The Shadow Effect — at Home and at Work

It’s 5:00 a.m. and your phone pings you awake, sounding the start of another work day with its unduly cheery chirps. If you had your way, you’d cozy back under the covers and enjoy a slow, relaxing, lazy day at home.

But at the mere idea of sleeping in, you unconsciously spring into action. You reach for your phone and respond to your first work email of the day. Without being aware of what’s happening, you just locked yourself into a pattern you’ll operate from for the rest of the day: doing everything you can to prove you are NOT a lazy, irresponsible person.

This is your shadow in action. According to Kelley Kosow, CEO of The Ford Institute, your shadow consists of “the parts of you that you disown, deny, and deem unacceptable. Because you don’t want anyone to know or think you are those things, you create a persona that is the polar opposite of that which you despise.”

While you think you are hiding these parts of you away from your coworkers and bosses, they are actually unconsciously controlling you. To avoid being seen as irresponsible, you might work extra hours, do more than is required on projects, and constantly correct the work of your peers. In the process, you alienate your friends and family by working too much, frustrate your boss by never delivering exactly what they asked for, and annoy your coworkers by stepping on their toes.

You’re left wondering why nothing is going smoothly, despite the fact you’re working so hard.

“It’s like you’re on a gerbil wheel and you can’t get off. When the shadow is running you, you lose all ability to choose. You can’t choose the thing that’s for the highest good of yourself, your family, or your workplace. The only choices you can make are those that perpetuate the illusion that you are not the things you don’t want to be,” says Kelley.

Most of the time we think of our shadow as the “negative” parts of ourself—like selfishness, greed, or arrogance, or the fear of being overlooked, rejected, or unsuccessful. But Kelley says we can hide and disown positive qualities too—like the fact we’re brilliant, eloquent, creative, successful, or sexy—also out of fear for how people will perceive or receive us.

“I don’t know if the dark or the light is harder to embrace,” says Kelley. “Are you more afraid of being unsuccessful or successful? Especially in the workplace, a lot of us want to be recognized, but then at other times we want to fly under the radar, where it’s safer to be just okay.” Either way, your wounded ego is running the show, acting like a petulant child and sabotaging all your efforts.

The Gift of the Shadow

Fortunately, Kelley says, “We can bring healing to the wounded ego and love to that scared little child and turn pain into possibilities.” By being willing to look inside and welcome all your qualities, you can tap into your authentic self. When you make peace with lazy and irresponsible, and own that these qualities are part of you, you can see how they might support you taking a day off or just doing a really great job on exactly what your boss asked you to do.

How do you know where to look to find your shadow qualities? Kelley suggests using the people around you as a mirror to show you the aspects of yourself that you have disowned and are ready to integrate back.

“To own a light shadow, look to see what you find awe-inspiring about someone you admire. You might like Ellen DeGeneres’ humor, while I am bowled over by her generosity. That’s because you need to own your humor and I need to own my generosity to make our next evolutionary leap. Once I owned that, I might see something else in her that catches my eye. It’s like following a trail of breadcrumbs that have been left for you telling you what you need next for your growth.”

Shadow Work at Work

Doing shadow work in the workplace is particularly valuable because a group is only as strong as the individuals who make it up, says Kelley. “The level of responsibility we each take for our personal growth impacts the evolution of the whole.”

Rather than spending time gossiping or worrying about others, what if you saw each of your fellow employees as an opportunity for your own growth? If you really admire someone’s creativity, where can you embrace yours? If you hate how your boss disrespects people by talking over them, where might you be being disrespectful to others?

Kelley suggests that “as you own the qualities you see in other people, you become more whole and feel more complete. Just think of how competition in the workplace would end if we saw ourselves through the eyes of wholeness instead of being afraid that everyone else has something that we don’t.”

What if your coworkers aren’t doing this work for themselves? That’s okay, says Kelley. “One person is all that’s needed to create a ripple of change. I love that so many corporations, especially those with a majority of millennials, are engaged in this conversation of ameliorating the corporate culture. But most of them are working from the outside in—they are focused on having nap rooms and ping-pong tables and free lunch for everyone, but what about working from the inside out? What about getting people to know and love themselves more?”

“When you feel more abundant on the inside you can create abundance on the outside. When you stand in your wholeness, you want others to stand in their wholeness too. When you have an understanding of how we work on the inside, you develop a compassion and humility and authenticity that allow you to have a person’s back and to support your coworkers and the business as a whole. It’s a huge opportunity for teamwork and getting things done. It’s a chance to embrace our collective responsibility and spiral up together.”

How do you deal with your shadow when it shows up at work?

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  • Le'a says:

    I usually allow myself a short period of feeling whatever has been brought up for me in a workplace interaction (irritation, anger, frustration, fear, anxiety, judgment, criticism, embarrassment, insecurity, defensiveness, arrogance, etc) If I don’t first allow my feelings, then I cannot work with them. Next I take responsibility for my feelings by acknowledging that my shadow is being revealed through others and that I have the same feelings toward myself in certain situations. Doing this has allowed me to express myself more honestly both within and without. My spiritual practice is now to be kind and respectful to myself first and always. I do feel more whole and happy as a result. And I enjoy my work relations much more also. Aloha nui loa

  • Laura says:

    I push myself into the background, devaluing or disregarding my strengths all together. I become caught up in what others have achieved, especially when they are a superstar, and completely feel an totally inadequate person.