There are many things in this world that are forbidden and many more that we forbid ourselves. We may not allow ourselves to feel or acknowledge our shame, anger, longing, or grief.
When we are not aware of the feelings we disallow, they act under the surface, driving behaviors we may not fully understand. In his new book, Bringing Your Shadow Out of the Dark: Breaking Free from the Hidden Forces That Drive You, Robert Augustus Masters takes us inside the world of the shadow self and shows us that in breaking free from our shadow self, we also break free from our ingrained conditioning so we can find a fuller, more grounded sense of self and an enhanced capacity for life and love.
“All of us have our own shadow, which is packed with our unique assembly of those aspects of ourselves we’ve learned to keep out of sight, a collection accumulated over the course of a lifetime. We learned, for reasons of survival, to deny or bury our deeper pain and core wounding,” writes Masters.
The fear of the shadow self is also universal as it is often only witnessed in dramatic and unforeseen outbursts that leave us painfully aware of the discord within ourselves.
Masters writes, “Our shadow is the place within each of us that contains what we don’t know, don’t like, or deny about ourselves.”
Yet the exploration of the shadow — although uncomfortable at times — moves us from an abstract experience of the self to a direct one. Masters describes the experience of his client Mark: “I saw his internal division: there was sincerity, hurt, and a subtle flatness in his left eye, but something darker and harder was emanating from his right eye. I had him face me and cover his left eye with his left hand, and then I guided him into expressing what he felt as he looked at me through his right eye: aggression and entitlement, tightly coiled but very much present.”
The shadow also houses all of our early conditioning, which can often feel like a sort of imprisonment that we interpret as normal. “Though we may intuit, at least to some degree, that we’re trapped, we still tend to invest a lot of energy in seeking effective distractions from this sense of imprisonment, perhaps visualizing freedom as a more comfortable place, without seeing that this apparent freedom actually may just be another kind of prison,” writes Masters.
Interrupting the reactivity that is fueled by the shadow self, Masters tells us, requires that we step back, slow down, and create space. He writes, “You start to realize that, while you were being reactive, your voice sounded much like it did when you were seven or eight years old. The same desperation, the same drivenness, the same cadence. You were hurting considerably then and trying to keep your hurt out of sight, because earlier times had been met with parental rejection and shaming.”
The shadow can also emerge in our sense of self, influencing how dependent or independent we feel, and how capable we are of recognizing and embracing our interdependence. One way to begin exploring our shadow, then, is to look to our fears. Masters writes, “When we are in the grip of fear, things often become more shadowy, more threatening and more edgy, keeping us excessively vigilant — and small.”
Through exploring our fears, and especially not shaming ourselves for them, we become open to compassion, empathy, and our inherent vulnerability.
We also come to see the underlying motivations of our actions — a kind of honesty that is committed to recognizing and no longer being controlled by the motivations we’ve kept in our shadow.
Reactivity, for example, can be a chance to explore our shadow more fully, and in doing so, open the space for increased transparency and vulnerability.
While working with our shadow is a major undertaking, Masters tells us, four practices are necessary: being present, having healthy empathy, the practice of not-knowing, and holding space for our shadow elements.
We may also find that in exploring our shadow, we find our inner critic. Masters writes, “There are painful, dark, embarrassing things in each of us — qualities we can easily disown, reject, or deny. But when we move toward these things, approaching them with both care and curiosity, there’s a sense of them leaving our shadow, shifting from being disowned or rejected its to reclaimed me.”
To emerge from our shadow, and the pain, grief, shame, anger, and self-sabotage it contains, we have to enter it. And when we do, we may find that not only are we no longer controlled or imprisoned by our shadow, but rather fueled by empathy, compassion, wholehearted love, openness, honesty, and a complete experience of who we are.
Bringing Your Shadow Out of the Dark: Breaking Free from the Hidden Forces That Drive You
Sounds True, October 2018
Paperback, 248 pages