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January 27, 2023

Daily Wisdom: The shadow is “the person you’d rather not be”

Photo: spatulated

In today’s Daily Wisdom post, spiritual teacher and writer Sally Kempton offers her perspective on shadow work, one of the five principle practices in World Spirituality (called “lighten up.”)

Jung, whose work was influenced by his reading of Eastern sources, called the shadow “the person you’d rather not be”— the opposite of your conscious personality. He coined the term “shadow” to describe qualities that some yogic scriptures categorize as the kleshas (literally, causes of suffering). These are qualities that a key yogic text, the Bhagavad Gita, rather dauntingly describes as “demonic.” In other words, all the selfish, primitive, egoic, violent, lazy, entitled, aspects of yourself.

Shadow includes all the aspects of your psyche that you prefer not to look at, the traits that you’ve been ashamed of all your life, the things about yourself you keep in the psychic basement. Our shadow qualities are often primitive and immature, because they haven’t been cooked in the fire of our self-awareness. In fact, when certain negative tendencies remain hidden from our conscious awareness, they will tend to drive our emotions and behaviors in unpredictable ways. This is when you might find yourself losing your temper over something minor, or going into despair over a small mistake, or disliking someone who exhibits the trait you don’t want to see in yourself.

For example, Shelly, a nurse, prided herself on her ability to empathize with patients, and disliked her supervisor, whom she felt treated patients dismissively. As a result, she often found herself in arguments with her supervisor, which threatened her job.  In a workshop, I asked her to look at why her feelings of judgment were so intense. As we discussed it, she realized that she often felt dismissive towards these same patients–but over-compensated by bending over backwards to be nice. Her judgments about her supervisor exactly mirrored the judgment she directed at herself whenever she ‘lost it’, or behaved in a way that belied her sweet, caring persona.   It took Shelly a while to connect her own self-criticism with her judgments about her supervisor. When she was able to see the harshness of her own inner judge, she was also able to look at her supervisor with more compassion. As a result, they quarreled less, and Shelly feels that the atmosphere in the ward is easier for everyone. “Maybe it really changed,” she told me. “Maybe it feels different because I changed.”

For more insight into shadow in Sally Kempton’s work, see “Me and My Shadow.”


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