Beneath the social mask we wear every day, we have a hidden shadow side: an impulsive, wounded, sad, or isolated part that we generally try to ignore. The Shadow can be a source of emotional richness and vitality, and acknowledging it can be a pathway to healing and an authentic life.– C. Zweig & S. Wolf
If you’re truly honest about growing, changing, and living life to the fullest, you will, at some point, come across many parts of yourself that you’ll find difficult – if not completely disturbing – to accept.
These ugly and frightening parts of ourselves are elements of the Shadow Self: the darker side of our nature.
In the domain of psychology, renowned psychologist Carl Jung devoted a lot of thought to this problem of the “Shadow Self,” being deeply invested in the research of ancient esoteric knowledge and spiritual scriptures to not only treat the mind of man but his Soul as well.
In response to his serious preoccupation, Jung created the Archetypes model, a concept wherein he believed our unconscious minds are fragmented or structured into different “selves.”
These selves attempt to organize how we experience different emotions, situations, and challenges in life. Two of Jung’s major Archetypes are the Persona and the Shadow Self.
Table of Contents
- The Birth of the Shadow Self
- Repression of the Shadow Self
- How Spirituality and Religions Contribute to the Repression of the Shadow
- The Importance of Integration (vs. Spiritual Bypassing)
- The Right and Left-Handed Paths
- 13 Types of Shadow Selves
- Embracing the Shadow Self
- 3 Illuminative Ways to Encounter Your Shadow Self
It is a frightening thought that man also has a shadow side to him, consisting not just of little weaknesses and foibles, but of a positively demonic dynamism. The individual seldom knows anything of this; to him, as an individual, it is incredible that he should ever in any circumstances go beyond himself. But let these harmless creatures form a mass, and there emerges a raging monster.– Carl Jung, “On the Psychology of the Unconscious“
So what exactly are the “Persona” and “Shadow Self”? And how do they relate to the journeys of soul searching, inner growth, and psychospiritual evolution that most of us find ourselves on at some point in life? I’ll explore below:
i) What is the Persona?
The Persona, according to Jung, defines who we would like to be and how we wish to be seen by the world. The word “persona” is derived from a Latin word that literally means “mask,” however in this instance, the word can be applied metaphorically, representing all of the different social masks that we wear among different groups of people and situations.
ii) What is the Shadow Self?
On the other hand, the Shadow Self is a place within all of us that dwells within the unconscious mind and is composed of repressed ideas, instincts, impulses, weaknesses, desires, perversions, and embarrassing fears. This part is often described as the darker side of the psyche, representing wildness, chaos, and the unknown. Jung believed that this latent energy is present in all of us, in many instances forming a strong source of creative energy.
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How does the Shadow Self form, you might wonder?
We are all born pure, like blank canvases. But at some point during our childhood development, we learn knowledge that teaches us to separate things into good and evil. The moment we eat from this dualistic “tree of knowledge,” our shadows are born, and we begin to divide ourselves into multiple parts.
Then, in our cultural socialization process, we begin to sort out those traits within us that are acceptable to society (the Persona) and those that are unacceptable (which are later hidden away – the Shadow).
This is where the Persona and Shadow Self go hand-in-hand: the Persona is the lovable face we present to the world, while the Shadow is the face we hide from the world.
Once our limited but socially acceptable Personas was born, so too were our wild but damnable Shadows – both are inseparable, and both mutually arise.
As Jung explained:
What we call civilized consciousness has steadily separated itself from the basic instincts. But these instincts have not disappeared. They have merely lost their contact with our consciousness and are thus forced to assert themselves in an indirect fashion. This may be by means of physical symptoms in the case of a neurosis, or by means of incidents of various kinds, or by unaccountable moods, unexpected forgetfulness, or mistakes in speech… modern man protects himself against seeing his own split state by a system of compartments. Certain areas of outer life and of his own behavior are kept, as it were, in separate drawers and are never confronted with one another.
Thus, the dark shadow traits that we all possess accumulate in the corners of our unconscious minds, never becoming adequately integrated into our conscious minds because we never see our split state in the first place (due to our psychological defense mechanisms like denial, avoidance, and repression). And so we continue accumulating these dark fears, desires, and motivations.
This lack of awareness of the Shadow Self – and the disconnection from our true Whole Self – can be dangerous.
