Unless you’re an exceptionally integrated person, there’s a part of you that you don’t like.
This part of you could be anything from particular personality traits to characteristics, attitudes, or behaviors. You may be ashamed of being a sensitive person, so you suck up the tears when something triggers an emotional response. Maybe you were shunned for acting a certain way, and now you believe that particular behavior is wrong.
In an attempt to be our best selves, we end up repressing aspects of who we are because we feel that we should be better than that.
And that’s how the shadow self is born: The rotten side of you that you don’t acknowledge. But it’s still there, and it’s always going to be there until you accept it, integrate it, and heal the wounds surrounding it.
The shadow self is a pretty complex topic, but if you’re on a healing journey, this is something that you need to know. By the end of this article, you’re going to have identified your shadow self and learned how to integrate it for a healthier sense of self.
What is the shadow self?
Shadow work is the act of integrating the shadow self. It’s a healing modality that works on the deeper levels of the subconscious mind (where our sense of self is spit off).
If you’re not familiar with shadow work, I highly recommend you read my guide to shadow work before moving on with this article. This is important to get a broader idea of what shadow work is, and what the process entails.
Your shadow self refers to the unconscious parts of your personality that were disowned. Imagine the shadow self as the side of you that you find unacceptable.
To properly understand the shadow self, we need to explore the multifaceted self. Here are some important terms I’m going to use in this article that you should know:
- The self: Your human consciousness.
- The lower self: Your characteristics and traits that are seen as undesirable, or bad. Your worst qualities.
- The higher self: Your characteristics and traits that you see as desirable, or good. Your best qualities.
- The authentic self: Your genuine traits, characteristics, and behaviors that are natural to you.
- Your mask: Your social personality. The person you’re posing to be which is usually mimicking your higher self
- Your shadow self: Parts of your authentic self that you don’t like, and conceal behind your mask
- Your mask: Your social personality. The person you’re posing to be which is usually mimicking your higher self
Okay, glad to have cleared that up. Now onto trying to explain this mess…
Explaining this mess...
In the perfect world, we would all just be ourselves without labels or judgment, or trying to be someone else. But we’re not in the perfect world. We grow up believing that it’s necessary to have a certain image, so we cut off all the bits sticking out that don’t align with the image prescribed by our parents, culture, and society.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We should strive to better ourselves and genuinely shift towards our higher selves.
But the keyword here is genuine.
For the most part, we take the shortcut. We pretend to be better people (because that’s what we’re supposed to be) without actually being better people. It’s a mask that we wear to the world and ourselves, to convince ourselves that we’re doing good.
Your mask might be all nice and shiny on the outside, but it’s a lie. Your mask is not your authentic self.
So instead of healing the wounds that are associated with your lower self, you paint the higher self over them.
Don’t worry, we all do it.
So let’s say you were punished by your parents when you were younger for expressing strong opinions or acting out of line. You grew up internalizing the belief that you can’t speak up and must always be civil in discussions. Therefore, you disowned that firey passionate attitude you once had.
Later on down the track, you might be quite passive, and not know how to speak up or assert your rights because that belief is now deeply ingrained. But you might find yourself getting triggered when you see other people speaking their truth because it’s illuminating an aspect of yourself that is still well and alive.
Your shadow is the authentic self that you disowned for whatever reason. You don’t like it, you felt you had to conform, you needed to survive, the reason isn’t important.
What’s important is to identify the incongruencies between your mask and your authentic self, and that’s the gap your shadow lives in.
What if your authentic self sucks?
Often there are aspects of ourselves that we disown because they’re genuinely not good for us. These are usually characteristics that are associated with the lower self. On a personal growth journey, it’s only natural to want to evolve, and so you should. You can learn about my reasoning here:
But the problem lies in how we evolve.
Maybe those characteristics are things like aggression, narcissism, self-pity. You could say “These aspects are my authentic self, so does that mean I must be an aggressive, narcissistic, self-pitying asshole?”
Attitudes and traits that come from the lower self are caused by wounds. You’re behaving in ways that don’t serve you or anyone else because they’re signaling an issue.
So if you heal the root cause, then the manifestation of this cause is going to change. Suddenly, you’re not going to be in alignment with that particular quality. You’ll be in alignment with a healthier, healed version of yourself.
Because the only genuine route to the higher self is through healing. When you heal the problems manifesting the lower self, naturally you will embody your higher self.
Difference between the shadow self and ego
Your ego refers to your sense of identity which shapes your self-image. It’s the part of you that navigates reality, which in this sense it’s more akin to your mask.
