This blog post is Part 3 in a 4-part blog series on Integrated Faith. (If you missed the first blog post, you can find it here.) In this blog series, I am taking a look at aspects of our spiritual lives that might be out of step or disconnected with the rest of our person.
This post focuses on integrating the shadow into our lives. What is the shadow? Your shadow encompasses the aspects of your life that you hide, repress, and deny. The shadow holds those things about yourself that you try to reject and forget about. You think they are gone, but they are just pushed down outside of your awareness.
How Do Things Get Put Into Shadow?
How do things get put into shadow? When you are born, you have a full, 360-degree personality. You express all parts of yourself openly and fully. Spend some time observing a baby or young child, and you will see what I mean. When babies and young children are happy, they smile and laugh with joy. When they are sad, they cry and wail. And when they are angry, they yell and scream. They engage life and express their emotions fully. Nothing is off limits.
But as you grow up, you begin to be molded by your family and cultural upbringing. You learn, both explicitly and implicitly, that certain parts of yourself are “good,” and you get rewarded for those parts. Maybe it’s being a good boy or girl. Maybe it’s being good at sports or doing well in school. Whatever it is, you try to develop those parts of yourself more and more.
At the same time, you also learn, both explicitly and implicitly, that certain parts of yourself are “bad,” and you get punished for those parts. Maybe it’s your anger—you got grounded for getting mad and punching your brother. Maybe it’s your sadness—your parents taught you that boys don’t cry. Or maybe you received the message that your sexuality was something bad or dirty—you got caught masturbating and felt shame about that, or you had sexual feelings toward the same sex, and didn’t know what to do about that. These parts of yourself—the parts that you learn are “bad”—you begin to hide, repress, and deny. These parts of yourself become your shadow.
The Shadow Isn’t Bad
Your shadow isn’t necessarily bad or sinful. Emotions such as sadness, anger, or fear are necessary and serve an important purpose in our lives. Sexuality can an incredible gift and bond between two people. Weakness and failure are normal parts of life and being human. But for many people, they get shoved down into the recesses of our shadow.
The Shadow Never Disappears
We think our shadow is gone, but it never really disappears. It’s just hidden. Sometimes it can come back and bite us in the ass. It’s like trying to hold a beach ball under the water. The pressure builds up, and your shadow comes out sideways. Maybe you have fits of anger that seem to come out of nowhere. Perhaps you had a midlife crisis, or an affair that you never expected would occur. It might be your shadow, wrecking havoc on your life.
Shadow in the Church
In the church world, shadows often run rampant, perhaps because there is such intense pressure to “be good.” The ideals of the Christian faith taught in church can be extreme—no sex before marriage, don’t be gay, don’t even have a lustful thought, don’t be angry, turn the other cheek, be joyful in all things, don’t be anxious, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and love your enemy.
It’s hard to live up to these ideals. Often our true authentic selves also include the opposites. This experience was true even for the founders of the Christian faith, such as the apostle Paul. Listen to this passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans: I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do… For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing (Romans 7:15, 18-19). Might Paul have been struggling with his shadow?
What do we do with the shadow part of ourselves? One option is to keep doing what you are doing—try to reject the shadow part of yourself. This seems to be what Paul tried to do, but it didn’t result in a great outcome: So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? (Romans 7:21-24). In his depression, Paul ultimately concludes that God will rescue him: Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:25).
5 Steps to Integrate the Shadow
I wonder if complete integration and wholeness can only be fully realized in Heaven. But as we work to bring God’s kingdom to earth, both in our own lives and in our communities, is there a way to live more integrated lives? Is there a way to make peace with our shadow? Here are five steps to integrate the shadow into your life.
