shadow work and the 3-2-1 Process (complete with some helpful examples), see pp.41-66 in Wilber et al’s Integral Life Practice.) It takes a step back by helping us to identify elements of our Shadow in the first place, before dealing with them. It goes like this:

    1. Think of a trait in others that you can easily fixate on, whether it’s something that annoys you more than it seems to bother others, or something that attracts you in an extreme way (crushes, whether friendly, romantic or professional, are often a good place to start).
    2. Face it (3rd person): In a journal, describe the trait or person in the third person (‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’, ‘they’) in as much detail as you can.
    3. Talk to it (2nd person): Dialogue with the trait with curiosity. Ask it questions like, “Who are you”; “Where do you come from?”; “What do you want from me?”; and “What can you offer me?” Allow it to answer your questions.
    4. Be it (1st person): Writing in the first person (‘I’, ‘me’, ‘my’), be the person or trait you’ve been engaging with. See the world through its/their eyes until you see how you can identify with it. End with a statement of full identification, like “I am ______.” This will feel wrong at first, but sit with it for a few days.

This process may sound strange, but I can attest that it can contribute to genuine growth. I used this practice a few years ago when trying to figure out why a certain person that other people seemed to find charming and enjoyable drove me crazy. Through it, I discovered that the root of my dislike was really that I saw in him my greatest fears about my own personality. The process helped me to have compassion on him, and on myself, and accept and integrate the positive aspects of those personality traits along with the negative. In spiritual terms, it allowed me to be more honest about myself, which is the heart of repentance, and helped me to love my neighbour more. This is spiritual growth indeed!

To summarize all of this, we all have a certain idea of who we are, a persona, or facade, that we put out into the world. But this persona necessarily pushes away authentic parts of who we are. These parts we don’t want to see are called the shadow, and if we are going to grow healthily, we need to bring them out from the darkness and into the light of our consciousness, where we can see them and work with them. By doing this, we can come to a more honest understanding of who we are, and free ourselves to love our neighbour better. In this way, shadow work is an important tool for our spiritual growth.

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