The Gift of Your Inner Problem Child

» Posted by on Dec 3, 2013 | 13 comments

The Gift of Your Inner Problem Child

My two cats like to take turns being ‘problem child’ of the week. This week it’s Jade. Yes that’s a tear in the cotton canopy of my four-poster bed. I’ve had it for years and it’s got a few small holes which I knew would be inevitable with two crazy cats in residence. 

But this wound is definitely going to need stitches.



She climbed up there sometime during the night, probably chasing a fly that got inside yesterday, and discovered she couldn’t get down. I woke in the murky light and saw her suspended in the air, followed by the sound of material ripping. This is an extension of her tendency to climb fly screens after lizards, she gets stuck there too. 

We’re all having our claws clipped today: me because I have a piano lesson, Monte because at 17 he spends a lot of time sleeping and doesn’t wear them down as quickly as he once did…and Miss Jade because that enticing fly is still around and I don’t want to wake up to a completely shredded canopy tomorrow.

I'm so innocent!

Look at me, I’m so innocent!


The Problem Child Inside Us

We all have a problem child in residence. It’s called our shadow side. We explored this during my latest art therapy training session – those parts of ourselves we hide because they’re too uncomfortable to expose to the light, the ‘problem child’ parts.

Jung defined the shadow as “the person you would rather not be” – an archetype that represents our weaknesses, repressed desires, basic instincts and shortcomings, all the qualities we reject in ourselves and sometimes project onto others instead.

It’s often our inner child who is cast in the role of the shadow. She’s too loud, not smart enough, can’t do anything right, and generally an embarrassment. So we shut her down and lock her away. Later, after we’ve done some inner work, we might decide to open the dungeon door a little and peek in. But what we see there is not pretty. After all, she’s been locked away, starved. She has no social skills, and she’s angry. So we slam the door shut again. 

The Shadow Archetype

Most of us love villains. As a child I read every single fairytale in our school library, and then I read them again. Fairytales are full of shadows, and heroes who confront them. Shadows come in the form of wicked step-sisters, wolves, trolls and evil queens.

These days we can find our villains and heroes in the dozens of crime shows on tv. By identifying with the hero and despising the villain, we find a place to deposit all the things within ourselves we don’t want to express.

Debbie Ford gives this example in her book Dark Side of the Light Chasers:

“If I am offended by your arrogance it is because I’m not embracing my own arrogance. This is either arrogance that I am now demonstrating in my life and not seeing, or arrogance that I deny I am capable of demonstrating in the future.”


The Projected Shadow

Sometimes we become the depository for the shadows of other people. A lot of projection goes on in families, where members refuse to accept certain parts of themselves, attributing those qualities to others instead. 

Think of the family scapegoat who acts out while the rest of the family appear to be well-functioning. In truth, the family may be so focused on the ‘badness’ of their scapegoat,  they are able to avoid looking at their own shortcomings.  Family therapists see this as a maladaptive way of keeping the family together.

Another example is the emotionally abusive partner who pushes his or her partner to the point where they finally explode, and then berates them for ‘being abusive’. Understanding these unwanted ‘gifts’ for what they are, that they are not actually ours, is what helps us to avoid accepting them in the future. This is how healthy boundaries and self-respect are built and maintained.



Shadow projection also shows up in fiction. In the movie Fight Club, a discontented man trying to fit into the system encounters his shadow in all its wild rule-breaking impulsivity.  In literature, the stories of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, Frankenstein, even Little Red Riding Hood, all illustrate the presence of a shadow side projected elsewhere.  

We are all filled with a longing for the wild. There are few culturally sanctioned antidotes for this yearning. We were taught to feel shame for such a desire. We grew our hair long and used it to hide our feelings. But the shadow of the Wild Woman still lurks behind us during our days and in our nights. No matter where we are, the shadow that trots behind us is definitely four-footed.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes


The Golden Shadow

Usually when we consider the shadow, we think of the more shameful and frightening aspects of ourselves that we have disowned. But sometimes we reject more positive sides of the self – our beauty, our power, our light. We project them on to celebrities and icons such as Mother Teresa instead of claiming them for ourselves.

