How to embrace your shadow self and live a more balanced life

We all know that positivity and kind thoughts are the key to our wellbeing, but getting in touch with our dark side can help us to find a sense of balance

Shadow self illustration

At the start of this year, I had a bit of a moment. I was in the self-help section of a well-known bookstore, browsing through the pile of the latest ‘New Year, New You’ offerings. As I gazed at the brightly coloured covers encouraging me to feel happier and be less stressed, rather than feeling motivated and uplifted, I just felt rather… angry. I wasn’t in the mood for finding joy, or my inner peace, or being mindful. If I’m being perfectly honest, what I really wanted to do was up-end the whole table, shout “Sod this for a lark!” and storm out. Which clearly isn’t sociably acceptable behaviour for a grown woman of 42. It wasn’t the books’ fault, well meaning as they were, or the people who wrote them. So why did they have such an adverse affect on me?

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We live now in a pro-positive culture that encourages us to practise kindness, feel gratitude and follow our dreams. Go through any Instagram feed and you’ll find an inspirational quote from Rumi or Gandhi, or some other sunny social media sound bite, usually accompanied by a nice picture of a flower, or a beach, or a heavenly looking sunset. The mind, body and soul market is still booming, especially in the UK. In a world of Brexit, Trump, uncertain economic times and a planet in crisis, you can totally understand the desire – and need – to look for the good.

But as much as we strive for this harmonious way of living, we are also human. We have days when the whole world annoys us. We secretly judge our friends. We get stressed but struggle to talk about it, lest we blow that cover of hard-won serenity. Unfortunately, these very normal feelings can get buried under all the relentlessly chipper vibes being put out there and it can actually make us feel worse about ourselves: ‘Why can’t I feel the love towards him/her? I’m such a bad person!’ In the pursuit of our Higher Selves, there’s a danger we’re not being our Authentic Selves. What would people think if they saw what we were really like?

The concept of a shadow self was first coined by the famous Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung. The shadow, Jung surmised, was the ‘taboo’ aspects of our personality that we choose to repress and bury deep in our psyche. Dr Claudia Herbert is a Chartered Consultant Clinical Psychologist at The Oxford Development Centre, which specialises in Depth Psychology exploring our subtle unconscious, and Transpersonal Psychology, which draws on the work of Jung. “As humans, we have both the light side and the darker shadow,” Claudia says. “If we just focus on the positive at the expense of denying those parts of us that might feel angry, spiteful or envious, then the positive isn’t going to work.” No matter how many mantras, blogs or books that tell you otherwise. “To be told to be happy doesn’t make you happy,” says Claudia. “You’re happy or you’re not. Happiness is an internal condition, not something you can switch on and off.”

That’s very reassuring to hear. For women especially, anger is something we’ve been brought up to not show. For example: ‘Nice girls don’t make a fuss,’ or when we get older: ‘You’re being hysterical.’ This can have an adverse effect on us in adult life. “If we can’t share those sides, they basically become what we call un-integrated,” says Claudia. “Then they come out during times when we really don’t mean them to come out.” (White wine rage, anyone?). But of course, owning your shadow isn’t the opportunity to start acting like a total diva. “Obviously, it’s not very healthy to live out those shadow sides in the sense that we’d hurt somebody else, but it’s very important that we find a way of owning and acknowledging these parts,” says Claudia. “If we can accept ourselves, both our positive side and our shadow side, that is the way we can find peace with ourselves. We become whole.”

Shadow self illustration
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Can anger be good for us?

Indeed, anger can be an energising thing. Look at the countless good causes and movements in history and around the world, motivated by people united to act against something. Anger can spur you into action to make changes, big or small. “Anger can be a mobiliser,” agrees Claudia. “But you need to know that this is anger and it’s OK to feel this, rather than, ‘Oh no, this is terrible and I’m a bad person.’”

So how do you do it in a constructive, rather than destructive way? “You can try to breathe into it and just stay with it,” says Claudia. “What usually happens is that it fades a bit and it might turn into a bit of sadness and that’s OK, it’s OK to have a cry.” Hmm, what if we still want to throw things? “Do something with your anger,” advises Claudia. “Go for a run, channel it into something you really want to do, write it down, or say to someone, ‘I’m just furious, can I talk it through with you?’ What’s really important is that you own it without acting it out.”

Facing the deepest, darkest parts of yourself can still feel really scary, and if it seems too strong or overwhelming, it may be worth going to see a professional. Claudia explains: “For some of us, it might relate back to situations in childhood where we felt out of control or powerless, or we didn’t get what we needed and we’ve suppressed all these emotions. In those cases it can be very useful to go and talk to somebody and work it through in a safe and constructive way that can help us heal.”

So rather than feeling scared or ashamed of your shadow, try to see it as a positive (that word again!). It can contain a whole spectrum of parts that we’ve denied for some reason, from grief to hidden strength to creativity. What they all have in common is that they are all completely normal.

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“Our shadow parts are a great signalling system,” says Claudia. “Generally, these emotions are here to help us, to show us what is good for us and what isn’t so good for us. I think it’s really important that we learn to listen to them. That’s where our healing lies.”

This article was first published in In The Moment Magazine issue 12. Discover our latest subscription offers or order a back issue.