The shadow self is made of the unconscious aspects that the ego doesn’t acknowledge. Imagine it as a repository of suppressed emotions, desires, and traits that don’t align with your self-concept.
While the ego operates in your awareness, the shadow self is the unconscious counterpart influencing your behavior without your realization.
For a more in-depth explanation about the ego, read the article below:
How the shadow self is born
The shadow self is born by not being congruent with your authentic desires and beliefs. Eventually, you ingrain characteristics that are not congruent with your authentic self, and this causes a separation of self.
In a nutshell, you act in a different way than how you want, because you’re supposed to. Therefore, you create a polarity between these two sides of you: Being a persona (or mask that you wear), and your authentic self.
Imagine you grew up in a conservative Christian household where there was a taboo about having romantic relationships. You were led to believe that it’s bad to be intimate with someone, even though you wanted to date. Because of this programming, you repress the side of you that wants to date because you believe it’s not acceptable behavior.
So you pretend to be someone who’s not authentic with your true self because you’re supposed to be a certain way. But the real you is still alive and kicking in the background.
Examples of the shadow self
Let’s say you value kindness and always strive to be helpful. After all, you know it’s the right thing to do.
Deep down, on the other hand, you might feel resentful or jealous towards successful people, and people who seem to have life so easy. Therefore, you might feel satisfied when those people experience difficulties, without consciously recognizing that you aren’t genuine with those values of kindness.
These hostile feelings are likely aspects of your shadow self, and come from a wounded part of you that you never healed. In this sense, shadow work would be the act of exploring that wound and healing it, so you become authentic with those values of kindness, and they’re no longer a mask.
Forming a shadow self through spiritual bypassing
Being your best self is important, but it can also be misconstrued.
When you create an aversion to your lower self, thus a persona of your higher self, this causes disintegration. This is a trap I see a lot of people fall into, especially within the spiritual community.
You might believe that as a spiritual person, you need to be positive. In some cases, people will block out any feeling that doesn’t align with their version of being highly evolved, because they believe it would be shameful.
“After all, I’m an advanced spiritual person, I’m beyond ill feelings towards people, all I have is love for everyone.”
Translation: “I’m insecure and need to live by this image that people should have of me because I don’t feel worthy of love”
These people become the love and lighters where everything is always positive, but there’s a big ugly stain under the carpet that they’re ignoring. This stain is their shadow self, and as long as they block themselves from feeling human emotions that they disapprove of, they’re not being authentic.
So the whole positivity thing becomes a facade.
I wrote an article on this topic, so check it out below:
Forming a shadow self through cultural programming
Often, the shadow self is a product of cultural programming. Since the culture we live in has a huge influence over how we behave, act, and think, it’s also a great cause of disintegration.
After all, we all want to fit in. It’s a natural human instinct. But that drive to conform can also suck because we have to discard our differences to fit in the box.
Hostilities are also a big cause of disintegration, which can come from parents, peers, and work associates.
When someone is hostile towards a particular trait that you have, you’re likely to feel shame, guilt, or some negative emotion towards that particular trait.
Say some people at work are rude to you because you’re introverted. You might feel ashamed of being introverted, therefore you try to be more extroverted and disintegrate that authentic characteristic.
Let’s say your parents reprimanded you for expressing anger – so you became the nice guy. Or how about they got angry at you when you expressed an opinion that they didn’t love, so you were led to believe it was wrong?
Your shadow is as much a product of your surroundings, as these influences are usually the cause of its disintegration in the first place.
Identifying your shadow self
Now that you’re well aware of what the shadow self is, we’re going to look at how you can identify yours.
Because that’s the tricky part, it’s unconscious. It hides in the dark because you don’t want to look at its ugly face. Usually, we don’t even know that it exists until we flesh it out, so let’s explore some ways to do that.
Follow your triggers
Someone who is introverted might find loud or obnoxious people triggering. They have a disproportionate emotional reaction to the actual situation because they see aspects of themselves that they wish they had.
If you wish you were outgoing, you might find outgoing people to be triggering. If you wish you were successful but never created that reality for yourself, you might have hostile feelings towards successful people.
In my life, there is always a chad. Every workplace seems to have the confident, charming meathead that ladies seem to orbit around. For a long time, these types of people always got on my nerves. Just something about them that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
It’s not that they were rude. Often they were super nice, which made me hate them even more. Fuck, they’re kind too?! Why can’t I find something that I hate about this person? I hated that.
