There is a common saying used for those who are highly fearful – “He’s afraid of his own shadow.” That seemingly playful bit of taunting has quite a spiritual significance. In truth, we all have a shadow side – a part of us that is enveloped in ego and still reacts from fear and unhealed wounds. However, if we deny or shame that part of ourselves, we never fully connect with or heal ourselves. In fact, we cannot truly love ourselves, if we only love specific parts. We must come to embrace and accept all of ourselves so that we are not constantly running from our own shadow. With regard to recovery, the ability to accept and sit with our shadow and extend compassion is vital. To not do so is potentially fatal.
Moving toward embracing and integrating the shadow parts and beginning to accept all of you is a process that includes three steps.
Take a Personal Inventory
Begin by taking a deeper look inside. Make a list of all the things you love about yourself. This can include everything from the superficial (i.e., the way you look, your style, your tattoos or lack thereof, etc.) to the depths of your soul. Then, make a list of the things you don’t like about yourself. Again, this can include the superficial. However, be sure to include behaviors, feelings and reactions or responses you have toward others.
Name & Get to Know the Shadow Parts
Now, here’s where it may seem a bit tricky. If you wrote that you don’t like your nose on the list of things you don’t like about yourself, you may be wondering, “Do I name and get to know my nose?” No. Instead, you take a closer look at the superficial aspects of that list of things you don’t like about you. Notice what it’s really saying. Do you see insecurity? Self-hatred? Body shaming? Etc. If so, those are shadow parts to name and get to know.
Along with the behaviors and reactions or responses you’ve listed (i.e., anger, resentment, spitefulness, etc.), name these parts accordingly. For example, if your name is Joe, insecurity could simply be Insecure Joe. This naming process can also be a deeper exercise where you explore the basis of the particular shadow part’s existence or its running theme. In this way, insecurity might be named I’m Not Enough. Feel free to get more creative with the names, but remember to use compassion. This is certainly not an exercise in which you bully yourself by teasingly name-calling any part of you.
After you’ve named the shadow part, it’s time to get to know it. Where did it come from? What role did it play in your past? What role does it play today? What does it need? How much control does it have over you? What is your connection to it? Do you acknowledge that part? Avoid it? Or glamorize it, in the way some glamorize certain addictions (i.e., exercise bulimia, work addiction, etc.)
Extend Compassion & Forgiveness to Each Part
Now that you’ve named and gotten to know the shadow parts, extend compassion and forgiveness to each one. Literally, have a conversation aloud or write a letter to each part (if having a conversation is too uncomfortable or there’s no private space to do so). Let each shadow part know you see, acknowledge and are working to understand it. Speak gratitude to each part for its role in your survival up to this point, as each part of our shadow has truly been created in an effort to survive the circumstances of our lives.
Knowing this, you can begin to feel a sense of compassion for each shadow part. They are all like wounded children who are acting in the best way they know how to prevent future wounds. So, you are now asked to extend the same compassion and forgiveness you would offer a child who throws a tantrum in response to loss or who refuses to speak due to intense fear. You are now the parent of these wounded children you now call your shadow parts.
Be a loving parent, and embrace these parts of you. They are not ugly. They are your inner children, and they need your love, acceptance, gratitude, and forgiveness. Once you begin offering this, you will find that these shadow parts no longer shout for your attention or rule your internal or external home – no longer the monsters you have come to fear or shame within you but merely wounded, neglected children who now feel safe knowing they belong.