Not only do we project our shadow onto others, we also project how we want to be seen by others. This is how we create our persona: the mask that we wear.
The mask of our persona is indicative not only of the self- image that we present to others, but also of what we hide from them. And as long as we keep hiding behind the mask of who we think we should be, we will never be free.
Most of us put all our energy into avoiding admitting that we have any seemingly shameful shadow traits. We daren’t enter into the vulnerability of the human condition. This leads to a constricted, shame-based sense of who we think we are, which in turn makes it impossible to progress on the spiritual path. To embrace the shadow is to drop the mask and reveal our true face to the world.
Dropping the Mask
I uploaded the photo and instantly felt the fear. I knew that was the whole point of the exercise, but it didn’t stop me feeling it.
I’d just uploaded a photo of a mask. On the outside of the mask I’d written the traits I presented to the world, but on the inside I’d exposed my deepest and most shameful shadow traits – exposed them to over 10,000 people on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Would that be too much for the ‘love and light brigade’ to handle? Had I just thrown my career away? I was supposed to be a meditator, a teacher, a role model even, but now people knew the side that I hid from others: a scared boy with impostor syndrome and sexual shame who sometimes watched porn and sometimes liked to fight.
Seriously regretting what I had just done, I thought it best to remove the post. I reached for my iPhone to delete the photo, but then ping, ping, ping, ‘likes’ were suddenly coming in one after the other, and then comments: ‘So real and raw’, ‘Beautifully authentic’ and ‘Awesome honesty, thanks for sharing!’
People actually liked it. In fact, they loved it. Within the hour I was being tagged in the posts of people who had been so inspired that they had made their own masks and were uploading them to their Facebook pages in solidarity.
By the end of the day, that photo was my most liked, most shared and most commented-on social-media post ever. It turned out that on seeing me share my shadow side people felt empowered to start accepting theirs and move out of shame into the deep authenticity that lay behind the masks.
What I saw in my mask didn’t shock me. I knew most of what I had been hiding – you know most of what you’re hiding too – but what did shock me was how strong the aversion was when I considered sharing it with others. Still, I knew that strong aversion indicated strong suppressed energy and that if I could release and transmute that energy, I could nd gold within.
Fascinatingly, I found that sharing the shameful habits written on the inside of my mask actually helped to release me from many of those habits. For example, the ‘porn-watcher’ bit is the shameful trait that often gets the most response at my workshops and leads to discussions about shame, masturbation and the internet generation. Interestingly, once I was able to admit publicly to this occasional but embarrassing habit, it actually had the effect of drastically reducing the occurrence of it. This is because shame perpetuates habit.
Habituated to Shame
Science has proved that shame perpetuates harmful habits and addiction because addiction is often based on a misplaced and unful lled need for bonding and connection.
An experiment rst conducted at Simon Fraser University in Canada way back in the 1970s showed that when you offered water with morphine in it to isolated rats in empty cages, they all drank it and almost all overdosed and died from it. But when you offered it to rats in a cage that was full of other rats and nice food and things to do (‘Rat Park’, as the researchers called it), they almost never drank it and none of them got addicted to it. Why? Because they had connection and bonding. When we are connected, we don’t tend to get addicted to things or to create nearly as many destructive habits.
This theory was applied to humans in Portugal, with exactly the same effect: injecting drug use declined by 50 per cent because the money spent on shaming drug-users was instead spent on helping them bond and reconnect with society.
Although the Rat Park experiment has been seen as an oversimplification by some, as someone who spent four years working as a drugs and alcohol outreach worker and who has struggled with addictive tendencies towards sex and drugs myself, I have seen first hand how shame perpetuates harmful habits.
When we shame ourselves, or are made to feel ashamed, we feel disconnected and are thus more likely to continue doing the shameful thing that makes us feel disconnected in the first place. But when we move into the vulnerability of witnessing our shameful habits and showing them love, our addiction to them wanes.
When considering shadow integration, the pioneer of Archetypal Psychology, James Hillman, thought of it as a problem of love and asked us to contemplate: ‘How far can our love extend to the broken and ruined parts of ourselves, the disgusting and perverse?’
We have a choice: to keep letting shame make us feel unworthy of love or to consciously witness, and perhaps even reveal, our shame with compassion. To really make progress, we have to do something that may seem quite paradoxical: we have to accept the parts of ourselves that we dare not show and learn to love our Magnificent Messiness.
The philosopher Tim Freke once told me how in the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece you would be expected to make a confession to the community, revealing your shadow, before you could become an initiate and move into the awakening process. Until you were willing to own up to the whole of who you were, you couldn’t enter into the mystery.