“Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.”
— Carl Jung
This essay will probably read more like a treatise on the human psyche. You’ve been forewarned. The mysteries of the psyche and it’s practical implications can be an extremely powerful liberator of performance and success, so it’s especially important for entrepreneurs and business leaders to understand.
Over time and with experience, I’ve come to believe that career, business and life in general is mostly an inside game. What I mean by that is one’s results, outcomes, level of success or failure in the outer world is a reflection of the state of one’s inner world. Every journey, product or business started with a thought. We tend to focus on the external and outward action needed to realize our visions, but very often overlook the contribution of inner alignment and belief to success and failure. Inner clarity begets empowered, focused action. Inner turmoil on the other hand, leads to quite the opposite.
According to Carl Jung, one of the most important psychologists of the 20th century, our inner state can be broken down into the conscious mind (the thoughts, memories and emotions we are aware of) and the unconscious (he further broke the unconscious down into the personal and collective, a fascinating study but additional detail that’s not as relevant to this discussion). He referred to the unconscious as the ‘shadow’ — the dark, hidden recesses within our psyche where we store forgotten and repressed memories, fears and emotions.
When we do talk about the inner in the context of business, we usually refer to the conscious mind. Any talk about having a purpose, a vision or intention for your career or business is a call to action for the conscious mind. Things like purpose and vision are vitally important, as I believe a truly thriving business or career can only come from thinking deeply about such.
But what about the unconscious and shadow? We don’t usually talk about it, so it remains hidden from view. What influence, if any, does this have on our performance and success or failure?
The shadow is an uncomfortable subject, because it represents parts of us we don’t like, don’t want to face, or show to the world. It might be ugly, it might be embarrassing, we might think it makes us look weak, so we hide and stuff it away as best we can, while presenting our bravest outer face to the world. We all have a shadow, whether we acknowledge it or not. The issue with the latter is that the more we look away and dodge, the stronger and darker it becomes, dimming more of our “light”, or conscious mind. It’s like an invisible hand that limits our potential. A blind spot or block that limits opportunity and possibility. A ghost or demon that taunts and feeds on fear.
Some common shadow aspects and how they might manifest. If you’ve ever been nervous in a group, or making a presentation, and berate yourself for it. If you’re prone to anger, or maniacal to some degree about being in control. If you can be passive aggressive at times. If you get jealous. If you’re overly competitive. If you tend to be manipulative to get your way. If you often feel like a victim. If you have a lot of negative self-talk. If you’re always trying to “be positive”, regardless of how you feel. If you tend to be judgemental. If you feel others are constantly judging you. If you gravitate towards substance abuse. If you have anxiety or depression. If you feel things never go your way. If you think you are the best and somehow better than others.
You get the idea.
An unacknowledged shadow can have an impact on all aspects of our lives, from relationships, family, friends, money, career and business. This essay’s focus is business and career, but some of the things discussed here can just as easily be applied to any other aspect of your life.
Seeing the Shadow
It doesn’t matter what you believe in your conscious mind. A subconscious block that says otherwise will ultimately prove limiting. This is why this is so crucial to understand. You may have a vision to build a wildly successful product or business that thrives financially. Or maybe your vision for your career is to rise to the highest levels of your profession, while generating a certain level of abundance for your company, as well as abundance and prestige for yourself. Or maybe your vision is to generate a certain level of wealth that allows you to be financially free. You can affirm these things to yourself as much as you like (which certainly helps), but the key to realizing your visions will be in how you truly feel about them. If you really tune in to how you feel, you will realize how much you really believe yourself.
If tuning in doesn’t feel good, if you feel constricted, doubt, dread or inner push back in any way, you’ve likely identified an aspect of the shadow. Even though in your conscious mind you “want” this vision to happen, you have a conflicting subconscious belief that this vision isn’t realistic or achievable. This lack of self-belief, especially when left unacknowledged can be a killer. On the other hand, if you feel good about the vision, even though there may still be some lack of clarity on the actual steps needed achieve it, but overall it feels good and you just know you’ll make it — this is inner alignment. Congratulations, you’ve crossed an enormous hurdle. You may still have a shadow, but it’s not blocking your vision for your business or career.
It is very important to feel your way through this, rather than think your way through, or logically convince yourself. If you feel some or a lot of resistance, then there is a block. This isn’t the end of the world, a block is just an internal program we pick up and internalize in the unconscious — it can be undone. As a first step, recognition and awareness that there are blocks is important. For most of us, we don’t even realize this, and unfortunately no amount of external effort or action will be able to make up for these self-limiting inner beliefs.
Out of the Shadows
What’s next after you identify a block? Continue feeling your way through it. Lean into the resistance and let any associated feelings “flow” through your body by feeling them, no matter how difficult or unpleasant. These feelings may carry messages for you, and you can expect a lot of deep rooted stuff to come up if you continue sticking with the unpleasantness — maybe you feel you don’t deserve to be successful. Maybe there’s an underlying fear of being successful and what that means. Maybe there’s a fear of not being good enough or never measuring up. Maybe this isn’t something you really want in the first place and it was just something you thought you needed to feel good or better about yourself. Your resistance and shadow will be unique to you. Keep feeling your way through this, and accept any blocks, beliefs and programs that come to light without judgement. Breathe, accept and surf the waves.
I used the example of company and career vision, but this can be applied to any areas of your life you consider important — tuning in like this will reveal what lies in your shadow, and what needs to be freed from the inner tug of limitation. Usually, you don’t have to look far, as you may already know.
This work isn’t easy, it truly will bring you face to face with your inner demons. But it is incredibly vital, and it’s a shame it’s not really ever talked about. Our actions are guided by our psyche, and whether we like it or not, our inner fears, insecurities and shadows. So you can either build in the light, or flounder about in the dark. Building a successful and thriving business or product will be extremely difficult, if not impossible if you never really believe in it. You can ignore that inner voice, that nagging feeling of unease, and charge ahead anyway, but you’ll inevitably make life harder and create an outer reality that will reflect that inner shadow in some way.
“But the worst enemy you can meet will always be yourself; you ambush yourself in caverns and forests.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
It is true that our greatest obstacle tends to be us and those that we ourselves place on our path. So get out of your own way. Face your shadows and demons. Otherwise you sabotage no one but yourself. This is the way of the warrior, except rather than fighting battles “out there”, this is a battle fought within. It’s not easy as it takes great courage to face one’s darkness, to come face to face with one’s shortcomings and bump against one’s limits. But the more you bring to light and accept, the less beholden you remain to your fears, and ultimately unleash your true power.
So stop running from your shadows. Take a deep breath, grab a light and turn within to face your deepest and darkest. This is the only path to your highest potential.
“Most people are afraid of suffering. But suffering is a kind of mud to help the lotus flower of happiness grow. There can be no lotus flower without the mud.”
― Thích Nhất Hạnh, No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering
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