You get jealous easily. You can be cynical and sarcastic, even with the people you love most. You can be petty and narrow-minded. You gossip. You say mean things you don’t mean. Sometimes, the words just fly out. Sometimes, you try to control others. You can be judgmental and even unreasonable. You can be super sensitive. Sometimes, you feel as fragile as glass—any minute you might fall to the floor and shatter. You can be pessimistic. Sometimes, the darkness feels like such a natural place to roam.
And you don’t like these parts of yourself. Maybe you’re ashamed of them. Maybe you’re deeply embarrassed about them. Maybe you believe these qualities make you unlovable or undeserving of good things.
These parts make up your shadow. And the best thing we can do for ourselves (and for others) is to embrace our shadows—even though you probably want to stuff those qualities down so far you forget they exist (until they resurface, again, of course).
In the wonderful book Leap Write In! Adventures in Creative Writing to Stretch and Surprise Your One-of-a-Kind Mind, author Karen Benke includes a playful exercise for exploring our shadow, where we might be “surprised to find a lot of creativity…” (Benke’s book is for young writers, but I think it’s particularly perfect for adults, as we’re often the ones who desperately need to play.)
Benke encourages readers to explore the many layers of our shadow. “Find out if he or she likes to wonder, wander, rip pages, leap excuses, feel the wind, taste the rain, save spiders, defy gravity, paint her toenails…” She suggests thinking of our shadow as an imaginary friend we take on “little earth journeys and beyond,” and reflecting on various fun questions, including:
- Where did your shadow come from?
- What’s your shadow’s favorite game?
- What’s your shadow’s favorite midnight snacks?
- What does your shadow like to wear?
- What doesn’t your shadow know yet?
- How does your pet act around your shadow?
- What music does your shadow listen to?
- What floats on the surface of your shadow?
- What tricks does your shadow perform?
- Who does your shadow long to dance with?
- What hides inside your shadow’s heart?
Benke also suggests using some of these responses to create a poem about your shadow. “Let each image leap to the next.” Start your poem with the sentence, “What you heard is true, my shadow does….” Talk to your shadow directly, and give your shadow a pep talk.
You might be hesitant to do this exercise, because you don’t want to embrace your shadow. Why would you embrace qualities like cynicism, sarcasm, pettiness, jealousy and downright meanness?
But these qualities simply mean we’re human. All of us have these or similar kinds of qualities. We are multidimensional and multilayered. We are not one or the other. We are not good or bad. We are not either/or. We are complicated and complex and intricate beings.
We can embrace our shadows, and still work on them. We can still try our best to be less critical and negative and be more loving and kind.
The key is to get curious about our shadow. Taking a lighter, playful approach with our darker parts helps to shift our perspective and see the bigger picture. It leaves room for learning and growing and exploring and understanding. Which is much more effective than ignoring our shadow or using a punitive approach, which shuts down our imaginations and breeds shame.
Whether we like it or not, our shadows are part of us. They might even hold certain gifts. Your sensitivity and fragility might help you better relate to your kids and to others. It might make you more compassionate and more patient. Your jealousy might reveal what you actually want. Your pessimism might reveal what you don’t. Your pettiness and sarcasm might spark an important conversation with your spouse, which leads you to understand each other better, which leads to an important resolution.
Embracing all our parts makes us whole. As Debbie Ford wrote in her book The Dark Side of the Light Chasers, “We live under the impression that in order for something to be divine it has to be perfect. We are mistaken. In fact, the exact opposite is true. To be divine is to be whole and to be whole is to be everything: the positive and the negative, the good and the bad, the holy man and the devil. When we take the time to discover our shadow and its gifts we will understand what Jung meant by, ‘The gold is in the dark.’ Each of us needs to find that gold in order to reunite with our sacred self.”
And sometimes we can find that gold with a bit of play.