Updated: Jul 12
By Fleet Maull, PhD
Most of us experience what we call defining moments in the course of our childhoods, moments when it’s unsafe to be who we are or even to be at all, either physically or emotionally. When we're six months old, a year old, or three years old, it doesn't take much for us to feel unsafe. When one of the adult caregivers in our life looks askance at us, suddenly we shrink. We could have, for example, interpreted our mother’s momentary irritation as a sign that she resents our existence. We take in that negative impression and fabricate a story to make sense of it, creating a deep psychological and neurobiological imprint. It could be something like “My mommy doesn’t really love me, because I’m too naughty and not good enough.” We may then spend the rest of our lives proving that story to be true, in one way or another, but without fully realizing what we are doing until we can recognize and let go of that unconscious pattern.
Identifying Shadow Manifestations
Many of you are probably familiar with Jung's terms the Shadow and the Persona. The Persona is the mask we present to the world in the hope of getting our needs met-- our needs for love, respect, attention, safety, and so on. As children, we learn to present whatever we think people want to see, in order to get our needs met and avoid being hurt. We unconsciously repress and disown all the parts of ourselves that might invite embarrassment, shame, punishment, or abandonment. These repressed and disowned parts of ourselves form the Shadow, our unconscious container for those hidden parts.
Very often, the shadow ends up running our lives in various ways. These mostly unconscious parts of ourselves surface as obsessive-compulsive behaviors, addictions, inappropriate humor, dysregulated emotions and outbursts, relationship problems, and all kinds of inauthentic behaviors and self-sabotage scripts. When these disowned parts of ourselves surface and take over, or drive out behaviors in impulsive or reactive ways, this frequently leads to undesirable outcomes, undermining our success and happiness, personally and professionally.
One time, during a workshop on shadow re-integration I was leading, one of the participants was struggling to acknowledge and own a particular neurotic behavior pattern, and do so without self-shaming. Suddenly, the person exclaimed: "Oh, yeah!! Blah, blah, blah, blah. That's what I do.” It was such a refreshing and insightful response. The person had recognized one of their habituated behavior patterns and was able to see it clearly. And instead of self-shaming and blame, the insight had a lightness and a sense of humor. "Yeah, that's one of my things! That’s what I do.”
The pattern was no longer unconscious and was seen for what it was, an habitual behavior that no longer served the person and was getting in the way of his personal and professional relationships. And the insight was free of the shame and self-blame that often accompanies such realizations.
Over time, by allowing these unconscious patterns to surface and recognizing them, we can begin the process of letting them go and instead build in other more positive habit patterns or behaviors. We can also learn to trust ourselves and act more spontaneously in different situations.
However, on this journey of greater self-awareness, in which we see ourselves more directly, develop greater self-understanding, and are more attentive to our moment-to-moment experiences, we need to cultivate tremendous self-compassion and a mindset of non-shaming. In this way, we can own what we can own and realize we have choices to respond to life differently.
Self-awareness practices like journaling, contemplation, and other forms of self-reflection can help us pay greater attention to our self-talk, the conversation going on between our ears most of the time. It can be useful to write things down in a journal as it brings to the surface our more unconscious, mechanical ways of behaving. What are the underlying thought patterns, emotional experiences, past memories, and conditioning that drive those habituated, mostly-reactive forms of behavior?
We need to make a commitment to not take things personally, and also, to not make assumptions. All conflict is based on assumptions. When we get triggered, usually we're making assumptions about people's motivations. We're perceiving that something is not meeting our needs or threatening our well-being. And these perceptions are mostly based on assumptions. It is quite transformative to check out our assumptions and realize that, even when other people seem to be acting out in negative ways towards us, it's not about us. It's never about us. What other people are doing is coming out of their suffering, their dream, and their conditioning. If we take it personally, then we're hooked. They might be acting in ways that I don't particularly like, but it's not personal. I just happen to be the person in the way at that moment. That realization can help me remain composed, take better care of myself, and respond to the situation in ways that are going to be more beneficial for me and for the other person.
It is also very useful to learn to recognize our own mechanical habitual patterns and reactivity, our own shadow material, the things that we repressed in our childhood, and the stories that we made up from those defining movements, which are sometimes called life scripts.
We can even go deeper and identify our “winning formulas”, the things we do to get our needs met, which may have been temporarily successful, but over time, have lost their power, or are ultimately inauthentic and unfulfilling. They're not life fulfilling because they're grounded in the past. They are coping mechanisms that we came up with, when we were young, to keep ourselves safe. Living from those childhood contexts and those old behavior patterns as adults doesn't make a lot of sense, but that’s what we do until we shift it.
As we recognize these patterns, it's extremely helpful to simply say, "Oh, yeah. That's what I do." And then, when we catch ourselves doing it again, we can go, "Oh, okay. There it is again." We're not beating ourselves up; we just practice inquisitiveness. Was I not paying attention? What triggered it? And then, where did it lead to? I can do all that in a non-shaming, self-empathic, self-compassionate manner.
You may have heard me say that the human condition, unexamined, is a prescription for suffering. If we don’t pay attention, we often end up under the control of our previous conditioning and our habituated behaviors. Our lives are driven by this largely unconscious, fear-based, and survival-based conditioning. But that same human condition can become the very vehicle for human liberation by closely examining our own experience, becoming familiar with it, and coming to understand it at a deeper level. Those insights allow us to recognize our habituated reactive behaviors, and not be unconsciously driven by them. It's also important to develop the resilience to not get triggered into these old behavior patterns, or when triggered, to recognize it and not get caught up in it. And even when we do get caught up, to be able to get untriggered and bounce back.
Mindfulness practices shift our internal landscape to one that has greater clarity, awareness, and wakefulness, and increase our capacity for self-acceptance and self-compassion. We realize that we could be open to every aspect of ourselves. We don't need to exclude or reject anything in ourselves. We can experience any physical sensation, sense perception, emotion, or thought because they are a natural part of being human beings. Some of them are more or less comfortable. Some of them, from one perspective, may seem more or less desirable. But really, there's no reason to feel bad about them. They’re just our shared human experience.
We do want, however, to be responsible for our emotions and thoughts, and which ones we cultivate or act upon, because once we take action, it creates a consequence for ourselves and impacts others.
We're bringing awareness to the shadow and gradually bringing the shadow into the light, reintegrating it all. It's really a process of peeling back layer and layer until we are completely comfortable in our own skin, in the full range of our being, including our past memories, our present experiences, and our complete sensory, emotional, and cognitive life. That feeling gives us a tremendous sense of confidence, self-empowerment, and overall well-being and resilience.