Understanding your shadow self can turn you into a better partner—here’s how

Putting out #goodvibes and showing up as our “best selves” is wonderful and necessary when it comes to promoting healthy and happy relationships. However, in order to reach a deeper level of intimacy with ourselves and our loved ones, it’s essential that we also visit “the dark side,” aka our shadow self.

The concept of the shadow self was first introduced by famed psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung through his seminal concept of “the shadow.” According to Jung, the shadow is our disowned self—the parts we think are unlovable, unworthy, unacceptable. It’s referred to as the “shadow side” of our personality because it’s the part we keep hidden, often even from ourselves.

“The shadow side consists of what we perceive (or were taught) are character flaws, like a bad temper, greediness, or characteristics, like gender differences or sexual preferences, that make us uncomfortable,” Dr. Tina B. Tessina, a Southern California-based psychotherapist, tells HelloGiggles. “In the process of growing up, as we are taught how to behave and how to think, we learned that certain traits are unacceptable, so we learned to hide them. Even curiosity can be relegated to the dark side. This tends to inhibit our personalities and stifle creativity and inspiration.”

As a result, says Dr. Tessina, our ability to relate is affected because we cannot freely express ourselves. When we cannot fully express who we are, then our ability to love or to accept love can be limited.

In order for us to bring the light into our lives and become our most authentic selves, we must learn to accept and work through the dark. Curious to learn how to befriend your shadow self and how it shows up in your relationships? We asked therapists to take us on a deep dive into the shadow self—so that we can all show up as our most connected self for those around us and for ourselves.

How does the shadow self show itself?

According to Gabrielle Applebury, a licensed marriage and family therapist with specialties in trauma, sexuality, and communication, any trait that you reject or feel disconnected from or ashamed of is likely a shadow.

For example, "You may be inherently creative but were taught as a child that this part of yourself is not relevant and thus is not nurtured. As an adult, you may dampen this piece of yourself because you were taught to do so. Then, you may feel defensiveness if someone notes how creative you are."

Kim Anderson, a licensed therapist who specializes in shadow work, says shadow behavior “usually blames others for their current situation, acts out of their inner child’s unmet needs, and isolates, becomes depressed or angry. Often people with deep hidden rage or uncontrolled anxiety have not dealt with their shadow self.”

How does the shadow self affect relationships?

According to Applebury, “Shadows interfere with relationships by creating a defensive barrier between partners if the shadow’s identity is triggered. This can lead to fights without a good sense of insight to rectify the situation.”

Adds Anderson, “When we stuff [away] those parts of us that we wish didn’t exist, we behave in inauthentic ways, as if we are wearing a mask. Since healthy people are drawn toward authentic relationships, we can easily push people away when we think we are hiding our worst parts. The shame we experience from our shadow self inhibits true connection.”

For example, says Anderson, if we are so caught up with hiding those embarrassing parts of our personality, we can’t relax, be vulnerable, and really be intimate with others. “We also may not know what is blocking or getting us stuck in one pattern of behavior or another, which is that shadow self at work. Thus we have trouble relating deeply towards others socially or in intimate relationships.”

How understanding the shadow self can heal relationships

Getting to know your own repressed feelings and characteristics means you can recognize when you’re reacting to your partner from your shadow side—and when your partner is reacting from theirs. Says Tessina, “You are less reactive and more compassionate and caring [when you know your shadow self]. You see your partner and yourself as real people, not just objects of gratification.”

In other words, you are able to participate in a fully functional, healthy relationship.

“Once you understand your own hidden impulses, desires, and feelings, you can talk about them intelligently, identify when they’re active, and share them with your partner, so your partner also knows what’s going on,” says Anderson. “You can help each other manage your shadow sides, which means more honesty in your relationship and a lot less struggle and fighting.”

How to uncover your shadow self

If any of the above is ringing true, you might be ready to dive deep into revealing your shadow self. In order to facilitate this, Tessina says you must develop a relationship with yourself. “Learn to understand and recognize your own feelings and reactions,” she says, adding that therapy can help.

Applebury suggests having a close and trusted person describe your personality traits, then compiling a list of them yourself and noting the ones you feel most detached from or ashamed of.

“Take some time to think about when and how this part of yourself was nurtured or cast aside during your childhood. Think about what adults modeled in terms of their own behavior. Which traits were rewarded and how? Which were shamed or shoved aside? Think about how this impacted your childhood and your adulthood. Which jobs, relationships, and life choices were shaped by this?”

Ultimately, whether you’re working with a professional or personal friend, allow yourself to be vulnerable and truly seen through this process.

“It takes working with someone who can support you to consider both your strengths, as well as your shortcomings,” says Anderson. “We all have flaws. Take yourself less seriously. You get to be human, and so do I.”