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How to Use Self Reflection to Identify the Light and Dark Within

Shine a light on the dark side of yourself to discover your negative tendencies, and change them.

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Shine a light on the dark side of yourself to discover your negative tendencies, and change them.

Liane is sure that Brian is the love of her life, but when they move in together, she begins to notice a disturbing pattern in herself. When he is late getting home or is absorbed in his work when she wants to talk, she feels red hot with resentment. Soon she sinks into infuriated silence or, worse, explodes at him. Catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror during one of these tirades, Liane is shocked to see the hard, angry expression on her face. “I’m a loving person,” she says. “I don’t know where these feelings come from. Isn’t there a spiritual practice I can do to get rid of my negativities?”

This question comes up a lot, especially from yogis who know what it is to experience loving, expansive states. You know the beautiful, warm-hearted, wise person inside you. So where do these ugly feelings and behaviors come from? Often you wish for a magic bullet to destroy your fearfulness, anger, and insecurity for good. But the desire to get rid of your negative qualities so that you can just be your “good” self is, itself, part of the problem. There is no magic bullet, in yoga or in any other spiritual path, for eliminating negativities. Instead, you need to bring them to consciousness, learn the lessons they have to teach you, and deliberately work with them. The painful samskaras, deep mental grooves that can lead to negative behaviors, will continue to ambush your thoughts and behaviors until you take a close look at them, accept them as an intrinsic aspect of your consciousness, and then release the energy tied up in them so that it becomes available for your personal and spiritual growth.

See also Break Bad Habits Patanjali’s Way

Eventually you reach a point where you have to deal with these negative tendencies—which the great modern psychologist Carl Jung famously referred to as your “shadow”—or live with the fallout from repeating the same unskillful behaviors over and over. “How come you’re always late?” your friends ask. Or, “Why do you keep spreading gossip about other people?” Or maybe you just become aware, like Liane, of how often you erupt at someone close to you, or how you mask your insecurity with boastfulness, or how your sunny moods are often followed by stormy ones. Jung, whose work was influenced by his reading of Eastern sources, called the shadow “the person you’d rather not be”—the opposite of your conscious personality. He coined the term “shadow” to describe qualities that some yogic scriptures categorize as the kleshas (literally, causes of suffering). These are qualities that the Bhagavad Gita, a key yogic text, rather dauntingly describes as “demonic.” In other words, the shadow is all the selfish, primitive, egoic, violent, lazy, entitled aspects of yourself.

The shadow includes all the aspects of your psyche that you prefer not to look at, the traits that you’ve been ashamed of all your life, and the things about yourself that you keep in the psychic basement. Our shadow qualities are often primitive and immature because they haven’t been cooked in the fire of our self-awareness. In fact, when certain negative tendencies remain hidden from our conscious awareness, they will tend to drive our emotions and behaviors in unpredictable ways. This is when you might find yourself losing your temper over something minor, or sinking into despair over a small mistake, or disliking someone who exhibits the trait you don’t want to see in yourself.

See also Getting to Know You: The 5 Koshas

Locate the Source of Your Judgement and Harness It

Shelly, a nurse, prided herself on her ability to empathize with patients and resented her supervisor, who she felt treated patients dismissively. As a result, she often found herself in arguments with her boss, which threatened her job security. In a weekend workshop about the shadow, I asked Shelly to look at why her feelings of judgment were so intense. As we discussed it, she realized that she often felt dismissive toward the same patients her supervisor was dismissive toward—but overcompensated by bending over backward to be nice. Her judgments about her boss mirrored the judgments she directed at herself whenever she lost her temper or behaved in any other way that belied her sweet, caring persona.

It took Shelly a while to make the connection between her self-criticism and her critical judgments about her supervisor. When she was able to see the harshness of her inner judge, she was able to look at her boss with more compassion. As a result, they quarreled less, and Shelly now feels that the atmosphere in the ward is easier for everyone. “Maybe the atmosphere really changed,” she told me. “Or maybe it feels different because I changed.”

As this story illustrates, your unconscious shadow attitudes become the lenses through which you look at life. Refusing to “own” a shadow tendency just makes you less conscious that it is distorting your perspective. When you can’t see something in yourself, you inevitably project the quality onto someone else, either judging or admiring that quality in them.

One strategy is to do some “shadow work,” which involves consciously engaging in practices and inquiry techniques (drawn from the yoga tradition and psychology) designed to help you bring your shadow into awareness and take responsibility for it, like Shelly did. Once you’ve “owned” your shadow, you can begin to modulate and integrate it.

