The Shadow Side of Our Personality
An Native American Parable
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”
He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
As part of the human species we all have a shadow side. What is the shadow side of our personality? It’s the dark side—that side that we don’t want to own and project it on others in a way to rid ourselves of our unacceptable parts. It is the hidden power of the dark side of human nature and we all have it! However, if we don’t embrace that part of ourselves, inevitably, it will bite us in our ass!
Most of my clients who come into my office become aware of the part of them that seems to derail them over and over again on their life’s journey. Most don’t come to this revelation until around the age of 40. However, some get it earlier in life, therefore avoiding the consequences of their pathological behaviors. We are born perfect, but through the stages of our development due to circumstances beyond our control we learn behaviors to survive, some of which form our dark side. These behaviors to not represent our authentic selves—they are the adaptations we had to make in order to survive the environment and family systems we were raised in.
All families are dysfunctional to a greater or lesser degree, therefore we develop a false self in order to survive our family systems. There are biological and genetics forces that play into our development as well. Our false selves over-shadow our authentic selves and serve a purpose as we grow into adulthood. We learn as children to lie to avoid punishment, so lying has the positive intention of protecting us. The same is true if we withdraw and avoid situations where we feel shame or guilt. Thus over the years, these maladaptive patterns of behavior seem to become our personalities, but in fact, they are not. They are simply ways to protect ourselves that have been integrated into our survival patterns. Over the years they continue to dominate our lives, causing hardships in relationships, intrapersonal issues and self- worth.
As the old Cherokee replied to his grandson, the one we feed, is the one that wins. So…the resolution to healing our wounded selves is to learn how to embrace our shadow side. Robert Bly, renowned poet and author of the ground-breaking bestseller Iron John, mingles essay and verse to explore the Shadow — the dark side of the human personality — and the importance of confronting it.
Until we confront and embrace our shadow side it will continue to interrupt the quality of our lives and interfere with our relationships. We must own our dark side and understand its positive intention. In therapy we learn that our shadow side is the most powerful part of our personality. Case in hand is the ongoing saga of Michael Cohen, whose shadow side dominated and corrupted his value system by his own admission. In order to be accepted, loved and revered, we lose our sense of right and wrong, and give into the temptation of feeling powerful, protected, needed and respected. Our judgment becomes polluted, our greed corrupts our moral compass and we lose sight of doing the right thing. Owning and confronting this part of ourselves will redeem our falling from grace and teach us to lead a life worth living. It was Socrates that once said, “A life unexamined is not a life worth living.”