What do we see when we look in the mirror?  More importantly, what do we choose to see – and how can looking at our shadow bring us great gifts?

When I look in the mirror in the morning and see myself reflected back, I can choose. Do I choose to see my lovely blue eyes and my healthy shape? My arms  - that I like? Or my smile?

Or, in my reflection, do I choose to look at the parts of me I like less? My frown lines, the cellulite on my legs? My aging skin?

Tempting as it is to only focus on the good and pretend that the other stuff isn’t there, I know that, for me, that’s not the road that leads to true health and wellbeing. However much I don’t want to face it, I know that only when I can see, accept and even love the parts of me that I don’t like, will I be whole.  

However much I don’t want to face it, I know that only when I can see, accept and even love the parts of me that I don’t like, will I be whole.  

And if living a compassionate and loving life matters to me – and it does – than by extension, if I cannot accept and love all of me, then I cannot accept and love other people for all of who they are.

Recent events have brought us face to face with hidden aspects of our collective psyche. Parts of ourselves that are darker and less appealing. And just as those qualities are there in our society, it’s also true that they are there in me.

Jung first introduced us to our shadow, the aspects of ourselves that the conscious mind has repressed, denied or hidden. It is said that Mother Theresa once remarked, "I could only do the work I do, because I knew that there is also a jack-booted Nazi within me." She recognized that she – like all of us – have the full range of human emotions inside us and there is no one who doesn’t struggle with our shadow side.  

"There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." - Leonard Cohen

And so when I look at my character in the mirror, what do I choose to see reflected back at me? Yes, I see that I am kind and loving, that I am compassionate and I am generous. I am open and warm.

But I also have to acknowledge the parts of me that are cold-hearted and mean-spirited. The parts of me that are withholding and vindictive. Bigoted and defensive. Jealous. Angry.

I don’t like those aspects of myself but I also know that unless – and until – I can accept those parts of me, too, then I cannot be whole.

So my practice begins with first seeking to acknowledge that I have those darker qualities in me. That’s tough, in and of itself.  

And then the really hard work starts. How can I accept those aspects with compassion – and see that those parts of me have perhaps developed in response to my past? How can I see these parts of myself as useful? What gifts can they offer me?  

For they do offer me gifts: the greatest of which is to act as a continual reminder to be humble about my lack of perfection. After all, as the late Leonard Cohen beautifully said: "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." Or Rumi's words, "The wound is where the light enters you." They both ring true for me.

What about for you?


Helena Clayton is a coach and facilitator working with leaders in organizations in the UK. Keen to reclaim ‘love’ as legitimate language for leadership and organizational life, she works with people to help them be less fearful of bringing all of themselves to their life. She, and her blogs, can be found here or you can follow her on Twitter.

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This article is part of our series on the theme of Reflection.

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