Like it or not, we all have a part of ourselves that we try and suppress because it is often in conflict with our public facing image.
It was Carl Jung, one of the founders of psychotherapy and a friend of Freud, who developed the idea of a ‘shadow’ self, using it alongside ‘persona’ – derived from Latin for theatrical mask. Our shadow self is more popularly thought of as our dark side, where our most primitive, negative, socially or religiously unacceptable emotions and impulses live, like lust, greed, envy and anger. Our persona is our ‘light’ side, the person we prefer others to see, and to see ourselves.
Thinking over my life, I can clearly see how my shadow self was triggered in times of fear and anger, usually when I was feeling insecure and not in control. Not only did my shadow come out to play in the most deviant of ways at times, it also came out as irrational rage, often projected onto someone I thought had wronged me. Because that’s what we do. If we can’t acknowledge or accept our shadow, we project it onto others. If you find yourself irritated or disgusted by someone’s behaviour, it may well be because you’re afraid of seeing the same behaviour in yourself. I remember being in a relationship in my early 20s. It wasn’t going well; I felt insecure so cheated on my partner just to try and make myself feel better, feel wanted. I couldn’t be honest with him or myself. Instead I played the part of the perfect girlfriend, making him out to be the bad guy so that when we did split up everyone thought it was his fault. I’ve actually repeated that pattern several times over the years.
Only a handful of my closest friends were allowed to see my shadow. Most people got to see my persona – the view I preferred to present to the world. Loving daughter, hard-working mum, good girlfriend/wife, supportive friend. All true aspects of myself but not the full picture.
All the time I was suppressing and projecting my shadow, it got stronger. That’s what happens, it becomes destructive. You may become depressed (yep), you may turn your anger on yourself (oh yeah) and you may destroy relationships (several sadly). And it’s exhausting trying to push down part of yourself.
In therapy I’ve gone through the process of accepting my shadow and integrating it in to a ‘whole me’. It’s only by accepting all aspects of ourselves that we can develop healthy self-esteem. It’s ok to be angry; it’s not ok to lash out verbally or physically. It’s ok to be jealous; it’s not ok to be eaten up with envy. It’s ok to be afraid; it’s not ok to let fear make you selfish or hold back from happiness.
When you find yourself reacting strongly to other people’s personalities or behaviour, ask yourself why. The answer won’t always be obvious; it may well be deep inside your unconscious, an aspect of your shadow self.
To quote Shakespeare, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine“.