Embracing your shadow

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.

It’s the memory that hides

I’ve heard it said that there are three sides to every story: yours, theirs, and the truth.

It takes a great deal of self-awareness to recognize your own role in things that happen to you. After all, we all tend to be the good guys in our own stories. If something bad happens, it’s a natural tendency to blame the other person.

It’s funny how memory works this way, too. I discovered yesterday that my husband’s view of the events that led to me moving here are quite different from how I remember them. His view is much less flattering toward me than the nearly-heroic way I saw myself. Ultimately, that’s now inconsequential because we decided years ago to move on from the unchangeable past. But there were definitely times when our different perceptions of the same event were a huge roadblock to understanding each other.

I’m working hard on the need to let go of being right. Because the truth is that being right is just ego. If you can prove yourself right but you damage a relationship in the process, was it really worth the win?

In reality, because we all see events from our own unique perspectives, it’s often difficult to determine one definitive “right” answer anyway. Sure, if it’s a matter of fact, like whether or not something existed, that can be proven. Perhaps the better question is why it needs to be proven and at what cost. But if it’s a matter of differing perspectives or opinions, you can’t really prove yourself right.

The other side of that coin, however, is that the need to be right can be a defense mechanism built up after years of having your reality questioned. Or more accurately, having someone tell you that you can’t trust your own perceptions, that you might not feel what you think you feel. Having someone invalidate your reality is one of the biggest mindfucks there is. I experienced it for the vast majority of my life.

It’s extremely hard to come back from that and say that you don’t need to be right. When you’ve been taught to distrust yourself, proving yourself right feels like self-defense, like you have to fight for your right to have your own views and perceptions.

But ultimately, we’re all still rulers of our own little one-person kingdoms. No matter how much you love and need the people around you, in the end you are really all that you have. So you have to learn to like yourself, to be comfortable alone, to be resilient and capable of figuring things out on your own.

If you’re always depending on other people to help you, you’ll spend a lot of time feeling disappointed. People will always let you down, even if they don’t mean to. They can’t read your mind and they give you the most they have to offer. Almost always, you’ll reach a point where people can only help so much, and then you have to take it from there and rely on yourself. Trying to take care of one’s own self is hard enough without also carrying the emotional responsibility for fixing someone else.

I have been working hard to learn to trust myself and to rely on myself. It’s funny that relying on myself feels less scary as my confidence in myself increases.

At the same time, change is a slow process. I can accept myself more than I did before but I still have bad days. My biggest challenge is learning that it’s not my job to fix other people. That’s potentially problematic given what I want to do as a career. Since I want to be a counselor or social worker in some capacity, I need to continue working on developing boundaries (to reference my last post.)

Because ultimately, feeling responsible for fixing other people isn’t healthy, especially when they don’t want the help. I beat my head against the figurative wall repeatedly for years, trying to fix the same person. I saw so much potential in this person but they did not want to change. It was frustrating and hard to see their frequent pain in reaction to having so many crises and making so little effort to change that.

When you feel others’ pain intensely, you naturally want to help them avoid feeling that pain again. But that’s not your job; that’s your ego. Thinking that you can help other people learn lessons before they’re ready is a sign of one unhealthy helper-type person.

The reason I call myself “conflict girl” is because I always see things from multiple angles and perspectives. On the one hand, I think that will make me an excellent fit for the counseling field. I recognize that other people can arrive at completely different conclusions from mine and still be right because of all the factors that went into their side of the story. (At least, I can do that as an outside observer. It’s a lot harder in personal relationships, though I’ve made a lot of progress on that, too.)

Nobody’s definitively right or wrong, yet everybody is, depending on your perspective. But on the other hand, I have to keep developing a stronger sense of self so that I don’t have as much invested in needing to be right. Needing to be right inevitably means someone also has to be wrong, putting the “right” person above the other. The goal is to get ego out of the way and be okay with yourself, even if people think untrue things about you.

I also need to keep working on meditation and prayer and journaling to keep my ego in check. To confidently stand in my truth while not needing to be right about things of which I’m certain.

I need to learn how to be healthy and whole and I keep working toward that goal. I’m much better than I was five years ago, let alone ten or twenty years ago. I hope I’ll be able to say the same five more years from now.