Our mental life contains more layers than meets the eye. Most of us believe that our conscious thoughts, feelings, and motivation are what guide our behaviour. And this is true! However, there is a caveat. We all possess a conscious AND unconscious mind.
Our conscious mind is made up of thoughts, feelings, and memories that we are aware of. This includes the things that lie just below our moment-to-moment awareness, but can easily be retrieved and drawn into conscious awareness
Our unconscious (or subconscious) mind is where feelings, thoughts, urges, and fantasies that are OUTSIDE of our conscious awareness reside
What is happening outside our awareness can influence our thoughts, feelings, motivations, and how we feel about and behave towards other people.
Psychologists have been interested in the subconscious mind for centuries. If you are familiar with Sigmund Freud, you may know that he viewed the unconscious as the primary guiding influence in our lives. While modern research has not supported all of Freud's claims, we know from cognitive science and social psychology that the parts of ourselves that exist outside of our direct awareness exert their influence on us every day.
Think about this: Can you account for all the influences behind your judgements, decisions, feelings, and thoughts about yourself and others?
None of us can.
This brings us to a very interesting concept: What we cannot CONSCIOUSLY account for, we may find in our shadow self.
Let's dive right into what I believe is one of the most interesting self-awareness concepts in therapy!
Living In Your Own Shadow
The concept of a shadow self emerged from a psychologist named Carl Jung.
Shadow Self: The desires, impulses, instincts, emotions, weaknesses, and perversions we have pushes down, or repressed. These are hidden from our conscious awareness. The elements of our shadow self often represent the parts of ourselves are we denying, rejecting, or that society will not approve of
All those aspects of our repressed selves form our shadow self.
Some like to refer to this as our 'dark side'. However, the shadow self is not morally good or evil. It is simply what we do not allow to surface. A shadow self is also NOT an alternate personality. It is not tangible and exists as an archetype.
The Shadow Self In Action
Most of us distance ourselves from thoughts, behaviours, and urges we consider dangerous or incompatible with our values. It is easier to deny something we don't like than confront it. What we reject, or deny (knowingly or unknowingly) form the aspects of our shadow selves.
Here are a few examples of what our shadow selves might be holding:
- Sexual desires or attraction that is unacceptable (or unrealistic)
- Experiences and desires that make us feel shame
- Experiences and desires that make us feel guilty
- Aggressive impulses
- Irrational wishes
Strong emotions such as shame, guilt, disgust, and jealously often fuel our shadow selves.
Recognizing Our Shadow Selves
While we may find it uncomfortable to acknowledge our shadow self (or deny it entirely), it is influencing our behaviour in ways that are not obvious.
For example, have you ever found yourself judging someone harshly? Or being overly critical of your friend's lifestyle choices?
In these situations, most likely the hidden desires, feelings, and urges of your shadow self are making themselves known.
Here are some examples of our shadow self fuelling thoughts and behaviours.
1. Judging/Criticizing Harshly
Often, we are judgemental and critical towards others because we secretly either want those things for ourselves or wish we had the courage or resources to go after them. These are relatable examples:
Your friend quit her job and is planning a 6-month long solo travel trip. You know she has a lot of debt and you completely disapprove of her choice. The reasons you cite are 1) this is the real world, we can't just do whatever we want to do whenever we want to do it and 2) leaving your responsibilities to others is selfish
You have always subscribed to a modest way of dressing. This is a choice that you find fulfilling and you have no plans of changing it. However, you find it difficult not to judge people who dress in more revealing clothing, or wear whatever they want. You notice the way the world treats them and can't help but compare this to the way you are treated for dressing modestly.
In both these scenarios, the shadow self is making itself known. In the first scenario, it's possible this person wishes they had the courage and ability to drop everything and travel the world. Or perhaps to do something without worrying so much about what others think.
In the second scenario, the person may have a fantasy that lives within their shadow self where they do not dress as modestly and do not have to constantly explain their lifestyle choice. However, in reality, this does not align with their values and conscious desires. It is easier to judge others who are openly living this fantasy.
2. Biases and Prejudices
Our shadow selves often contain biases and prejudices we don't want to acknowledge and deal with because they go against our notion of a good person.
Instead of dealing with the deep discomfort of knowing we carry biases, it feels easier to pretend we are innocent of them entirely.
This partially explains why some people react so strongly and defensively when they are called out or asked to explain themselves- it's easier (yet more destructive) to push the prejudice down into the shadow self than bring it into the light where it can change.
3. Playing The Victim
Taking accountability for our actions means acknowledging the painful and imperfect parts of ourselves. People who have a tendency to avoid taking responsibility for their actions may end up playing victim in every situation.
In this case, the guilt and shame living in their shadow self may my preventing them from accepting their wrongdoing.
The concept of shadow selves is an extremely interesting and liberating one. When we acknowledge our shadows and lovingly bring them out into the light, they have less power and influence over us.
Having said that, unpacking your shadow self can also be a triggering experience. If we are denying or suppressing parts of our existence, more often than not, there is trauma involved. Trauma responses can be confusing and overwhelming when we don't have the tools and support to manage them.
So go gently, and with a therapist if you can.
I want to hear from you: Do you want to know more about shadow work? Leave me a comment below and it just might inspire a future blog post!
Until next time!
Mental Health Content Specialist