“Wellness is the complete integration of body, mind, and spirit – the realization that
everything we do, think, feel, and believe has an effect on our state of well-being.”
– Greg Anderson, founder of Cancer Recovery Foundation International
“How do you feel?” I asked.
“Fragmented,” he replied. “Disjointed.”
“Explain fragmented,” I said. “Tell me how it feels to be disjointed.”
“As if a dozen people are living in my head, each with a different agenda.”
In coaching and counselling, integration brings together lost, suppressed or disavowed aspects of our psyche. It is putting the pieces back together so that we may no longer feel fragmented or disjointed but whole, complete, and, ultimately, healed from within.
When our self-esteem is in tatters, it can feel like we have a dozen people in our heads. The inner child cries out for attention and praise. The angry adult spews forth venom on an unjust world. The optimist preaches that all is possible if only we believe. The pessimist claims that despite our best efforts, everything ends up disappointing. The sad and melancholy recluse wants only to stay in bed and hide under the covers. With so many aspects jostling for position, it’s easy to lose focus and clarity. Which voices do we acknowledge, and which do we ignore? Life is filled with conflict and indecision for the person with low self-esteem.
That may sound a bit like multiple personality disorder, but it’s the natural result of allowing certain aspects of our personality to be expressed while others are suppressed. Carl Jung, considered the father of modern psychotherapy, coined the term “the shadow” to describe this unconscious repository of one’s unacceptable impulses and characteristics. The intolerable aspects of ourselves are shoved out of our awareness and into the shadow.
Jung theorized that we are born as whole human beings and that we use the shadow to contain the aspects of ourselves that we have “learned” are wrong or unacceptable. We arrived in this life as curious, trusting little sponges and absorbed everything we could from our surroundings and the people who populated our world: parents, siblings and extended family. We learn about ourselves from the words, actions and judgment of others. Sadly, not all of our masters were enlightened or self-aware. Some of them had dreadfully poor self-esteem and unintentionally wounded us. In short, we learned many general concepts about ourselves and life from parental, cultural and religious influences that were not true. Nevertheless, we accepted the reality modelled for us. And over time, we relegated more and more aspects of our true nature to this repository until we eventually became fragmented, disjointed – incomplete.
We might assume that the shadow contains only aspects of ourselves that are harmful or inappropriate and best left hidden and denied. To some degree, this is true. However, the shadow also contains many positive and life-affirming qualities that – if expressed – would help us to feel whole and complete. For example, a child bullied and belittled at home or school may choose to stifle a sensitive nature. A child raised in a home where drama, painting or music is considered frivolous may attempt to quash a natural artistic flair. A child taught that anger is an unacceptable emotion may never learn how to express it appropriately, leading to depression and passive-aggressive tendencies. I had a client who – following a nasty breakup – concluded that love only leads to heartache. This prompted him to banish his personality’s loving, open and trusting aspects to the shadow. Sometimes a tragic or traumatic event can also prompt us to deny and lock away aspects of our nature.
The lost aspects of our personality are not really lost but hover just below our level of conscious awareness – constantly threatening to emerge. It takes a lot of energy to hold these aspects in check, but during times of high stress or emotion, they can break free. For example, I remember being at a party where the entertainment was a karaoke machine. About halfway through the evening, with the aid of a bottle of red wine, shy and withdrawn, Sherry (not her real name) approached the microphone and surprised us all by singing a popular ballad in a clear, powerful and beautiful voice. She had always loved to sing but had been told by her mother that she had no talent as a child. So, Sherry, the singer, had unfortunately been relegated to the shadow.
It’s not until we acknowledge the need for healing that we begin to seek and reclaim the missing parts of ourselves. Even if we’re seasoned travellers on the path to personal empowerment and self-esteem building, there is always more to learn about ourselves – more to be revealed – and more to be discovered. It may help to think of this journey as leading to wholeness – an ongoing search for the lost parts of ourselves so that we can fully express who we truly are at our core. The more integrated we are, the more we can participate actively and powerfully in our lives, ready to meet new experiences with joy, courage and curiosity.
Again, Jung said, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”
Owning our shadow aspects brings wholeness and integration. We cannot deny these characteristics of our nature and be complete individuals with healthy self-esteem. Each element is a gift that can lead to enlightenment and freedom if revealed and expressed appropriately. Explore the shadow, seek out the hidden pieces and work with each to integrate them into your life. The more integrated we are, the more able we are to live our life full measure.