“The Shadow” In Personal Growth & Development and Counselling

When we talk about the Shadow, we’re referring to the part of the unconscious mind which contains all the thoughts, feelings behaviours, motivations and drivers that we were required to suppress as children so that we would be accepted in our family. 

A very common example of this are the injunctions given to little girls “not to be angry” or to little boys that they “shouldn’t cry because it’s sissy” (or the like).

Such disapproval from parents, caregivers, teachers, and siblings (as well as society’s expectations of what is “normal”) makes little girls and boys suppress either their anger or their sadness.

And as they do that, they cut off a portion of their natural human feeling and put it into their unconscious. They literally try to put a natural part of themselves out of sight, out of mind. As the great 20th century psychotherapist Carl Jung said, they put their natural self into “shadow”.

This is what we do as children, for nothing is more important to a child than keeping their family’s acceptance and approval. If you think about this for a moment, you can probably see how, right from the moment of birth, children are required to suppress certain aspects of their personality so they continue to be loved, or even simply accepted, by their family.

Video – Introduction to The Shadow

Different families have different expectations and requirements of their children, but they all convey a very clear message about what’s acceptable and what isn’t in their children. Since most children will want to keep the love of their family and maintain connection with their family, they’ll readily repress parts of themselves to fit in rather than rebelling.

Unfortunately this constant adaptation to the world around them can cause children to lose not only their natural sense of connection with themselves, but also their awareness of who they really are and what they really want in life.

Unfortunately, everything we repress – thoughts, feelings and behaviours – has its own energy. Over time this stored energy can cause many problems. Sooner or later it will find its way out, usually unhelpfully or inappropriately! This is often in the form of dramatic outbursts. Unexplained bouts of tears and sadness, or unreasonable outbursts of anger, come to mind here.

But any sense you have that you’re not fulfilling your true potential, any sense that you’re adapting to the demands of others, any sense that you can’t express the real you, is almost certainly because a part of you was repressed out of sight into shadow during childhood. And while that may have been helpful in some way during childhood, as an adult it can stop you discovering what you really want, and perhaps even finding out who you really are.

And you can probably see that children who are brought up in critical, harsh, repressive or abusive ways are even more likely to suppress their true selves. Survival and adaptation become more important that the expression of self.

I think it’s important to understand there are many ways this can happen. There are “big deals” like being adopted, taken into care, sent away to boarding school, the arrival of a new sibling, the death of a family member or pet, health issues, losses of all kinds, emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, cultural repression, and trauma of all kinds.

There are also a myriad of less obvious causes for children to adapt, to become a distorted, “out of shape” version of who they were really meant to be. Some examples which come to mind are constant low level bullying or belittling such as subtly being told or shown that they are not good enough, not lovable, or simply, straightforwardly bad, for being who they are.

Other common experiences which can have life-long consequences include being brought up in a silently disapproving atmosphere of sexual repression, religious fervour, or emotional control which conveys the message “You are only allowed to exist with my permission and so long as you are what I want.”

So it goes. The messages are different, the consequences the same: children brought up in environments which do not cater for their needs adequately may grow into adults who have lost a sense of who and what they truly are.

Video: How To Understand What Is In Shadow For You

We can put these emotional “wounds” into four main groups. There is the belief that there is something wrong with you or that you’re bad; the belief you’re not lovable or there’s something wrong with the way you love; the belief you’re simply not good enough; and the belief that you have no right to exist, or that you can only exist with somebody else’s “permission”.

But whatever a child comes to believe, consciously or unconsciously, about him or herself will continue to mould the way he or she behaves, the way he or she feels, and the way or he or she forms relationships in later life.

Sure, of course it’s sometimes necessary for children to adopt certain ways of being in the world simply to stay safe in their family of origin. And sometimes these ways of being are helpful in later life, but much more often they are not.

Some of the most common consequences in adulthood are the inability to deeply trust others, the inability to form deep relationships, the inability to stand up for yourself, and the sense of not being good enough which handicaps so many people.

In talking therapy it would be normal to discuss these issues with the therapist, and examine your feelings around them. Of course this is very useful, and it can lead to insights – but it can also be a slow process which takes time, and ultimately may not produce lasting change.

I call my personal approach “Emotional Process Work”. This is all about exploring these unconscious issues in a safe and strongly “held” way with a facilitator who can guide and support you along your own path.

This way, you’ll have many insights and gain understanding of your behaviour much more quickly than you ever imagined possible – and, more importantly, you’ll be able to change the way you are in the world into something much more helpful and authentic, something much closer to your true self.

This might mean being able to speak your mind more clearly or to stand up for yourself.

It might mean being able to open up emotionally, to show your vulnerability, to trust others.

It might be mean becoming less prone to outbursts of uncontrollable anger or unexpected bouts of crying.

It might mean opening yourself up to the joy of life and embracing a more optimistic and positive attitude.

Exploring your own shadow using Emotional Process Work in this kind of work is a transformative experience. And the great thing is, it produces results much faster than conventional talking therapy or counselling. It can be backed up by group work, which may accelerate the rate of personal growth and development.

You can read about group work for men here. Single gender groups led by facilitators of the same gender, and mixed gender groups led by a man and a woman are also available. We can discuss if it would be helpful for you to participate in a group from time to time during our one to one work. Most men and women find that when they are ready to bring their issues to a group, the pace of change accelerates dramatically.