“You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection” – Siddhartha Gautama
In the post Our True Nature, we looked at how incredibly destructive the socialization process can be, and how it so often results in toxic shaming by family, adult figures in the community, and/or peers. We also saw that what happens when we’re the subject of toxic shaming is that we internalize that shame and it becomes our identity. Toxic shame becomes who we are.
As we saw in that post, the first step towards healing is to understand that we are not our toxic shame, and to believe that our true nature of love, compassion, kindness, and peace is who we are at our core. It is crucial to make the fundamental shift from a shame-based identity, to an identify based on our true nature.
Once we do that, we can meaningfully practice meditation, mindfulness, and letting go of attachments, because we know that the goal of those practices is to get us back in touch with our true nature of love, compassion, kindness, and peace.
But what if we’re struggling with making that shift in identity? What if every time we start to believe we are our true nature we ‘fail’ at something, or someone says something that triggers us so that we start to feel like a ‘loser’ again – what do we do then? And where within ourselves are those feeling coming from anyway?
The answer to the last question is the shadow child, and once we understand that, we can move on to practical ways of embracing and loving that child, and helping us to make the real shift in identity towards our true nature.
What is the shadow child?
The shadow child is that aspect of our emotional make-up that resulted from toxic shaming. It is the complex of traumatic, shame-based memories that reside in our unconscious because they are too painful to bring into the light of awareness. Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, said that the shadow aspect of our personalities is that part of ourselves that the ego actually rejects and buries in the unconscious.
The ‘shadow’ part of the shadow child works as a mnemonic I’ve devised and stands for:
This is the shadow child – the emotional result of toxic shaming that has left us hurt, angry, depressed, lonely, and anxious. It is that part of us that split off from our true nature and went underground into our unconscious because we could not then, and cannot now, handle the shame that was meted out to us.
So does everyone have a shadow child? Yes, to one degree or another. Since every one of us came from a family unit filled with imperfect and often shame-based people themselves, and since every one of us was socialized in a society also filled with imperfect and often shame-based people, all of us have developed a shadow child to some level.
Some people were fortunate enough to escape the heaviest levels of toxic shame and grew up closer to the self-actualized side of the spectrum. However far too many (and I believe a substantial majority) suffered toxic shame in the form of either verbal, physical, or sexual abuse, as well as physical or emotional abandonment, or a combination thereof.
Do you remember the adage, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me?” Anyone with even a modicum of life experience knows that’s dead wrong, and that only relates to verbal shaming, much less the other forms of toxic shaming.
If you throw in beatings, bullying, sexual abuse, or being emotionally or physically abandoned by parents too caught up in their own dramas to care for their children, you get a frightening picture of children who grow up to be ‘adults’ that are running around society emotionally driven by the shame-based shadow child that the ‘adult’ doesn’t even know is there. Think about the implications of that one for a second.
And for those us who have experienced one or more of these kinds of toxic shaming, it can be especially difficult to believe that our true nature is that of love and compassion when we have internalized this kind of shame and believe it is who we actually are, not just something we experienced.
So what’s the solution? It’s called ‘shadow work’ and it will likely be the most difficult psychological/self-help work we’ve ever done.
Releasing the shadow child through shadow work
In shadow work, we take time to quiet ourselves and explore the darkness within – those aspects of ourselves that are so toxically shamed that we have never let them see the light of day. In my own shadow work I’ve realized that there are two levels of darkness in the unconscious: the ground floor, if you will, where the majority of our shame-based memories are stored, and the basement where our most secret aspect of toxic shame is kept locked away. This is where the shadow child lives.
The breakthrough for me came when I asked myself, what is the single greatest source/event(s)/instance(s) of toxic shame in my life? In other words, what is it about myself that I am most ashamed of to the exclusion of all else? Put in another way, what is it that gives rise to the greatest sense of shame about myself, and how did it get there? These are the kinds of questions you need to ask yourself to get to the source of the deepest part of your toxic shame.
