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Our Shadow Selves

The shadow self is not evil or sinful; it is simply hidden.

The heart of the universe is pure love. God is love – unconditional, perfect, cruciform love. God is nice; God likes us. There is nothing we have ever done (or could ever do) that would convince God to stop loving us. Nothing can separate us from God’s love. The core identity with which we were created, is Beloved of God.

Motivated by love, God created us in the divine image. God designed us to be whole – each of us unique, each with our own individual gifts and personalities, each with our individual vocations and callings, and all of us in harmonious connection with each other, with nature, with ourselves, and with God. God wants us to be whole and filled with peace and love, lavished with mercy and grace.

Yet, we are none of us whole. None of us are fully connected to God, creation, others, ourselves. The wholeness with which God created us is broken in all of us. It is broken by the hurts we experience growing up. All of us carry deep wounds. Most of the time, no one meant to hurt us, but we live in broken world and we get hurt.

The wholeness is also broken by what doesn’t fit with our image of who we are. As we grow into adulthood, we naturally and necessarily develop an image – the way we see ourselves; the way others see us. One is the warm nurturer; another is the heady intellectual. In order to develop that persona, there are parts of us we relegate to the unconscious. We place them in the shadows of our minds. If our image of self is macho heterosexual, we will take effeminate and homosexual feelings and push them into the unconscious. If my persona is intellectual, I will push emotions into the shadow.

In the first few decades of our lives, we develop ego strength, which becomes our personalities. It’s who we are and who others see us as being. It includes our talents, gifts, interests, education, careers, and ways of relating to others. One person grows into the organized educator; another into the devoted stay-at-home parent; another the avant-garde journalist; still another, a wise pundit. Some of us define ourselves by our occupations; others by ethnicities; others by life-styles; still others by religiophilosophical beliefs or group membership. Gender identity is a big part of ego development.

As we develop our identities and define our individualism, we bump into things that don’t fit with the image. We instinctively push those things into our shadows – into hidden areas of our minds. If, for example, my identity is dynamic achiever, I will place the softer elements of my personality into my shadow. Things too painful to face, like child abuse, are also relegated to the shadow. All of that is both good and necessary. Most people go through life ignoring the shadow side of themselves.

Anything that doesn’t fit with our adult image goes into the shadow. Tenderness is pushed into the shadow by the person whose persona is strong and valiant. Painful things like parental neglect, forbidden things like lust or dishonesty, even positive things that were frowned upon in our families of origin, like joyful celebrations – anything we were taught that was labeled “not ok” or “doesn’t fit” gets relegated to the shadow.

A person raised to be pious and religious might not be able to tolerate the thought of being dishonest or unkind, so she stashes her tendencies to lie and judge others into her shadow. A guy who was raised to never show anger will suppress angry feelings. They become part of his shadow, kept hidden from the world. A woman who was told repeatedly that she’s worthless may stuff down messages of essential goodness and be attracted to a religious group that emphasizes sinfulness or to a partner who mistreats her.

Whatever things we push into the shadows of our personalities are still part of us, however. To be fully human and fully alive, to experience intimate fellowship with God, to be one with the divine love at the center of all, we have to connect our shadow selves with our conscious selves. Otherwise, we are half people. While building our ego identity is the task of the first part of our lives, integrating the shadow into the conscious is the primary task of our final four or five decades. Carl Jung called this our thirst for union with God. We could also call it spiritual maturity or spiritual formation – connecting with God, being all God created us to be.

The way home to ourselves, the path to full humanity, to actualization, to wholeness, to shalom, to connectedness with God, is through our shadows.

Facing the shadow can be scary. Doing so may trigger anxiety, depression, even panic. If we do not do the work of integrating the shadow, negative things may bubble up and disrupt our relationships or even our mental health. The process is of necessity long and slow. To face it all at once would be overwhelming. To be whole, the stuff in the shadow has to be integrated into the stuff in the conscious mind.

So, where to start? Here’s what’s working for me:

1. Work with a trained spiritual director – someone trained to help you see what God is doing in your life and walk with you as you go ever deeper into the divine heart. A trained spiritual director helps discern the presence of God in the things that are surfacing. Many of us find we never want to without a spiritual director, so typically, we meet with one monthly for years.

2. Lecto Divina and contemplative prayer (tons of information on the internet to help you get started). A goal of this kind of prayer is to understand and settle into our essential goodness and fundamental identity as God’s beloved. We have to be settled deeply into belovedness in order to not be threatened by the stuff in the shadow. If I know that I know that I know that God loves me unconditionally, I won’t be terrified of whatever I stuffed in the basement. A long practice of Lecto Divina and contemplative prayer establishes that sense of belovedness.

3. Work with the Enneagram. Some Christians mistakenly identify the Enneagram with the New Age Movement, but the Enneagram is a very ancient way of understanding who we are that arose among desert monks and nuns in the early centuries of Christianity, and helped them as they spread the good news of Jesus. The Enneagram Institute has a great inexpensive test to determine your number as well as some helpful information on each type. I love to use the Enneagram with my spiritual direction clients. It has given me profound insights into myself and others.

4. Paying attention to dreams. (We all dream; we just often forget them quickly.) Particularly, I try to pay attention to the feelings in the dreams. Was I feeling afraid? Trapped? At peace? It’s more the feelings than the details that are important. Those feelings are clues to what lies in the basement.

5. Paying attention to what St. Ignatius called desolations, those internal stirrings of uneasiness we get from time to time. Stopping and asking God, “What are you telling me here?” If we stop and ask God what within us is making us uneasy, the Holy Spirit can then reveal to us things in our shadows of which we were unaware.

6. When I feel perturbed or upset by things around me, it is very often because its triggering something within me – something in my shadow. It may be a call to social justice or to prayer; or, it may be triggering a feeling I have suppressed.

7. Almost always, what I dislike in others is in my own shadow. We often project the things in our shadows onto others. If I have suppressed my tendency to be unkind, I will often notice and be upset by what I perceive as unkindness in others. In fact, one of the best ways to identify the shadow-self is to pay attention to what we dislike in others. The key to discovering the shadow-self is awareness.

8. Occasionally, I discover things in my shadow that are just too much to handle, so I utilize the services of a good therapist skilled at helping me deal with depression or anxiety. I’m of the opinion that nearly everyone can benefit from on-going spiritual direction and therapy.

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