How dipping into your “darker side” can lead to a greater sense of self-discovery.
Last spring, I started a new graduate school program. It was everything I hoped for and more. Along with interacting with the most supportive set of classmates, I also have professors who truly want the best for their students. To top it off, we get to interact with guest lecturers during a 10-day, on-campus residency twice a year.
While at my graduate school residency, I attended a session held by author Jillian Lauren. I have read both of her memoirs, Some Girls, and the most recently released Everything You Ever Wanted. Not only did I instantly become a fan of her work, I’m also a fan of her husband, Scott Shriner, the bass guitarist for Weezer (one of my favorite bands). The first time I had the opportunity to meet one-on-one with Jillian for a 15-minute discussion, I walked away realizing I was so nervous—yet excited—that I forgot to introduce myself. I can be awkward sometimes.
Her session, though, is what struck me. It dealt with the Jungian theory of “shadow self.” From what I understand, in a rather distilled form, shadow self is that part in each of us that we keep locked away. We don’t let others see that part because it doesn’t match up with what we’d like them to see. It’s a part of our personal history, or character traits, that we’re not proud of, or we feel it makes us appear weak. It’s everything we don’t want to be.
In the session, Jillian had us write a letter to our shadow selves. What encompasses my shadow self? I worry that I am not perfect enough. I worry that I have to work so much harder to keep up—to make up for health issues that I’ve always perceived to be a character flaw. I want to be a great advocate for the chronically ill communities I’m involved in, and I realize now that the only way to do this is by including my humanistic qualities. If I’m putting on that brave face, I’m only perpetuating that stereotype to everyone else. When I’m “in it” with my health issues, I cry. I experience pain and frustration just like everyone else.
In this session we also wrote a letter back from our shadow selves. My shadow self letter was pretty simple: Why do you never let anyone get to know me? Why do you just assume they won’t like me?
I know it’s a weird process—writing letters to and from yourself—but I think it can hold merit for people, especially those used to telling very specific narratives such as patient narratives. As someone who experiences health issues, it is so easy for me to become detached from my own story. I became used to rattling off events that have happened to me through my medical journey without any inflection of the pain they’ve caused me. It hasn’t been all bad because I’ve gained a community of close friends through meeting others who have health conditions similar to mine in the process.
Not everyone may consider themselves to be creative, but we are all storytellers. How we tell our story is a big part of how we train our brains to see our lives. After bad hospitalizations, I’d often come home and think, “I’m not even a person.” It’s hard to feel like a person when 20 medical students are shuffled into your room to gawk at you. In time, I learned it was necessary for me to repeat things to myself even if they didn’t feel true. I’ve switched to: “You are worth more than this,” “Your story matters” or “You are not inconveniencing your doctors by not being a simple medical case.”
We’re all hiding things out in the shadow realm. It’s not just where we hold bad things. Our shadow self is simply the things we are uncomfortable with about ourselves. It’s the parts of us we choose to keep hidden. I have heard others rattle off a list of their childhood struggles, sounding as though the setbacks that occurred left them unaffected or indifferent. They’ve become disconnected. Sometimes downplaying our own life stories or struggles as being minimal in comparison to someone else’s life events seems the easier thing to do. This doesn’t mean any of us are lacking stories or that our own stories can’t somehow contribute to making for formidable support systems for those whose shadows might similar to our own.
Health issues, employment problems, financial struggles, dating struggles, experiencing discrimination – we all have things that we keep tucked down in shadow land. No one’s life is perfect. We all have our shit. If we’re only seeing shiny social media walls, we’re living in a place where we can continue to be ashamed of our shadow if we allow for it. Shadows aren’t bad! We need these stories shared, to express our humanness, and to see how things really are when illuminated by some light!
How do you work with that shadow self instead of against it? Take some time for yourself; sit down and group your thoughts for a moment. Write a letter to your shadow, those places you won’t allow others to see. Write to your mental health condition, write to your disability, write about how you have had to tuck pieces of yourself away when you suddenly lost your job or had to move back in with your parents. Write about the shadow shame you felt when a relationship broke up and it didn’t seem like you could share those feelings with anyone else. Is part of your shadow self regret over the past? Write about it. Figure out through this letter why you are keeping these pieces tucked away from view. Who are you afraid to see this side of you?
Tell the shadow through your next letter how it has affected your life, in positive or negative ways. Figure out how it has shaped you as a person. Work with it instead of against it. Then take a moment to regroup and write a letter back from the perspective of the shadow. You may discover things you never realized you were thinking before. You may feel a little bit more in control of your own story for a few moments. Take those steps towards discovering your shadow. It’s worth it. Words are power. Words can free us.
Earlier version originally appeared at HemAware.