Know Yourself

What do I see when I look at myself?
How do I see myself?

Imagine you are looking in a mirror. Who and what do you see? Do you like this person looking back at you? Love them? Do you see their faults? Their strengths? What do you know about them? What do you deny about who you see? How well do you know this person? We spend our whole life occupying our bodies, but how much quality time do we actually spend getting intimately acquainted with who we are? And, why does it matter?
From the moment we are born we are shaped by our experiences, moulded by our parents and taught societal norms. We learn to cope, and those behaviours are often overused and kept beyond their use by date. By the time we are adults many of us are burdened with all sorts of behaviours that are so embedded that we think they are who we are. The normal response to pain is to erect protective armour, and over time this becomes thought of as our personality. Each layer thickens the barrier between what we present to the world and who we really are. We become so familiar with the armour that we fail to realise that what we are presenting is actually different from who we are.

The questions becomes ‘What do you want to do about it?’ and ‘Why would I do anything about it?’ become relevant. A significant consideration is that if you embark on a process of freeing your true and authentic self from underneath all the protections that you have in place, then you enter a lifelong endeavour you can never again escape. Once started the inner drive and desire for free and full expression of your essence grows and it demands freedom and will not stop fighting for its right. My process started when I felt so restricted by protections that it was remove them or perish. Like a cicada, there came a point where my inner being grew greater than the armour I placed around it. It was a painful, challenging and important process. I struggled to find my way through my labyrinth of darkness. For me this was a process of firstly recognising that I deserved to be loved, first and foremost by myself, and then learning to do so to some extent. I had a whole host of other things to learn along the way, but all were about liberating me a little more with each step.

Finding out who you are, who this person is that is in the mirror looking back at you, requires a lot of effort and commitment. It is so easy to disconnect from ourselves, to get busy with life and forget about living. It becomes easy to lose sight of our values, core beliefs, and principles as we get caught up in the rat race. It takes time and it takes patience and commitment to really be with our self. Some don’t do this because they’ve never realised there may be a benefit. They haven’t missed what they haven’t had. Others are too scared of what they will find, or of the empty space, not knowing how to fill it. And yet others make a complete meal of it, spending much of their life focused on themselves, and missing out on the richness of connecting with others. There is no right way to do it, to learn who we are or to be with ourselves in a manner that works. The thing is to find our way of being with ourselves in a manner that works for us.
One of the fears associated with the inner journey are the potential discoveries of things about ourselves that we do not like. The world of our Dark Shadow houses the dark, stealthy and unknown characters that wait for their moment to appear and interfere, or so it seems. They are the creatures of our dreams, especially our nightmares, of our unspoken, semi-conscious desires that shock us when they arise. As small children we learned what was not acceptable, and hid those behaviours, thoughts and feelings away. During puberty, more were added to the shadows. Every now and again they appear from the shadows, perhaps through our dreams, or during a crisis, or as a fleeting thought. The Dark shadow holds a lot of our energy and power, and while we often fear the characters that lurk there, they have much potency for us as we learn to release the strength they possess. One of my dark shadows is my Sniper. He shows up at times with brutal, direct and devastating argument that cuts through all the fluff and debate and gets to the underlying truth. He also doesn’t care who he hurts, lacks empathy, and isolates himself. I have seen my Sniper take verbal shots at people, deliberately hurting and pushing them away, knowing exactly what to say to cause maximum impact. However he has also brought power when appropriately applied to focus on what really matters. The way in which we draw on and apply the energy of a dark shadow character can have significant positive or negative impact. Developing awareness of our dark shadow increases our ability to take conscious action and reduces the derailing effects of an unexpected character showing up.

We also have what is known as our Light Shadow. These are the aspects of ourselves that we did not feel safe to bring out. This is often where we find our creativity, spontaneity and innocence. One of my light shadow characters is the Innocent, Enquiring Child. I struggled with my son when he incessantly asked questions as a little boy. I came to realise my difficulty related to this same part of me that I had disowned because I had not felt safe bringing this part of me out when I was a child. I was then able to soften toward my son, and more fully enjoy that aspect of him. As I healed my relationship with my inner child, my relationship with my son improved.

