Self Worth and Shame
Most of us embark on the journey of personal growth and empowerment because at some point in our life, the burden of our pain becomes too much to endure. One of the great problems in the world is also one of the most invisible, because – by its very nature – it asks to be hidden and drains our ability to detect its symptoms. Few things so undermine human well-being as the sickness of shame. We are born emotionally whole, with an intact measure of self worth but that wholeness is short-lived because we are also born to depend on our parents or caretakers, to socialize us for survival. With the ongoing attempts by family, cultural, religious and school systems to prune and shape us, comes the recurring message that some aspects of ourselves are socially acceptable, while others are not.
So, being dependent on our care-givers in the name of survival, we do anything we can to disown, dishonor, deny and suppress those aspects in ourselves that are disapproved of, whilst exaggerating those that are approved of. This creates a split within us that we call the conscious and the subconscious. This self-protective instinct to divide aspects of ourselves into the conscious and the subconscious is in fact our first act of self-rejection, that eventually contributes to the systematic erosion of our self worth. If inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it, but if it is repressed in the subconscious, it never sees the light of day to get corrected.
The Shadow and its Potential
Carl Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst explains in his book, Psychology and Religion:
“Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”
Jung describes the shadow as “hidden, repressed, for the most part inferior, and guilt-ridden”, but he also states that it “displays a number of good qualities, such as normal instincts, appropriate reactions, realistic insights, and creative impulses.” Therein, lies the shadow’s potential.
What needs to be emphasized here, is that the shadow also contains all sorts of positive qualities, capacities and potential. Jung believed that the shadow is the seat of creativity. If not recognized, acknowledged and owned, the shadow perpetuates a deficiency in the personality, depriving an individual of personal power, sources of creative energy and bridges of connectedness with others.
For example, a person might believe that to be assertive is to be selfish; so he goes through life being trampled on by others, while deep within, he seethes with resentment. This feeling of resentment in turn makes him feel guilty. In this example, both the potential for assertiveness, and the guilt-inducing resentment, form part of the shadow. Our shadow is therefore a mixed bag that may include anger, repressed sexuality, fear, shame, judgment, and envy, covert racial and cultural prejudices, or any kind of discrimination, as well as passion, curiosity, joy, and tenderness – all suffering the same fate of banishment into our subconscious.
This drama continues throughout our lives. First, we tone down our radiance and our appetites out of love for our parents and care-givers. Then, we enter into peer relationships and scholastic, social and work environments that serve to further repress our emotions, our physical desires, some of our intelligences, and a great deal of our individuality in exchange for social acceptance. Eventually, we end up as adults who are conscious of just a tiny sliver of our original radiance.
The Ego, the Shadow, and the Struggle between the Two
So much of our personal power therefore remains latent, relegated to our subconscious, and the ego acts as the main gate-keeper of our separated state. The ego limits our consciousness within this reality of separation, acting as the main vehicle of separation between the conscious and subconscious. The ego is deceptive, urging us to wear our social masks and making sure that we are in a state of separation.
Separation and division however, is not a natural state of being; integration and wholeness is. As a result of this, your shadow elements will continually try and strive to get you to notice it, to pay attention to it and to integrate it. Like a wild animal shackled to a wall, the shadow will begin to strain against what binds it and be compelled to seek liberation. And when it succeeds, most often than not, its expression is wildly distorted. They emerge with such ferocity we are terrorized by them and thus bullied into thinking we must submerge them even farther.
Can you recall moments as an adult when the prospect of revealing your real self caused you to quake with fear or suffer great anguish? When sudden feelings of shame, guilt, rage or embarrassment popped out of nowhere? When your emotions were triggered and you fumed about someone’s words or actions for days? Have you noticed how you resist sitting with these uncomfortable feelings and push them back with all manner of twisted rationalizations, distractions, addictions and even fluffy spiritual pastimes in the name of positive thinking? This is where we are mistaken.
The Shadow and Spiritual-bypassing
Spiritual-bypassing is a very persistent shadow of spirituality, distinct from genuine authentic spirituality. Simply said, those engaging in spiritual-bypassing are using spirituality like an alcoholic uses booze to mask hurt and pain; both are trying to avoid dealing with the real issues. According to the psychologist John Welwood who first coined the phrase in 1984, aspects of spiritual bypassing include exaggerated detachment, emotional numbing and repression, overemphasis on the positive, anger-phobia, blind or overly tolerant compassion, weak boundaries, debilitating judgment about one’s negativity or shadow side, devaluation of the personal relative to the spiritual, and delusions of having arrived at a higher level of being.
Spirituality that focuses primarily on the love and light aspects and positive thinking, offer a dubious peace of mind at the expense of familiarity with one’s deepest humanity and the human condition at large. In fact, it precariously ignores the dark side of humanity and in doing so, conceals the shadow of manipulation, abuse of power, self-righteous arrogance, and compulsive control that lurk beneath the still waters of living in the light.
At a societal level, spiritually bypassing one’s inner darkness results in a whole range of serious social constructs that give rise to abusers and victims interlocked in repeating cycles of drama. Some of the most common and re-occurring shadow issues that appear in the spiritual as well as corporate/business communities include pedophilia among priests, financial and emotional manipulation of followers by gurus in both religious and corporate cults, and of course, megalomania, narcissism, and God complexes among spiritual teachers, evangelists, life coaches and leadership gurus.
