The essential nature of the universe is the coexistence of opposites. We cannot be heroes if we don’t also have a coward inside of us. We cannot be generous if we don’t also possess an inner miser. We cannot be virtuous if we don’t have the capacity for evil. Yet most of us have been conditioned to deny or push away all of the feelings, memories, and experiences that cause us discomfort or pain. The renowned Swiss psychologist Carl Jung believed that part of us creates a fog of illusion in order to keep life from becoming too painful. He was the first to use “the shadow” as a clinical term, but here I want to speak in general of those hidden places where we repress things that fill us with guilt, shame, or fear.
When we wall off the painful parts of our past, they seek recognition and reintegration by erupting as self sabotaging thoughts and behavior and even exaggerated dark dreams. The shadow taps out messages in the dark, and repressed feelings rise up like ghosts. We may feel anxious as repressed feelings try to come to the surface. We also may end up projecting these denied qualities onto other people. Have you ever known people who continually attract the “wrong people” into their lives? In reality, they are not attracting that darkness, but they are not willing to acknowledge it in their own lives. This is unfortunate because the shadow also comes with a gift: an opportunity to expand our personal awareness and experience our wholeness. If we want to find our true self, we must dive into the shadow, recover the parts of ourselves that we have split off, and embrace the paradox of the coexistence of opposites. With loving attention, we can heal our past and harness the power of our fully illumined self. How do we do this? I have found the following steps useful.
Become aware of your shadow energies
You can learn how to feel your way into the shadow. Here are some of the major signs that shadow energies are present:
You feel unexpectedly angry or anxious.
You feel out of control.
You find yourself bursting into tears for no apparent reason.
You feel a flash of dread or panic.
You attack someone without provocation.
A reasonable disagreement turns into a major dispute.
You can’t talk about your feelings.
You feel numb or blank in a situation that would normally call for strong emotions.
You have an irrational dislike for someone.
There are countless other ways in which the shadow comes into play in everyday situations, but these are among the most common. The shadow has grown used to being repressed and exists beyond the level of conscious awareness. To access this hidden realm, you need to be dedicated to a journey of descent. The shadow isn’t a region of thoughts, words, and rational thoughts but exists at the level of intense feelings. Think of this journey as going back to retrieve parts of your life that have been abandoned because you felt guilty or ashamed about them.
Note: If your past contains violent or deeply traumatic events, please seek out a qualified therapist or counselor to accompany you on this journey.
Tune into your feelings
There are two main antidotes to repression: openness and honesty. If you stay open to all of your feelings and not just the nice ones, you won’t have to repress anything. You won’t uselessly expend energy trying to push feelings out of your awareness. If you are honest, you can identify your feelings, no matter how unwelcome they are. Nobody is perfect at this and it’s important to be patient with yourself. It can help to remember that feelings are so named because we feel them in our bodies. Your mind may be an expert at hiding from itself and denying feelings, but the body can’t fool itself. It has no access to denial. When your body registers an emotion, there is an accompanying physical sensation. For example, fear is registered by a tight stomach, cramps, coldness, blood rushing from the head, dizziness, and tightness in the chest. The physical sensations of anger include warmth and flushed skin, tense muscles, a clamped jaw, irregular or quick breathing, an accelerated heartbeat, and pounding in the ears.
Although these signals are unmistakable, the mind can ignore them anyway. Consider how often people will say, “I’m fine, nothing is wrong,” when their body is blatantly contradicting their words. You can begin to dispel the shadow and build trust by recognizing the signature of difficult emotions. Every feeling has an important message, and when we let ourselves feel them and flow through us rather than shoving them away, we can begin to experience greater emotional wellbeing. Here are a few of the most common emotions how they feel in our body and mind:
Humiliation is similar to fear in that your body feels weak, but in this case it isn’t cold. Your skin feels warm and your cheeks may redden. You may hunch or shrink and feel smaller.
Frustration is like anger but is more bottled up. It may feel like your body wants to lash out but can’t find the switch. Your movements may become rigid. Sometimes frustration is anger combined with denial. In this case, you will experience signs of denial, such as quick, dismissive speech, shrugging, averted eyes, and tightened jaw muscles and labored breathing.
Guilt is a restless feeling. You may feel confined or suffocated with an overwhelming desire to escape. It might feel difficult to breathe, and your chest may feel tight or pressured.
Shame is another heated feeling, accompanied by warm skin and flushed cheeks. However, there is also a sense of inner numbness that can paradoxically feel cold or empty. Shame is related to guilt, but it feels more like a dead weight while guilt feels like a beast that wants to explode out of you.
Anxiety is chronic fear. You may not feel the acute signs of fear because you have become accustomed to them and your body has adapted. Since the body can’t completely adapt, the fear may manifest as numbness, tuning out, irritability, and sleeplessness. The body may also feel listless or restless.
Depression feels cold and heavy. The body is lethargic and lacking in energy. Depression can last for months and even years, and your body may build up its own unique defenses. For instance, while depression typically expresses itself as fatigue, you may be a highly driven person who forces yourself to keep going despite the depression. Depressed people may feel cold much of the time. The body may move slowly, rigidly, or hesitantly, reflecting the condition of depression.