One issue I often come across in people is the tendency to allow the Shadow Self to accumulate for so long (usually due to a lack of education and psychological awareness), that it erupts and overpowers the person through depression, a Dark Night of the Soul, or unconscious accidents that end up manifesting their inner demons.
Indeed, the denial and avoidance of the Shadow can lead to significant physical, emotional, psychological, and interpersonal consequences that last for a long time – that’s why taking in as much as you can from this article will be beneficial and a great place to start (or continue) your Shadow Work.
It’s understandable that the process of becoming civilized requires us to repress aspects of ourselves that do not fit in with the structured ideal of our society.
However, this internal repression comes at a great cost to us. We are born whole and complete, but we slowly learn to live fractioned lives, accepting some parts of our nature but rejecting and ignoring other parts.
A short holiday to a different part of the world will show you how arbitrary some of these “good/bad” divisions are (that create the Shadow Self).
In the West, for example, eye contact is perceived as confident and engaging, whereas in Japan, it’s perceived as arrogant and rude. In the Middle East, burping after a meal is a sign of pleasure, yet anywhere else in the world, it’s seen as vulgar and uncouth. And in America, TV shows depicting violent murders are considered more acceptable than showing nudity or sexual acts, whereas in Europe, it’s the complete opposite. These are just a few examples.
Basically, the repression of our negative traits or emotions in society is one of the biggest barriers in any person’s capacity to develop self-love and living authentically. How can you completely and wholeheartedly accept who you are if there are sides of yourself that you’re too afraid to explore?
Don’t get me wrong, the idea of the “Shadow Self” isn’t just a psychological concept. Many ancient Shamanic teachings describe the journey of experiencing some kind of serious illness, spiritual death or dismemberment by entering into one’s inner darkness (or Shadow Self), and then being reborn with healing capacities and wisdom that could support the tribe.
i) How Spirituality and Religions Contribute to the Repression of the Shadow
So, apart from society’s ideas of acceptable and non-acceptable behavior, what else causes such great repression of the Shadow Self? In truth, a lot of this internal repression actually comes from the endless cornucopia of “feel good” motivational teachings out there.
If you take a moment to notice, you’ll see that a lot of modern spiritual and religious work revolves around moving toward the “light,” accepting the “light,” and seeking the “light.” Yet by doing so, we ignore the entirety of what it is to be human!
In fact, many of the modern mainstream spiritual and new age teachings out there provide an escape for those who don’t want to be responsible for the entirety of themselves and their lives.
Understandably the “light” energies are usually represented with noble values such as love, peace, joy, harmony, and compassion. Many spiritual and religious movements completely ignore or condemn darker elements such as anger, vengeance, control, fear, shame, competitiveness, jealousy, and lust. Because these darker characteristics are associated with negativity or “evil,” they’re avoided out of fear and buried even deeper within us. But this is a tragic mistake with dire consequences.
The more our darkness is avoided, the more it grows within us, waiting like a volcano to gush out at any unexpected moment.
Interestingly, many seekers of spiritual growth think that somehow all of the negative qualities within themselves will eventually be transcended as they “awaken to their Higher Selves,” “work through their karma,” or “become more enlightened.”
Yet, from my own experience, this is a form of spiritual bypassing: using spirituality to avoid everything uncomfortable within us instead of facing it with honesty and courage.
Furthermore, actually turning toward your Shadow Self helps you to embrace these disconnected parts of yourself, creating more psychological and spiritual balance (wholeness). On the other hand, denying your darkness only creates chaos and disharmony.
The keyword here is “integration,” which comes from the Latin word integratus, meaning to make whole.
To integrate an inner quality is to take ownership and responsibility for it rather than reject or deny it. The benefits are many: calmness, sanity, healing, greater compassion, inner peace, understanding, and wholeness are all to be found within the all-embracing arms of integration.
On the other hand, the opposite of integration is to “disintegrate” – or to become fragmented and divided into pieces. A person who “breaks down” or “falls apart,” for instance, is someone who has been unable to handle stress and who has ignored their mental and emotional well-being to such a large degree that their suppressed pain eventually explodes into awareness with a vengeance.
