For most of 2019, I worked as a therapist at an inpatient facility for people with eating disorders. During my tenure there, I received the remainder of the clinical hours necessary to become fully licensed as a psychotherapist. It was also there that I received some of the greatest lessons in my life to date.
I was pregnant during this time, my belly swelling underneath layers of fabric and skin, the arrhythmic kicks of my son a reminder of my own duality—that of a therapist facilitating individual sessions and process groups for people with eating disorders and that of a mother. Divergent roles equally vital to my sense of self and well-being and inarguably both requiring me to be open to the entirety of the human experience, to the full spectrum of emotions and feelings no matter how gritty and raw. Knowing myself completely is the greatest tool I can bring to each of these scenarios however, like so many of the people I treat, the road to self-knowledge hasn’t been easy.
It is Carl Jung who coined the term shadow self, a concept which was greatly influential in my work here. In Jungian language, the shadow self encapsulates all that we find undesirable within ourselves: all of our darker impulses, desires, fantasies and inclinations as well as our garden variety shortcomings—all the things we reject in order to preserve our sense of self. For the majority, these parts of us live in exile, regulated to the mysterious domain of the unconscious, longing to be made conscious, longing for acceptance.
It is only by integrating and embracing the darkness within that we have a chance of becoming whole.
The mostly wan, listless faces encircling the therapy room on any given day presented themselves to me in various stages of alertness. Many eyes remained averted, some were closed, only a few burned brightly back at me—a stab of defiance against their owners’ descent into a slow-burning mental illness that literally ate away at their flesh, leaving them cognitively hazy and physically incapacitated.
In session, one of my patients confessed to me that anger felt like an unsafe emotion for her so she refused to access it, instead projecting a forced cheer, certain she would be unlovable otherwise. Speaking of the times in her life when she had experienced anger, her hands trembled and voice quavered. When she was introduced to the concept of the shadow self, she adamantly denied she was in possession of any of those qualities; it terrified her. Much of our subsequent work together revolved around getting acquainted with her shadow and how to let anger in without fear of being engulfed. All emotions have an intelligence to them, even those we deem bad. From them we learn so much about ourselves and what we need.
For fear of painting all those with eating disorders with too broad of a stroke, let me state that the reasons that bring each patient to treatment are highly individualized and personal; stories of extreme hardship and trauma weren’t uncommon. Still, when all these distinctions are stripped away, universal commonalities remain, and it was from these commonalities that I learned the most. Our sameness resonated, despite our differing roles.
Many of our patients had an extreme aversion to sitting with difficult feelings, something that can easily be generalized to so many of us. They found safety in numbness. Most all shared a real avoidance to looking inward for fear of what might be uncovered. These defense mechanisms, while protective in nature, prevented healing, amplifying their illness. They cut them off from the sense of vitality and understanding that radical honesty with oneself provides.
Many of us don’t go to the extreme lengths that some of my patients did to conceal our shortcomings, finding avoidance of our shadow in subtler ways. As therapists, we tread cautiously with self-disclosure, but it felt appropriate for me to empathize with them. It was impossible for me to witness our patients’ inability to love all of themselves just as they were without silently questioning my own ability to do so.
The Shadow Self. I was in my 30s when I discovered the proper name for a presence I had always acutely felt but kept regulated to the peripheries of consciousness. It was a felt sense that threatened to topple my fragile ego were I to invite it in, hold it up to the light and examine it too closely. Instead I banished it from awareness where it took to all forms of coercion to get my attention.
I ran from it: libraries, movies, dive bars, strangers, all trap doors that whisked me away. I would have done anything to keep from seeing myself too clearly. I spent years trying to outrun my shadow self, attempting to outpace something capable of keeping stride no matter the speed registered on the speedometer. I managed to keep it at bay for a time with new partners, new adventures, relocations to new area codes, all serving as welcome distractions, but after the novelty wore off, my shadow remained. A faithful companion. A deft dance partner I could never outmaneuver. You can’t outrun yourself, no matter how hard you try. This pattern lingered for years, my avoidance ultimately more destructive than what I was running from.
There was a therapist I saw briefly in an art deco office overlooking Manhattan’s Union Square. After exactly three sessions, she delivered my diagnosis in a faint British accent, her tone brusque and clipped, devoid of compassion or curiosity: the root of my unhappiness lay in my tendency to daydream. I was far too often lost in fantasy, relying on it as an antidote to my dissatisfaction with reality. Real-life, she argued, could never compete with my imaginings—thus my chronic disappointment. She never delved into the psychological reasons of why daydreaming held so much sway for me, content instead to dwell in the shallows of my actions as if self-knowledge alone was all that was needed to facilitate change. She pointed out a problem with no concern for its cause. She saw the consequences of my shadow while ignoring my shadow entirely.
Her words rang true but her lack of care and her disinterest in the necessary depth work were tone deaf. I left her office and consequentially our therapeutic relationship with more information but less hope. I left feeling even more sure I needed to keep people from knowing the real me, convinced I was in possession of an incurable strangeness. I felt inherently flawed. My daydreams and avoidance persisted.