Jealousy is a complex emotion that can contain elements of fear, humiliation, and anger. The experience of jealousy in the body will therefore vary a bit from individual to individual. You may feel the coldness, tight stomach, and pressure in your chest associated with fear . . .or you may feel the heated sensations that come with anger and humiliation. When you find yourself clearly envying someone’s life, accomplishments, relationships, or possessions, pay attention to how your body feels and you will have a baseline for what jealousy feels like when you have a more subtle experience of this emotion.
Hostility is like anger but requires no trigger to set it off. Instead, the body is constantly simmering, alert for the slightest excuse for full-blown rage. The body feels tight, tense, and ready for action.
Arrogance is disguised anger that is buried so deep that normally warm emotions turn cold. Arrogant people are so bottled up and in control that they don’t explode; they instead deliver a measured dose of cold fury, marked by a cold stare, clenched jaws, and rigid facial expressions.
Make peace with your feelings
Once you are in touch with your feelings acknowledge them. Don’t attack them, bemoan them, attempt to change them, or even try to feel “fine” about your unwanted feelings. All of these strategies reinforce denial of your authentic inner life. Feelings have feelings, and they know when they are unwanted and will cooperate by going underground. Fear cooperates by trying to hide. Anger cooperates by pretending it doesn’t exist. It’s impossible to accept an unwanted feeling, and until you simply allow and acknowledge a feeling, it will persist. That is all you need to do. Tell your feeling, “I see you. You belong to me.”
While emotions are commonly categorized as “positive” or “negative,” in reality every emotion is valid in some way or another. But when you add self-judgment, any emotion can be damaging. Instead, begin to cultivate sympathy for whatever emotion arises in your experience. Instead of heaping judgment on yourself for what you are feeling, see if you can offer yourself compassion. Experience the feeling and follow where it wants to go. Have the intention to be present, centered, and self-aware.
As you practice acknowledging your feelings, they will start to feel less unwanted and then they will begin to tell you their story. Every feeling contains a story: “I am this way for a reason.” Be receptive to the story that emerges, no matter what it is. Most painful stories of guilt, shame, resentment, inferiority, and other primal emotions are rooted in childhood. Imagine the small child that you were and, as best you can, be gentle and accepting. Remind yourself that you had a valid reason for denying or rejecting a feeling or aspect of yourself. Doing so will take the judgment out of your emotions and give yourself permission to be who you are.
There are two main antidotes to repression: openness and honesty. If you stay open to all of your feelings and not just the nice ones, you won’t have to repress anything.
Withdraw your projections
Projection occurs when we attach a quality, belief, motive, or feeling that we have disowned in ourselves onto another person. For example, to avoid feeling that we’re not good enough, we judge others as inadequate. Frequently, we are unaware that we are projecting and are unaware that the very trait we are projecting is our own. A man who thinks that his boss secretly hates him may actually be projecting his own hidden rage against authority. Or a woman who is feeling tempted to have an extramarital affair may project her desires onto her husband and become obsessed with the idea that he is being unfaithful. At one point or another, we have all used projection as an unconscious defense to avoid looking inward.
The moment that you realize you may be projecting a hidden feeling, tune into what that feeling is. Don’t delay because the opportunity will quickly evaporate. Just before you deploy your defense, you actually feel that which you don’t want to feel. Ask yourself: What am I feeling right now? and notice the sensations in your body.
When you move through the process of feeling and letting go of projections, you will have a sense of release afterward, coupled with an understanding of what the feeling meant. When shadow energy truly leaves, there is no more resistance, and you will see something you didn’t realize before. Insight and release go hand in hand.
The journey of descent consists of encountering your shadow many, many times. Emotions that are as intense and long-held as shame and guilt give themselves up only a bit at a time. Be gentle with yourself, and no matter how little you think you’ve released, say to yourself: That is all the energy that was willing to be let go of right now and that is perfectly fine.
As you practice these steps, be aware that even the most confident, well-adjusted people will reflexively diminish the significance of their shadow side. This is instinctive self preservation, because it’s hard to accept that we can have this dark matter in us when we have worked our whole life to build a personality around the ideals of love, compassion, and generosity. Nevertheless, when you can look at this material and accept it as part of you, knowing that it is not your true essence, you begin a deep healing of self forgiveness and re-integration. Those painful areas that have been holding anger, resentment, and self-judgment no longer have to be shut away in the basement and can now be healed and brought into harmony with your soul. You will also notice that as the contents of the shadow become fully transparent to the light, you will free up all that energy in you that was locked up in your civil war, and it will now be available for more creative expressions and for a fuller appreciation of life.
Deepak Chopra, MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation, a non-profit entity for research on well-being and humanitarianism, and Chopra Global, a modern-day health company at the intersection of science and spirituality, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation. Chopra is a Clinical Professor of Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of California, San Diego and serves as a senior scientist with the Gallup Organization. chopra.com