Gwyneth Paltrow’s Psychotherapist Would Like You to Meet Your Shadow Self

What's a 'shadow self?!' Read on and learn, friends.

In Goop Health

In anticipation of his Coming Out of the Shadows workshop at Canada’s first In Goop Health summit, I talked to psychotherapist Barry Michels about one of his tools for self-actualization. Get tickets to the workshop here.

When Barry Michels started his psychotherapy practice he had an epiphany: discovering the root cause of people’s problems was valuable, but when it came to solving their issues and changing behaviour, there were no concrete steps people could take. Michels connected with fellow psychotherapist and future co-author Phil Stutz and was introduced to the idea of creating tools people could use to solve their problems, which gave birth to their best-selling book, The Tools. “Tools are actionable procedures you use in the privacy of your own mind to change your behaviour in a problematic situation,” Michels explains to me over the phone. “By using these tools people start to gain a mastery over themselves, which is the prerequisite for change.”

One of the tools that Michels and Stutz discuss in their book is the concept of discovering your shadow self. “Your shadow is defined by the traits you have disowned inside of yourself,” says Michels. “It’s everything you wish you weren’t but are.” While the idea of unearthing the darkest, ugliest part of yourself may sound scary, Michels says it’s the path to confidence, self-expression, authentic intimacy, and ultimately, self-actualization. I had to learn more.

Where did the idea of the shadow come from?

The idea of the shadow is over a hundred years old. It started in Western Europe with the German term doppelganger, which just means a double, a strange figure that looks like you and acts like you but is not you. It began more as a legend than anything else, then it was Carl Jung who really elaborated on the entire concept, and he coined the phrase the shadow. He also began to see it not just as a scary doppelganger figure but as a potential resource. Where Jung left off is he kept things on a very theoretical level. I think what Phil and I have done is we’ve developed ways of creating a positive relationship with your shadow. I know this sounds strange but think of the shadow as kind of an alternate being with an alternate identity living inside of you that you can have a relationship with just like you would have with anyone in the outside world.

How do you differentiate between your shadow and how you normally identify with yourself?

The best way to answer that question is to understand how the shadow develops in childhood. If you think back to infancy, you know an infant has a very different kind of consciousness than we do. An infant can’t distinguish between itself and the environment, everything is part of a kind of swirling undifferentiated whole. Gradually, as an infant grows into childhood, it develops an awareness of itself as separate from its environment. In particular, the child becomes aware that there are qualities that its family approves and disapproves of. You create the shadow by disowning or pushing away these parts of yourself that the environment deems unacceptable. To give you an example, if in your family a girl is supposed to be pure and virginal then the shadow is going to be filled with your sexual desires and you’re going to think of those as dirty or bad. In my family, women were allowed to be emotional but my father and I were supposed to be rational, and in particular men were not allowed to get angry. So when I first started to work on my shadow, my shadow was really enraged. It was filled with all of the anger that I had pushed away from myself.

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How do you work with people to discover who their shadow self is?

Well, the first thing I do is I ask them to go back and visualize whatever part of themselves they would least want to expose to other people because our natural instinct is to hide our shadow from others. After all, you feel ashamed or bad or guilty about this part of yourself, so you pushed it away. I help people with a step-by-step way of visualizing the shadow, forging a positive relationship with it by stopping the judgments and the condemnation, and learning to include it as a companion through their life. The real problem isn’t that we have a shadow, it’s that we’re constantly trying to hide it or get rid of it. That’s the inner conflict.

So, what do people gain by embracing their shadow?

Number one, you can’t really be confident if you’re always judging or shaming a part of yourself, right? It’s the opposite of confidence. You also pay a price in terms of self-expression. One of the reasons that people have a really hard time with public speaking is that when you express yourself, you risk exposing your shadow. So, if you can’t be an ally with your shadow you can never express yourself freely. When I give these workshops, I really have to keep my shadow very close because if I don’t, I don’t give a good workshop. Usually the best part of the workshop is when my shadow just kind of takes over and I’m listening to him speak through me and I’m discovering stuff as the audience is discovering it as well. It’s sort of like a flow state where it’s coming through me but not but not quite from me.