In reality, a fragmented person can never handle adversity because they have no whole center, and they’re always handling life from the corners of their personality parts. This is why integration is so essential: it helps us to access our inner wholeness again and respond to life rather than react.
In esoteric branches of Hinduism such as Tantra or Western Esoteric occult teachings, they have what is called Right and Left-handed paths towards experiencing Oneness, Spiritual Enlightenment, or the Higher Self.
Throughout history, the left has always been associated with dark, radical or sinister elements. Even the etymology of the word “sinister” means “from the left side.” Furthermore, in Muslim, Chinese, Judeo-Christian, and even Hindu religions, the left hand is associated with being the unclean side, which is most likely why some of these cultures use it to wipe their … behinds!
These days, the “right-handed path” is what most of us understand to be the pursuit of positive things such as overcoming personal flaws and limitations, purifying our sins, and anything else that helps us connect to our “higher selves.” The left-handed path, however, is associated with parts within us that are typically fought against, rejected, denied, feared, and thus such a path becomes our biggest inner hindrance, but at the same time, the key to our liberation.
The truth is that we have both hands, not just one, and we must learn to use them in a balanced way if we seek to live a balanced life.
The right-handed path seeks to improve the personal self and overcome its flaws, but the left-handed path seeks to investigate and face the shadows in its pursuit of nondualistic Wholeness. Just as we see being represented in the ancient symbol of the Yin and Yang, when you balance both opposites, the dichotomy of right and left will disappear: both are interdependent, flow together, and are mutually arising.
Personally, I like to think that first, there was darkness. Unlike light, darkness is infinite. Under every rock, you will find darkness, but light and darkness need each other to come into existence. Unless you learn to first embrace that darkness within yourself, you can never pursue the Light in a balanced way.
Many right-handed new age teachings heavily lean toward cultivating the “higher chakras” (third eye chakra, heart chakra, etc.) and avoiding the lower ones. However, in the long term, this approach won’t be very helpful. Unless the foundation of your home is solid and stable, no matter how beautifully you decorate and work on the house itself, sooner or later your house will collapse and crumble down.
All of us carry demons inside. Sometimes, we catch fleeting glimpses of them, sometimes we witness them in full frontal chaos, but for the most part, we ignore and bury their existence either out of fear, guilt or pure shame. Discovering our demons or shadows is a vital part of inner work.
Our inner shadows come in many different shapes and varieties. While some are more ferocious than others, others don’t really seem to be all that monstrous at all – until we reap the devilish consequences later on in our lives.
Below I have categorized and ‘cataloged’ thirteen different shadows that you might meet on your inner path. Some overlap with each other, and many are interconnected, meaning that it’s typical to possess many of these shadows, and more!
Please note: the shadows listed below are by no means exhaustive or comprehensively cataloged – they are simply provided to help you identify any of your own shadow qualities or to create a “field guide” of your own. Also, not all of the characteristics listed below are necessarily always “bad” and, in fact, can be quite helpful in some situations. Being lustful, for example, can help to add fire to your relationship. Displaying emotional detachment can be beneficial while performing a major surgery. And being paranoid can help you safely parent an unruly child. With that said, try to notice which shadows spark recognition within you and make a note of them!
1. The Egotistical Shadow
Root cause: primal fear of “not being good enough,” not existing, being nobody
This shadow displays the following characteristics: arrogance, egocentricity, pompousness, inconsiderateness, self-indulgence, narcissism, excessive pride.
2. The Neurotic Shadow
Root cause: fear of life, others, and self; desire to regain control
This shadow displays the following characteristics: paranoia, obsessiveness, suspiciousness, finicky, demanding, masochistic, compulsive behavior.
3. The Untrustworthy Shadow
Root cause: fear of life in general
This shadow displays the following characteristics: secretive, impulsive, frivolous, irresponsible, deceitful, unreliable.
4. The Emotionally Unstable Shadow
Root cause: basic feeling of being “unlovable” and powerless; reaction to unresolved emotional pain
This shadow displays the following characteristics: moody, melodramatic, manipulative, weepy, overemotional, impulsive, changeable.
5. The Controlling Shadow
Root cause: basic mistrust of life, feelings of abandonment and “not being good enough”
This shadow displays the following characteristics: suspicious, jealous, possessive, bossy, obsessive.