See also Make Peace With Perfectionism + Make Mistakes

Learning to recognize your shadow can transform your relationship to other people and yourself. You’ll have an easier time accepting constructive feedback once you’ve recognized that your perfectionist inner critic is the one who’s beating you up and not the person who’s trying to give you a useful critique.

Even more important, you’ll find that shadow work can dissolve many of your negative feelings about yourself—such as feelings of shame and unworthiness, or the sneaking suspicion that you’re not the person you pretend to be. It also becomes easier to notice and let go of unconscious behavior patterns like being deceitful with your co-workers, blowing up at your mother, or choosing romantic partners who tend to take advantage of you.

Often, people who have engaged in shadow work exhibit a high degree of balance, tolerance, and self-acceptance. They tend to have high integrity, in the sense that they don’t say one thing and do another. Their ethics are not undercut by their unconscious impulses, emotionally charged projections, or negative patterns. As you, too, begin to acknowledge your disowned traits and do your shadow work, you’ll catch glimpses of what genuine inner balance feels like.

See also The Simple 5-Part Practice to Encourage Self Acceptance

Finding Your Shadow Self’s Origin

It’s often painful to become aware of a deep-seated shadow trait, and the pain often goes back to early childhood. Your parents might find you too exuberant, too volatile, too needy, too sensitive, or too angry. Your peers and teachers might reward certain behaviors and reject others. As you meet disapproval, you do your best to repress or cover these qualities.

The problem is that as you repress these unacceptable behaviors, you lose the opportunity to work with them and find the positive aspects of these traits. For example, the intensity that expresses itself in childhood anger—assuming that you are a mentally healthy person—could grow into a mature quality that allows you to stand up to a bully or assert yourself in a challenging situation. Your sadness could develop into a capacity for deep empathy. Your fearfulness has the potential to blossom into a healthy vulnerability; your impulsiveness, into genuine spontaneity. This is why it doesn’t work to repress your shadow. Yes, it’s primitive, selfish, and sometimes volatile, but it’s also the source of the energy you need for creative and spiritual growth.

See also How to See Your True Self

Learn to Redirect Your Shadow Self

There are several core approaches to the shadow, and each of them has value. The classical yoga of Patanjali takes the view that the shadow needs to be purified and, ultimately, eliminated. The traditional prescription is to cultivate virtues such as truthfulness, nonviolence, and contentment and to do purification practices; certain asanas, mantras, and types of meditation will clean out many of the shadow elements of the unconscious. Mantra and chanting practices, for example, can be powerful tools for clearing negativities from the mind and heart, dispelling painful feelings that might ordinarily spur us to impulsive action. These practices are important and necessary disciplines.

But eventually you realize that there is a further step. You begin to recognize that it is possible to liberate the energy tied up in shadow energy and turn it toward a positive goal.

A key verse in the Spanda Karikas, an important text of Tantric philosophy, explains something of the mystery hidden in shadow energy. It describes how spanda, the transformative energy of the universe and the energy that gives you the power to make an evolutionary leap, can be found with great immediacy in moments of intense feeling and passion—in anger, in fear, in deep confusion as well as in joyful excitement. The Tantric approach suggests that you focus on the energy present in intense emotions and direct your focus inward, into the heart of that energy or impulse, rather than act it out. Then, you can ride even a negative emotion into its source—the pure consciousness that is your divine core.

See also Nurture the New You

The First Step to Self Acceptance is Self Reflection

If you want to begin to resolve the polarized opposites within yourself, you need to shine nonjudgmental, conscious awareness on your shadow. A good place to start is by considering the traits for which people generally criticize you. Maybe you’ve been ignoring feedback from your family and co-workers that you’re bossy, or hot headed, or a little flirtatious with other people’s significant others.

Take my friend Jon, for instance. He gets teased by all his friends for exaggerating his accomplishments and is criticized for blaming other people for his mistakes. For a long time, he simply refused to accept the feedback. Then his best friend of many years told him that he no longer wanted to be close to someone he couldn’t trust to tell the truth.

Jon was deeply hurt, but he realized that he had to finally acknowledge that stretching the truth had become a habit. As he admitted it to himself—and dealt with the accompanying feelings of shame and embarrassment—he began to vigilantly, and from moment to moment, choose to speak with truthfulness.

See also 10-Minute Guided Meditation for Self-Compassion

Strategies to Help Look Within

It’s also important to notice when an encounter leaves you feeling emotionally charged. Why do you get so upset when the line at the ticket counter moves slowly? Could your fury come from a feeling of thwarted entitlement, a belief that life should arrange itself to fit your convenience? Why do you feel so sour when your girlfriend easily passes her bar exam? Is it because you have been procrastinating about finishing your doctoral thesis and her success feels threatening? As you look closely at your hidden shadow feelings, they begin to lose their charge—and, hence, their power over you.

