Embracing our Dark Sides
Accepting the best and worst in ourselves
Posted Jan 20, 2018
Though most of us are doing the best we can in any given moment, there will inevitably be times when our less-than-ideal self rears its ugly head, times when, despite our greatest efforts, our emotions betray us and our most childish, reactive behaviors are triggered.
The not-so-pretty parts of ourselves emerge in spite of us. They are the tendencies that live within each of us, the primitive, basic instincts we are born with and soon learn are unacceptable. These include rage, greed, jealousy, addiction, procrastination, and any number of self-destructive behaviors.
Carl Jung referred to these instincts, or dark sides of our personalities, as our shadow selves. They have been portrayed across media throughout time—in Greek myths, film, art, and literature, and embodied by famous characters from Darth Vader to Hamlet.
“The shadow is not an error or a flaw,” say Connie Zweig and Steve Wolf, authors of Romancing the Shadow: Illuminating the Dark Side of the Soul. “It is a part of the natural order of who we are. And it is not a problem to be solved; it is a mystery to be faced. It has the power to connect us to the depths of our own imaginations.”
Whatever we call these parts of our personalities, the important thing to remember is that they are just that—parts. They are not the sum of who we are. However, if we allow them to hijack our better judgment, they have the potential to sabotage our relationships, our well-being, and ultimately our lives.
Mindfulness is key
The paradox is that if we want to change the things we hate about ourselves—the shadow self—we must first learn to accept them.
“We all have our shadow sides. They are not bad,” says Allan Lokos, meditation teacher and author of Patience: The Art of Peaceful Living. “It is when we don’t have awareness that problems arise. Only once we are aware can we change.”
The starting place for such change is with mindfulness. Awareness of our behavior, without judgment or harsh criticism, is at the core of mindfulness. “We can look at our actions and our words mindfully,” Lokos suggests, “and decide if they are causing discomfort, or dis-ease. We can then say to ourselves, ‘This type of thinking or speaking is not going to serve me well. Nor will it serve those around me well. I can do better.’”
Living mindfully includes being aware of the words we speak. Words are powerful tools. They shape our lives, our relationships, and even our sense of worth. Before speaking, take that sacred pause and ask yourself, Is what I am about to say helpful? Is it kind? If in doubt, don’t say anything at all. As Lokos, says, “You can’t put your foot in our mouth if it isn’t open.”
It is important to also notice our negative self-talk and ask what self-beliefs they reinforce. What we focus our thoughts on becomes the inclination of the mind.
Mindfulness is more than simply being aware; it is awareness with self-compassion. Components of self-compassion include kindness toward the self, common humanity (or seeing our experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than isolated), and being mindful (rather than over-identifying with our thoughts or feelings).
Simply put, self-compassion means treating yourself with the same kindness and humanity with which you would treat those you love. It is not to be confused with selfishness or lack of regard for others. Quite the contrary. We can’t have true compassion for others if we don’t have it for ourselves. So if a healthy relationship is what we strive for—with ourselves or with others—compassion is non-negotiable. This includes having compassion for the perceived “worst” parts of ourselves.
Inextricable from self-compassion is self-forgiveness. Perhaps more difficult than forgiving the misdeeds of others is forgiving ourselves. Most of us have had moments we wish we could take back, when our emotions betray us or our words come out less than tactfully. We can remind ourselves of our common humanity, that we’ve all been there. When we behave in a hurtful way, self-forgiveness does not mean it is okay to repeat that behavior. However, as Lokos states, we can look at that behavior and decide to do better next time.
Don’t believe everything you think about yourself
Important to keep in mind is that our negative self-assessments will sometimes (if not most of the time) be less than accurate, as we tend to be our own worst critics. Yes, we may have a severe foot-in-the-mouth experience from time to time, but the goal is to have them less often. If we shame and blame ourselves each time we mess up, we are compromising not only our emotional and psychological well-being, but as research shows, our physical health as well because holding on to grievances has been correlated with higher risk of disease.
Humans are inherently imperfect beings and, as such, make mistakes. If we didn’t fall on our faces every now and then, we wouldn’t grow. All we can do is live our lives with the best of intentions, and when we mess up—which we will—simply acknowledge it and vow to do better next time. And remember that, at any given moment, most of us are doing the best we can.
Clay, R.A. (2016). Don’t cry over spilled milk—The research on why it’s important to give yourself a break. American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology. Vol 47, No. 8
Zweig, C; & Wolf, S. (1997). Romancing the shadow: Illuminating the dark side of the soul. New York, NY, US: Ballantine Books Romancing the shadow: Illuminating the dark side of the soul xii 348 pp.