6. The Cynical Shadow
Root cause: protection against feeling too vulnerable
This shadow displays the following characteristics: negative, overcritical, patronizing, resentful, cantankerous.
7. The Wrathful Shadow
Root cause: fear of others, mistrust of life, closed heart
This shadow displays the following characteristics: ruthless, vengeful, bitchy, quick-tempered, quarrelsome.
8. The Rigid Shadow
Root cause: fear and rejection of the unknown, chaos, and ego death
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This shadow displays the following characteristics: uptight, intolerant, racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, obstinate, uncompromising, inflexible, narrow-minded.
9. The Superficial Shadow
Root cause: distrust of life, others, and self
This person displays the following characteristics: glib, cunning, inconsistent, sly, crafty.
10. The Cold Shadow
Root cause: buried grief, fear, and shame (numbness is a defense)
This shadow displays the following characteristics: emotionally detached, distant, indifferent, uncaring, unexcited.
11. The Perverted Shadow
Root cause: repressed sexual energy, possible unresolved childhood wounds
This shadow displays the following characteristics: sadistic, lustful, depraved, corrupt.
12. The Cowardly Shadow
Root cause: fear, disbelief in self
This shadow displays the following characteristics: weak-willed, timid, fearful.
13. The Naive Shadow
Root cause: refusal to grow up, lack of individuated ego
This shadow displays the following characteristics: puerile, petty, immature, illogical, simpleminded, vacuous.
How many of these inner shadows can you relate to? Also, keep in mind that this list only explores the dark side of the shadow, not the light side (where the positive repressed qualities of our nature are buried!).
The secret is out: all of us, no exceptions, have qualities we won’t let anyone see, including ourselves – our Shadow. If we face up to our dark side, our life can be energized. If not, there is the devil to pay. This is one of life’s most urgent projects.– Larry Dossey (Healing Words)
Our journey of Self-Realization is a bit like Dante’s Inferno.
Before making our way out of “hell,” we must walk through the depths of our inner darkness. Many religions symbolize this reality with archetypal stories. Two famous examples include the case of Jesus, who had to face Satan in the desert, and Buddha’s encounter with Mara (the Buddhist Satan) before his spiritual awakening.
When I write about embracing or integrating your Shadow Self, I don’t mean to indulge in any desire that arises within you.
Indulging your anger, for instance, will simply result in more anger. By embracing your inner darkness, I mean that it’s necessary for you to “accept” it. Accepting your darkness will allow you to take responsibility for yourself, and once you truly acknowledge any one of these dark traits instead of avoiding them, suddenly, they will stop having control over you.
Honesty, Compassion, and Courage Are Crucial
By being honest with ourselves and compassionately accepting our shadow elements, it frees us up to truly witness the uncharted areas of our minds, allowing us to see that we are not these elements, but simply possess thoughts, feelings, and drives that come and go like clouds in the sky.
To deeply experience self-love and wholeness, we must learn to honestly face our Shadow Selves with kindness, and voyage into the dark murky waters of the unknown courageously. Otherwise, every time we condemn other people for their shadow traits, we’re, in essence, condemning our own hypocritical selves in the process. You cannot simply go “beyond hatred” if you don’t first honestly admit to yourself that you do, in fact, possess hateful feelings!
A whole and balanced self is a reconciliation of all parts, an inner unification. And for this unification, we need the healing balm of self-compassion, the lamp of honesty, and the spirit of courage.
Inner unification is not an indulgence of the darker parts of our natures but an acceptance and direct experience of them in the light of mindful awareness and deep honesty.
This practice is the entire opposite of many self-denying traditional spiritual methods of subduing, denying, or ascetically disciplining the self. To be authentic and live liberated lives, we have to face and embrace all parts of our inner selves.
Yes, There Are Empowering Qualities Hidden in the Shadow
It’s astounding to realize that often the mundane and sedated characteristics in people are the ones that are socially acceptable, and the wild and “primitive” traits within us tend to get outlawed to our Shadowlands.
However, at the same time, many creative, unique, innovative, and unique qualities within us also get confined within the Shadow because they’re not socially acceptable.
Exploring your darkness isn’t always about meeting up with disturbed and grotesque monsters – in fact, it often involves coming across delightful buried gems as well!
