What do you do when you're not the happiest person you know? What about when you're depressed, fearful, anxious, jealous, greedy or angry?
Yesterday, I was working with a client who appears to be a huge success in the outer world. She's a coach and inspirational speaker. She jaunts around the country inspiring hundreds of people, has a strong, supportive, sexy relationship with a gorgeous man and frequently gets paid to travel to exotic locations to lead corporate retreats. Her family is loving and close. She has an enviable following on social media and garners lots of press and media coverage.
Inside... she's shaken and feels like a fraud. She carries over $20,000 in credit card debt and has little savings or retirement fund. Her financial house is weak and therefore her confidence wavers. She's constantly comparing herself to colleagues and can never live up to her own perfectionism.
This is her "Shadow."
The shadow, a concept brought to light by famed Swiss psychologist Carl Jung -- is the part of ourselves we don't want to look at -- qualities we deem unattractive, try to push away, overlook, sugarcoat or hide under the surface.
In the spiritual and yoga communities, the emphasis is often on positivity. Sometimes called spiritual bypassing -- this is the tendency to overlook or minimize our very real human flaws. We are encouraged to "meditate our way out of" difficult emotions or habits. The focus is on getting better, being happier, moving up and out of our current circumstance toward enlightenment, miracles, or bliss.
Moving forward is important, but we also need to honor the beauty of our darkness and not pathologize the troubling aspects of Self that may be holding us back. Taking the time to recognize the beauty of darkness allows for integration and reconciliation. We train our psyche to "own" those cut-off pieces of ourselves that we'd rather tuck away in a back closet. Instead of slapping a smile on and sitting in blissful (strained) silence -- we learn to proudly integrate all the good, bad and ugly parts of who we are.
Shadow Work: The 'F*** You' Letter
"Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves." -- Carl Jung
The quickest way to see your shadow is to notice what qualities you tend to criticize or gossip about in other people. Look carefully as these aren't necessarily "bad" qualities, but often masquerade as traits that society applauds such as the tendency to overachieve, project positivity or be a "Supermom."
Once you recognize the qualities you criticize in others, flip it to see how they show up in you.
While my client exuded an outer confidence and success, inwardly she was ashamed and confused by her finances. She was in denial. To bolster her wavering confidence, she criticized friends and colleagues for being materialistic and shallow. It took her years to acknowledge the sobering reality of her financial disillusionment and irresponsible spending.
A great way to start to own these qualities in yourself is to write an "F*** You" letter. If you have someone you're angry at or harboring resentment towards, write a letter addressed to this person and tell them what pisses you off and why.
F*** you for...
F*** you for..."
Be as specific, graphic and thorough as possible. List out the exact qualities or incidents that irritate you.
[Caveat: This language is strong. I have found that it is useful to get this raw to access the primal, emotional core that is hurt or afraid. If you resist writing such a strong letter to someone you love (your lover, parent or child) -- know that this is only 1 voice of your psyche -- not the whole story, but one that needs to be heard.]
Once the letter is complete, go back to the beginning and replace their name with your name. As you read through your letter recognize where these qualities show up in yourself, even if to a lesser degree. For example, how have you abandoned, betrayed or criticized yourself?
Practice Radical Self Forgiveness
Once you identify your Shadow, you can move from judgment to understanding by practicing forgiving yourself. Allow yourself to be human and experience the full spectrum of emotions.
In yoga and Buddhism, this is known as karuna or compassion and is the foundation of self love and freedom. Soften your perception. Breathe deeply into the sides of your heart to expand. Consider how such unsavory traits were necessary in the past as a coping or defensive mechanism. Be kind and generous of Spirit.
Compassion for yourself blossoms, breeding compassion for others. Everyone wins.
Only when my client released her perfectionism and forgave herself could she turn her full attention to cleaning up her financial house. She was no longer at war within. She got honest with her boyfriend about her credit card debt and quit feeling like a fraud. The bridge between our inner and outer worlds leads to an unshakeable confidence. We actually like who we are when we know we can trust ourselves to keep it real.
Nurture yourself as you begin to uncover your shadow and open up. Give yourself permission to process emotions freely. You may notice that it gets harder before it gets easier. You are bringing up unprocessed, repressed material. As your shadow rises, cummulative feelings of shame, sadness, anger and frustration may surface.
The irony (and beauty) is -- you can turn this energy into fuel to fire for your passion and creativity. The energy you used to hold up a false self or hide out is now available to redirect.
Our vulnerability is the tender place where we have the most opportunity to crack open and experience deep unconditional love and authentic connection.
What are your shadow qualities? Please leave a comment below with a few of the shadow qualities you've identified.
being competitive and jealous
perfectionism leading to procrastination that holds me (and those around me) prisoner