Be Yourself: The Shadow Self & Vulnerability in long term Relationships
“Be Yourself, You can’t be anybody else” are some lyrics from a Children’s song by Danny Kaye in the 1970s. It was one that I must have listened to countless times growing up. However, despite all that positive messaging going in, what I found a number of decades later is that really, truly Being Yourself is one of the very hardest things you can do in life; and especially in your most significant relationships.
Being 100% yourself in a Relationship doesn’t always come easy. It’s a skill that many of us actually need to learn. In fact, we become many versions of ourselves in a love relationship; and not all of them are ‘good’ or represent who we really want to be.
Often, particularly when we are first together, we try to put our best foot forward and be something which, quite frankly, we’re not.
You see, the way we present ourselves when we are first together and in love, IS a version of us. It’s a version of us that could be a reality. It’s the way we’d like to be and the way we’d like our partners to see us. In truth, it’s the way we can be if we choose to shake off old patterns and habits and adopt new ones.
So why, more often than not, does this never happen?
BEING ‘IN LOVE’
The most common Relationship Trap is that, when you fall out of love with your other half you realise that they are not quite who you thought they were. They have stopped being the higher version of themselves.
However, what you may not realise is that, at this point, You also cease to act as your higher self.
But there’s more than this.
Falling out of love is an inevitability because being ‘in love’ is simply a chemical cocktail of hormones in your system. It’s a process designed to bond you to another human who is, in many fundamental ways, absolutely opposite to you and almost ensured to push all your buttons!
Being ‘in love’ actually changes how you perceive the other person. It actually means you don’t see the person in their entirety. You:
- filter out the bad bits
- apply rose-tinted specs
- get a sort of tunnel vision about them
- choose to see the good.
When the love drugs wear off the trouble with this is, you then might think that you have been lied to or that person has ‘changed’; so you begin a campaign to try to turn them into the person you ‘thought’ they were.
And whilst you might think you are squeaky clean in this picture, the truth is you’ve been painting yourself out to be a little better than you really are. Or perhaps even a little more ’normal’ than you really are too. (Which by the way is a silly thing to do because you are almost always inevitably attracted to someone whose ‘weird’ matches yours). You’ve been showing the very best side of yourself; like you do for the first few weeks and months in a new job before you start slagging your boss off!
Now there’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, if we realised that the people that we show up as, at the start of the Relationship, are a version of ourselves that we could be pretty much all of the time, that might give us the incentive to really work on ourselves and our Relationships.
However, what happens more often is that we devolve instead. Rather like the Gollum creature in The Lord of the Rings, we become the basest, most basic version of ourselves; allowing every ugly emotion within us to seep out We allow ourselves to behave in ways which, if recorded on video and played back to us, would have us cringing in sheer embarrassment, shame or guilt. (I often wonder how reality TV show participants view their behaviour when it is shown on TV? Are they rigidly in denial about it or do they realise to their horror that they might not be as perfect as they imagine themselves to be?) Over time, when our Relationships are not going the way that we’d like them to, we show the ugliest sides of ourselves and attribute the blame for that to our beloved.
This ugly side is of course a part of you too. It’s not one that can, or should, be disowned or undervalued. It’s a part of you that needs to be learned to be loved.
From a very young age, we suppress the parts of ourselves that we either think others won’t find acceptable; or that we learn that they don’t find them acceptable; or that WE ourselves don’t actually find acceptable. This is what Carl Jung (dubbed the Father of Modern Analytical Psychology) referred to as the Shadow Self.
This is part of how we form our personality.
A personality has been referred to as a mask that we wear that shows our acceptable face to the world. In fact the word personality comes from the Latin word persona. Historically a persona was a mask worn by an actor.
Jung regarded the persona as the socially acceptable face the individual presented to the world. “A kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual.”