In fact, you’ll likely be surprised by the endless array of creative and interesting things you’ll find that have been secretly buried away within you for years. Qualities such as artistic gifts, humor, playfulness, courage, ambition, confidence, conviction, sensuality, and even empathy can be buried in the shadow (or what Jung referred to as the ‘Golden Shadow’).
To accept and embrace your Shadow Self is to become Whole again and thus taste a glimpse of what authentic “holiness” feels like – and that involves embracing both light and dark qualities within by recognizing that you possess both, but neither ultimately define you.
You Are Not Your Shadow
This leads me to the final part of learning how to embrace your Shadow Self, and that is quite simply that you are not your Shadow!
When many people begin Shadow Work, there is a great seriousness that (understandably and appropriately) enshrouds their path. And while it’s necessary to take this work seriously, as our buried shadows can and will cause immense pain if left unexamined, Shadow Work eventually becomes something of a playful pantomime if approached in a healthy way.
What do I mean by “playful pantomime”? Well, essentially, when we realize, through spiritual practices such as meditation, that we are not our thoughts (because they come and go spontaneously), we see the true nature of our Shadows: they don’t define us! Instead, it’s as if we’re watching a play at the theater with characters disguised as monsters on a stage.
While we must absolutely take responsibility for any darkness metaphorically “swept under the rug” of our psyches, we don’t need to identify with or attach ourselves to the content of our Shadows. Yes, we’re responsible for doing our own Shadow Work, but we’re not to blame for having a shadow in the first place! After all, it’s not like we sat there as a young child scheming up how to develop a manipulative and emotionally fragile shadow as an adult, was it? We didn’t choose to develop a shadow, that’s just how life presented itself within us in this dualistic human realm.
So, the final piece in learning how to embrace your Shadow Self is to not take it so personally. Recognize that there are qualities of resentment, greed, neurosis, and so forth within you, meet them with acceptance and compassion, but know that these qualities don’t define you. See these shadows as dark clouds in the Great Sky that is who you truly are – no more, no less. Non-attachment is key.
Two forms of meditation that might be helpful in assisting your ability to disidentify from your shadows, integrate, and let them go, are vipassana and noting meditation where you label the thoughts in your mind and learn to rest in conscious awareness.
I must also have a dark side if I am to be whole.– Carl Jung
Now that we’ve learned how to embrace your Shadow Self, how do we actually encounter this hidden part of us?
Once you’re aware of how big your shadow is and what type of shadow you have, there are several different ways to get to know and explore your Shadow further. I explore some simple Shadow Work practices below.
If you’d like to go deeper after reading the list below, I recommend our book Mindful Shadow Work: Exercises For Befriending Your Dark Side, Healing Trauma, and Finding Joy as a wonderful place to start!
1. Draw or Paint
Art is the highest form of self-expression and it’s also a great way to allow your Shadow to manifest itself in a way you can understand.
In the field of psychology, one of the most effective ways of understanding and reorganizing the psyche is through art therapy which allows us to draw whatever conscious and unconscious feelings or thoughts are swirling around within us. Thankfully, you don’t necessarily need a therapist to do therapeutic art, and it’s a surprisingly easy, fun, and illuminating way of meeting and exploring your Shadow.
Simply get a blank piece of paper, find a quiet place, and turn your attention inwards. You may like to ask your Shadow, “What do you want me to know right now?” or “How would you like to express yourself?” and then paint or draw whatever comes to mind. Even the strangest mental images or scenarios can hold a seed of wisdom, helping to reveal hidden feelings, thoughts, or memories.
Make sure you approach this activity non-judgmentally and with an open mind. When you fear judgment from yourself, you’ll be inhibited and won’t be able to benefit fully from this practice. So be gentle, self-compassionate, and receptive. Allow whatever wants to come to the surface to freely arise, no matter how “messy” or “ugly” (remember that the goal isn’t to create a work of art here!). Remember that your Shadow is a part of you, but it doesn’t define you.
2. Write a Story or Journal
Goethe’s Faust is, in my opinion, one of the best works featuring the meeting of an Ego and its Shadow Self. Faust is a story that details the life of a professor who becomes so separated and overwhelmed by his Shadow that he comes to the verge of suicide, only to realize that the redemption of the Ego is solely possible if the Shadow is redeemed at the same time.
