We all have parts of ourselves that are split off, hidden, or denied. Living in the world cut-off from these parts can leave us feeling empty, as if we are going through the motions of our lives rather than fully living. However, turning towards the “shadow”, a term first introduced by Carl Jung to describe these repressed parts of the self, allows us to feel more grounded, real, and whole. Just like the lotus that roots in the mud, we access our shadow to unlock our creative energy.
Why Embrace the Shadow?
It takes a lot of energy to compartmentalize our disowned parts and it feels good to think of ourselves as strong, beautiful, and smart. However, we generally hold equal amounts of fear that we will be seen as weak, ugly, or stupid. In truth, neither the light nor the dark alone comprise our wholeness. The need to be “right” also leaves us at risk of getting stuck in comparison and in dichotomies of right-wrong and good-bad. Rather than being black or white, the shadow lives in the grey and softens the boundaries between “me” and “not me.” Here’s a common theme:
I was working with a woman who was speaking vehemently about her ex-husband and how controlling and selfish he was. We deepened this opportunity to explore her shadow as mirrored in her relationship. She revealed that felt tentative about taking up space and grieved events of her childhood when she felt powerless and resigned. She expressed the rage that had been suppressed behind her need to be “nice” and realized that her choice to marry her ex-husband was aligned with the part of her who felt safe staying small. As her process drew to completion she described feeling a deep sense of compassion for herself and even for her ex-husband. She described an experience of freedom and possibility that had previously been unknown. While there remained some fear about whether she could sustain this expansion she was willing to take the risk and committed to listen to that quiet voice inside that had so long been discounted.
Shadow as Access to Creativity
Attending to the shadow not only illuminates the darker parts of our personality but also gives us access to the disowned positive parts that we find too risky to bring out into the world. New possibilities awaken when working with the shadow. Now rather than “either-or” polarities we have access to a “both-and” reality. So an opposition of rage and niceness, for example, are no longer mutually exclusive contradictions. The energy that was previously expended towards managing the disowned self is now available and can be applied towards your creative endeavors.
Psychotherapy and Shadow Process
One of the tricky parts about working with the shadow is that we generally cannot see it! This is where working with a psychotherapist comes in as an external witness to help you gain insight into the unknown parts of yourself. The initial phase of integrating the shadow can be very vulnerable, uncomfortable, and can even feel shameful. We often need some coaching and encouragement at the edge because is it seems easier to turn away. By holding a safe place for curiosity and mindful exploration we can lean into the uncomfortable edges together.
About Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. Dr. Schwartz is the author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole. She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook, follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts.