William A. Miller, Chapter 7 in Meeting the Shadow, Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams (Eds.)

There are at least five effective pathways to gain insight into the composition of your shadow: (1) soliciting feedback from others as to how they perceive you; (2) uncovering the content of your projections; (3) examining your “slips” of tongue and behavior, and investigating what is really occurring when you are perceived other than you intended to be; (4) considering your humor and your identifications; and (5) studying your dreams, daydreams, and fantasies. 

Solicit Feedback from Others 

Soliciting feedback is one of the most effective ways to gain insight into your personal shadow. This can be threatening. People who are in the best position to help you are those who know you well. Suppose someone tells you they have perceived you as condescending. Accept that as their valid observation, even though it is difficult to hear. You may want to say, “What on earth are you talking about? That’s the last thing I want to be—condescending.” But this gives you a fairly substantial clue that you probably have just met a true shadow trait or characteristic. Any time we overstate being “for” or “against,” we may be in personal shadow territory. When you get this kind of feedback, go to one or more other people, asking them to be honest also. When two or more people independently tell you they perceive in you a common shadow trait, you would do well to believe them and explore their observations more deeply. 

Examine Your Projections 

Projection is an unconscious mechanism that we employ whenever a trait or characteristic of our personality that has no relationship to consciousness becomes activated. We observe and react to this unrecognized personal trait in other people. We make both negative and positive projections. Most of the time, however, it is the undesirable dimensions of ourselves that we see in others. The simplest method to examine projections is to list all the qualities you do not like in other people. When the list is complete, extract those characteristics that you especially dislike, even hate, loathe, or despise. This final list will be a fairly accurate picture of your personal shadow. Certainly not all your criticisms of others are projections, but any time your response to someone involves excessive emotion or overreaction, you can be sure that something unconscious has been prodded and is being activated. When we project positive traits onto others, especially without empirical evidence—such as in romance, these are traits of our own that, for whatever reason, we refuse to allow entry into our consciousness. Make a list of positive traits in others, and notice when you say, “Oh, I could never be like that!” These may well be part of your Golden Shadow. 

Examine Your “Slips” 

You can examine slips of tongue, slips of behavior, and misperceived behaviors. Slips of tongue are those unintentional misstatements that cause us no end of embarrassment. Shadow is, among other things, all that we would perhaps like to be, but wouldn’t dare. Comments such as, “That’s absolutely the last thing I wanted to say,” or “I can’t believe I said that,” and similar “apologies” demonstrate that while consciousness proposes, shadow often disposes. Slips of behavior are perhaps even more revealing. 

Sometimes there seems to be absolutely no explanation for “aberrant” behavior, behavior that seems totally alien to the generally perceived nature of someone, and all (including the person) are dumbfounded by the experience. Still another type of “slip” occurs when we are perceived other than we intend; for example if you want to be seen as congenial, only to be told that you come across as “sarcastic.” These are common experiences to all of us, and give us the opportunity to journey inward.  Boldly facing such “slips” will allow you not only to learn about your shadow, but may also in turn disallow these embarrassing, awkward, even destructive “slips.”

Consider Your Humor and Identification 

Most of us know that humor is often much more than meets the eye; in fact, what is said in humor is often a manifestation of shadow truth. People who strongly deny and repress shadow generally lack a sense of humor and find very few things funny. We know that it is very bad taste to delight in another’s pain or misfortune, and yet we find the antics of a person on ice skates for the first time to be exceedingly funny. The humor of these situations evokes laughter as the repressed sadism in us finds expression. We may frequently observe the magnitude and intensity of shadow at a sports event, particularly a contact sport. Behavior that would probably result in fines and imprisonment in any other setting is appropriate, possibly encouraged, and even applauded. At a professional wrestling match a group of elderly women were quite “normal” until the wrestlers stepped into the ring, when they stood up, shook their fists, and shouted, “Kill that no-good, lousy bum!”  Expression of shadow aggression was the order of the day. 

Study Your Dreams, Daydreams, and Fantasies 

When shadow appears in your dreams it appears as a figure of the same sex as yourself. It may also appear as an indistinguishable form you intuitively fear and want to escape.  We need to observe its actions, attitudes, and words (if any). We may want to deny that we indulge in daydreams or fantasies, but the truth is that we spend more time at it than we care to realize. Where does our mind go, what images invade our thoughts? Daydreams and fantasies can be so contrary to the persona we wear that they may even frighten us. We typically don’t admit them to others. But in denying their existence we miss yet another opportunity to know ourselves. For in our fantasies and daydreams we discover thoughts, plans, schemes, and dream that we are unable to accept on a conscious level. These are often fantasies of violence, power, wealth, sexual acting out, and achievement of the impossible.