Of course, I saw my shadow in these people. I saw an outgoing, confident version of myself who didn’t have self-esteem issues. That sounds dandy and all, what an inspiration, but there was a problem. I wasn’t that person who I knew I could be. Every time I saw this archetype, it reminded me of my shortfalls.
But that’s my shit. When you recognize that you have a trigger, you can identify a reflection of yourself that you have suppressed. Certain situations bring up a particular trait that you have suppressed (and feel you lack). Therefore, pay attention to your triggers and use them as a quick road to identifying your shadow self.
Discover if you project
Projection involves recognizing judgments towards others, which often mirror hidden aspects of your shadow self.
If you’re critical of other people, it’s probably your way of avoiding being critical of yourself. If you’re being snarky towards someone, I bet you it’s because you have those feelings towards yourself.
And what does this mean? There’s hidden treasure!
Not gold or anything like that, but that dark putrid sludge that hasn’t seen the light of day. Like the clump of slimy you pull out of your shower drain when it’s blocking up.
By examining strong emotional responses that seem uncalled for, you can find suppressed characteristics. This process of self-reflection allows for a deeper understanding of your shadow.
Identify reoccurring patterns
Look into the situations that seem to continuously repeat in your life.
Do you keep getting into toxic relationships? Are you always the underdog? Do people always take advantage of you? What seems to happen without fail in your life, and more importantly, do you wonder why?
Identifying your reoccurring patterns is a good way to discover aspects of your shadow self. And that shadow self is probably why you unconsciously keep walking into those situations or creating them yourself.
So why do you do it?
Discover your shadow archetype
What I want you to do is imagine the worst possible version of yourself.
Imagine your life went in a really bad direction, and you became the person you despise. Now paint a vivid picture of this person. What do they look like? What do they do? How do they act?
I see my shadow archetype as a pathetic beta male who has nothing going on in his life. This is my shadow archetype. I’ve done quite well crafting an adventurous life to get as far away from that reality as possible, because that’s an elephant in the room I’ve never wanted to deal with.
But why do I have such an aversion to that person, besides the obvious reasons? There are a lot of pathways my life could go down, so why pick that one in particular as my nightmare self? That’s because I have a fear of becoming that person.
No matter how cool and tough I feel I’ve become, there’s still a part of me that feels like that’s who I am. Since that side of me has been repressed to some extent, at least some of the qualities that I associated with it, that’s what my shadow looks like.
So I need to retrace what qualities I disowned, and either accept them or heal the underlying cause driving them.
So now think about yours.
Integrating the shadow self
Now that you’ve discovered your shadow self, the next step is to integrate it. This means that you find a healthy balance with your shadow self where you’re not avoidant of it, but you’re also not indulgent.
You don’t want to become your shadow self. Otherwise, you’re sorta just going in circles. You want to strike a healthy balance where it can be expressed, but it doesn’t control you.
Since the shadow self is created by not being authentic to your true self, being authentic is a big step in the right direction. If you have the desire to do something or act in a certain way (as long as it’s in reason), then do it.
Start being congruent with the personality traits that you have dredged up into your conscious awareness. It might feel a little unnatural at first as you’ve crafted your life around a persona, but by expressing those hidden desires, you’re going to start integrating those shadows.
So ultimately, be authentic. You can’t get much simpler than that.
Embrace your shadow
Avoid self-judgment or harsh criticism of your disowned qualities. You’re likely seeing them through a bias filter.
Drill in better ways of looking at these particular traits. This may take some reprogramming, but if you stick with it, your perception of those traits will change.
I visualize myself meeting my shadow self, and giving him a big hug. I spend time with him, hold space for him, and show myself the compassion I never received from others. I find this to be a particularly effective technique that gets me every time.
Create space for genuine healing
Now that you’ve brought your shadow self to light, you can properly start healing the underlying causes of characteristics that are harmful.
If your shadow archetype is the prostitute, going around sleeping with countless people won’t do you any good. If your shadow archetype is the junkie, empowering yourself with as much cocaine as you can handle won’t do it either.
That’s because these particular characteristics are caused by wounds. You’re just escaping something deeper, so embodying escapism is just going to put you in a loop.
You want to heal the underlying wounds that cause these behaviors in the first place. With more visibility, these underlying wounds become easier to heal.
Find a healthy balance
The delicate dance of shadow work is to integrate these disowned traits without acting on them impulsively.
This involves acknowledging their presence without allowing them to control your actions. Find healthy ways to express these desires, and don’t overindulge.
When you strike a good balance, you’ll begin to integrate your shadow self in the best way possible, without allowing it to cause any harm or dysfunction in your life.