I’ve mentioned a time or fifty that I’ve been doing a lot of work on improving myself over the past couple of years. I discovered that there’s actually a name for what I was already intuitively doing: shadow work.
The concept of shadow work is based on the teachings of Carl Jung and says that essentially, we all have a shadow side. That represents all of our demons, the things that cause us shame. You have to embrace the dark side of yourself and own up to everything bad within you in order to deal with it.
Most people don’t want to do this. It’s painful and ugly at times to confront the fact that you are not, in fact, always a good person. We don’t want to admit that sometimes we just do shitty things, often completely unconsciously, operating out of our shadow selves.
It’s also at the root of many addictions, the failure to acknowledge our bad traits because we fear they’re too bad to be confronted. It’s easier to numb them to try to avoid feeling them, which ironically often causes more shame and repeats the cycle.
When you start working on recognizing your dark side, you become more vulnerable. You understand that everybody else has a dark side too, so you are neither no better nor no worse than anyone else. Their shame may have different roots or be about different things than yours. But they are all essentially our “shadow selves,” the parts of ourselves that we hope no one else will notice because we think that they’re just so horrible and unlovable.
The truth is that once you start to confront your dark side, people don’t always know how to deal with it. It’s sort of the same premise of the movie 8 Mile (for which I broke my general rule of not recommending R-rated movies for my seventh grader and still think it was a smart decision.) The premise is that if you admit your flaws, no one can use them against you. It’s sort of like taking the viewpoint, “I know I am; so what?” It disarms and defuses a lot of what people throw at you.
Some of my particular flaws are that I can be kinda judgmental, have too much unearned pride in my intellect, have issues with rich people that are based less on envy than on shame about how I grew up. The way I grew up, I came to believe that wealth always equaled selfishness and I’m still working on overcoming that.
Call me on these things and I won’t get mad. Hell, I’ll probably beat you to the punch by admitting them myself. It’s pretty shitty to use them against me if I’ve already admitted them and I might be hurt if it’s said with the intent to hurt me. But you’re also not telling me anything I don’t already know.
Shame and self-loathing are at the root of most of our shadow selves. We incorrectly think that everybody else has it more together than we do, that we’re the only ones who secretly believe that our deepest self is unworthy and unlovable. But a lot of people–maybe even most people, unless they had exceptionally enlightened parents or have been through a lot of therapy—are battling the monsters inside themselves, convinced they’re the only ones.
Worse yet, most of us learned a lot of them from our upbringing, meaning that we’re still trying to work through issues our parents didn’t heal in themselves. And we unconsciously often pass them down to our own children as well until we face the issues and work on them. Often this cycle is several generations deep.
Some people who aren’t working on confronting their own issues will even try to project theirs onto you, accusing you of the same things they don’t like in themselves. It can seem irrational until you realize they’re trying to make you carry what they’re too uncomfortable with in themselves.
You can’t truly love yourself until you confront your demons and your worst traits head-on. It’s not something that’s a one-time process, either: you may think you’re finally getting your shit together, only to have something crop up again that reminds you that you still have more work to do.
Otherwise, if you refuse to confront your dark side and just try to be positivity and light, you’re essentially slapping a coat of paint over the ugliness. When it starts to show through again, you either feel shame that you failed to be positive enough or else you just add an extra coat of paint.
None of this work feels particularly good, which is why most people avoid it. They try to tell themselves they’re good people overall but deep down, they don’t really believe it. That’s because confronting your shadow side takes an enormous amount of bravery and self-awareness.
But once you start to do the work, those feelings of shame and self-pity and jealousy and judgment gradually start to become less prominent. When you notice those feelings pop up, you can recognize them for what they are and give compassion to yourself and others.
Yes, you’re almost certainly broken. It’s the natural way of things. But whether or not you remain stuck there is a choice. When you’re brave enough to look at your dark side and realize that everyone has one, you start relating to other people in a healthier way. That doesn’t mean they’re always ready for it, especially if they’re not doing the same work on themselves. Wish them peace and try to detach.
Your happiness and self-worth come from facing and accepting every part of yourself. When you begin to have that, everything changes. You can break generational cycles of unhealthy habits, secrets, and shame. You start to understand that most of the negative ways other people behave are not about you but about their shadow side running the show.
But first, you have to admit that you have a dark side and be willing to confront it. Only then can you truly begin to heal both yourself and your relationships.