Working With Shadow


by Kevin Smith

It’s popular in our culture to think of people in terms of “strengths and weaknesses.” On evaluations of a child’s schoolwork or an employee’s performance, this phrase is often euphemized into “strengths” and “areas for improvement,” but hey, we all know what that code means, right?

Our strength and our weakness are, quite often, branches of the same tree. The two often evolve from a single aspect of our character and are more like two sides of a coin. Let me give some examples:

There is a lady who is very giving. She gives time, money, physical effort and emotional energy to organizations and people. She never stops giving; people love her because she’s so generous. However, she frequently finds herself lonely, depressed and depleted. She’s not in the greatest health and quite a bit overweight, because she never has time to exercise, and she eats on the run. While she devotes herself to the needs of others during the day, her only companionship after returning to her lonely house is with several glasses of wine each night before she falls down exhausted and begins again the next morning.

Generosity and self-neglect (a form of non-generosity to ourselves) can form a shadow pairing. In fact, excessive generosity towards others can actually stem from self-hatred, rather than love for others. The need to avoid and escape the self can take the form of obsession with the needs of others; the “shadow” part of our motivation hiding behind the popular, public side.

There is a guy who is fantastic with spreadsheets, mathematical formulas, predictive models and organization of all sorts. His office is neat as a pin, and his schedule runs like a Swiss train. In meetings, however, he will frequently blow up, ranting at how “irrational” colleagues with opposing views are being, intolerant of any perceived imperfection, ruthless with colleagues who come to meetings less prepared than he considers himself to be. He instinctively feels that people who have views different from his own have not thought things out very carefully.

This is a guy who has structure as both a strength and downfall. To be methodical and formulaic with numbers can be an asset; try doing that with people, and you’ll become quite frustrated, because people don’t behave like numbers. With people, there’ll be a different outcome every time. Rigidity and inflexibility form the shadow side of being structured and well-organized.

Sometimes it works in reverse: a weakness generates a strength. Look at the fellow in the example above in reverse, and you get a buddy of mine from west coast college days:

Friendly, warm, the stereotypical sunny California guy, he has hundreds and hundreds of friends, gets along with everyone, seriously: he rarely fights with anyone about anything.  He always has a girlfriend, or a boyfriend, or sometimes both. He can go with the flow, is open to new experiences, has tried every recreational drug there is, and enjoys every single minute of life.  He also can’t seem to hang on to a job for more than a few months, primarily because clocks are largely irrelevant to him, as are numbers in bank accounts, overdraft fees, and monthly due dates.

This dude’s glory is that he is unstructured. You would definitely want him at your party. But you might not want him as your employee, and while you might date him, you probably wouldn’t marry him. His bigger-than-life personality comes with some serious costs, and both stem from the same source.

If you’re familiar with the phrase “wounded healer,” or the saying “we are attracted to teach those things we most need to learn,” or the axiom “the thing that bugs you in your neighbor is the thing you most hate about yourself,” these are all phrases which explore the idea of shadow, a relationship between our public and private, conscious and unconscious, or acceptable and unacceptable selves.

Shadow grows stronger when we’re only willing to experience half of what we’re feeling–the positive half (“I care about others!”) If we’re willing to explore both halves of what we feel (“I’m giving so much to others and I feel so empty and lonely!”) then we start to be able to work with a unified whole, rather than extremes of light and dark. That has lots of benefits, because if we become aware of the whole, we can make better choices. In the case of generosity, we can choose to give some time to an organization, or we can choose to take ourselves to the gym or spend the evening with a book. We stop being driven compulsively  by one half of ourselves, and care for our whole being.

Conscious engagement with shadow is a form of working with attraction and aversion.  Shadow is intensified when we get very attracted to one aspect of our experience (“I’m popular with people!”) and very averse to another (“I can’t bear to feel how lonely i am!”And if we really try to put distance between those two sides of the coin, the extremes can become pathological.

Here’s an example: the famous and frequent case of the preacher who is pounding the pulpit on Sunday, railing against the sexual immorality of others, who then gets caught two weeks later in a dark parking lot with a 19 year old boy in the back seat of a car.

In this case, the part of his experience the preacher is willing to embrace (“I have a deep desire to know God”) versus the part he isn’t willing to accept (“I’m attracted to men”) becomes his downfall because he puts one on stage and keeps the other completely hidden, generating a bright light with an enormous shadow. Were he to carry himself through life whole: “I have a deep desire to know God and I’m attracted to men” he’d make much less misery for himself and for others. He would be able to make better choices, to move more easily and fluidly. And, not insignificantly, he’d be able to meet some of the millions and millions of other men who have a deep desire to know God, and love men.

He’d have to be willing to lose both a little strength and a little weakness. He could no longer be bigger than life, but neither would he be completely humiliated. He’d be just a person, like we all are. Engaging the shadow often means letting go of our super-heroic selves, allowing ourselves to be “just people,” so that we can embrace the less attractive, wounded or needy parts of ourselves as well as the popular ones.

Invite your shadow side out on a date. What’s the strongest part of your personality, your greatest gift? Where are you “bigger than life?” What’s your biggest weakness? And what’s the connection between the two–in what way are they part of the same tree? Try taking the part of yourself that you’re most proud of, and the part you’re a bit embarrassed about, and try gently carrying them together, as a whole, being equally aware of both, breathing into that discomfort and engaging that edge.  Over time, you’ll find you have more options, choices, and experience an easier, more fluid, more comfortable way of moving through life if you don’t keep leaving half of yourself behind or stowing it out of view.

For ideas on how to work with, and engage, your shadow, you might check out this page, or this more scholarly article, or work with a mentor, teacher or therapist. But start by asking your shadow out on a date, because you’ll find each other interesting companions.