Ego, Self-Improvement, and Shadow Work

As a practitioner of contemplation, my attention is often drawn to the ego, that sense of my separate identity in the world, including the picture of myself as a more or less unique human being with more or less stable characteristics that distinguish me from others. As an advocate, consultant, and facilitator of contemplative practice for others, I know their attention often moves in that direction as well. In fact, in one way or another, it’s the thing that seems to be at the center of most people’s attention most of the time.

I often hear people speak in adversarial terms of their egos, or with a tone of condescending disgust, or as if the ego is a barrier between oneself and the image of self one idealizes. In fact, it’s very common to make the term ego fully synonymous with selfishness and a collection of vices like arrogance, greed, or gluttony. I’ve certainly related to ego in all these ways, and I doubt I’m entirely done with them just yet.

So, let me ask you, when you are speaking of your own ego, what part of you is doing the talking? When you are judging, condemning, punishing or trying to correct the ego, what part of you is doing any of those things?

The answer is kind of funny, isn’t it? There’s a comic sort of irony in the fact that it is really just the ego metaphorically looking in the mirror, criticizing a reflection that is mistaken for another entity. It’s like the myth of Narcissus, but in this version the image in the pool is regarded as ugly rather than beautiful, yet may be just as enthralling. It’s as if we can’t look away because just beyond that repulsive image there must surely be the lovely object of our fervent desire. So, instead, we keep staring and staring, all the while judging and telling ourselves, “That’s not me. That’s not the real me. I’m better than that. I gotta get past that.”

People we call narcissists are those who are successful in not seeing much if any of their ugliness, and instead only see the reflection of their beauty, which is further amplified by imagining even more beauty than is actually there.

Perhaps there’s another bit of irony here for some of us — the irony that a desire for self-improvement really isn’t all that far from narcissism. DOH!

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.

Real self-improvement requires the greatest self-awareness we can manage at any given moment, and thus we must learn to welcome all that lives in the Shadow. It isn’t necessary to fully actualize everything in the Shadow, but to try to see, understand, and integrate as much as possible. In this context, to integrate means to first recognize that there are often, if not always, elements of wisdom, strength, and beauty within those things we are tempted to reject, and to then welcome those elements as capable of being employed for constructive, life-affirming, joyous purposes.

As an analogy for avoiding versus integrating potentials in the Shadow, consider the folly in regarding fire as unacceptable because of its potentials for destruction and creating pain. That folly is just as great as ignoring fire’s potentials for destruction and creating pain. We must exercise awareness, acceptance, and understanding of fire’s negative potentials in order to harness and make good use of its positive potentials. In fact, doing so has been and continues to be necessary for our survival as a species, and there is plenty of metaphorical value in that!

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.