We are taught to guard against our frailties, learning from a young age the value of boot strap grit, the importance of camouflaging our uncertainties with surety, how to disguise our weaknesses, and put on a smile even when it hurts. This smile-and-pretend-all-is-okay ethos keeps us hypervigilant against our flaws. It casts a disingenuous pallor on our relationships. Far too often, we’re not shown how to sit with discomfort and vulnerability. We aren’t taught how to love ourselves for our imperfections. This makes the prospect of facing our perceived deficiencies too terrifying, so we split off from the totality of our being, seeing what we want to see, repressing the rest. Over time, this divide becomes automatic.
It is culturally sanctioned to gloss over things with inspirational quotes and positive thinking. While these things have their merit in rationed doses, they’re detrimental when they become dogma. We yearn to smooth away any rough edges and rapidly fix what is broken, so uncomfortable are we as a society in dwelling with difficult feelings. In essence, we’re putting a ballgown, lipstick and some glitter on the monster under the bed. The monster remains despite the disguise, made even more powerful by our fear.
In my process groups, the inclination to meet distress with comforting platitudes and generic reassurances abounded. It’s a habit I’ve had to override in myself, still cropping up despite all of my training. But once our patients were able to push deeper and bear witness to each other’s shame and pain with mere presence, true healing could begin. We talked often of self-compassion. How to fearlessly love oneself for all facets of one’s being—not just the light qualities that bring pride, but the inner darkness as well. They learned how to take ownership over the exiled parts of themselves and were guided towards exploring and learning to love their shadow self. For many, this was too radical of a departure from what they were accustomed to but those willing to do the work stood the greatest chance of recovery.
The reasons we are who we are—the good, the bad, the messy, the beautiful—result from a confluence of factors, many of which we’ve had no control over, stemming as they are from childhood and a time when we were at the whims of the adults around us. It’s hard for us to have compassion for the pieces of ourselves we find repulsive, especially when we’re unable to trace those pieces back to their origins. What my therapist was unable to provide for me, and what I strive to provide for my clients, is an understanding of where these traits come from. They’re all just pieces of a larger whole. I hope I provide them with an opportunity to look deeper and make meaning of their lives. I hope I help them look at their shadow with compassion and curiosity.
For, you see, the shadow self isn’t necessarily bad—it’s misunderstood. There is rebirth and renewal in tipping one’s hat to their darker impulses, in opening the door and inviting them in. From them can be channeled creativity, vitality, spontaneity and growth. Much of the adventure and spontaneity in life is derived from our darker half. These are among the things that make us feel the most alive.
In honor of my patients and the courage they undertook to do this work, and in honor of my children, who will have their own respective shadow selves no matter how I raise them, 2019 was the year I set out to befriend my own shadow. A year of beginning to take ownership over the habits and traits I’ve kept hidden from myself and others. As the Zodiac spun around, I’ve started to shine light into the hidden subterranean caverns of myself, and am stepping into 2020 more enlightened, humbled and a good deal freer as a result. I’ve learned that I can withstand my demons.
The work has been painful. Oftentimes it’s felt like looking in the mirror under florescent lighting after an all-night bender: all dark circles, smudged makeup and smeared mascara. I don’t always like what I see. The acceptance piece is ongoing.
My shadow isn’t so distinct from anyone else’s, woven as it is with the universal threads of aggression, lawlessness, sensual desires, jealousy, laziness, greed, you name it. It’s a Pandora’s box of usual suspects. I’m a melancholy escape artist, prone to ruminations and procrastination. I remain endlessly grateful that others can’t read minds, or I would be both friendless and jobless. I’m financially reckless, love a cheap thrill, feel a gravitational pull toward self-indulgence and these are just the surface things. I could wax poetically on, but the particulars aren’t the point. The goal is facing and assimilating these pieces of myself I’ve traditionally shunned.
Life is a meaning-making process. The transition from self-denial to self-awareness isn’t straightforward. Nor is it ever complete—the unfolding and evolving is continuous.
It is at once contradictory and true that only once we are able to see ourselves and accept ourselves just as we are that we are free to change. The truth gives us choices, whereas denial leaves us with blind spots and tunnel vision.
There are Bon Iver lyrics that have resonated with me ever since I first heard them. “At once I knew I was not magnificent.” Due to a series of habits and choices I’ve made, many related to my shadow, I am the person I am today. I haven’t yet published my first novel, I may never go back for my PhD, I’ll never be the crafty DIY mom I aspire to be and my creative work is often met with divided attention.
But now that I see things more clearly, I can put any lingering unrealistic expectations to bed. By releasing those things, I can focus on what I am capable of doing. I am beginning to give myself grace for what I’ve previously deemed unforgivable or unacceptable.
There has been a beauty for me in calling things as they are. Approaching my idiosyncrasies and shortcomings without desperately trying to change them has provided me with a newfound freedom. It is as though I’ve finally learned Rumpelstiltskin’s name, thus taking away his power. And just like the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, I’ve spun my own straw into gold, discovering that what has always brought me shame, has been a treasure all along.
Dacia Fusaro is a clinical social worker and therapist whose work is defined by a compassionate, curious and collaborative approach. She lives in the greater Los Angeles area with her husband, daughter and new baby boy.
Other work by Dacia Fusaro in The Elephant: These are the Days
Claudia DiDomencio. Brazilian-born and mother of three adventurous children, Claudia has always found inspiration from nature. Through her photos she tries to capture light, wonder and the beauty of the ordinary. With nature as her muse, she created a children’s shop, Lil Bellies, a highly curated line of eco-conscious products she hopes will help foster connection with our planet by sparking curiosity and a sense of adventure.