The Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, coined the term “shadow.” Psychologically, “shadow” refers to unresolved beliefs and feelings repressed within our unconscious as a means of protection. The unconscious is…well, unconscious. Hidden from view.

Because these beliefs and feelings are hidden, they never get addressed, updated and digested, so psychic pressure can build up. This buildup of internal pressure can affect us physically as well as emotionally. It’s like a cook pot stewing away. But the lid is glued on, the fire burning hot, and the cook has forgotten what he put in the oven. The pressure builds. The contents boil. The pot explodes.

When we find ourselves acting out, over-reactive, hypersensitive, resentful or contemptuous, there is often something about ourselves that we are doing our best to avoid. Now I’m not saying that someone may not actually be out to get us, but it’s still worthwhile to take a look at what’s ours.

Even strong positive emotions often have a link to the shadow. Sometimes when we are powerfully drawn towards someone, part of that magnetism we feel is because that person represents some quality, negative or positive, that we have rejected within ourselves. What we accept or reject inside ourselves, our beliefs of what is good or bad within us, originate from any number of sources: our parents, society, conditions we were born with, traumatic incidents that we had no way of processing, as well as the dramatic play of the human condition and the collective unconscious.

Whatever their origins, when these beliefs reside within the unconscious, they are free to write their own dramatic scripts that influence how we interpret and react to our lives.

In psychology, attributing qualities to others because we haven’t come to terms with those parts of ourselves is called “projection.” When we demonize or over-idealize an individual or a group, we may be “projecting.”

Our shadow components are hidden and elusive; they are invisible to our conscious mind, but they show up in our body, emotions, thoughts and behaviors. They leave a trail that, if we are willing, can be tracked.

But understand, there is no need to become “shadowless.” Spirituality, creativity, love and compassion, live and thrive on both shadow and light. One without the other becomes sterile and static.

If our life is solely ruled by our dark parts, we might be living a pretty robotic and destructive existence. A great deal of the cruelty, hatred and oppression in the world comes from the inability and unwillingness to face our shadows. It is not the shadow itself that is the cause of these problems. It’s the denial and avoidance of our darker parts that perpetuate the insanity.

However, if we know ourselves only by our light, our concept of good, we can be just as robotic and unrelenting. If we somehow manage to make room for both qualities, our shadow and our light, we might have a chance to become more wise and loving, more compassionate and whole.

I am convinced that thinking we can eliminate the shadow aspects of our being is harmful. We can’t eliminate, but we can choose to illuminate. We can invite awareness, kindness and safety into the shadow parts of our being.

The shadow is not something that can be or should be conquered by our egos. After all, those uncomfortable thoughts, feelings and beliefs went into hiding because of some version of rejection and judgment in the first place. Using the ego to dominate the shadow is the wound trying to heal the wound. How many times is evil done in the name of holiness?

I made the comment in a conversation with a friend over lunch that the “Dark” was often disguised as the “Light.”

She asked, “What do you mean?”

“Well…” I said, “After all, the name Lucifer means a range of things from ‘Morning Star,’ to ‘Bringer of Light.’ So many wars, so much violence and persecution, have come from somebody believing that they had the right way, the most enlightened way. And it’s so easy to perpetrate that sense of “I know better” in little as well as in big ways. It’s an easy way out, and I see that in the arena of personal growth and spirituality, as well as in the more obvious messes that the world is still coping with.”

We sat in silence for a bit and I pondered my own words. I thought of how much courage and experience it takes to be humble and face our own shadows. I thought of love, and how much love is necessary to get beyond the definitions of self that we need to prop ourselves up with.

I personally don’t like to use the popular term “True Self.” Or for that matter, “Enlightenment.” To be honest, sometimes I’m irritated by those terms. I have worked with many good souls who just can’t quite love themselves because they believe that only the well-behaved parts of them are deserving of love, that they’re not making the cut. There’s so much more to us than the idealized concept of the True Self. The subtext that keeps us frozen is that until we’re somehow Enlightened, we’re screwed. So we exile ourselves within a perfectionist limbo rather than working with what we have.

To do shadow work, to see ourselves clearly, to mourn and abide until compassion softens us, is a spiritual thing. We’ll probably still try to maneuver and manipulate away from what feels squirmy, but maybe not as tenaciously. Maybe with a bit more awareness and choice.

Working with our shadows is not so much a matter of “soul searching.” Working with our shadows is more a matter of “soul gazing.” The work is not so much a matter of trying to connect with our soul that we fear is buried under shadow, but of looking at ourselves from the loving eyes of the soul.

Shadow work requires soul gazing.