What happens when we ignore our Shadow?
The shadow contains great power and authority over our personhood, not simply because so much of us is trapped within it, but because it takes a great degree of effort to deny what’s inside us. What we repress and ignore becomes dangerous – not because the hidden material is dangerous in itself, but because we take such great pains to banish it from our consciousness and maintain the split within us. This results in an array of neurosis and personality problems such as.
- Hypocrisy (believing and supporting one thing, but doing the other)
- Lies and self-deceit (both towards self and others)
- Uncontrollable bursts of rage/anger/aggression
- Emotional and mental manipulation of others
- Overt provocative behavior and attention-seeking
- Victim complex
- Jealousy and Envy
- Poverty mindset
- Snobbery and arrogance
- Social insecurity
- Phobias and obsessive compulsions
- Chronic psychosomatic illness
- Depression (which can turn into suicidal tendencies)
- Sexual perversion and sexual promiscuity
- Narcissistic ego-inflation
- Blaming behaviors (blame helps you preserve your sense of goodness by avoiding awareness of your own flaws or failings).
- Self-harming behavior
- Toxic self-absorption (which includes an over-emphasis on one’s specialness)
- Self-sabotage (which includes procastination, avoiding challenging experiences, self-effacing behavior eg. chronic modesty and victim presentation, hypochondria, eating disorders), and many others.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it certainly sheds light on the impact of your shadow on the quality of your life, as well as of those around you.
Triggers and Projections
How does the conscious part of us encounter elements in our shadow? The answer lies in paying close attention to triggers that impinge on us and projections in our behavior and attitude toward others.
A trigger is an important concept. It is anything that helps you bring to consciousness a traumatic memory from your past. It can be a word, a tone of voice, a face, a place, or any situation or thing that causes you to feel unsettled or fearful. You may not even know what is causing you to suddenly feel sick, hurt, anxious, reactive, or uneasy, but your subconscious mind knows. Each trigger is a reminder of an earlier wound and a signal to address the issue that lies lurking in our shadow. When we ignore it, we lose our chance to examine it closely and make corrections towards healing.
A projection is the pervasive Freudian defense mechanism in which individuals attribute characteristics they find unacceptable in themselves onto another person. The ego uses projection as a way to avoid connecting with the pain in the shadow self. For example, a woman with deep insecurities about her own body, might often be found to be unforgivingly critical about another woman’s physical appearance, unconsciously projecting this loathing of self onto the other. Projection is also very common in toxic parenting when parents who secretly feel like failures, demand perfection from their child. Most often parents project this backlog of repressed emotions they are ashamed of, and are unconsciously driven to unload them on their children in an attempt to feel better about themselves. Their child’s report card is viewed as a reflection of the parent’s own sense of self-worth. Another example of projection is quite often encountered in instances of homophobia. At an unconscious level a man may find himself attracted to another man, but at a conscious level he may find this attraction completely unacceptable and repulsive because of the family or societal culture he was raised in. To diffuse the anxiety that arises from this internal conflict, he may project a disproportionate amount of hatred towards those who are gay. Rather than resolve this tension by addressing the moral conflict within and reflecting upon it, he judges, disowns, and disavows these impulses and hurts others in the process.
Why is Shadow-work so important?
The door that keeps that shadow imprisoned not only locks out discordant information and critical self-reflection, but also closes our eyes and heart to the emotional injury we inflict on those we project upon. The most defenseless and vulnerable of beings in our social sphere can become the unfortunate victims of our projected shadow self. Children, spouses and partners for example, provide the perfect outlet for our anger, frustration and other negative emotions. At the workplace, subordinates in the corporate hierarchy have to often bear the brunt of the boss’s reactive, shadow self.
Exploring your shadow can lead to greater authenticity, creativity, energy, and personal awakening. This introspective process is essential for arriving at mature adulthood (an accomplishment that is rarer than most think). In A Little Book on the Human Shadow, Robert Bly writes a short passage that describes shadow-work beautifully:
Doing shadow-work, means asking ourselves to examine closely and honestly what it is about a particular individual that irritates us or repels us; what it is about a racial or religious group that horrifies or captivates us; and what it is about a lover that charms us and leads us to idealize him or her. Doing shadow-work means making a gentleman’s agreement with one’s self to engage in an internal conversation that can, at some time down the road, result in an authentic self-acceptance and a real compassion for others.
Shadow–work is challenging, complex, humbling, confusing, and painful. Ultimately, when you do shadow-work, you are doing the work of radical self-acceptance. You are reclaiming the lost fragments of yourself, hidden in your shadow and reintegrating them into your life. Doing this integration work enables you to move forward with your intentions, dreams, and goals. Real growth is a life-long endeavor and self worth recovery often happens in stages of healing, and sometimes a stage may seem to go on and on forever. Trust the process. Reach out. Get support and professional help. Be on the alert for your own resistance to change. And don’t fear that by bringing your negativity out of the shadow and into the light, that it will overpower you or run amok. As Jung says,
Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.
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