Ego, Self-Improvement, and Shadow Work
One important difference between self-improvement and narcissism can be when the desire for self-improvement is allied with an intention to see and accept the whole reflection, warts and all, as well as the awareness that the reflection isn’t the thing itself. It helps to keep in mind that the ego’s image of itself isn’t actually the ego, just as the ego isn’t the whole self. These assertions are true because we simply cannot see the whole self, in the same way that we cannot see our own faces, let alone our own eyes and all they are connected to.
This intention to see and accept as much of the truth as possible, and the humility to remember that we will always have blind spots in ourselves, leads us to better grasp and come to terms with the Shadow. The Shadow is that part of ourselves we create every time we shine the light of consciousness back on ourselves to say, “I am these things, not those.” Those rejected things are metaphorically relegated to the shadow behind our self-image, out of sight, but not entirely out of mind because they continue to exist within us. No matter how strongly we attempt to deny or banish whatever we regard as ugly, dangerous, or otherwise contemptible, they still remain, at least as unconscious potentials.
Another reason for working with the Shadow is that some things within it aren’t very ugly or dangerous at all. Instead, they are simply things we’ve regarded as unattainable or less desirable in some way. For instance, consider a boy who grows up in a family where artistic self-expression is regarded as “girly,” and so in his desire to be masculine he teaches himself to ignore and even forget his desire to paint. Another example might be someone who experienced early struggles with mathematics due to a poor teacher, but, rather than realizing the truth, the person came to falsely believe they lacked the capacity to do well in mathematics. There are countless ways like these that each of us has pushed things into the Shadow that could otherwise be beneficial to ourselves and others.
In any case, peering into the shadows behind our self-images can be scary, and it can be challenging and painful. Even so, there is no substitute for such inner work. The spiritualized ego that speaks only in grand glowing terms of light, love, and bliss is simultaneously casting a great dark Shadow. One may not only be doing so for oneself, but in the process also convincing others to do likewise, and thereby propagating the tendency to fragment ourselves and even foolishly embrace narcissism rather than genuine self-improvement.
So how do we begin welcoming parts of ourselves out of the Shadow and into the light of conscious self-awareness? One approach is to catch ourselves speaking or thinking in ways that would exclude from ourselves things we witness in others, whether desirable or not. When we notice ourselves doing so, we can counter by sincerely acknowledging that we might indeed have those potentials, good or bad, somewhere within us. For people who recall their dreams, another means for Shadow work is to remember that everything experienced in a dream is produced through interaction of the conscious and unconscious mind. Thus, any dream element that you regard as too foreign, frightening, bizarre, painful, disgusting, or even too angelic for you to identify with, is nonetheless based on potentials you can find within yourself. Similarly, in some forms of meditation, such as silent sitting, we often have exceptional opportunities to directly witness the operations of our own minds. We can thus become aware of thoughts and feelings we would otherwise barely notice due to our mental habits of filtering them out. In effect, in such contemplative moments, we can be more sensitive to our own inner critic saying “no” to some things and “yes” to others in the ego’s ongoing attempt to define itself in its preferred way.
Shadow work is one of the keys to unlocking the deepest self-knowledge and most authentic self-actualization we can manage. Without it, all our efforts at self-improvement are often little more than narcissistic attempts by our egos to polish the false idols of themselves, no matter how humble, pure, innocent, and generous they might appear. Still, the people most adept at doing this work know the whole self remains mysterious, and that the process of its flowering and transformation is not, and cannot be, determined only by what one knows and attends to. Realizing this, such persons often seem to blend a sense of lighthearted humor with profound respect for the complexity and mysteries of their own being, as well as deep kinship and compassion for others, no matter where they might be with regard to understanding any of these dynamics. The more one knows and integrates the Shadow, which includes embracing the mystery of things beyond our awareness and control, the more one sees oneself in others and others in oneself. This seeing in turn facilitates a more genuine experience and authentic expression of light, love, and bliss in this world, which is, after all, the most worthy aim of self-improvement.