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What is Shadow?

Anyone who has seriously committed themselves to or even dabbled with a spiritual practice knows that no amount of practice changes our experience of family during the holidays. Why is that? One of the great contributions of Western modernity to the understanding of self are the insights into the shadow. Freud was definitely mistaken on a few of his theoretical musings, but on the topic of shadow, he nailed it when he said, “Where It is, I shall become.”

The shadow, also known as psychodynamic repression or the disowned self, is formed when some aspect of an individual’s I-ness splits off and dissociates from the rest of the personality. This aspect of self becomes unconscious and shows up in various inauthentic or shadow manifestations. The most common way that shadow elements emerge, in real time, is through projection — a defense mechanism whereby one “projects” one’s own undesirable thoughts, motivations, desires, or feelings onto someone or something.

The Integral approach has drawn on over 100 developmental models, East and West, from premodern to postmodern, to compile the most comprehensive map of human development to date. From this map we learn that human beings grow and evolve through levels or stages of consciousness, transcending and including, negating and preserving each level into the higher reaches of development. We also know that our growth and development can be arrested at any time, at any stage. One of the most common ways that our development can be sabotaged is by the shadow. As we grow vertically from archaic, to magic, to mythic, to rational, to pluralistic, to integral stages of development, we can either become fixed at any one of these stages, in part due to our shadow qualities, or else grow into higher stages of development with shadow baggage in tow. Neither is ideal for healthy growth and integration.

When we disown and project our motivations, feelings, and traits, they appear “outside” of us, where they aggravate, irritate, disturb, obsess, or upset us. Generally, the things that most aggravate and disturb us about others are in fact our own shadow traits. Although these are perceived “outside” of us, they actually inform our feelings and motivations, subconsciously shaping our behavior. This is why we get upset with things and only those things that are reflections of our own shadow. This does not mean that others do not posses the qualities that we happen to detest. Sometimes an asshole is really just an asshole. But why does it bother us? Why does it consume our thoughts? Why does it affect us emotionally? Why do we find ourselves complaining about this person nonstop? Those around us agree that this person is an ass, but why aren’t they as charged as we are about the person? If the negative qualities of another person infuriate, disturb, or disgust us, chances are we are dealing with shadow issues. The shadow hijacks the self. The traits and qualities that we have disowned become our own personal terrorists.

Another way to say this is that the shadow can be seen as anything that we are not willing to own in our 1st-person experience. “I am not angry.” Instead, we push it away or project it into the 2nd-person. “I am not angry, but you sure are.” Or, if it is so threatening to our sense of self that we need to push it further away, we project it into the 3rd-person. “There is a lot of anger in the world.”

There are several benefits to recognizing and working with our shadow qualities. For one, we do not want to be out in the world projecting all over everyone and everything. By withdrawing our projections from the world, we stop burdening others with our unconscious issues and are able to gain more objectivity and responsibility. Working with our shadow traits also enables us to reown and reintegrate the aspects of self that we have disowned. By reintegrating these aspects, we grow and evolve into healthier versions of who we already are. Possibly the most important reason to work with our shadow qualities is that it takes an extraordinary amount of energy to hide from ourselves. The same amount of energy it takes to keep aspects of ourselves at bay could potentially be the exact amount of energy we need to grow from our current stage of development to the next. So an important reason to recognize and work with our shadow qualities is to continue to grow and evolve (if we so choose, of course). As noted, the shadow is the most common cause of sabotaged growth and development. We can become developmentally arrested at any stage of development because of our shadow traits. Our shadow can actually keep us at a particular stage of development precisely because we do not have the free energy and attention that is required to grow into the next higher stage.

Fortunately, there are tools and practices, such as the 3-2-1 Process, that we can undertake in order to look at and work with our shadow qualities. These practices aim to reintegrate those parts of ourselves that we have disowned and projected onto others or out into the world. By reintegrating our shadow traits, we simultaneously free up energy that is now available to us to grow into higher stages of consciousness.

What’s Hot for Kelly Right Now…


Currently Reading: Running Lean by Ash Maurya

Practice Focus: Being with impermanence.

Currently Watching: Portlandia

Currently Listening To: Loop Guru

Shadow Element or Emotion Discovered While Writing This: Shadow of shadow.

Link of the Week: The meditative congressman.

Kelly Sosan Bearer is a social entrepreneur specializing in multimedia platform development to disseminate spiritual wisdom teachings both online and off. She is the Co-founder of Integral Chicks and currently serves as Executive Producer for Sofia Diaz and Multimedia Producer at Buddhist Geeks. An ordained Zen monk, Kelly graduated from Naropa University with a MA in Transpersonal Counseling Psychology. She goes by the alter ego DJ Sosan and has been dropping beats for the Integral scene since 2005.

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