Writing a story where you project your Shadow elements onto the characters is a great way to learn more about your inner darkness.
If stories aren’t your thing, try journaling or keeping a diary every day for a few weeks, where you record both good and bad emotions, thoughts, and habits. This practice will help to shine a light on the bright and darker elements of your nature. Reading through your journal entries can also help you recover the balance you need in your life and accept both light and dark emotions within you.
Some simple Shadow prompts to begin with are the following:
- If you could scream anything to the wind right now (that nobody would ever hear), what would you scream?
- Who or what negatively triggered you today? What part of yourself might you have unknowingly projected onto that same person or situation?
- What makes you feel insecure about yourself? How can you offer that wounded or scared part forgiveness, gentleness, and compassion?
- If there was any quality you could keep hidden forever about yourself, what would it be, and why?
- Who do you idolize or obsessively follow the story of online? What disowned qualities within yourself might you be projecting onto and seeing within that person?
These are just a few simple questions, but they can lead to some fascinating discoveries and insights about your Shadow and its toxic core beliefs!
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3. Use the World as a Mirror (Projection Technique)
The Shadow describes the part of the psyche that an individual would rather not acknowledge.– John Elder
Projection is at the very heart and soul of the Shadow: it’s how the Shadow hides and protects itself.
Quite simply, we project the qualities of ourselves that we dislike onto others so that we don’t have to deal with them within ourselves. Projection also helps us to avoid taking responsibility for ourselves and instead helps us to make others the culprits and scapegoats for our unresolved issues.
However, projection is actually a powerful Shadow Work tool that helps us explore our Shadow Selves when done deliberately and intentionally. When you approach other people and the world at large with mindfulness, you’ll be able to discover who and what you’ve project your Shadow onto (and why).
What’s interesting about the Shadow is that we not only project our negative traits and elements onto others but our good ones as well. It’s as if we unconsciously refuse to embrace our noble elements because the Ego is afraid that these positive elements will change and upset our current personality structure.
So how do we practice the projection technique?
In a nutshell, use the world as a mirror. Observe what you secretly like or dislike in other people, entertainment outlets (e.g., social media, TV, and books), and situations.
For instance, current movies and television shows reflect our deep interest in the darker aspects of ourselves. Why else would we have such a fascination with this constant battle between good and evil forces? Superhero, fantasy, and action films depict the Heroes vs. Villains dichotomy, while we also fall in love with charming characters that embrace their dark sides, such as Dexter, The Joker, or Walter White (Breaking Bad).
Often our noblest Shadow traits are projected onto the people we like, admire, or fall in love with. The opposite is also true: and the most defenseless of beings can become the carriers of our negative projected Shadow Self traits. Children, for example, provide the perfect outlet for our anger, frustration, and other negative emotions. The smallest of accidents or naughty actions can be punished with disproportionate and destructive wrath. Pets, too, are unfortunately just as vulnerable. Projection, for many of us, is always easier than assimilation.
Ultimately, projection, no matter whether light or dark, is always something detrimental. When you project, you not only burden another person with your darker elements or pressures of idolization, but you also avoid taking responsibility for your Shadow and lose the opportunity of finding a state of inner Wholeness.
So use the world as your mirror. Write down what you observe about yourself. Be open-minded and receptive. Show kindness toward yourself. Soon you’ll be on your way to reclaiming all parts of yourself and moving into a space of inner equilibrium and unity.
To close, I want to emphasize again how crucial this work is:
Learning to face, explore, and embrace your Shadow Self is one of the most important and worthy commitments you could ever task yourself with on the spiritual journey and life in general. Period.
Imagine what our world would look like if more people were honest with themselves, reclaimed their projected Shadows and made peace with their neighbors, and rediscovered a deeper sense of inner peace and wholeness? Society would be a much more harmonious place.
So don’t discount the value and power of this work – it has the potential to change the world, little by little.
You don’t need to turn yourself into a martyr either: you can have fun with Shadow Work, channel your discoveries into wisdom and creativity, uncover forgotten gifts, and find more inner freedom than you ever knew was possible.
Everyone benefits from this work.
So keep going. Do it for yourself, your children, your grandchildren, and all future generations. Our world desperately needs this.
I hope this article has helped to open your eyes. What is your relationship like with your Shadow Self? I’d love to hear about your experiences below.