Integrating the Shadow
By Dmitri Bilgere
Bob, a man in his mid-thirties who describes himself as "someone
who never gets mad" is, at this moment, beating his father
with a baseball bat. "I hate you!" he screams. The people
looking on yell encouragement as he pounds on her father. "You
abused me!" he yells. "You abused me and I hate you!"
What is going on here? Bob isn't participating in any criminal
behavior, and his "father" is actually a pile of pillows
on the floor. Bob is attending one of the many personal-growth
workshops, now popular across the country, that encourage participants
to "get into their shadows." Bob is expressing long-repressed
anger at some behavior of his father. Because his father isn't
actually present, Bob knows he can fully express his anger without
actually hurting his father, whom he loves. Yet he is also angry,
and he pounds and pounds the pillows.
The facilitator tells Bob that he is "in his shadow."
What does this piece of new-age jargon mean? In A Little Book
on the Human Shadow, Robert Bly says we are all born into
the world with what he calls a "360° personality."
As babies, we can honestly be however we are, and behave freely
in any direction we choose. Through the course of being brought
up, Bly says, we learn that some ways of being are okay, and that
other ways of being are not. We learn that, in order to be good
people, or in order to get love, we must repress parts of ourselves.
The parts of us that we repress become our shadows.
For example, our ability to feel our feelings may go into shadow.
When Bob was a little boy, and his angry father hurt him, he may
have learned that anger is a bad, hurtful emotion. He may have
decided that, in order to not be a hurtful person, he would never
be angry. By deciding that anger was hurtful and deciding to not
ever be angry, he put her anger into shadow.
Scott, another workshop participant, tells about how his feelings
went into shadow. "I remember the day I decided that it was
better to not feel at all. I was a little boy, in my room, and
my parents were fighting downstairs. It just seemed better not
to feel, so I decided not to."
While putting feelings into shadow might be a good survival strategy
for a child, it doesn't work so well once we grow up. As an adult,
Bob complains that he can't use his anger constructively. He can't
defend himself, and can't set boundaries. Scott complains that,
as an adult, he finds his life boring. "I don't feel anything,"
he says. "I just know I'm missing out."
When Bob and Scott put their feelings into shadow, they don't
get to see their feelings when they are having them-but other
people do. Bob's friends may find him subtly angry or passive-aggressive,
but because he believes he is never angry, Bob will be the last
to know about his anger. Scott may be controlled by his shadowed
feelings, and never know it. When we put parts of ourselves into
shadow, it only really means we don't get to see, or control,
those parts of us.
Animal trainers have long known that the best way to control an
unwanted behavior is to put that behavior on cue, then to never
give the cue. For example, when confronted with a dog who barks
too much, they will teach the dog to bark only when signaled to
do so. In this way they take control of the dog's barking, and
can use that barking any way they wish.
This principle also applies to shadowed behaviors. When we can
choose to do a behavior on purpose, we can also choose to not
do it on purpose. At the seminar, Bob is able to choose, for the
first time, to express his anger just the way it is. When Bob
learns he can get into his anger on purpose, he begins to put
his anger on cue. Once he can choose to be in his anger, he can
also chose how he uses the power of that anger. He controls his
anger, rather than it controlling him. He has "integrated
his shadow" by owning his anger, and learning to control
Anything we think we aren't is in shadow for us. If I think I'm
never mean, then my meanness goes into shadow. If I think I'm
not attractive, then my attractiveness is in shadow. If I think
I'm not loving, my loving nature goes into shadow. We integrate
our shadows by playing pretend, like children do, with different
behaviors. We do this in environments in which there are no real-world
consequences. As we play safely with our shadows, we integrate
As the sages say, we are actually all one anyway. In the greatest
sense, anything in this universe we think is not part of us is
part of our shadow. Integrating your shadows is an important step
on the road of returning to the oneness of all life.