Genuine Shadow Work

After I posted a recent essay, Ego, Self-Improvement, and Shadow Work, a brother engaged me in an interesting discussion. His point was that he knows some people, especially other men of his age group, who seem to think Shadow work is an excuse to let their “inner jerks” come out. He asked if Shadow work really is a license to stop being polite, courteous, caring, and thoughtful in what one says and does, and to instead become rude, crude, insensitive, and impulsive.

For some people, Shadow work can mean undoing some of their conditioning to sacrifice authenticity, integrity, and spontaneity for the sake of helping other people feel more comfortable. Many of us have been trained to be people-pleasers to the extent that we automatically shut off many things in us that might actually be helpful, even if a little edgy or upsetting. Successfully resolving such tendencies is a good development in adult maturation, and it can also be a tricky one in which making mistakes are bound to happen, including the pendulum swing of over-compensation. But that’s hardly a justification for being intentionally offensive and uncaring.

It’s important to remember that genuine Shadow work can be awkwardly challenging because it’s about discovering and carefully integrating repressed or suppressed aspects of ourselves. These are things that have effectively become veiled by our personas and hidden in the unconscious layers of our psyches; they are not simply the conscious negative thoughts and feelings we can knowingly choose to express or not. In fact, such negativity may be driven by things in the Shadow that we would rather not address more consciously, and so we spew it out onto the world around us instead of doing the harder work of coming to terms with how we’re creating that negativity within ourselves.

As I stated in the previous essay, the goal of this work is to discern and welcome elements of the Shadow we can employ for constructive, life-affirming, joyous purposes. In Masonic language, Shadow work ideally brings more Wisdom, Strength, and Beauty to our lives, certainly including our relations with others. And while Shadow work might lead us to speak and act with greater candor about the truth as we understand it, that candor will also be tempered with relief and brotherly love. These qualities authentically emerge when we recognize that others also have their own Shadows to wrestle, and we’re mindful that our actions can have an effect on their labors.