“Does what happens inside show on the outside? There is such a great fire in one’s soul, and yet nobody ever comes to warm themselves there, and passersby see nothing but a little smoke coming from the top of the chimney, and go on their way.”
― Vincent van Gogh, The Letters of Vincent van Gogh
At some point, before you were probably even old enough to remember, you decided that there were parts of you that were unlovable. You realized that there were parts of you that your gods (your parents) wouldn’t love or tolerate. You realized that there were parts of you that even disgusted these deities, these people who created your world, your safety, your food, and shelter; these people who created THE world as far as your little-self was concerned. And, if you grew up in a religious environment, you no doubt quickly came to realize that the same was true about the literal God as well—that he wouldn’t love or tolerate certain parts of you, and that you needed to hide or wash these parts of you away completely.
But it didn’t work, did it? Those parts of you that you hated the most, that you most wanted to hide, they’re still there, aren’t they? They went deep and they went dark, but they never went away. And somehow, even though you piled so much stuff on top of these parts to hide them from view, even though you covered it with so many accolades and so many distractions like material goods and accomplishments and fake personas, those little hidden parts of yourself became your new gods.
Your shadow self didn’t go away because you told it to stop existing. You may not be surprised to hear that the parts of you that bring you the most shame are also the parts that direct your energy, your thoughts, and your behavior. These parts dictate the people we draw into our lives and the relationships we create. These parts dictate the boundaries we create or the boundaries we don’t create. These parts speak to us constantly, sometimes silently but always heard.
Until we are willing to not only face those hidden parts of us (but even more so love and accept them in the way we always should have) we will be eternally being chased by the parts of ourselves that we have been trying to outrun since childhood.
This is the topic of my latest episode of “The Language of Love.” In this episode, I am discussing your ‘shadow-self’ and why you have to stop running from these parts of yourself if you want to unlock your true potential for soul growth and healing.
What does your shadow-self look like? For some of us, it might be our sexuality or gender identity. Maybe you were punished as a child for behaving too feminine and told that boys don’t cry or boys don’t wear pink. Maybe you were scolded for being too loud or too sensitive. Maybe you learned that your neurodivergent diagnosis (such as being ADHD or autistic) was shameful to your family. Maybe you were constantly living under the shadow of a sibling who was deemed prettier or smarter or athletic otherwise seemingly more talented than you. Maybe you learned that there were parts of you that were inherently sinful and dirty and that you could be tormented in eternal damnation for your ‘original sin.’
As you can see, there are so many ways that our shadow-selves can form. They can be created by our family system, our religion, or our culture. Our shadow selves are so unique and multi-layered, but one thing is true for all of our shadow selves: They are woefully unloved.
I know what you’re thinking: Dr. Berman, why would I love the parts of me that are weak or shameful? Why would I love the fact that I have a bad temper or that I lie for attention or that I always want to compete with my siblings?
Because those parts of you have served you. Those parts deserve all the appreciation in the world because they’ve done so much to protect you and keep you safe. You might not realize this, but your shadow-self didn’t form to hurt you. It formed to help you survive your childhood.
Here is a good example: My client Sara learned as a child that she was never allowed to have emotional needs. Her mother had been married several times, and her relationships always had extreme highs and lows. From the time she was very young, Sara became the caretaker and nurturer of her mother. After her latest boyfriend or husband cheated on her or abused her or left her, it would be Sara who would pick her mother up off the floor and help her dry her tears. She kept the house clean, did the laundry, and even cared for her little brother. Many mornings she would even wake her mother up for work when her mom stayed out too late the night before.
But, whenever Sara had needs, she quickly learned that there was no place for them in the household, and that her mother would lash out in annoyance or give her the silent treatment if she dared express any ‘negative’ feelings. If she cried because they had to move apartments once again, her mother would snap at her that she was ungrateful and she was a selfish daughter. If she was scared of the movie on the T.V. and wanted to change the channel, her mother would tell her she was a baby and that she made everything about her.
In other words, she began to realize that if she wanted her mother’s love and affection (which she desperately did, as all children do), she had to keep any fear, sadness, or anger inside. If she wanted her mommy to be happy with her, then she had to be happy all the time. She had to be the perfect child who never caused her mom any fuss: And so that is who she became.
