Lessons in Recovery: The Brighter the Light, the Darker the Shadow

Psychologist Carl Jung once said “the further you go into light, the greater your shadow becomes.”  As a person long drawn to Jung’s school of thought, the concept of “the shadow” has always been intriguing to me.  The idea that each of us has a shadow – a part of our psyche kept hidden away from others, a portion of us deemed too unruly for the outside world yet still ever present right there under the surface – is an idea that has reverberated in me as truth since the very first time I heard it.

As a person in long-term recovery from a substance use disorder, I’ve done a lot of personal growth work around actualizing my potential and living my life in accordance of what I believe to be “good” or “right.”  For a long time prior to entering into recovery, my life centered around anything but what would be widely considered good or right.  It is fair to say, in fact, that my very existence was a walking contradiction of good and right.  Lying, stealing, hurting others, total self-centeredness and utter self-destruction were characteristics and ways of being that steered my ship.  Upon entering into recovery, I quickly learned that if I were to stand a chance at wellness and a meaningful and fulfilling life, the cessation of these “bad” behaviors and the transition from doing the wrong thing to doing the “right thing” would be critical.  In turn, I spent much of the past decade in a consistent and wholehearted attempt to be good and do the right thing.  While this way of being has certainly granted me a meaningful and fulfilling life far beyond what I would have dared imagine, there is one pesky matter that has always hung back lurking in the mist and waiting to be acknowledged.  It is the matter of my shadow.

It is important to note that the concept of the shadow and the ideas of “being good” or “doing the right thing” are universal and far from limited to those in recovery from a substance use disorder.  From a very young age, most of us are taught right from wrong, good from bad.  We learn what is socially acceptable, what is socially appropriate and what parts of us are given a warm welcome from the outside world versus which parts of us are shamed, shunned, made wrong and sent away.  We all grow up developing our persona based on these learned experiences and we all have that pesky matter of the shadow to contend with in our adult years.  Some of us skate through life without ever putting much thought or work into it.  Others of us find that we are left with little to no choice but to put the time, effort and energy into addressing the darker part of us as we grow in awareness of it.

For me, I have only recently begun to realize to what extent my repressed shadow self has an impact on my life and those around me.  While I was handed many tools along the way of my personal recovery journey, from strategies developed in professional treatment settings to mutual aid group involvement and 12-step program participation, I was never quite given the tools to address the matter of my shadow.  In many ways, some of the tools at my disposal were actually more useful in heaping additional piles of persona on top of my shadow self rather than truly addressing and integrating the darker side of me.  I have since come to realize that the darker side of me is as much a part of who I am as is the bright, shining light that the world seems so attracted to.

As I find myself embarking on the next stage of my recovery journey – a journey that in many ways is simply just the human journey – I look forward to reconnecting with all parts of me.  There are lots of pretty, shiny and sparkly parts and there are lots of ugly, darker and not so pleasant parts.  The reality of it all is that the bright shiny light people see and love in me would not be so bright were it not for the depths of darkness that exist in the shadow part of me.  The reality is that the same is true for all of us.  For me, the latest iteration of being “good” and “doing the right thing” is as simple as this: it would be no justice to myself and the world around me to only show the bright light without showing the shadow that inevitably accompanies it.  If I am going to share the light, I ought to share the shadow.  I look forward to doing just that.