By delving into and answering these questions, what you are doing is going into the pitch-black part of the unconscious, opening the basement door, and coming face to face with the darkest part of yourself – that part of your psychological and emotional make-up which is the most shamed and the most difficult to face.
And I have to be honest, when I came face to face with my shadow child it was a difficult energy to embrace. Having uncovered the deepest source of my toxic shame, it became very difficult to believe that there was any aspect of myself other than this. I felt that this was who I truly was. But as time went on, I realized that this child was not who I actually was at the core, yet was now still a part of me and deserved to be loved.
And I also realized that he was not alone. When I brought the shadow child into the light of tenderhearted awareness, I realized that there was another aspect of myself that I had not acknowledged all these years, and that is the inner child of my true nature. In effect each of us has a shadow child, and a child of light from which the shadow child split off.
There is a similar teaching in the Cherokee Indian traditions where a grandfather explains to his grandson that we each have two wolves within us, one dark, and one light representing the good and evil aspects of our nature. When the grandson asks which will win, the grandfather responds, whichever you feed the most.
I believe the shadow child is not inherently evil. It may lead to self-destructive behaviors, and even behaviors that hurt others, but this is only because it is the damaged aspect of ourselves seeking to ameliorate the pain of its existence. Once brought into the light, the shadow child can be embraced, worked with, and ultimately loved, especially when we realize that none of us deserve to be toxically shamed, and that the toxic shaming that happened to us was not our fault.
Again, we did not deserve to be toxically shamed. We did not deserve to suffer verbal, physical or sexual abuse. We did not deserve to be abandoned, physically or emotionally. What we deserved was to be loved, respected, and taught right and wrong without being made to feel that we were the wrong. And there is nothing that we could have said or done that justified being shamed in such insidious ways.
It’s through this realization that we can compassionately embrace our shadow child, and now give him or her the love that he or she desperately needed, has needed our whole lives, and is still in need of today. I’m happy to say that not only have I now embraced my shadow child, I have felt a level of compassion for him that I have never felt before. This is also the type of compassion that can now be turned towards others because I know that they too, consciously or otherwise, have their own shadow child energy causing them such pain.
And this also bears emphasizing: our shadow child is not our original true nature. He or she is not our true identity however much it may feel that way. We are the innocent and pure beings of love that we originally were up until that first instance of toxic shaming, however old we were, at which point our shadow child began to split off. The energy of love, light, and compassion – our inner child of light – that is our true nature.
Our shadow child is a dark emotional energy, grounded in memories of unfortunate toxic shaming that developed over the years, but once brought into the light of tenderhearted awareness, can be embraced, loved, worked with, and even reared and educated in the way that it should have been from the start.
But how do we do that on a practical level? Stay tuned. That will be the subject of the next post.
- Everyone has a shadow child to one degree or another
- The shadow child is that aspect of our emotional make-up that resulted from toxic shaming. It is the complex of traumatic, shame-based memories that reside in our unconscious because they are too painful to bring into the light of awareness. This is the part of ourselves we rejected and lives in the basement of our subconscious.
- The shadow child split off when incidents of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse began, and when we were physically or emotionally abandoned by parents too caught up in their own dramas to properly parent us, and/or by other adult figures or peers.
- We release the shadow child by asking the questions, what is the single greatest thing I am ashamed of in my life? What is the greatest source or cause of personal shame?
- Once you have answered these questions, you have come into contact with your shadow child, the part of you that most desperately needed and still needs acceptance and love today.
- Whatever toxic shame we received, in whatever form, it was not our fault. We did not cause it, and nor did we deserve it.
- We can now embrace, love, work with, parent and educate the shadow child in the way we should have been when we were young.
- While the shadow child is now a part of us, it is not our true nature. Our true nature is the child of love, light, innocence, and compassion we were just before the toxic shame began and before the shadow child began to split off.
Thanks for stopping by and see you soon.