Our Shadow Side

It intrigues me that great success is this brilliant light, but also every brilliant light creates a dark shadow. I think wisdom only comes when you can navigate both.
— Sting

If you've spent much time with me via this blog, you're well familiar with my philosophy that we learn to hide/cast away parts of us (personality traits, emotions, desires) that have been directly or indirectly deemed unacceptable. Those unacceptable parts are shamed deeply affecting our mental and emotional health. This collection of cast offs results in the formation of the shadow. What Carl Jung describes as the "dark" side of being human.

We decide that we only present the respectable part of our personality and hide the socially unacceptable parts of us which ultimately gets buried in our unconscious.

No one is without their own shadow. But the difference is one's awareness of their shadow. 

If we're not aware of what is happening within, it contributes to "self destructive behaviors so many individuals struggle with and are unable to control despite consciously knowing they would be better off not engaging in such actions...The task in life which thus confronts everyone is to become conscious of and integrate one’s shadow into one’s conscious personality: accepting it with open arms not as an abhorrent aspect of one’s self, but as a necessary and vital part of one’s being." (Academy of Ideas)

Way easier said than done. I am aware. I've said it before and I'll continue to say it: this process is not for the faint of heart. You must truly long for wholeness because only then will you work towards it. Many are unwilling. And they settle for an unexamined life becoming shells. 

We must be willing to see ourselves as we really are, not someone we assume or fantasize of being.

However, for those who dare venture to look they'll discover the shadow isn't all bad as we would like to believe (it would be easier if it was because it would justify keeping it in the basement). Recall that we hide any part of us that isn't acceptable to others. These can be positive traits: sensitivity, compassion, creativity, intellect, the list goes on. These aspects that would "lead to greater wholeness and harmony" are met with condemnation from others (family, peers, society) and in order to belong, away they went. 

When positive traits are relegated to the shadow, one is by necessity less than one could be...growth of the individual becomes blocked, and life becomes sterile.
— Academy of Ideas

In order to grow, we must accept those parts we've been afraid to recognize. Growth requires more than mere acknowledgement or awareness. We must be willing to see ourselves as we really are, not someone we assume or fantasize of being. Take an honest assessment. And that's where the real growth can begin take root. As you become aware, you can then internally negotiate which parts lead to wholeness and which parts detract. Because they are no longer hidden, you are able to determine what and who you want to be. You are not bound by the fear of what might be hidden in the shadows because you've taken your flashlight and revealed the truth. 

This is why you will hear therapist after therapist describe their clients as some of the most courageous people they know. They risk for the sake of growth and truly living an engaged and present life. 

Will you join their ranks?

You Do You

The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image.
— Thomas Merton

Relationships are one of the most meaningful things we create and share with another human being. They are simultaneously wonderful and hard, requiring work to maintain. As mentioned in last week's post, thriving relationships lead to personal happiness and well-being. So they are worthy of our effort and attention.

From Dr. Dan Siegel, we know that one must feel seen, safe, and soothed in order to be secure and thrive. If this is our foundation, what are the walls that help create a sturdy home in which to inhabit? 

My colleague, Rachel Gardner, and I were discussing what it looks like for two individuals to healthily relate to one another. She shared three vital components: Separate/Equal/Open. (While this goes for all forms of relationship, (platonic, parent-child, romantic), I'll be using language in reference to romantic partnership. The following material is informed by Roberta Gilbert's, Extraordinary Relationships.)


In relationship, you maintain your individuality while still experiencing intimacy and closeness. You understand that you do not complete another person because you are already 100% whole on your own (sorry, Jerry). And the same goes for your partner; they are not deficient nor are they lacking without you. Your identities remain in tact with or without the relationship.

The letters H vs A provide a helpful illustration. The horizontal line represents the relationship and the vertical/diagonal lines the two individuals in relationship. H shows separateness. Two individuals standing on their own but in relationship. Should the relationship dissolve, though painful, they are still individuals standing on their own. In contrast A shows that even without the relationship, these individuals are still dependent upon one another to exist...they need the other for support. 


You see yourself as equal to your partner. Your partner is seen as equal to you. Neither is more or less than who either of you are as individuals. Because you come to the table as separate individuals, it allows you to stand as equals in the relationship. This means each person has equal capability to take responsibility for themselves and only themselves.


You make yourself available to the other. You don't cut off contact when either of you is upset or distressed but you also don't chase. "Chasing" would be qualified as anything pushy or pulling. You have a posture that is inviting, not manipulative or demanding. You allow the other person to have their process and they are aware that you're there when and if they would like to speak and share. You are, as Rachel says, "calmly present and accounted for" to your partner.

What a Separate/Equal/Open relationships looks like:

  • You are not dependent upon your partner for your happiness or emotional fulfillment because that is your responsibility to give to yourself. You may experience happiness with them but it is because you are choosing to feel happy.
  • You are in charge of your own self: managing and communicating your own emotions and thoughts. That is not your partner's responsibility. Nor is it your responsibility to manage or interpret their emotions and thoughts.
  • You are present with and make yourself available to one another.
  • "Awareness also marks the ideal relationship" according to Gilbert. In order to relate healthily and create a thriving relationship, we must be responsible to know ourselves, what makes us the separate individual we are: the stories and nuances and patterns we bring.