But as she grew into adulthood, Sara still had needs, even if she didn’t want to admit it. So how did she get those needs met? Sara would slip into passive-aggressive communication or toxic martyrdom. She would give, give, and give, and then resent the people in her life for letting her give so much. She would manipulate her loved ones into feeling bad for her and giving her attention, instead of just honestly expressing her true needs. Sometimes this looked like faking sick for attention or concocting stories that made her look more successful and more altruistic than she really was. She never learned how to be vulnerable and express her needs, so she had to find elaborate ways to get that attention while still trying to look like she was serving others. So, as an adult, Sara constantly found herself in relationships where she had to be a codependent caretaker and where she was always in the middle of some crisis or drama, caretaking others in a desperate bid to get her own needs met.
While Sara’s shadow might be that she can be manipulative and indirect, instead of authentic and vulnerable, she’s a great caretaker. She is wonderful at sensing the needs of others. She is intuitive and seen as kind and heroic. But she’s also unable to get her needs met, surrounded by energy vampires, and burned out and exhausted. The key is once we honor become friends with and love that part of ourselves, we integrate the shadow into the light. By making friends with her shadow side, Sara has learned to become someone who is still caring, giving, and intuitive, but with boundaries and who can ask for the same in return and expect it.
Our shadow self can really take over when we are triggered. Someone whose shadow-self is that they are insecure might be deeply triggered when surrounded by successful people. Or they might fear that their partner is always checking out other attractive people in the room. They might be triggered by when their sibling gets a promotion or their best friend loses 10 pounds. Anytime you feel emotionally out of control or horribly upset to the point you almost feel physically ill, you can be sure your shadow self is triggered and doing a lot of reacting.
But here is the flip side: Someone whose shadow side is ‘never feeling good enough’ probably has a LOT they need to thank their shadow for: I would bet if this is your shadow-self that you have a ton of professional and personal accomplishments. You wouldn’t have these accomplishments if it wasn’t for your inner shadow urging you to do better, try harder, and achieve, achieve, achieve.
Honoring your shadows requires bravery because none of us want to see ourselves in a negative light and we’ve worked hard to deny those parts of ourselves. Our shadows are like those monsters in the basement that seem so terrifying…only when we turn on the light, we discover there is nothing scary there. There is no scary boogeyman down there: It’s just our storage closet or our laundry room. The same is true for our spiritual basements: Our shadows are sweet, loving, deserving, misguided, innocent and extremely young parts of ourselves who didn’t have any idea how to take care of ourselves or keep ourselves safe. They were a young sweet child’s misguided coping mechanism.
But if you don’t honor them, they start to take over when you don’t want them to. They start to lead you to decisions and behaviors that are harmful and draining. The good news is just like a neglected child who desperately needs and deserves love, you can give that to your shadows as well.
The next time you feel drained, triggered, or are getting feedback from others you trust that feels negative or critical, that’s your opportunity to be with that shadow.
Take some deep breaths.
Scan your body with your conscious awareness. You will feel pain or tightness in some areas. Stay there, as if you are just quietly sitting with a scared and untrusting child. Just be present with that part of yourself with your full attention. Send it all the love and acceptance a scared, hurt child would need when acting out. The love and acceptance you needed and deserved and never received. Recognize that whatever “negatives” your shadows hold, they are only there because of not receiving the love, safety, and acceptance your child self wholly deserves.
It’s also very helpful to thank your shadow-self for the gifts it has brought you. These gifts will be as myriad as our shadows. So, spend some time figuring out what gifts you have received from your shadow self, and truly honor your shadow for giving you such priceless spiritual tools.
Maybe your shadow self gave you the gift of advocacy. Maybe it gave you the gift of supreme sensitivity and an artistic soul. Maybe it gave you the gift of teaching and healing (these are my gifts, thank you shadow Laura!)
What happens for you when you bring honor and gratitude to your shadow self? How does it transform your shadow and more importantly, you? Remember, all these seemingly disparate parts of you are actually connected and interwoven, so the more we can integrate and bring these parts together, the more whole and healed we can become. We become less easily triggered and less easily crushed by life’s big and small disappointments.
You will likely find that your shadow suffuses with light. It feels brighter and easier to carry. It stops squirming and fighting inside of you and it starts to become restful and at ease. Your attention transforms shame into strength, and it turns your shadow into a lighthouse. It turns your shadow into a guide, an intuitive power, that you can use to create the reality you desire.
And it all starts with befriending those parts of you that you were taught to hate and taught to hide. You never needed to hate any part of yourself. This is the most powerful spiritual lesson we can ever learn, and once we learn it, we can truly begin to heal.