I’m wondering how you distinguish between the parts of yourself that are healthy to unearth and nurture, and those that aren’t?

Well, that’s a great question. My orientation is that everything is good to unearth. It’s not necessarily good to put it out into the world and you can unearth some really gnarly stuff. You know, your shadow may want to murder somebody so that’s not a great idea, but it is a great idea to understand why the shadow is so angry and maybe what you have done to cause that rage. If you can treat this just the way you would treat a relationship with another human being, it’s actually good to say, ‘why are you so angry?’ Because at the very least what you’re going to do is make the shadow feel heard and often that’s for the first time in your life, which generally reduces the level of anger and allows it to communicate what it really does need from you. Maybe it just needs recognition, maybe it’s angry at you because you’re not doing enough with your life. What I find is that although initially the shadow exposes a lot of really scary, gnarly, ugly impulses that humans have, at the end of the day the shadow has only turned to those because its more positive impulses have never been really listened to.

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That’s interesting because a lot of popular psychology is about focusing on the positive and visualizing the positive and so it seems very counterintuitive to put your energy towards something like that.

Yes, exactly. [Carl] Jung said 
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.” It’s brilliant because it says, look it would be so convenient if we can just meditate on figures of light but that just denies how much darkness we have inside of us. Look around at the world, there’s a lot of darkness. If we don’t deal with that, we’re missing something really critical that needs to be transformed.

You mentioned that working with your shadow can help with self-expression. How else can identifying your shadow create a richer, more honest life?

The first way is by creating confidence. Confidence doesn’t consist of getting rid of all your flaws because you can’t. No one’s ever going to be perfect. So real confidence means accepting that there is a flawed, dark being inside of you and you don’t really care what anyone thinks of it. If you can accept the darkness inside of you and make friends with it, then you’re really confident because you’re not presenting an inauthentic version of yourself to the outside world. We think confident people have erased their shadow and it’s easy to think that when you look at a glossy photo of some beautiful actress. But you know, I’m in the unique position of actually treating those people and trust me, they’re not confident. They all have shadows that they’re ashamed of. The only real confidence is, ‘I’m aware of my shadow and I work with it every single day and I refuse to shame it.’

How else does the shadow create positive change?

The shadow is key to authenticity in relationships. Most of our relationships have a kind of core inauthenticity to them because we’re hiding the part of ourselves that we’re most ashamed of. We don’t bring it to the table. So when you can be in a relationship where you can reveal the parts of yourself that you feel most guilty about or most ashamed of—and I’m not saying you should do that with everybody by the way, but with your spouse or really close friends—that total authenticity where you can reveal your shadow to somebody builds the strongest kind of relationship. You’re not just presenting a false front, you’re presenting all of you, the good, the bad, and the ugly. It connects people together in a way that they’re not used to being connected because they’re not hiding anything anymore.

I think there’s a level of honesty about that way of being that resonates with people because I think for me that’s always been the disconnect with the positive psychology school. It seems a little forced or inauthentic because that’s not life, right?

Exactly. I love what you said about honesty because they don’t mean to be dishonest but there’s something fundamentally dishonest about denying the darkness. It’s there whether you like it or not. You’re actually in a much stronger, humbler, and more authentic position if you can say, yeah that’s dark, that’s the dark part of me. I can work on it but the first step to working on it is to acknowledge it.

Absolutely. So, what can people expect from your workshop at In Goop Health this weekend?

You’re going to get a step-by-step guide to visualizing your shadow and forging a relationship with it where you’re no longer judging or condemning it but instead including it as a companion through your life. You’ll discover how to keep it at your side in tough situations where you have to express yourself or confront someone or where someone else is judging you. In those really difficult situations where you get defensive or shut down or overreact, the shadow is important because if you can keep this relationship inside of you strong then no matter what’s going on outside of you, you’re in control of yourself. The shadow is key to creating strong boundaries because it creates an inner relationship where there’s space inside of you, so the outside world doesn’t have to affect you so deeply. You’ll learn to create your self-image from the inside rather than from the outside.

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