- Identify the shadow. The first step is to identify the shadow. What is your shadow? What are the things that you hide, repress, and deny? One strategy for identifying your shadow is to look at the parts of your life where you seem unbalanced. What are the strongest, most intense parts of your personality? The opposite part might be in shadow. For example, are you an overly nice people pleaser? Your anger might be in shadow. Are you a perfectionist? Your weakness might be in shadow. Do you tend to be stoic? Your sadness (or emotions in general) might be in shadow. Another way to identify your shadow is to look at the things you judge most harshly. Do you criticize people who are gay? Your sexuality might be in shadow. Do you hate people who are lazy? The relaxed part of you might be in shadow. A third way to identify your shadow is to consider your family, cultural, and religious upbringing? What did these people value most strongly? What did they preach most strongly against? These parts of yourself might have been forced to go into shadow. Think about your own life and experience. What is your shadow?
- Learn from the shadow. Once you have identified your shadow, the next step is to learn from your shadow. What happened in your life that caused you to hide, repress, and deny your shadow? Was it something you were taught from your family? Your culture? Your religion? Where did you first learn that part of you was bad and needed to be cut out of your life? Next, think about the consequences of putting that part of your life into shadow? How has rejecting that part of yourself hurt you? What has rejecting that part of yourself cost you? How has putting that part of yourself into shadow impacted your life? Your family? Your community? Also, what good things might come from that part of yourself, if you were to allow yourself to explore it more fully? How might your shadow serve you or help you, if you allowed yourself to integrate that part into your life? What can you learn about your shadow?
- Embrace the shadow. The next step is to embrace the shadow and find ways to integrate the shadow into your life. Based on your new learning about your shadow, how would you like to live? This doesn’t necessarily mean that you act out on every impulse of your shadow. (This can often cause different types of problems.) But it does mean that you are thoughtful about how you might move toward the shadow part of yourself. For example, perhaps you have noticed a sexual impulse toward your secretary that you have tried to shove into shadow. It is probably not wise to start having an affair with your secretary, but it is important to recognize that your sexuality is in shadow. What might it look like to embrace your shadow and move toward your sexuality? This might mean that you need to get into couple’s therapy to work on the sexual relationship with your wife. Or take another example; perhaps you have noticed an angry shadow, which has led to an impulse to murder your boss with a baseball bat. It is not wise to act out on this impulse, but you may need to think about moving toward your anger and integrating your anger more fully into your life. Perhaps you need to confront your boss, or set better boundaries with your boss.
- Adjust your framework. It is possible that your work to integrate your shadow may require you to adjust the framework for how you view the world. This may include things you were taught from your family, culture, or even religion. Many people get stuck at this step, and are unwilling to make these adjustments. When it comes down to it, many people prefer to live disintegrated lives rather than change their minds about something they were taught to be true by their family, culture, or religion. But so many of our familial, cultural, and religious teachings push us toward one direction, forcing us to reject or cut off the other side of ourselves. For example, perhaps you identify as gay, but have been taught your entire life that being gay was a sin. So you cut off and reject your sexuality, pushing it down into shadow. You have told yourself that you can live without the sexual part of your life, or perhaps you only engage the sexual part of your life in secret. Integrating your shadow may mean that you have to adjust your cultural or religious framework to make more room for your sexuality. This is some of the most difficult work that we have to do if we want to integrate our shadow.
- Grace is sufficient. Working to integrate your shadow is difficult, sometimes agonizing work. Often this work is long-term, and may take your entire life to fully flesh out. Throughout this difficult process, it is important to remember to give yourself grace for where you are at, and to receive grace from God. In the book of 2 Corinthians, Paul is struggling with a persistent problem, something he calls his “thorn in the flesh.” Listen to his process: Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (1 Corinthians 12:7-9). Paul was trying to work something out in his own life and he never fully got there. Still, God’s grace was sufficient for him along the way. And it is sufficient for us as well. Work to accept yourself “as is” as you are working through the process of integrating your shadow.
Discussion: What do you think of the idea of the shadow? What parts of yourself have you hidden, repressed, and denied? What is one step you could take today toward identifying and integrating your shadow?