This ‘mask’ is there to convince both yourself and others that you are a good and desirable person. The Shadow of this, on the other hand, is anything that we have denied in ourselves; or refused to accept or associate with because we felt guilt & or shame about being that way. Perhaps because we were chided about it as a child; or perhaps because our behaviour doesn’t tie in with our own personal values.
However, what is true is that we do notice these traits in other people. In fact, they are the traits that tend to cause the greatest anger, distaste and outrage in ourselves.
It’s in this way that what we refuse to ‘own’ about ourselves, ends up, ‘owning’ us…
When I was growing up, my Mum often used to say: ‘Takes one to know one’. If someone levied something negative at her, this was her go-to response.
Although it might almost seem childish or silly to say, it’s entirely true. We see in others that which we know in ourselves – be it good or bad. The things that annoy us about others are the very things that we dislike about ourselves; that we don’t ‘own’ in ourselves.
Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Grey, can be read as an allegory for the Shadow Self. The picture in the attic, which shows all his wrong doings and badness, is hidden away; he only presents his pleasant and acceptable face to the world. In fact, when he shows a friend the truth of his painting he is so ashamed of the truth, he decides to kill him…
A Love Relationship is the place where this long repressed Shadow Side often has, not only a cameo; but after a bit of time can actually have a rather leading role in the Relationship.
There is nothing quite like finding your perfect match (from a purely subconscious psychological perspective) to really bring out all your long -hidden, darkest personality traits!
Think about it: we treat our Beloveds so badly at times (sometimes it’s all the time when our relationships are in decline) and often we do this almost in a disembodied way. We see ourselves behaving in a truly vile way but we cannot stop ourselves. The train has entirely left the station…
The thing about someone who is a great match for you (that is to say someone who can make you want to live from your higher self) is that they can also bring out your dark side. Rather like that scene in the Lord of the Rings film where BiIbo turns, just for the briefest of moments, into Gollum. The side of you which you work so hard to shove down and repress is too strong. When you are triggered or when you least want it to, your dark side will always put in an appearance.
Your partner can usually elicit your worst behaviours. The ones even you would like to disown. Because, ironically, they tend to display the behaviours that you do not want to recognise and own in yourself. Consequently, you berate that behaviour in them but ignore it in yourself…
Learning to understand and even love this side of yourself is hard. Equally learning to love it in your partner is just as hard. Owning everything about yourself; good AND bad; and offering that level of acceptance to your beloved as well is where the magic lies in Relationships though.
JUST BE YOU
But being 100% authentically and unapologetically you; (that means showing all the murky stuff you usually try to hide and knowing that the people around you are going to do more than accept you; they are going to LOVE you for it!), is a skill.
Strangely though, although we spend much of our lives acting a role and not being our true self, Humans are very good at detecting a lack of authenticity. This is perhaps why those people who can show up as themselves are so popular. There are people who are beloved the World over because they are just 100% themselves. Think of someone like Freddie Mercury. He was wonderfully, authentically Freddie to the end and people just loved him for it (and still do).
Nowadays, it’s unlikely that Freddie would have found the fame that he did. The record industry is so consumed with outward appearance that it’s unlikely someone like Freddie would have been given a contract. Or, if he had done, it more likely would have been on the basis that he needed to change his physical appearance.
FAKE OUTSIDE, FAKE INSIDE?
And this is another level of artifice, over and above the one we have in our personalities and our subconscious self. Often we find our physical appearance so unacceptable that people will go to all sorts of crazy lengths to hide, alter or otherwise pervert their natural look.
Many people have a very negative reaction to this ‘fake’ look. Because on some level it perhaps indicates that we cannot trust someone who so clearly feels they have so much to hide. A fake exterior can be construed as being equally fake on the inside. Whilst it is far more likely that insecurity and self-loathing causes a person to want to radically change their external appearance, it still send a message to the outside world that that person has something to hide.
As humans we are pretty good lie detectors. We do know when people are not being truthful to themselves, or to us (even if at time we don’t like to admit it to ourselves – which is usually where the problem lies – though we blame it on the person that is not being truthful – rather than on ourselves for not listening to our instincts!).
