| Family Reflections |

Your Shadow Self

Getting to know our secret self can be liberating


The psychoanalyst Carl Jung coined the term “shadow self” to refer to parts of our personality we disown. Disowning them means we have pushed them so far away from our conscious awareness, we don’t even know they exist.

The shadow self affects not only our outer behavior but also our health, our inner emotional experience, and our beliefs. Lurking behind the scenes, it can fuel our headaches, diseases, insomnia, addictions, and compulsions.

Although the shadow self is a part of the subconscious mind, the subconscious mind is much more than the shadow self. It’s the repository of our intuition, creativity, dreams, drives, and many other faculties. The shadow self, on the other hand, is that part of our inner world we find unacceptable. It can include our anger and hostility (when we believe these emotions aren’t “nice”), our inadequacy, selfishness, laziness, lust, greed, self-centeredness, and many more unacceptable traits and feelings.

Why We’re Oblivious

The shadow self is a strange concept and yet a crucial one for us to understand because the shadow self impacts our daily thoughts, feelings, and actions. We want to believe — in a childlike manner — that we’re “good.” We may desperately try to stamp out any hint of “bad” thoughts or feelings through defenses designed to diminish, mislead, and distract us. For example, a woman who feels a deep sense of worthlessness may put extreme attention on the appearance of herself, her family, and/or her home. Her intense efforts at looking good consume her not only because she enjoys the aesthetic of attractive clothes and furniture, but because she’s so rejecting of herself. If she could meet and befriend her shadow self, she might be able to relax and be more normal in managing her public image.

It’s also the shadow self, for instance, that can cause much tension between husband and wife. A husband may be unaware of the resentment he feels toward his wife. At the dinner table, the wife casually mentions how tired she is. The husband blurts out, “Why? From doing too much of nothing all day?” It’s not like he planned this hurtful remark. It was his disowned resentment crawling out of his throat.

For her part, the wife has disowned rage at her husband’s frequent digs. She hasn’t consciously formulated her thoughts about his cruel behavior, and yet, she’s able to immediately spew forth a fully formulated tirade, letting him know exactly what she thinks of his repetitive unkind behavior.

Accepting the Shadow

Self-acceptance of the shadow self involves meeting it, acknowledging it, and befriending it. The woman with the perfect appearance compulsion may, through relaxation and meditation, discover that deep inside, she feels inadequate, worthless, and/or bad. Instead of desperately running away from this feeling by denying, diminishing, or demolishing it, she can do “shadow work” which involves approaching it with curiosity and compassion. “Yes, I feel bad. Yes, I feel insufficient and unlovable.” Now, just sitting with that feeling, it washes over her. It becomes more familiar and less terrifying. “In fact, I am insufficient, I can’t do everything perfectly. But who cares? I’m so tired of trying to prove that I’m okay.”

There’s great relief in discovering and embracing our imperfection, our flaws and shortcomings, our troubled thoughts, and our painful emotions. Whether we feel unwanted, rejected, ashamed, or some other set of horrible feelings, it’s so comforting to know that all human beings are similarly afflicted and that the only thing we can do is to constantly work on ourselves.

We can embrace our successes and our failures as we do this. We can be right and wrong because we are right and wrong. We are successful and we fail. We do good and we do harm.

Although we can accept the reality of our complex personalities, we can still do our best as we strive to meet standards established by the Torah. We know that we can live in a state of teshuvah, getting up every morning and continuing to move forward, helping ourselves while removing the prison of shame. “Yes, I lied. Yes, I mistreated my loved ones. I can and will do better.”

Keeping the shadow self at bay utilizes a lot of energy, resulting in a state of chronic stress and fatigue. Once we bring the shadow into the light of day, this energy is available for living a fuller, happier, and more powerful life.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 894)

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