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In 2010, Debbie Ford wrote a book about embracing all parts of ourselves — even our dark sides, aka the “shadow self.”
Like many people, you may not showcase your entire personality to the world. The traits deemed as unpleasant or inappropriate tend to get hidden away.
This dark side of the personality is known in psychoanalytical theory as the “shadow.” Whether you know it’s there or not, it can influence your life in a number of ways.
By identifying and coming to terms with your shadow self, you may be able to better understand all parts of yourself.
The term “shadow self” was first conceptualized by psychoanalyst Carl Jung in the mid-1900s.
Jung theorized that a complete personality consists of both the positive and negative qualities in an individual, but only the qualities that seem desirable were expressed in what was known as the “persona.”
Those thoughts and feelings you may subconsciously label as dangerous or unappealing are psychologically repressed, according to Jung.
This doesn‘t mean that they aren‘t there. It just means that most people don’t retain the ability to acknowledge that they exist.
You might become distanced from them. You might even refuse to believe that they’re a part of you, or you may project them if someone brings them to your attention.
We all have a “dark side” — qualities that we often don’t like to reveal to others.
It’s the traits we might be ashamed of or embarrassed about. The ones others may have rejected or that we believe deem us undeserving or unworthy of love.
You may sometimes act judgmental, angry, selfish, or controlling. You may not like these so-called negative traits about yourself. Or, you may have buried them so deep that you don’t even realize they exist.
But embracing these qualities actually opens the door to happiness, fulfillment, and “true enlightenment,” according to Debbie Ford in her book “The Dark Side of the Light Chasers.”
Our dark sides are a part of our experience. By uncovering and embracing our shadow side, we can accept all parts of ourselves.
“Every aspect of ourselves has a gift,” writes Ford, who was a speaker, teacher, and coach. “Every emotion and every trait we possess helps show us the way to enlightenment, to oneness.”
In her book, Ford shares the story of Steven, a man who was worried about being a wimp.
When he was 5 years old, Steven told his father that he was terrified of going on a pony ride. His father replied, “What kind of man are you going to make? You’re nothing but a little wimp, you’re an embarrassment in our family.”
These words stayed with Steven. In fact, he did everything he could to prove he wasn‘t weak — from becoming a black belt in karate to lifting weights. He also hated seeing weakness in others.
After talking with Ford, however, Steven realized that he was still a “wimp” in some areas of his life, and being a wimp actually helped him.
For example, being a wimp made him more cautious.
This not only “kept him out of fights,” Ford writes, but in college, it also made him pass on going out with friends when he knew there would be heavy alcohol use. This saved him from a tragic accident that killed his closest friend and severely injured others.
When we don’t own all parts of ourselves, it can make certain aspects of our daily life challenging.
We may try so hard not to show weakness or imperfection that we start chasing dreams that we don’t even want, filling our days with empty duties. When we’re trying to prove our worth, we may become someone we don’t even recognize.
According to Ford, “We exhaust our internal resources when we try not to be something.”
From a psychological standpoint, embracing your dark side doesn‘t mean abandoning the other so-called positive traits of yourself.
You’re not suddenly leaving life as you know it behind in favor of more negative thoughts, behaviors, and social circles.
When you embrace your dark side, you’re acknowledging that the unpleasant parts of yourself exist. You’re taking ownership of them and recognizing the role they play in your daily life.
Personality is difficult to quantify in research. It’s something intangible — something that can’t be touched or measured.
Because of this, there isn’t a large amount of peer-reviewed data regarding the benefits of shadow work and mental health.
However, to determine the possible benefits of embracing your dark side, some information can be gained from studies on a process known as individuation.
Another concept introduced by Jung, individuation is the process by which you develop your sense of individual self. It involves bringing all your personality components together into a cohesive unit.
While primary individuation occurs during the developmental years, Jung and other followers of his work believed that it is an ongoing process that shapes one’s personality throughout life.
According to Jung, individuation included shadow work.
Shadow work occurs when you consciously delve into the dark parts of your personality.
By exploring these hidden facets of yourself, you can become aware of them, possibly opening yourself up to a higher level of perception, consciousness, and self-control.
In the book “Religion in Personality Theory,” individuation is seen as the gateway to a sense of higher spirituality.
In theory, poor individuation can result in a distorted sense of self. A 2018 article suggests that it may even contribute to feelings of:
Embracing your dark side is also known as shadow work.
In her book, Ford includes exercises to help readers uncover and embrace their dark sides. In one exercise, she suggests trying these strategies:
- Imagine that a newspaper article is written about you.
- Write down five things you wouldn’t want to be said about yourself.
- Imagine five things the newspaper could write about you, but it wouldn’t matter to you.
Then, you can ask yourself these questions:
- “Are the first five things true and the second five untrue?”
- “Have you decided with the help of your family and friends that the first five things are the wrong things to be, therefore you don’t want them said about you?”
Lastly, consider writing down a judgment you hold for each sentence you wrote. You can try to pinpoint the time you first made this judgment and where it came from.
Another way to uncover your dark side is by paying attention to the traits that bother you in others. What initially prompted Steven to have his realization about being a wimp was his dislike for another man at Ford’s seminar.
“He’s a wimp, and I hate wimps,” he told Ford.
Ford suggests making a list of the traits you dislike in others. Try to think of a time in your life when you’ve displayed each trait, or when someone else thought you did. Then, consider exploring your judgments about each trait, along with your judgments about the people who display this trait.
After uncovering your dark side, consider how these supposedly negative traits may have been helpful to you:
- Has your imperfection made you a more compassionate parent?
- Like Steven, has your cautiousness helped you avoid potentially dangerous situations?
- Has your “weakness” made you more vulnerable and helped you build a closer bond with your loved ones?
Acknowledging our seemingly negative traits, such as laziness and procrastination, can be tough. And you might even be tempted to berate yourself for these traits.
Instead, try to be more compassionate. It’s important to remember that there’s no such thing as perfection.
As Ford writes:
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.
Try to embrace your shadow, letting the so-called negative parts coexist with the more desirable ones because that’s what makes us whole. This is what makes us authentic, makes us human.
It’s natural to have parts of your personality that you keep hidden — even from yourself.
By exploring these personality traits and acknowledging their existence, you may be able to develop a more complete sense of self-awareness.
Embracing your dark side isn’t an abandonment of everything else. It’s an internal investigation into who you are as a complete unit — the traits you like, and the ones you don’t.
By practicing shadow work, you may open yourself up to new levels of understanding and personal growth. It can help clarify your thoughts, feelings, and unmet needs, which can in turn help in your decision making.
If you want to explore more about your personality, consider reaching out to a mental health professional. If you’re not sure where to start, you can check out Psych Central’s hub for finding mental health support.
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