Why Everyone Should Work on their Shadow Self and Own Their Shit

Shadow Self Art Therapy Guelph
Shadow Self by Heather Caruso

In my art therapy practice, I observe that people who lean into understanding negative aspects of themselves and are accountable, tend to have better self-acceptance and personal growth. The term “shadow self” was coined by the famous Swiss psychologist Carl Jung.[1] In movies, the shadow self may be portrayed incorrectly like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. However, this shadow is part of our nature or personality that we choose to repress and reject. It may be something we dislike about ourselves.[2] We may not be aware of it. We may see the shadow when we are defensive, quick to anger and/or triggered. These traits may be projected onto others when we feel threatened. Ruebsaat (2019) taught me that sometimes the shadow can be positive aspects of ourselves that we cannot see.[3] . The slang saying “own your sh*t” is relatively new. This term is typically used to refer to someone taking responsibility for themselves. When people know the darker parts of their personality and take responsibility for themselves, they feel more self-awareness and acceptance.

An example of the shadow self is highlighted by Mary (pseudonym). She attended a family dinner visibly irritated. Her brother asked what was wrong and she said her husband was a jerk and she won the idiot prize for husbands. During dinner, the brother and husband fist-bumped each other about the hockey score. Mary told them both to shut up. Her brother reached out later that night and asked Mary what the matter was? She stated her husband was irritable in the car she wanted to smash him. She said he was annoyed and kept asking if they were going the right way. He was worried about a weather storm warning. Her brother told Mary she seemed abnormally irritable as well. Mary replied that her brother’s wife Melanie was grumpy during dinner.

Mary’s shadow side may be seen through her projection onto her sister-in-law and husband. She did not acknowledge her part in the conversation with her husband or how irritable she was, and her choice of language. If she did recognize her part, her mood and choice of words, that would be an example of owning her sh*t. As a child, Mary’s Mother flew off the handle and was verbally abusive to her and her siblings. Mary hid from her behaviours because it was hard to accept that she had similar behaviours to her. If she acknowledged them, she could learn tools to improve communication. People can’t repair what they don’t acknowledge.

Here is another example of the polarity of the shadow self. Debra (pseudonym) shared her admiration for a volunteer in her community. She was impressed with how selfless, caring and kind this person was. Her friend Louise told Debra that she was also kind and caring. She reminded her of the hundreds of hours she spent volunteering to help refugees transition into Canada. Louise said that Debra did this after working all day and she was a modern-day angel. Debra rejected that comment saying, I don’t feel like I am doing enough, but thank you. Debra refused to accept and believe a positive accurate description of herself.

Being a psychotherapist and art therapist, I work with a wide variety of clients. Some of them have suffered traumatic events, abuse, PTSD, depression, anxiety, grief and have a health diagnosis. When clients create their art, little surprises sometimes pop in to say “hi”. These messages in artwork can help people identify parts of their hidden shadow self, and experiences that are not easy to verbalize, recognize and admit. These shadow parts may be seen as outside of normal in society. However, growth and peace may come from acknowledging these dark parts of ourselves.

For example, if you are a perfectionist with anxiety, trying something new may feel very daunting. Questioning that part of yourself that feels anxious during new experiences can help. What do you fear may happen if you do something new? Has anything happened before when you engaged in a different task? Answers may be that you dread being judged if you don’t do well enough, you need to know what will happen, people may judge you, you don’t know how to do it, or that people will discover that you are stupid or XYZ. Often these feelings can be brought back to incidents earlier on in life, where judgement, praise or criticism was higher or lower depending on performance. Art therapy helps people safely unpack the shadow self whilst providing a safe place in the creative realm. It helps with personal growth and personal acceptance to own one’s sh*t and recognize our shadow self.

Heather Caruso is an art therapist and registered psychotherapist of Art Therapy Guelph. For more information on what we do, contact her to book a get-acquainted chat. 

[1] Hollis J., Introduction to Jungian shadow work. JungPlatform. Retrieved from Introduction to Jungian Shadow Work | Jung Platform

[2] Othon J. ( ) High Existence. Retrieved from Shadow Self and Carl Jung: The Ultimate Guide to the Human Dark Side | HighExistence

[3] Ruebsaat, S. (2020, August 6-27) Conversation on Jungian psychotherapy and art therapy theory surrounding dreams. Zoom meeting. Guelph ON.