The Shadow Self and Shadow Work’s Role In Spirituality
We live in a society that is so mentally and emotionally unwell that we are exposed to a covert undercurrent of micro-traumas almost daily. Sexism and sexual harassment are traumatic. Racism is traumatic. Anti-LGBTQ attitudes are traumatic. These are covert societal traumas that are inflicted upon social groups over generations. These kinds of abuses and microaggressions can become so systemically “normalized” and occur so subtly that some people who experience them end up internalizing them and may not even recognize the abuse when it occurs.
Then there’s overt societal traumas: Genocide, war, and the displacement of people that occurs because of them, as well as poverty and the displacement of people that occurs because of it, like gentrification and homelessness. Terrorism and hate crimes are also a part of this.
Then we have social traumas: being bullied for your weight, intellect, physical appearance, religious beliefs, disabilities, or any other factor that makes you physically, neurologically, or ideologically different.
You can think of all of these things as the collective “karma” that we, as a society, have created here on earth throughout our history.
And then we have the traumas that are passed down to us through our families–generational trauma, or as some in the spiritual community refer to it, ancestral karma, generational karma, generational/ancestral curses: sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, psychological abuse, narcissistic abuse, mother wounds, father wounds, etc. These are the traumas that when viewed from the outside, we can mostly agree are problems, but they are difficult for us to recognize in ourselves. Particularly in cases of emotional and narcissistic abuse, most of us never had another familial experience to compare it to, so we assumed our parents behavior was normal, and thus, never recognized the abuse, and because we never recognized the abuse, we never dealt with it.
Throughout our lives, as we are bombarded with all manner of abuses and exposed to innumerable traumas great and small, we learn strategies to survive and feel safe. Many of the coping mechanisms which we develop to keep ourselves safe in these toxic situations in our formative years prevent us from having healthy relationships and healthy lives in adulthood. In the case of societal abuses, we are being re-traumatized every time we experience one.
For many of us, this initial traumatic “programming” as you could call it, makes us more susceptible to abuse and trauma later in life, because it instills subconscious fear-based beliefs about ourselves and the world around us.
All of these coping mechanisms–and the emotional scars that they are trying protect us from re-experiencing–are lodged deep in our subconscious psyche: our shadow.
In Jungian psychology, the shadow or “shadow aspect” may refer to:
(1) an unconscious aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not identify in itself. Because one tends to reject or remain ignorant of the least desirable aspects of one’s personality, the shadow is largely negative, or…
(2) the entirety of the unconscious, i.e., everything of which a person is not fully conscious. There are, however, positive aspects which may also remain hidden in one’s shadow (especially in people with low self-esteem).
The shadow is where all of our unconscious habits, patterns, addictions, subconscious beliefs, and traumas lie. It’s the emotional bruises we’ve sustained that are so painful, we tucked them away and never looked at them. And when we haven’t dealt with those emotional scars, they bubble up from within the shadow as depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, rage, narcissism, abusive behavior, projection, dissociation, an inability to form secure attachments and healthy relationships, addiction, codependency, and so on and so forth.
A lot of people never make the connection between being abused and developing mental illness.
These are all trauma responses or destructive coping mechanisms we created to help us deal with (or not deal with) our emotions. This is the shadow made manifest, and what many spiritual people label as the ego.
(Note: What most spiritual people label as the ego is not the same as the definition of the ego in psychology, which is defined as the totality of our conscious self, or our identity. Thus, our ego–or identity–can never be truly killed or destroyed, merely transformed. To have no ego would be to cease being human.)
Furthermore, when it comes to relationships, that subconscious programming in our minds (and souls) continuously attracts us to similar behavioral patterns, emotions, and energy throughout the rest of our lives because we’ve learned that this is what love looks like and it becomes what we’re attracted to in others. Because we’ve also normalized abusive behavior, we don’t have healthy boundaries and can’t identify red flags. That looks like experiencing repeating patterns of the same relationship issues no matter who you’re with, the same toxic work environments no matter where you go, and meeting the same kind of toxic people over and over (some might call this the Law of Attraction). The incidents mirror or recreate the original trauma, but they also present an opportunity for that trauma to be processed and healed.
READ: Your fear, anxiety, depression, and other self-sabotaging beliefs and behaviors are caused by unhealed trauma, and that trauma, when allowed to run rampant in society over generations, has created the world we live in.
When we create beliefs around these trauma responses and coping mechanisms, and then create social norms, and governing policies around those beliefs, we then manifest that shadow into the world around us.
“Trauma decontextualized in a person looks like personality. Trauma decontextualized in a family looks like family traits. Trauma decontexualized in a society looks like culture.” –Resmaa Menakem, trauma expert
You’ll find a lot of spiritual teachings that discuss acknowledging the shadow self and and learning to acknowledge it and integrate it. Through this process of acknowledgement, we recognize our traumas and the behavioral patterns that have resulted from them. Through that acknowledgement and the subsequent practices of reclaiming our power away from that trauma, we integrate it. When we acknowledge that all of our emotions are okay, even the negative ones, we integrate pieces of our shadow, and recognize ourselves as a whole person again. As we heal, we step into our power, and into alignment with our higher self and our higher purpose. We “ascend.”
It’s also important to note, once again, that the shadow isn’t only negative. It also includes positive aspects of yourself that you aren’t able to consciously see because of all of the beliefs we’ve created around our abuse and trauma. For example, someone who has been emotionally abused may believe that they aren’t worthy of love. Their inherent worthiness and goodness is trapped in their psychological shadow, where they can’t consciously access it. Only through shadow work can they excavate their self-worth–usually by sifting through some of the heavier emotions around traumatic experiences that it’s buried under and working to release them.
Shadow work isn’t only a mental and emotional exercise. Trauma is what creates emotional blockages in our energy bodies and our physical bodies, and that stagnant energy contributes to our inability to process the trauma and keeps us stuck in our repeating patterns. Utilizing various types of energy work like reiki, crystal healing, acupuncture, or physical movement therapies like somatic therapy, yoga, and dance can help re-align the emotional and physical bodies with the mind, and shake loose stagnant energy that can then be processed through more traditional types of therapy like cognitive behavioral therapy, trauma-informed talk therapy, etc.
Our shadow is not something to be destroyed, it’s something to be explored. Through that exploration, we discover ourselves, and by discovering ourselves, we are able to become more conscious of who we are, and live with more awareness, both of ourselves, and how we contribute to the co-creation of the world around us.
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Look up the meanings behind commonly used spiritual terminology and concepts in the Spirituality Encyclopedia.