To Truly Know Yourself, You Have to Confront Your “Shadow Self”
We’ve all experienced this phenomenon: we’ve made a conscious choice to live a certain way, only to make bad decisions that go against what we decided.
What’s going on there? Why can’t we stick to what we decided?
As I began my journey of healing from childhood abuse and started therapy with the ManKind Project, I learned about the concept of the “shadow self.” Suddenly, it all clicked. I saw my anger, drinking, and bad business decisions in a new light.
My shadow self has been responsible for these decisions. It was still me behind the wheel—just the part of myself I was ashamed of and kept hidden from everyone.
In this article, I want to share how I confronted my shadow self and the lessons I learned in doing so. If you’re struggling with your shadow self, or you’re just now learning about it, I hope my story will help you face up to this part of yourself.
I Wrote Down My Thoughts
Learning about my shadow self in therapy forced me to consider my unconscious motivations. What was driving me? I came up with an idea to hang a sign in my home office which read, “What am I thinking?” Every time I glanced at the sign, I took an inventory of the thoughts going through my head at that moment.
I was stunned to discover how many negative thoughts I was having—not every day, or every hour, but every minute. I dreaded going to the mailbox, for instance, because I expected bad news. I was always afraid when I had to speak because of my stutter.
There were constant thoughts of someone dying—Ann, or one of the kids. If I had a flight coming up, I would envision the plane crashing. It occurred to me that I was probably attracting more negativity because of my constant mental pessimism.
To increase my awareness about these negative thoughts, I began to write them down. For example, if I was in the middle of a business meeting, I might think, If they really knew me, they wouldn’t want to do business with me. Later when I got home, I'd get quiet, meditate, and invite that thought into my conscious mind. Then I’d write about it.
Journaling enabled me to see the words that I would never say, but which I’d always believed. When writing them, I discover what is really in my subconscious mind.
That was a powerful wake-up call.
Change Didn’t Happen Right Away
The journaling was a long process; it usually took several sessions before I began to understand any given fear. I’d like to tell you that there were huge changes that happened every time I sat down to write: journal about it, boom, fears are gone.
It wasn't that easy, but I was persistent. I had committed to heal and had accountability from good friends helping me along. Without either of those in place, I probably would have backed out of the process and gone to have a drink. But my community of support wouldn’t allow that, and I was determined to see the process through.
Before trying to “know myself,” I would have normally pushed those negative thoughts away and tried to think about something else. Those fear-driven thoughts never went away though; they just got buried. Once buried, they turned into inner demons. Fear, anger, and pain would leak out of me at the most inappropriate times.
Now, with a determination to know myself, I brought them into the light. I invited the thoughts to surface, and allowed myself to feel them. That was usually uncomfortable. Bad thoughts generally produced bad emotions. But in feeling the pain of these negative emotions, I was learning to “un-numb” myself. I started feeling more joy, compassion, and empathy—all the emotions I had deadened. Plus, when I got through experiencing the negative feeling, the fears started to slowly disappear.
When I Reached the Tipping Point
A major tipping point for me came when I confronted the negative belief that I was somehow to blame for the childhood abuse I suffered. I was convinced that I’d committed this unforgivable sin, and afraid God would punish me.
I ended up punishing myself worse than God ever would have.
After a lifetime of blaming myself, I finally realized, I didn’t do anything wrong. I was an innocent child. It was the caregiver’s responsibility to protect me, not mine. I did nothing wrong. I wrote those words down and stared at them. It wasn’t my fault. Later, I spoke the words out loud at therapy, and new positive beliefs started taking hold.
I started hanging more signs anywhere else I would see them. Some of them read:
I’m stronger every day, and I’m stronger in every way.
God is good.
Nothing without joy.
These signs are a constant reminder that I don’t have to choose my negative thoughts and let my shadow self steer the ship. I can choose to replace my negative thoughts with positive ones, but first, I had to confront those thoughts I’d previously buried.
It wasn’t easy, but it’s been a huge step in my process of healing from abuse.