To become our true selves we need to liberate our dark and our light shadow in a way that is authentic and meaningful.

Feedback is another way to get to know ourselves. Caution needs to be applied to feedback as it is opinion about you, and not fact. However, there can be real value in noting what is received, particularly if the same feedback is received consistently from multiple people. I had a period of my life where I was told repeatedly that I was arrogant. This did not gel with my view of myself as being shy. I came to realise that I was perceived by others as aloof and disinterested. With this recognition I was able to identify protective behaviours that created this perception and reduce their impact. Feedback can broaden our understanding of how we are experienced by others. It may be difficult to receive, is not always valid, and does deserve gentle consideration. However, feedback is a doorway into who we are as seen by the outside world.

Life is a journey, and getting to know and be ourselves is as much a hero’s journey on the inside as life ever can be on the outside. While getting acquainted with who we are and connecting with ourselves often carries fear, shame, sadness and anger, truly knowing and connecting with ourselves offers a richness of connection, expression and congruence that it is well worth the time, effort and pain. How about taking some time this evening to look at the person staring back at you in the mirror and check out how you are feeling toward yourself and if there’s any room for greater love, acceptance and appreciation?

Me and My Shadow

Me and my shadow
The shadow in one of it guises

A recent experience reminded me of the power and potency of my shadow. I don’t mean that dark outline on the ground when a light is shining. The shadow I am referring to is the collection of behaviours, beliefs, attitudes and traits that have been hidden within.

As we grew up we learned that some behaviours, no matter how natural they were, were not socially acceptable. Children playing with their genitals quickly learn they shouldn’t. Or that they need to keep their clothes on. Temper tantrums are generally ruled out, as are many other behaviours. We learn that our life is easier when we comply with social norms. Those parts we bury as we socially comply are collectively referred to as our “dark shadow”. We also have a “light shadow”, which is where socially acceptable behaviours that we did not feel safe to display are hidden. Examples might include playfulness, innocence and creativity.

As I have become acquainted with my shadow over the years I have been shocked by some aspects and surprised, even disbelieving, of others. My shadow’s repertoire includes common themes of anger, sexuality, and power, common themes throughout society, though the specifics vary person to person. The environment we grew up in shaped our shadow. One shadow character I have become acquainted with is the Seducing Assassin. She beguiles the man in power and kills him before he gets his sexual desires met. That character embodies all the elements of power, sexuality and anger. At the other end of the scale my shadow includes the Potent Virgin, a young, vital woman committed to protecting her chastity for marriage, and is totally equal to resisting all pressures and recognising all subtleties from others wanting her to relinquish it. What? I have feminine shadow characters? Yes, or as the psychologist Jung named them, anima. And women have animus, the masculine portion of their psyche. We all have mixtures of masculine and feminine energies that comprise our shadows.

Recently I found myself in a situation that awoke me emotional to:

  • Fear and powerlessness in the face of overwhelming aggression directed at me from someone of superior physical strength;
  • Rage felt for someone who betrayed my trust and abandoned me; and
  • Helplessness when confronted with suicide attempts of a loved one.

I was very aware of my emotional responses as they arose, but it was the emergence of part of my shadow that caught me by surprise. I found myself in a political debate, something I normally avoid like the plague, and was in a thoroughly “take no prisoners” mode of debate. I was unflinching in ripping apart what I heard, and had no tolerance for anything I judged as illogical or unfounded emotional fluff. I found myself suddenly manifesting a part of myself I had long ago, 30 years ago in fact, buried and decided was not how I wanted to present myself.

Now, I recognise that part of my shadow has emerged and as an energy it has legitimacy, providing me with a greater repertoire of possible responses and approaches over the artificially restricted ones I have used. There is power in the energy; there is nothing that dictates how that energy is applied. That is choice.

This experience has reminded me that nothing of my past is lost. Everything I have ever been is still part of who I am. That is only a problem if I have a lack of acceptance for who I have been or who I am. Generally, I am okay with who I am. I am okay as me with my shadow(s).

How are you with your secret, hidden parts? Are you able to integrate the energies that emerge, as and when they do, productively into the rest of your visible psyche?