READ TIME: 11 Minutes
Insecurity isn’t your natural state damn it!
In this post, I want to look at an unusual way to overcome stress and anxiety - eating your shadow (learning to accept and embrace the parts of yourself you hate so much you run from them)
we are stressed out, anxious, depressed, and worrying unnecessarily we tend to run to self-help books, gurus, and well-meaning family and friends most of whom give us techniques to focus on the good. To put unpleasant thoughts out of our heads, to tell ourselves positive affirmations and imagine the perfect future with visualization.
The issue with the power of positive thinking exclusively is that it denies reality. Your stress anxiety, worry, fear, all have a purpose for existing. They are action signals. They are your biology giving you a kick in the ass to change something about your life. Most self-help turns a deaf ear on the lessons that our pain has to teach us. Rather than listening to our pain and taking action to remedy it and advance in life, we turn a deaf ear (and the pain persists far longer as a result.)
If we really had the courage and self-trust to look at ourselves honestly we would be able to have a much happier and more productive life (if only because we stopped suffering and wasting energy by pretending our problems don’t exist.)
But instead, we let our shadow dominate our lives and rob us of our vitality and highest selves.
What is the shadow anyway?
The shadow is all those dark and distasteful parts of yourself that you don't want to look at, and try as you might to run from they follow you everywhere. The shadow is the collection of things that you dislike so much about yourself that you try not to even acknowledge their existence.
A key distinction to make is that the shadow is not those things that we readily acknowledge but don’t like. Just because you think you are too fat, too skinny, too ugly, too awkward, too stupid etc. doesn’t mean these things are part of your shadow. If you are willing to look at them and share them with the world, these are just beliefs and character traits you are working to improve.
Here is a hypothetical: If you are a young man today and as you grew up, you were shamed for being aggressive, were fed a steady diet of media telling you that masculinity and aggression were both inherently negative, and then went to a university which had mandatory anti rape courses for all people with a Y chromosome… then you probably learned to dislike and hide from all of your aggression and much of your more masculine side. And as a result of stuffing your aggression into your shadow, you probably put on the facade of a nice boy, acted like a doormat, and when you did get angry, got too angry for the situation because you had to vent all that bottled up aggression somewhere.
Think of the shadow as a bag we drag behind ourselves where we stuff all the things about ourselves we don’t want to look at. And the more we stuff in the bag the more tiresome dragging it becomes.
What’s so harmful about the shadow?
There are a dozen reasons to want to minimize your shadow but in my eyes, the biggest reason is that the shadow is self-hatred and distrust of yourself.
That is the issue. We learn to hate ourselves from not expressing our shadow aspect. We behave irrationally because our emotions don't move fluidly but are bottled up, build up pressure, explode, and repeat. Worst though is the loss of energy. Bit by bit we deaden ourselves to our emotions until we are more dead than alive. That energy spent to hide and suppress who we really are ought to be put toward more productive ends and leave us with a love of life.
When we are dominated by the shadow we…
Think too much
Seek approval (and drive others away as we do so)
Feel depression and a lack of energy
Are generally anxious
… and socially anxious
Have low self-esteem
Distrust ourselves to do the right thing
Feel apathy and lose our love of life
Can’t bear to be alone
The cause of the shadow is distrust of the self.
The bigger the shadow, the smaller the individual.
Why do we even have a shadow then?
Our shadow is a survival mechanism to protect us from being rejected socially. It is a thinking pattern that develops when we are very young when we need other people to keep us alive.
The shadow is directly tied into the culture and to our relationships. All cultures and all relationships have a certain code of conduct. What is accepted is moral, what is not accepted is immoral. When we believe that the good opinions of the community outweigh our most deep seated beliefs and emotional drives then the shadow is created.
Instead of a clear understanding that all you have to do to handle social pressure (what others expect of you) is change your actions or change the company you keep, most people think they have to change who they are at the deepest level. All this leads to is an understanding that you are not good enough as you are.
It is our job as we grow as individuals to use the wisdom we gain along the journey of life to re-educate ourselves on what social pressure really means and bring the creativity, energy, and clarity of our inner child into our present lives.
What can life be like once you "eat your shadow"?
When we learn to eat the shadow and incorporate it in a healthy way into the world we move into a state of:
Focus on your own desires ideas, beliefs and mood
Comfort in social settings and alone
Focus on contributing to your own and others well-being
Clarity of purpose
How is this possible? Aren't those emotions in the shadow antisocial?
All emotions are action signals to make a change in our lives. It isn’t the repressed belief or the emotion that is antisocial, it is the way we showed it earlier in life that is.
