In her TedTalk, acclaimed writer Isabel Allende said the art to fleshing out characters for her stories involves layering them with frailties and passion. As she puts it: “Nice people with common sense do not make for interesting characters. They only make good former spouses.” She goes on to say that she inhabits her stories with a sprinkling of “mavericks, dissidents, adventurers, outsiders, and rebels.”
This got me thinking that the one thing we are most afraid of in ourselves—the piece of us we bury and cloister deep inside—may indeed be the most attractive part of us that when exposed, acts like a beacon attracting the goodness and love from those around us. Since making a very public disclosure last year that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I’ve been struck by two reactions: the incredible love and support that has filled my life, and the realization of the overwhelming pain that so many people carry in their soul.
I often find solace in the words of Carl Jung, and this occasion is no different. “We know that the wildest and most moving dramas are played not in the theatre but in the hearts of ordinary men and women who pass by without exciting attention, and who betray to the world nothing of the conflicts that rage within them.” The shadow self was Jung’s construct of the part of us that we conceal and deny existence to. As society becomes increasingly superficial, dominated by the cult of celebrity, news in sound bites, and social media self-promotion, we further distance ourselves from our shadow, comprised of our fears and uncertainties, the nuances so beautifully misshapen—the hidden gears that lie beneath all our social interactions and personal reflections.
It’s only recently that I’ve begun to interpret my disclosure of childhood sexual abuse not as a letting go of a toxic soul-destroying secret but as a journey into the shadow that has been my constant companion for so many years. It’s this very journey into that with which we we are most afraid to examine that Jung believed holds the key to our personal freedom. By reintegrating our shadow self, we embrace all parts of us, even those which cause the greatest discomfort. I view the process akin to an oyster enveloping an irritating grain of sand, and eventually delivering a magnificent pearl to the world.
Before embarking on those first trepidatious steps into your shadow, you might consider the following:
1. You have to discover who you are before you can show the world who you can be.
Ask yourself, What am I most afraid of exposing to those around me? If you dig deep enough, your bound to discover that shame lies at its core. Remind yourself that you’re turning towards your shadow, and like any shadow, the faster we move, the faster our shadow moves—Start with where you are, and give yourself time to peel back the scar tissue that has become a veil to keep others from truly connecting with you.
2. Perfect being perfectly imperfect.
When I stop comparing myself to others and instead begin identifying with others, I begin to build bridges where there once were walls. Just like Isabel Allende, I see the joy in populating my life with “mavericks” and “outsiders”. When my back is against the wall, it’s authenticity in myself and in those around me that will ultimately guide me.
3. Allow some space to grow.
Meaningful transformation happens when we allow ourselves and others to slip in and out of different skin until we find the one we're most settled in. Walking into my shadow this year has meant questioning everything and everyone in my life. It’s been an elastic year of regression, progression, resistance, and ultimately freedom.
This intrepid journey into our darkness is not for the faint at heart, and as Jung would lead us to believe, this journey to the “shadow-side of human nature verges on the impossible. Consider for a moment what it means to grant the right of existence to what is unreasonable, senseless, and evil! Yet it is just this that the modern man insists upon. He wants to live with every side of himself-to know what he is. That is why he casts history aside. He wants to break with tradition so that he can experiment with his life and determine what value and meaning things have in themselves.”