Many of us on a “personal development” or “spiritual” path harbor the secret hope that, one day, we’ll be “fixed.” If we work hard enough at visualizing what we want, pushing our comfort zone, saying affirmations, or whatever we normally do, one day we’ll get rid of all the parts of ourselves we don’t want. We won’t get angry or sad anymore; we’ll give up our addictions, we’ll overcome fears that hold us back in our work and relationships; and so forth.
Although we don’t usually admit it, this desire to fix ourselves rests on the belief that right now, as we are, we’re “broken.” The anger we have trouble controlling, the shame we feel when we try to sell our services, and so on are “wrong,” and our self-improvement journey is supposed to make things the way they “should be.” In a sense, our personal development quest often grows out of our dislike for ourselves.
Debbie Ford’s discovery of this feeling in herself, and how she changed her perspective, gave rise to The Dark Side of the Light Chasers. Debbie’s personal growth journey started when she decided to overcome her drug addiction. For several years, she went to spiritual retreats, took transformational workshops, and read personal development books.
In the process, Debbie let go of her addiction, and also changed many of her relationships and values. There was just one nagging problem—as Debbie puts it, “I still hated myself.” Debbie still saw herself as full of flaws she needed to “get rid of,” and it hurt to feel that way.
How Debbie Discovered Her Shadow
Debbie’s way of thinking changed in the midst of yet another personal growth workshop. One of the course leaders, Jan, suddenly said to Debbie “you’re a bitch.” Debbie felt mortified, because Jan had seen a part of Debbie that she’d always disliked and tried to hide from the world.
But Debbie’s feelings changed as Jan went on. “If you were building a house,” Jan asked, “and the contractors were running over budget and were three weeks late, do you think it would help to be a little bitchy?” Debbie realized the answer was yes—that being a little pushy and demanding in that situation would actually be helpful. As they explored the question more deeply, Debbie realized there were many situations where letting her “bitchiness” out, rather than repressing it, could actually be empowering.
This began Debbie’s deep involvement in what’s often called “shadow work.” Each of us has parts of ourselves we’re ashamed of and want to conceal from the world. Maybe there’s a side to us we see as overly weak, aggressive, stupid, geeky, crazy, or something else.
C.G. Jung called this part of us “the shadow,” which to him meant “the person you would rather not be.” When we dislike and hide our shadow, we may keep the world from seeing it, but we also create suffering for ourselves. Hating part of ourselves, as many of us know from experience, is a recipe for misery.
When we embrace our shadow parts, we start to see the value they have to offer us, and how they help us deal with situations we face in life. For example, embracing the part of us we see as “weak” may help us get emotionally vulnerable with others and connect with them more deeply. Or, allowing the part we call “stupid” to emerge may help us occasionally stop thinking and relax, which can be a huge relief.
How to Do Shadow Work: An Example
Debbie provides many different exercises to help us own our shadow, and I’ll share one of them here to give you a taste. Debbie offers a long list of words that many people find offensive, such as “loser,” “jerk,” “bum,” “wimp,” and so on. She asks the reader to look down the list, and affirm that they are each of those things—saying “I’m a bum,” “I’m a loser,” and so on.
As you do this, she says, notice which words bring up an emotional charge for you. When you come upon a word that has you tense up inside and feel offended, you’ve discovered a shadow part of yourself that it may be useful for you to get more connected with. In other words, you’ve found an aspect of yourself that you’ve been labeling in negative ways and pushing away.
And ask yourself: how would it actually serve me to be that sometimes? How could it actually be good for me to let my inner “loser,” “jerk,” “idiot,” or whatever else out on occasion? As I found for myself, this is an intense but deeply rewarding exercise. This, I started to see, is what loving yourself is about—not trying to mold yourself into a “good,” “improved,” or lovable person, but allowing every aspect of yourself to be, without judgment.
It’s important to add that this kind of work is all about having choice. When we disown parts of ourselves, those parts can’t help us in moments when they might be useful. For instance, if Debbie didn’t have access to her aggressive “bitch” part, as she calls it, she wouldn’t be as good at protecting herself from being taken advantage of.
When we acknowledge and accept all parts of ourselves, we start having the choice to let those parts come out when they’re needed. But that doesn’t mean we have to be a “jerk,” “stupid,” or anything else all the time. We simply get access to, and compassion for, those parts that we didn’t have before.
All in all, Debbie’s book is a great introduction to shadow work, free of confusing psychological jargon and complete with many powerful self-awareness exercises.