Finding the gift in your ‘shadow selves’
Do you sometimes feel exhausted? As though you’re not ok in some way? Beating yourself up for being too much or too little? Feeling that if you show up as your ‘real’ self, you’ll be shamed or ridiculed for it?
Feeling like this can lead us to suppress key parts of ourselves. It takes a lot of energy and can be exhausting to hold down parts of ourselves, to keep focused on being perfect, acceptable, ok to be seen in polite society.
I wrote recently about showing up as our whole selves at work, and helping others to do that too (you can read that article here). If we want to show up as our whole selves, that also means allowing our so-called ‘shadow selves’ to come to the fore, to be seen and accepted.
We need to recognise that even though we keep them in the shadows, these selves are valuable too, they have something for us, and are an important part of what it means to be a whole, healthy human being.
What we call our shadow selves are all the parts we don’t want to admit to having — parts that represent things like lack of confidence, anger, weakness, jealousy, addiction… Essentially, all the parts our social conditioning has told us are ‘unacceptable’. We internalise those messages as children and grow up hiding parts of ourselves, feeling shame about them.
What if we removed the ‘shadow’ naming and instead saw ourselves as being made up of many different parts, all valuable, and each with a gift for us?
If can connect to all our different parts, to understand what they need, what’s driving them, we can gain greater insight into our behaviours, our thinking, our mindset, and start to get a clearer picture of why we sometimes act in ways that don’t feel in integrity with person we really want to be.
Digging under the surface
Part of my coaching work involves digging under the surface with clients. When we start to explore what’s holding them back, we have to start looking at what’s going on beneath the face they show to the world every day. That’s when those hidden, perhaps shamed, parts can start to show up.
I do this using a process called Voice Dialogue. It’s amazing. A gentle process of talking to the different selves to get an understanding of their perspective and what’s important to them.
Once we do that, we can start to integrate the message they have for us, and gain all sorts of insights, for example, why:
- We seem unable to follow through on actions we have decided on
- We feel uncomfortable in certain situations
- We lack the confidence to pursue our goals or show up in particular situations
- We hijack our own progress through self-sabotage
- We crumble or freeze when faced with particular situations or challenging colleagues
- We can’t say ‘No’ to others and hold boundaries that are important to us
Here’s a couple of examples to show how it works.
Client 1 Example
This client found herself unable to stop talking in meetings, talking over others and constantly pushing her own agenda. She’d received feedback that she was too pushy, too ambitious and had no consideration for others.
She was a confident high achiever, but also someone with a high need to be seen and recognised for her achievements. She saw speaking up as an important way to maintain her high social status and be seen to be competent and assertive.
When we started digging, what we found underneath was a Self that was actually rather lacking in confidence. It was pushing her to keep talking, even when it was inappropriate, because it feared missing out. It was afraid that everyone else was better than her, that she would never be able to keep up, so it pushed her to keep showcasing her own achievements so that the fear of missing out or falling behind never came true.
This stopped her from relaxing in meetings. Stopped her being able to go into those meetings confident that she would get the opportunities she wanted, and that she would be seen and recognised for the value she was bringing to the business.
Once we’d understood the fears of this Unconfident Self, we could address them.
We did this in a few ways:
- Firstly, by building a resource that she could draw on to show where her real skills and strengths lay, so she didn’t need to push herself forward at every opportunity but could focus on those areas where she had most to give
- We also practiced some embodied strategies to help her slow down, take a breath and give others time to speak as well
- Finally, we worked on her listening skills so that she could shift from ‘listening to speak’ to ‘listening to understand’. By doing this she was able to connect more deeply with her colleagues and what they needed, as well as to add real value to meetings by increasing her capacity to create powerful links between her colleagues’ ideas and her own, which helped to shape the discussion, and drive action and accountability
The outcome of our work was in the client recognising that the gift of her shadow self was to take the time to feel into her real strengths and skills; grow her confidence and ability to connect by learning to listen more effectively; and to bring a stronger focus on those areas where she could truly achieve brilliance (adding to the power of her personal brand) rather than spreading herself too thinly across many areas with the result of diluting her effectiveness.
Client 2 Example
This client noticed she regularly ‘fell out’ with her colleagues. She knew it was damaging her workplace relationships but struggled to understand why she kept getting caught up in conflict, and couldn’t see a way forward.
As we reflected on her situation, my client said the reason she fell out with her colleagues was because she had higher standards than them. She wanted them to do better so she was constantly pushing them, but she could see she was doing it in a way that made people feel bad about themselves, or which felt like she was ‘picking’ at them so they reacted negatively.
When we dug underneath, we discovered she actually had an addiction to drama. Her home life as a child had been quite volatile and this is what felt normal to her, to have drama and excitement all around her, even if that came through arguments and conflict. The conflicts actually satisfied her need for attention. Even if it was negative attention, she was still getting a reaction.
Once we had an understanding of the part that enjoyed the drama, that saw drama as a way of getting attention, then we were able to tackle it. The gift of her shadow self was to recognise that she was not getting enough of her basic needs as a human met, the needs for Connection and Affection and then we could define some ways in which she could get those needs met without creating a conflict with her colleagues.
- We practiced some state management techniques to help her feel calmer, to notice what was going on, and to take a deep breath before speaking to one of her colleagues about something negative
- We also looked at ways in which she could ‘pick her battles’. Which were the ones worth fighting and which were the ones that she was diving in to just to get some sort of reaction
- Finally, we created an action plan to engage with her colleagues differently, so that she could still get the sense of connection with them that she needed, but in a way that grew collaboration, kindness and friendship
Reframing our shadow selves as ‘selves in the shadow’
When we reframe our ‘shadow selves’ as ‘selves in the shadow’ we remove the negative emphasis and can start to embrace their gifts.
It’s also important to recognise that we can hold ‘positive’ parts in the shadow as well as ‘negative’. Sometimes known as our ‘Golden Shadow, these are the parts we don’t want to show because we believe they’re so powerful they might draw too much attention, or even envy from others. The parts that might make us so successful that we cannot bear to even think about them in case we get overwhelmed.
If you’d like to find out more, there’s a free ‘Getting to know your Primary Selves’ worksheet you can download on my website here.
Originally published at https://www.schoolforwellbeing.com on March 2, 2022.