“You can’t solve a problem with the same level of thought that created it.” - Einstein
The term ‘shadow belief’ may lead you to conjure up all kinds of dark and uncomfortable associations. Because of the way we perceive the word shadow, it is easy to think that a shadow belief involves the more negative or sinister aspect of our personality. Actually, that is not the case at all. So what exactly is the human shadow and what are shadow beliefs?
In the early 1900’s, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud defined the world of psychology. Their theories, although sometimes differing, had and still have a great impact on our perception of the human mind. Their contributions have led to the development of successful treatments and their theories are still behind many psychotherapeutic approaches we use today. Their research concluded that we all have aspects of ourselves that we are aware of and some that we are entirely unaware of. Carl Jung referred to the unconscious aspects as ‘the shadow’. Therefore, the human shadow is defined as any aspect of ourselves that is not exposed to the light of our own consciousness. Let’s delve into this a bit further.
As babies we are born a whole person, meaning we are open, capable, intelligent, responsive, and ready to participate in life. That wholeness is short-lived, however, because we are relationally dependant on our family. This causes us to learn early on that some aspects of ourselves are acceptable and some aspects are not, depending on the perspective of the family we are born into. Being dependant and wanting/needing approval and love, we do whatever we can to suppress and disassociate from those aspects of ourselves that are looked at disapprovingly and do our best to exaggerate or bring to light those that are approved of.
This disassociation from certain aspects of ourselves creates a split in the wholeness we were born with - creating what we call the conscious and the unconscious. We can almost say that this self-preservation instinct of dividing ourselves into ‘shadow’ and ‘light’ as children is our first move towards self-rejection.
It is important to note that not all disassociated aspects of ourselves are negative. We can just as easily suppress, deny or disown aspects of ourselves that are very positive. Take, for example, a child that was born with a naturally confident and outgoing personality, but was raised in a household where ‘children were to be seen and not heard’. That child most likely learned early on to suppress and separate from that confident part of themselves in order to merit the acceptance and love of their parent or caregiver. As an adult, that person’s confidence and ability to set boundaries is probably not their strongest suit. This is simply a result of how the past was framed - that person is not able to ‘see’ their confident side because they disengaged from it early on.
We all have shadow beliefs (or limiting beliefs) which are roadblocks that hold us back from being successful and happy. We believe we are acting independently of them, that each choice we make in life is of our own free will, but our choices are most often than not dictated from a reservoir of beliefs.
In his book Beyond Positive Thinking, Dr. Robert Anthony explains it this way:
“All our experiences have led us to believe certain things about ourselves. Whether these beliefs are true or not really doesn’t matter because if we accept them as true, then they are true for us. If we speak our word long enough, it becomes law in the universe. Pronounce your limitations vigorously enough and they’re yours. Whether your beliefs are true or totally insane, if you accept them, then that’s what your life will be about.”
Have you ever heard your inner voice say any of the following:
- There is something wrong with me
- I’m a procrastinator
- I will never be enough
- I’m not smart enough
- I should be farther along by now
- I am not worthy
- If I get my hopes up I’ll just be disappointed
- I cannot trust anyone
- I don’t deserve to have what I want
- I am worthless
- I’ve never been able to finish anything
- I am never going to be successful
- I’m not outgoing enough
- I’m not self-confident
- It’s too late
- Life is hard
- I don’t deserve to be happy
To find out what limiting beliefs are holding you back, a great exercise is to make a ‘can’t’ list consisting of things you ‘know’ you can’t do and why. For everything that comes to mind, complete the following sentence:
I can’t __ because ___ .
Pay close attention to what comes after the word ‘because’. That’s your inner voice (or limiting belief) telling you why something is impossible, and that voice is what keeps you from being truly happy and open to possibilities. If an amazing idea were to hit you over the head you would most likely dismiss it because you have already decided you can’t do it.
Suppressing the existence of our shadow side makes it fade from our conscious awareness but it doesn’t make it disappear. The part of us that is fractured is always making itself known, as it constantly seeks acknowledgement and needs to be dealt with in order for us to become whole again. There may be things we do in our adult life that we question, yet we keep doing them. At times, we feel lost and out of control, falling into the same unhealthy patterns over and over again, whether it be in our personal or professional life. These situations will repeatedly come up in our life until we honestly see, understand and deal with the root cause of our thoughts and actions.
Doing ‘shadow work’ (or understanding how to become self-aware) is consciously doing the work of becoming conscious of what has become unconscious. By bringing our shadow beliefs into the light and ‘seeing’ them for what they are, we are able to decide what we want to embrace and what we need to discard. In order to have a beautiful garden, it’s important to keep the beautiful flowers and pull out the choking weeds. One of the biggest favours we can do for ourselves is to stop pretending that we have no weeds in our garden - everybody does.
Having shadow beliefs is not scary, but not dealing with them is.
Shedding light on our shadow beliefs is crucial to personal mastery. If we make the effort to consciously and courageously engage with them instead of being unconsciously driven by them, we will take control of our lives and gain an understanding of why we do what we do. If we leave part of ourselves in the dark, we will end up paying a high price, both personally and professionally. Some of the costs can be health problems, imbalanced lifestyles, addictive behaviours, relationship issues, underachievement, achievement overdrive, a weak or intimidating persona, and ultimately an unsettled existence.
The purpose here is to raise awareness to what your inner voice is saying, as simply being aware is an enormous first step. Be aware of negative feelings that have no real basis and mental put-downs that aren’t even true. Ask yourself where these thoughts are coming from and try to find the root so you can pull it out and discard it like a weed. You’ll start to realize when these beliefs rear their ugly heads and in time you will be able to learn how to stop letting them control your decisions and actions.