Another way to bring your shadow to light is to look at the people you feel vehemently negative about. When Hillary Clinton was running in the 2008 primary elections, I kept encountering women who would practically froth at the mouth when her name was mentioned. All of them were successful women who had had to make a lot of compromises to rise in male-dominated professions. Hillary, they would say, “is ruthless. She’s compromised.” And sometimes, “I just hate her.” The vehemence alone indicated that there was projection going on. The “dark” qualities they saw in her were unacknowledged aspects of themselves.

See also How to Cultivate Compassion

This also holds true for your positive shadow—for the unowned “golden” qualities in you. The people you idealize for their courage, creativity, wisdom, or charm mirror your own hidden potentials. Think about it: Whom did you idolize in college and why? What qualities and traits make you fall in love with someone? What do you admire about your closest friends? These are clues to your own unexpressed or uncultivated strengths.

As you continue doing your shadow work over time, make an effort to notice and explore the ways that your shadow might be manifesting, without judgment or self-blame. For instance, you might become aware that you’re in the grip of your shadow when you find yourself obsessing over your ex’s critical remarks. Or when you brood over a close friend’s silence rather than calling her. Or when you idolize your boss because he’s so creative, while continuing to hold back from offering your own ideas. Once you can recognize when you are in the grip of your shadow, you can refrain from acting on a negative shadow impulse (such as lashing out at a loved one) or choose to behave differently than you might have otherwise (by being patient when someone is annoying you or by reflecting on how the man you suddenly adore exhibits beautiful qualities that are latent in yourself).

See also Yoga to Cultivate Compassion, Gratitude, and Joy – Part I

Acknowledge Yourself to Accept Yourself

Then you can take the next step, the step that allows integration and, ultimately, release. You learn how to hold the shadow feelings in your awareness and sense your way into the energy that’s tied up in them. You recognize and accept the fact that, like everyone else, you contain light and you contain darkness. And if you can become the witness of both, your very awareness will allow these two sides of yourself to integrate, releasing the energy that has been tied up in privileging one side over the other.

Paradoxically, it’s then, and only then, that you gain real power to change the tendencies and behaviors in yourself that can and should be changed. Change doesn’t come from blindly trying to suppress or get rid of a negative tendency or by refusing to acknowledge a positive one. It comes through the power we gain by becoming aware of the actual tendency.

It is only when we come to know our own depths—our unique wisdom and our unique blindness, the way we are at our most loving and the way we are when we’re most angry—that we become truly trustworthy to ourselves and others. That’s when we can authentically choose to live as our best Self. That’s when our yoga begins to shine through all our moments and all our days.

See also 6 Mindful Cardio Moves With Mantras + Music for Self-Love

An Exercise to Draw Your Shadow Out

A creative way to identify your unacknowledged and projected shadow is to try a 30-minute exercise that I call the Letter-Writing Game.

Letter 1: Write a letter to someone you dislike, judge, disapprove of—a friend, a colleague, a family member, a public figure. Describe the things you dislike about them and why. (“I can’t stand the way you talk to people because it makes everyone feel bad.”)

Letter 2: Address the second letter to someone you admire. Write everything that you love and admire about them in detail, again addressing that person directly. (“I love how adventurous you are.” “You have such a gift for empathizing with people.”)

See also 10 Ways to Love Yourself (More) in the Modern World

Then Follow These Four Steps

1. Read the letters aloud in front of a mirror, substituting every “you” with “I.” In other words, read the letters as though they were addressed to you.

2. Discuss the exercise with a friend. Having a witnessing friend present can help you see a lot deeper into your own shadow tendencies. And you can do the same for him or her.

3. Sit in meditation, following the breath. Ask that the inner Self, the power of grace, and the spirit of yoga be present within you. Offer the qualities you’ve seen in yourself—both the dark and the light shadow qualities—to the Self. Ask, “May all imbalances be balanced. May confusion be illuminated. May the dark and light sides of myself be balanced, and may I be able to use the gifts hidden in my shadow for the benefit of all beings.” Once you’ve made the offering, sit quietly for a few more minutes.

4. In the hours, days, and months that follow, stay alert for any subtle inner shifts. Notice if there is a change in the way you see those other people, or in how you see yourself.

Sally Kempton is an internationally recognized teacher of meditation and yoga philosophy and the author of Meditation for the Love of It.

See also Q+A: How Can I Use Ayurveda to Love and Accept Myself More?