The process of integrating the shadow is learning to examine the story of your life, find every character trait, belief, and emotion that you dislike about yourself. Then either accept them again (and learn how to bring them into the world in a healthy way) or realize that they are actually things you should work on improving (and begin doing so.)
How to assimilate the shadow
The very first step in eating your shadow is to come to a place where you take extreme ownership over your life, the things which are wrong in it, and in particular the fact that any hangups and insecurities which you have are your own doing.
This very damn difficult to do. It means that you have to take a hit to your ego and stop blaming anyone from the past or in your present for making you feel how you do and for creating insecurities in you. The biggest motivator for me to move to a place of owning my own shadow emotions is realizing that the moment you take full responsibility for all your insecurities and hangups is the moment you are first able to change them. Claiming that your mother or father or friends or magazines or television or your high school bully made you insecure means that you are powerless and a victim. Realizing that you create your own emotional state and your own security means that you have the ability to improve and advance.
It is really binary, are you going to blame the world for how you feel or take responsibility, take an ego hit, and ultimately be in charge of your own destiny?
Once you mentally commit to taking the uphill journey and doing the hard inner work of accepting responsibility for all the things you don’t like about yourself, the question is how to clearly identify what emotions and beliefs and desires make up your shadow.
This is no easy task because most of us lie to ourselves. We hide from and ignore this stuff for years and years and we have a blind spot for our shadow.
Here is a list of questions to get you started digging up your shadow. You can ask them of yourself and if you feel adventurous; ask someone who knows you well to answer these questions about you. Grab a piece of scratch paper and a pen and jot down the answers to these questions alone or with a friend.
What are my top 5 most embarrassing moments? Did I learn to dislike something about myself from any of them?
What are 5 beliefs I hold that I wish I could tell more people but I am too shy, embarrassed, or anxious to do so?
What are a few dreams which I had which I gave up on because other people told me they couldn’t be done? (often from your youth)
What emotions do I have a hard time expressing? When certain emotions come up do I get tense or feel stifled?
What are 5 things that if others knew about me would make them dislike me? (this list can be much larger depending on how much time you want to spend!)
If you took the time and energy to actually write down your answers congratulations! It can be a little draining to go into painful memories again but the point here is not to feel good right now, it is to feel less insecurity and more alive for the long run.
3) Acceptance of the worst case scenario
Using the list you wrote down in step 2 it is time to do what author Tim Ferriss calls “Fear-Overcome Anxiety and Stress by Eating Your Shadow setting.” Fear setting is like goal setting but instead of writing about what you want to happen, you write about the worst case scenario. The logic is that once you have accepted the worst you are free to enjoy everything better! When you know that you are prepared to handle the worst possible scenario, you get a sense of relief from worry and insecurity. Exactly what we are after with this shadow stuff.
The gist is:
What is the absolute worst case scenario for doing what you are thinking of doing? What is the permanent negative impact 1-10 and likelihood 1-10?
What steps could you take to repair the damage? (Easier than you think usually)
What is the probability that you can produce a good outcome? How good is it 1-10?
What are you putting off out of fear? What actions that might make your life better?
What is it costing you? Emotional, health, relationship or financial upside?
What are you waiting for? If you could do it now and are waiting for a better time then there is none.
Here is the full post on Tim’s blog if you are interested. (It contains a great TED talk as well!)
4) Bringing the shadow into your life
Now for the simple, positive, and fun part; bringing the shadow parts of yourself into your life in a positive way. The key here is to tap into those elements of the shadow (your list from part 2… you did make a list right?) and find a way to bring those into the world in a way that makes your life, the lives of those around you, and the community at large a better place.
Here some examples which you might want to mull over.
Ashamed of being overweight? - Use painful memories for fuel during workouts.
Afraid to be aggressive and offend people? - Channel the aggression into clearly set out boundaries and the energy to prove people wrong when you are angry at them - success is the best revenge.
Think your childhood dream of being a ballerina was doomed to failure? It might be, but take up a class or two anyhow and see if you enjoy it.
Think your political, or religious beliefs will lose you all your friends? - Voice this concern as well as your beliefs to them. Would you rather lose friends for being someone you respect or lose your self-respect to have those “friends”?
Afraid your boss will fire you if you start the side business you always dreamed of? Practice fear setting and use that fear of losing your job to fuel massive action on your side project.
Most of us chase only those things that we really want as a path to happiness, we try to define and achieve all of our goals in this culture. I hope that if nothing else, this post got you thinking about the idea that we can reach a place of satisfaction not just by adding strengths but by systematically weeding out our weaknesses and purging ourselves of all our shadow baggage.