Shadow Values, Explained
“Shadow” (also called the unconscious) is that part of ourselves which is unknown to us. This means that, by definition, we cannot know what is in our shadow. Only when what is in our shadow moves from the unconscious to conscious space can we grasp it, and even then it can sometimes creep back into shadow and out of our awareness again.
‘Shadow values’ is a Values Based Living term that we use to describe values that behave in a ‘shadowy’ way, or in a way that is outside our awareness.
A value doesn’t have to be fully in shadow to contain aspects that have ‘shadowy’ qualities. Think of an iceberg, with the tip above the surface, known to us, and the rest below the water, in the unknown space.
We have found that the best way to discover shadow values is to track 3 things: our thoughts, our emotions, and our behavior (head, heart, and hands). This is because often these things are known to us, and they are often affected by our shadow. In this way, we can treat our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors as bread crumbs that can then lead us to the values driving them.
There are thousands of examples of this, but here’s one:
Comfort is one of my values, and it can be quite a shadowy one. I’m constantly ‘forgetting’ and remembering this as the value dips in and out of shadow.
Recently, I was invited to a high-energy game with friends that was basically a big game of outdoor tag. When I was initially invited I was very excited, and couldn’t wait to go. A week later, on the day of the event, I found I was filled with feelings of apprehension and dread at the idea of going (clue from the heart). My thoughts were also telling me things like you never really liked tag as a kid, this probably isn’t your kind of event (clue from the head).
I thought to myself, what’s going on with you Ali? Last week you were so excited to attend this thing.
So I sat with it. Paid attention to the heart clue and the head clue to let me know that although I knew I wanted to go to this event, my heart and my head were dragging me in another direction. If I ended up not going, that would have rounded out the three with my behavior following suit (hands).
This is a strange feeling. I do want to go, but I don’t. We’ve all been there. We will often feel a type of ‘war’ within ourselves, an indecision in which we are left confused and may even call ourselves names (indecisive, flighty).
I used this as a starting point, and tried to track back through the week to find other times when my head, heart, and hands may have left other clues.
I realized that there were a few times I noticed my excitement level went down leading up to the event:
I invited a friend to come with me, but she had other plans already. This increased my apprehension about attending (heart).
I realized the weather was looking to be colder than expected, increasing my apprehension further (heart).
The work week was quite busy and stressful, and I was feeling physically run-down and emotionally and mentally over-socialized (hands, heart, head).
Now that I write out my bread crumbs, it’s clear that comfort is a factor, but there are actually more shadow values at play here as well.
How did I discover the other values at play? I asked myself for each point, what value was at play in that moment? What value was either getting jammed up or satisfied?
Here’s some of what I came up with for the first bread crumb:
(I invited a friend to come with me, but she had other plans already. This increased my apprehension about attending (heart).)
The following values were on shaky ground at the prospect of this new information:
Will the people be friendly and inclusive?
Will I feel confident and energized enough to show up in a way that leaves a good first impression?
Will I see anyone I knew at this event?
Will I enjoy myself?
I’m generally uncomfortable meeting new people, trying a new activity, and getting to know a new location all at once.
There is SO much underneath the surface in every decision we make, but for simplicity’s sake let’s take a look at just one element of this self-reflection exercise that I did.
For me, belonging is a huge value in my conscious world, so it makes sense that it also exists for me in the unconscious, or shadow, world.
To be honest, if I truly felt a sense of belonging with the people who were putting on the event, the other values getting frustrated on the list above would probably have faded into the distance. When belonging is met for me, life is pretty good. And when belonging isn’t met, or even if I fear it won’t be met, all kinds of havoc can take place. I’ve moved cities, spent years and thousands of dollars on school, and taken jobs I didn’t really want all in the name of some warped unconscious idea of what this value of belonging needed.
And that’s okay, I’m not judging myself here (at least not right now – my ability to do that comes and goes).
Literally every human has a shadow side. The point is not to deny or erase this, but to continually be open to receiving information that will help us move aspects of ourselves from shadow into consciousness, so that we can live more conscious lives.
See how complicated this shadow work can get? It can also be equally rewarding and can lead to a lot of ‘aha’ moments. If you’d like some guidance to identify and get to know your shadow values, check out our “Exploring Your Shadow Values” workshop or request a coaching session.