“I don’t have a dark side,” you might say, or if you have an inkling that you do, it’s certainly not something you want to get to know better. In fact, most of us would rather get as far away from this part of ourselves as possible.
Your dark side, also known as your shadow side, has more to offer than you might think though, particularly when it comes to living a fulfilling and meaningful life.
So, what is your dark side / shadow side?
Your dark side is the messier, flawed or less pleasant side of who you are. Most of us do our best to hide this side of who we are from others and to some extent, even from ourselves. This part of us often lives deep below the surface of our awareness, in the murky waters of our unconscious mind.
Parts of our dark side will occasionally rise to the surface. When they do, we tend to feel ashamed, embarrassed, guilty or exposed. Because of this we usually respond by denying how we feel, pushing the feeling back down or doing something to distract ourselves or others from what we’ve noticed.
The thing is, having a dark side just makes you human.
We all have thoughts that are harmful or hurtful towards others. We all have days when we feel anger and hatred toward the people we love. We all feel jealous, self-centred and self-loathing from time to time. We all do things from time to time that we regret and feel ashamed of.
Not acknowledging the shadow parts of who you are is actually more risky than letting yourself see what’s there.
Why? Because when you deny the truth of what you think and feel, these emotions and beliefs usually find a way of expressing themselves.
Here’s an example of how your dark side might leak out:
You’re out for dinner with your close friend and find out she has bought a new house. One part of you is so happy for your friend. They’ve worked hard to save their deposit and find the right home for themselves. Another part of you is jealous and sad. You’ve also worked hard, but you don’t earn as much, so buying a house feels like a long way off. You briefly notice your sad and jealous feelings (your “dark side”), but immediately feel guilty about them, so you push them aside and focus on congratulating your friend. Later on that night, you and your friend have a moment where you snap at her unnecessarily about something minor. Your friend feels attacked and ends up going home early. You’re left wondering why you reacted like this.
In the example above, you swallow down the “dark side” of your response to your friend buying a house because you feel like a selfish friend. Later on though you find yourself getting irritable with her, so the feelings end up coming to this surface in the end anyway. This is the potential risk of bottling up our “darker” or more “negative” responses, they end up being expressed but in a way that often is not constructive and ironically, usually just makes us feel worse.
Feeling our dark side is helpful and freeing, but expressing it might not always be.
Allowing yourself to just notice and feel your dark side is powerful. Importantly, this doesn’t mean you need to express or act on how you feel though. Consciously acknowledging what you feel, no matter how undesirable or unlikable the thought, feeling or urge might be, can really be life changing.
The thing is, if you’re a human, your dark side exists, whether you like it or not. By slowing down and letting yourself feel what’s there, you’re actually taking the reins back from your unconscious mind. You’re putting yourself back in the driver’s seat, instead of letting your dark side drive you and your behaviour.
Keeping the shadow side at bay is exhausting and comes at a cost.
Denying the dark side of who you are is hard work. It takes a lot of mental and emotional effort to be constantly repressing the “negative” or “flawed” parts of who you are. In fact, ironically, pushing down these parts of yourself can lead to mental health issues like depression, anxiety, addiction, eating disorders and relationship issues. It can also leave you feeling empty, alone and like you’re wearing a mask. Like there is on version of you that you present to the world and another version of you that exists behind closed doors.
Acknowledging your dark side can help you to grow and develop.
By loosening your grip on your dark side, you have the chance to feel more whole and real. Your shadow gives you substance as a human. Without any acknowledgement of our dark side, we can sometimes end up feeling one-dimensional or boring. Your dark side can help you to lead a more authentic, connected and fulfilling life. Some people would even say that life can shift from black and white to colour, as you get to know the shadow side of who you are.
Your dark side also presents you with opportunities to face aspects of who you are that are flawed or underdeveloped. Of course, the aim is not to find a way to become a flawless human being, but there may be parts of who you are that you’d like to change or work on. For example, if you’re someone who has a short fuse, you’re unlikely to be able to change this if you aren’t first able to acknowledge that you have an aggressive side to you.
If you’re curious about exploring your dark side, here are a few ideas to get you started.
- Think about times when you’ve been really annoyed by others. What personality trait or characteristic of theirs was grating on you? This could be a clue to a part of yourself that you either feel a lot of self-hatred for, very ashamed of or scared that you will become. For example, if your pet hate is people who are stingy, this might be something that you’re deeply afraid of becoming yourself, or perhaps in some ways, already are.
- What are some of your strengths? For example, being determined, caring for others, being creative, public speaking or attention to detail. Now think about what happens when you overuse those strengths, when you take them to an extreme – this might shed light on your dark side. For example, if being organised is a strength of yours, at its most extreme you might notice yourself being controlling and critical of the people around you, or having trouble delegating. Or if being relaxed is a strength of yours, at its extreme this might mean that you don’t have enough motivation to get important tasks done.
- Here are a few reflection questions that might help you to uncover more about your dark side:
1. Have you ever gone to extreme lengths to cover up something that you did or said, or even “pretended” to yourself that you didn’t do it?
2. Have you ever convinced yourself that a trait you don’t like in yourself has suddenly disappeared or no longer matters?
3. Have you ever found yourself getting really upset or angry with a fictional character in a movie, book or TV series
4. Have you ever felt intensely defensive when someone has called you out on something you said or did, but a small part of you feels like the person has a point?
5. Are there certain qualities that people sometimes point out about you that really upset you, but that you kind of know are true?
6. Do ever force yourself to feel only one way about something, but underneath know that you actually feel two very opposing ways? For example, a friend lets you down and you tell yourself you are completely fine about it. You don’t allow yourself to feel the hurt, disappointment or anger that’s also there. You “split off” this “darker” part of how you feel so that you seem like a “nice” person.
It’s important to take your time in getting to know your dark side. It can be incredibly confronting facing up to the parts of ourselves that we have split off or pushed down for most of our lives, so self-compassion is an essential ingredient. A big reason why we feel scared or ashamed when we look at these parts of who we are relates to the messages we received growing up, and in society more generally, about the “negative” parts of ourselves. These parts were often not welcomed and sometimes even attacked or shamed. So be gentle with yourself as you try to explore your shadow side. It’s a lifelong process.
Many people find it helpful to journal what they’re noticing, as a way to get some distance (explore tips for journalling). You might also find it useful to explore your dark side with the support of a psychologist, counsellor and therapist. It can be comforting exploring these lesser known parts of yourself in the presence of someone who is empathic and non-judgemental.