Beware Your Shadow

The lyrics from a song by Imagine Dragons called out an eerie message from my iPod today, “It’s where my demons hide … don’t get too close.” This modern Indie tune was delving into an ancient mystery. Theologians, philosophers, poets, psychoanalysts, and biblical writers have long wrestled with the subject of humanity’s dark side.

While my blog is dedicated to advancing ideas for staying well and living a life of beauty, it is illuminating to have an honest exploration of the darker corners of human nature – for this may be the central paradox of man.

On this earth, we are not guaranteed a glowing, giddy Guideposts experience. Life is rarely like that. The old Sunday school song, “I’m in-right, out-right, upright, down-right happy all the time” never rang true. The world is filled with inexplicable pain and hardship. But even so, the prospect of transcending it remains. This truth led the biblical writer to proclaim “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.”

This is the case not only societally, but in the heart of every person. We all have a shadow. And the more we hide it or deny it, the greater its counter-force on the part of ourselves we want to believe is “the real me.” The energy we spend repressing the shadow causes the pressure to build, threatening to blow the lid off of our idealized self-image and public persona.

An individual’s shadow side can also have a caustic impact on intimate relationships, especially marriage. In the early stage, when a couple is newly in love, they tend to only show their best self; the shadow is hidden, and the thrill of budding love makes the partner blind to the lurking shadow as well. Reflect on your own relationships and I think you will agree.

Doug and Naomi Moseley are therapists (married to each other) who wrote a fascinating book entitled The Shadow Side of Intimate Relationships.  The book suggests that our “shadow side” is made up of sub-personalities or inner characters. These characters often have a voice, feelings, urges, and thoughts that are incongruent with the way we perceive ourselves. The Moseley’s, with a decidedly Jungian bent, provide many illustrations. For example, often a man can be overall, especially on the surface, a “good boy.” He is sensitive, caring and loving. However, he may have a hidden shadow side that is steely and judgmental, with a callous disregard for others – one who would gladly subjugate everyone in sight.

Another classic example of a sub-personality presented by the Moseley’s is the “emotional child” – that part of the self that refuses to grow up emotionally. We all have this to some degree. The attitudes, expectations, fears, and coping strategies of a child still exist, yet we refuse to admit it, even, and especially when, another person points it out to us. When the emotional child takes over we withdraw, withhold, lack boundaries, control, become egocentric, put up walls and defenses, fail to fulfill commitments, and engage in power struggles. These are all childlike behaviors. Marital discord results when both partners operate from their emotional child and refuse to become aware of or change these destructive patterns. Intimacy becomes impossible; the relationship stagnates, and divorce is often the final result. Without deeper work, subsequent relationships are destined to produce the same outcome.

Shadow side aspects, when denied and repressed, get covered over or disguised in favor of masks – designed to present a more acceptable self. But behind the mask, we lack full awareness of who we are or what we feel; it is a false existence. For example, we pretend that we don’t have petty jealousies, self-centered motives, or vengeful fantasies. We buy into the grand self-deception that our weaknesses don’t exist. The control and stamina needed to keep the mask in place, always on guard to hide the parts we don’t want to show, can leave us numb and without genuineness, vitality, or passion.

Facing up to the reality of my shadow was critical for me in becoming the person I am today. In the aftermath of my depression eleven years ago, there were many parts of myself I needed to look at honestly and change. Anger is one example – uncomfortable with expressing it, hating to contend with the conflict it was bound to stir up, and seeing it as incompatible with my nice girl persona, I stuffed it.

Depression is often described as “anger turned inward.” I discovered that I was much healthier when I let my emotions flow (even the agonizing ones) rather than clamping down on them. Now when I am mad as hell, I admit it, express it appropriately, and move on. For me, this has been an ongoing process of growth and self-discovery.

The notion of the shadow is compatible with a biblical view of human nature: namely that we are simultaneously saints and sinners, created good, but with an undeniable capacity for bad. This failure to be what we want to be, and even perceive ourselves to be, is described in Romans 7:15: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

Judeo-Christian theology argues that we are a precious but fallen humanity. Overall, we can be competent, well-developed, fine human beings, but parts of us, often the hidden parts, are highly problematic and in need of attention. Light must shine on these dark places to expose them. Only then can they be repaired.

Regardless of your religious, psychological, or philosophical orientation, I would argue that your life will be enhanced if you beware of your shadow, and look upon it with clear eyes and courage. Only then can you work on these parts and mature into a fully developed person … infinitely more capable of having satisfying intimate relationships. The process can be daunting, but in my experience, as you advance, it becomes exciting and terrifically liberating.

I believe God is our greatest source of help in this challenge. With sustained effort, we become more likely to achieve our potential, and develop the quality relationships that we desire. We are then able to fulfill our purpose, and be the creatures we were intended to be.