Four years ago while riding the wave of inner awakening, I realized had to confront something I was utterly unprepared to.
I had done so much of the work, breaking open family traumas, examining relationships, course-correcting life goals, but there was something more that needed to be done. I knew I had to begin the shadow work, the excavation of my dark side. Like Luke and Harry and Frodo (can you tell my favorite genre?) I had to confront the Other, the black-hooded villain who was also—somehow—me.
I would guess that for most of us, shadow work isn’t something that even flickers in our mind. We think we see ourselves fully, and the bad is—well, not that bad. But the shadow is not the evil in us. First identified by C. G. Jung about 100 years ago, the Shadow is that which is unintegrated. In other words, it’s the rough stuff that’s there inside ourselves, but we either pretend it’s not or are totally blind to it. Becoming whole, holding on through the tumultuous surf of inner awakening, means accepting every ounce of who we are, the Shadow included.
In order for us to know ourselves, to really know ourselves, and to then heal ourselves, we have to confront it all. But before we can confront and heal and know, we have to become aware. And honestly, that’s the hardest part. Cracking through the shell of denial is a true challenge. After all, the very purpose of denial is to protect us from awareness, right? So if you’re reading this now thinking, “I’m not in denial,” then this one’s for you! We all deny the shadow side. There’s no shame in it, but you are responsible to take your hands away from your eyes and look. Check out the four ways I’ve discovered you can spot the denial of your shadow side and start doing the work, my dears. If you shut your eyes again, it will only be waiting for you till next time.
1. You deny your bad behavior.
Have you ever done that thing where you get called out by someone for doing something kind of shitty, so you get all tense and angry and defensive and just want to flip the table—figuratively speaking? That feeling of furious defensiveness we all know so well is the panicked denial that yes, you sometimes behave badly. It takes a mighty brave soul to admit that they shouldn’t have said something, or that they did mean to hurt someone else’s feelings, or that they blew someone off on purpose.
But what you might not realize it that when you own up to those bad behaviors, you won’t feel so drawn to them and controlled by them. If you can acknowledge that you said that shitty thing to your girlfriend, and yes you did mean it to be mean, then when you have the urge to say it again you might be somewhat reluctant. Being aware and honest about your bad behavior makes you conscious to the fact that it’s bad, and that will give you just enough of a moment of pause to reconsider and question what shadowy part of you wants to behave that way in the first place.
2. You blame your failures on everything but yourself.
The fear of taking up responsibility for our failures (and choices and non-choices) can be so paralyzing that the easiest response is either to languish in the frustration, or deny that its happening at all. Without realizing it we convince ourselves that we are actually powerless, which creates the illusion that we are absolved from being accountable for failing. Have you failed at something and immediately blamed a co-worker, a friend, the goddamn Universe? Yes, sometimes things are absolutely out of our control. The Wheel of Fortune is ever-spinning after all. But when you fail a test or get in debt or miss out on an amazing opportunity, you have a chance to get to know yourself a little better by asking why.
I once had an audition that I had been preparing for for maybe 6 years, it was the opportunity to manifest the breakthrough I’d been dreaming of. I bombed it. At first I went straight into denial: bad vibe in the room, gossipy girls outside, weird pianist, etc. Then I went into self-deprecation: didn’t practice enough, always so nervous, on and on. Finally I sat myself down and cried it out, and let the shadow side speak: I don’t believe I can really do this, and I put only half of myself into it. Boom! Whole new layers of issues opened up that I had to delve into, but through that work I really did find some peace and inner understanding.
3. Someone bothers you just a touch too much.
There’s just something about her that you can’t put your finger on, but you want to choke her to death. Let’s call her Natalie. We all experience a Natalie in our lives who makes our skin crawl for absolutely no apparent reason. But as Carl Jung pointed out, what annoys us the most in other people is really what annoys us the most within ourselves. This type of denial is the projection of our shadow self onto another person, so we see the worst parts of Natalie because she is embodying the worst parts of ourselves.
This is best described with another personal anecdote: Years ago I had a coworker I absolutely hated. She was snobbish, pretentious, and I spent—literally—hours of my week stewing over how she irritated me. The thing was, on paper we should be besties, and I couldn’t really figure out what made her so much worse than all the other stuck-up self-involved people I knew. I did the inner digging and realized, yep, my Natalie was not just self-absorbed, she was my particular flavor of self-absorbed. We complained about the same things, sought out the same special treatment, wanted to be flattered the same way. All those gross behaviors were things I also did—although to a lesser extent I hope to god—and that realization made me really take a critical look at myself and get my baby ego in check.
4. You suppress your inner aches.
For many of us, when something painful happens we immediately drive our energy into “moving on”. I’ve seen friends go through horrible breakups and say, “Screw him, next?” Or actors who lose an amazing role and simply shrug it off. We deny how much things hurt, because we know they really hurt too much, and there’s something deeper inside that pain. I had a friend who had an issue with babies. Every time someone she knew got pregnant she would seem bruised, but didn’t really admit how upset she was about it. Finally she went to visit a friend who’d just had a baby, held the little newborn in her arms, and went into a full panic attack. She told me about the experience and I encouraged her to investigate her inner ache. Sometime later she told me that after a lot of painful thought, and allowing of those feelings that she’d been denying, she realized that these babies made her think about having children of her own, and she had a real terror she’d treat them the way her emotionally abusive mother had treated her. What that ache had been pointing to was the incredible discomfort of examining the parallels between her and her mother. But in acknowledging that fear, and pushing through the denial, she began to really work through some heavy and important stuff.