Take the documentaries that have titles like ‘I didn’t know I was pregnant’ or ‘I didn’t realise I was married to a serial killer’. We watch these sort of shows with fascination precisely because we all ‘know’ that you would just ‘know’ that sort of thing. The issues lies in the Stories you tell yourself and what you allow to float into your reality more often than not. Sometimes, it feels like ignorance is bliss…
A lack of authenticity though is more often than not motivated by positive reasons. They might:
- want to be liked
- want to spare your feelings
- not want to get in trouble
If a person does something we characterise as ‘bad’, it’s often seen as a sign that they have dubious morals or motives. However, one of the earliest lessons we are taught by our parents is about being ‘bad’.
We know that if we are ‘bad’, there is a consequence: we’ll get told off or punished. So children quickly take to lying about what they have done because they want to avoid the consequences. It’s a simple jump of logic.
However, this lesson in wrong and right does mean that we can grow up never learning to take responsibility for our behaviours. Why? because we’re continuously trying to avoid the outcomes.
It also means that you end up repeating your childhood patterns of denying guilt to a partner who then adopts an authoritative, parental role in your life instead of being your adult partner…
Taking full responsibility for what you think, say and do is a fundamental part of a strong relationship. Owning our shit is absolutely essential if you 2 are going to have a healthy relationship for the long haul.
Equally it’s a great idea to also learn a new way to handle the good and bad for the sake of your Relationship. This is something you’ll probably have seen on TV in the form of people like the Super Nanny or the Dog Whisperer.
The idea is simple:
Reward the behaviour you want; IGNORE the behaviour you don’t want.
In the case of most small things it’s best to ignore the bad and praise the good. Humans respond extremely well to this behaviour. Not to mention that when we are scared of being punished, we go into Fight or Flight mode. At this point the more rational parts of our brain actually shut down to give us more resources to actually Fight or Run. Ergo: you get a bit stupid when you are scared.
Over time this system helps us to learn that taking responsibility for our actions is good (so you reward that) and helps to weed our responsibility avoidant behaviour caused by us not wanting to get punished.
Now I am not suggesting that you might ignore something with far greater ramifications like an Affair. There are certain things in your relationship which will be deal breakers of course and which need more careful handling. The more I understand about Relationship dynamics, the more I realise that NOTHING is blak and white; nothing is only ever the ‘fault’ of one partner in the relationship. An action or behaviour is not the sum total of the story. It’s the deeper reasons and back story here that you need to get interested in…
If you want to heal your relationship or create a new, upgraded version of the one you already have, you will need to get acquainted with both your Shadow Self and that of your partner. It will require some radical honesty on your behalf about who you really are and what it is you really want in life; requires you getting to know the parts of yourself that you currently disown and making friends with them. It will also require the 2 of you to be able to share your most intimate secrets, murky thoughts and unusual fantasies without reacting to or judging one another.
As Dr Nathaniel Branden put it so beautifully, the aim is to :
“Create a context in which your partner can feel free to share feelings, thoughts, fantasies, hurts, and complaints, without the fear that you will condemn, attack, lecture, or simply, withdraw.”
WHERE THE MAGIC IS
This is perhaps the most magical part of sharing your life with someone: when you can share EXACTLY who you are, without fear. Knowing that they accept the parts of you that even you have disowned over the years. Knowing that they not only find all of you entirely acceptable; they also love it.
Many of us never get to experience the Beauty of a long term Relationship, one where you can be wildly, radically Intimate with just one Soul.
And this only comes with having the courage to love all parts of yourself and then choosing to share that person with the one that you love.
Holly Skey is a Relationship Repair Expert and founder of Happily Ever After. She runs an 8 week Relationship Training programme designed to save, heal and radically improve your Marriage.
She encourages people who are ready to ‘take the Red Pill to get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org