Some of my recent study, for personal growth and development, has been around the idea of the “shadow.” Psychologists like Sigmund Freud and Karl Jung believed every person has a “shadow-side,” where key aspects of an individual’s personality are consciously and unconsciously concealed.
Proponents of this philosophy teach that we spend the first half of our lives developing our public, socially acceptable, persona, striving to keep our shadow-side safely hidden. But, doing so, denies important dimensions of our authentic selves. Thus, we have the opportunity, often at “mid-life,” to explore our shadows, embracing the fullness of our authentic selves for the second half of life.
We all have shadows. For everything seen in the light, there’s a shadow trailing behind.
The term “shadow” seems to imply darkness, which is partially true. We may have been told certain dimensions of our personalities are unacceptable or problematic – dark, or even taboo. And, undeniably, sin and evil prefer the cover of darkness.
But, not everything hidden in the shadow is bad.
Every family, right or wrong, maintains varying degrees of function and dysfunction. Every culture, right or wrong, has distinctive codes of conduct. Every religion, right or wrong, has its own morality. Every generation, right or wrong, has its own style. Every clique, right or wrong, has standards of acceptance and exclusion. Men and women, right or wrong, are told how to be masculine or feminine, and which lines not to cross. A spouse, right or wrong, may affirm certain traits of his/her mate, while condemning others. All of us inherit histories, not of our own making.
In other words, early in life, we’re told what it means to be loved, valued, and accepted. Likewise, we learn what is wrong, rejected, and shameful, according to our family, culture, religion, generation, clique, gender, spouse, etc. Our public persona adapts to this pressure and strives to become “acceptable,” while shoving anything perceived as wrong, inferior, or shameful into our shadow.
Much – good and bad, gift and curse, strength and weakness – gets hidden away from public view. As long as our shadows remain intact, significant dimensions of our lives remain unhealed, uncelebrated, unexplored, and un-lived.
Sometimes we’re conscious of what hides in our shadows. We all have secrets, dreams, desires, and fantasies. We dream of a different life. We regret opportunities missed. We say things under our breath. We write things in our journals we wouldn’t make public. We harbor socially-unacceptable prejudices.
Sometimes we act on those fantasies, when no one is looking. We explore the internet, behind closed doors. We do things on vacations or business trips, we’d never do at home – after all, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas!
Sometimes, our hidden traits are exposed in moments of stress, exhaustion, fear, or anger – or after too many drinks. Have you ever thought or said, “I can’t believe I did/said that? That isn’t me at all!” The truth is, it is you. It’s the part hidden in the shadow, until exposed by the light!
Some say, “The devil made me do it.” No, he/she didn’t. You did it. You were letting your shadow show!
What hides in our shadows isn’t necessarily negative. Some might be – but not all. In fact, much of what we hide or deny might be our greatest interests, strengths, traits and talents! The problem is, much of what we shove into the shadow we believe is shameful, true or not. Because these dimensions of our being were denied, they became devalued and underdeveloped.
For instance, there’s nothing wrong with anger. But, if you were taught anger is wrong, the anger you actually feel will likely be suppressed, and only come out in unhealthy ways. If anger has been treated as shameful, you may have never been taught how to express anger constructively, or assertively, resulting in passive-aggression or self-loathing.
What if our families, cultures, religions, generations, cliques, or spouses – though well-intentioned – are wrong? What if the rejected parts of us aren’t shameful at all? What if, hidden in our shadows, are tremendously valuable gifts – to ourselves and the world – waiting to be discovered?
Spiritual teachers like Henri Nouwen, Richard Rohr, Thomas Merton, and others call this the False Self and the True Self. The False Self is the persona we were taught, encouraged, and possibly coerced to become. The True Self, is the true man or woman God created us to be. Enneagram teacher, Ian Cron, talks about discovering who we were before the world told us who we are supposed to be.
One of my favorite quotes is by Thomas Merton…
“God utters me like a word containing a partial thought of him. A word will never be able to comprehend the voice that utters it. But if I am true to the concept that God utters in me, if I am true to the thought of Him that I was meant to embody, I shall be full of his actuality and find him everywhere in myself, and find myself nowhere.”
The goal of shadow-work is to discover what that “word” is, and to learn how to be true to its original intent.
Clearly, our shadows conceal less-than-savory dimensions of our being, as well. We all have sins, needing confession and forgiveness. We all have immaturities, needing growth and development. We all have temptations, needing to be tamed. We all have hurts, needing to be healed. We all have wrong-beliefs, needing correction. We all have handicapping insecurities. We all believe lies, in desperate need of truth. Thus, our shadows likely need some purging.
But, I’m increasingly wondering if the greater work needed in our shadows is revelation. The root of the word “revelation” is “reveal.” A revelation is the revealing of something hidden, mysterious, unknown. Biblically, the book of Revelation reveals what God is doing – which is hidden, unknown, and obscured from human view – in the midst of suffering and persecution. In dealing with our shadows, revelation may mean the discovery of what God intended and intends for us, currently hidden from view.
This seems like a particularly relevant thought in this season of Advent. Themes of darkness (shadow) and light are prominent in Advent. I’m reminded of John 1:5,
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.” (CEB)
If Christ came to save the world, like a light shining in the darkness: and, if salvation is holistic – meaning, for every dimension of our lives; and, if God made us for wholeness; then, it would seem, Christ comes to shine a light in our shadows, dispersing our personal darkness, revealing what needs forgiveness and repair, as well as a multitude of gifts awaiting discovery. Thus, Advent is a deeply personal invitation to allow the light of Christ to shine in your shadows, trusting that Christ comes with grace and mercy, to fulfill God’s intent, not with judgement or condemnation. After all, his light brings life!
What’s hiding in your shadow – good or ill?
Will you invite Christ to shine his light, to show you what is there?