Does this describe your current relationship? Or might you be relying on your partner (or child or friend) to fulfill you? Maybe you feel empty without a relationship? Do you find that you are trying to meet someone's emotional needs or want to control how they respond?

If you struggle to define your relationship as separate and equal and open, begin the work of self-examination. If you don't invest in your own individual awareness, you will unknowingly rely on another to complete these "missing" things that you've yet to discover about yourself. This will inevitably create an unhealthy "A" dynamic. No relationship can thrive under that kind of pressure or demand to support another's emotional weight.

By knowing ourselves, it allows us to offer something to another freely and willingly, without expectation they be something for us. In turn, we are able to accept what our partner freely and willingly offers. And isn't that the type of relationship we long to have?

I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
and if by chance we find each other, it's beautiful.
If not, it can't be helped.

(Fritz Perls, "Gestalt Therapy Verbatim", 1969)

You are you and I am I.

You are you and I am I.

A Blessing, Acceptance

The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them. 

                                                                                      -Thomas Merton



Inside 'Inside Out'

A few years ago, Pixar knocked it out of the park (yet again) with Inside Out. This special film creatively depicted the significant role our emotions play in our day to day interactions with the world. It showed that each emotion is necessary and vital. Even more impactful, the film discussed the importance of grieving our losses. 

[We have] to have this full complement of emotions to develop. I think we all need to remember that. This is a weakness in Western culture and the United States. You need sadness, you need anger, you need fear.
— Dr. Dacher Keltner

Dacher Keltner, leading scientist in the study of emotions and a professor at the University of California-Berkeley, was one of the psychologists who served as a consultant for Pixar's Inside Out. He shared in a PacificStandard magazine interview with J. Wesley Judd, "Well, I think that the film really got a couple of big ideas about emotions right. One, [emotions] are really critical to how we look at the world — our perception and our attention and our memories and our judgment. They guide us in our handling of really important life circumstances, like moves and developmental changes...People in different traditions like to refer to emotions with a social idiom or a grammar of social interactions. Emotions are the structure, the substance, of our interactions with other people. If I’m falling in love with somebody, everything that I do in that euphoria of love — buying flowers, reciting poetry, touching the individual’s hair — it’s textured by the feeling, and it sets up these patterns of how we relate to each other. Those scenes in particular with Riley’s fights with parents and running away and coming back are all about sadness. That’s what it really got right. Emotions shape how we relate to other people."

One thing I personally and professionally appreciated about the film was its portrayal of Sadness. The film normalized an emotion often discarded because it is uncomfortable and is often a response to a loss. Often times, people will come into my office struggling with their sadness. Their sadness confuses them and they want to ostracize or minimize it. But it's a real emotion and true to the human experience.

Keltner and his colleague, Paul Ekman, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, wrote a New York Times article entitled, "The Science of 'Inside Out'" explaining that sadness is a healthy part of emotional development.

Dr. Keltner says, "One of the things I really resonated with is that we have a naive view in the West that happiness is all about the positive stuff. But happiness in a meaningful life is really about the full array of emotions, and finding them in the right place. I think that is a subtext of the movie: The parents want Riley to just be their happy little girl. And she can’t. She has to have this full complement of emotions to develop. I think we all need to remember that. This is a weakness in Western culture and the United States. You need sadness, you need anger, you need fear."

1. Emotions organize- rather than disrupt- rational thinking.
2. Emotions organize- rather than disrupt- our social lives.
— Dr. Dacher Keltner

He writes, "The real star of the film is Sadness, for "Inside Out" is a film about loss and what people gain when guided by feelings of sadness."

The articles continues by explaining insights from the science of emotion, "First, emotions organize- rather than disrupt-rational thinking. Traditionally in Western thought, the prevailing view has been that emotions are enemies of rationality and disruptive of cooperative social relations. But the truth is that emotions guide our perceptions of the world, our memories of the past and even our moral judgments of right and wrong, most typically in ways that enable effective responses to the current situation." 

"Second, emotions organize- rather than disrupt- our social lives. Studies have found, for example, that emotions structure (not just color) such disparate social interactions as attachment between parents and children, sibling conflicts, flirtations between young courters and negotiations between rivals." 

""Inside Out" offers a new approach to sadness. Its central insight: Embrace sadness, let it unfold, engage patiently with a preteen's emotional struggles. Sadness will clarify what has been lost (childhood) and move the family toward what is to be gained: the foundations of new identities, for children and parents alike."

Sadness purposefully contributes something beautiful to life. Keltner explains the "vital function of Sadness" is to guide the main character "to recognize the changes she is going through and what she has lost, which sets the stage for her to develop new facets of her identity." 

As a counselor, I want to help clients become acquainted with their sadness, their grief, by identifying and acknowledging their loss and its affect. In doing so, over time, their grief can add new textures and significant meaning to their lives. There is strength in the sorrow and beauty in the tears.

Sadness can be one of our best teachers. We have much to learn from her. Will we be willing students?