We don’t stand up for ourselves for fear of being seen to be full of ourselves. We don’t shine too brightly in case others become jealous or resentful. The golden shadow is our submerged beauty, strength and creativity.

Jung believed that reclaiming our lost rejected parts would lead us back to wholeness. This was based on Freud’s theory that what is unconscious needs to be fully integrated into conscious awareness so it no longer controls us.  

Embracing Our Shadow

To rediscover our light and strength, we return to the place where we were shamed and diminished. This is where we left our opposite self.  Think about the people who press your buttons and the things you are most fearful of. Going where you most fear to go will lead you to your shadow.

In my training session, we made masks out of plaster and painted them to represent our dark side. It took me a while to understand what my shadow was telling me, but I finally saw that it contained my introspective nature, my tendency to move slowly, my profound sadness.

I’ve spent years trying to be more outgoing, apologising for being the last person finished, wondering why I couldn’t smile more. I felt shame every time someone uttered some variation of:

  • cheer up
  • you’re so slow
  • smile, it’s not that bad!
  • it’s in the past, move on
  • gee, you’re quiet, what’s wrong?

We are all mirrors for each other, and these people mirrored my shadow back to me. How I disliked them for it!

Fortunately I had 15 enlightened witnesses who allowed me to reclaim all that I had lost without judging me – it was powerful beyond measure. Wearing my mask, I slouched and shuffled around the room, staring off into space, shrugging my shoulders. It was one of those moments you never forget. Ironically I felt more outgoing afterwards, no longer needing all my energy to conceal my ‘unacceptable’ parts. 


Unless we embrace our dark side, we will continue to attract people and situations who mirror the things we don’t want to experience.  We will also be blocked from giving to others what we haven’t accepted within ourselves.

It’s time we released the burden of shame and guilt and allowed ourselves to step into our greatness. Your inner problem child won’t be pretty when she comes out of the dungeon, but give her enough time and loving support and she will bring you gift after gift. She is the one you have been longing for.



You might also like:

Be Brave…At YOUR Pace
Staging A ‘Go Slow’
The Stories They Told Me
Are You Too Sensitive?



  1. This is a truly insightful article. I spend so much time denying this part of me when, like you say, it is something that should be embraced :)
    Sophie recently posted…Loving Someone With DepressionMy Profile

  2. This is a profound message we spend our whole lives working through. I love the idea of the Golden Shadow — how true! I really look forward to an article on *how* we might embrace both of our shadows. Thank you!

    Cynthia Lindeman

  3. Beautifully written. I spent years dreading the obligatory Monday question of “What did you get up to?”. I was ashamed of how “dull” my life was in comparison to others. I was happy enough with my life just too embarrassed to admit it. Realising its ok to be as I am was such a relief. Thank you for your sharing of the mask experience and I love the pic of Jade <3

  4. What a powerful article Leanne, and more power to you for being courageous enough to not only talk about your shadow side as an example, but to work on acceptance of it. I like to think I’m in touch with mine, but I’m sure there’s more of it I could explore and bring to light and accept.

    Jade is just gorgeous, as I’m sure Monte is. We have an old cat and a relatively young cat as well, although most of the time Sooty is past the climb-whatever-you-can-to-get-to-the-insect stage, thank goodness!
    Shan recently posted…How to Smooth Out the Wrinkles of Life Transitions – 5 Key Steps to Get You StartedMy Profile

  5. Leanne, thank you for shedding some light into the dark corners… I found it particularly interesting that you mentioned not only the darker side of ourselves, the one we’d rather not be; but also the ‘golden’ shadow where we don’t allow ourselves to shine as we could. I’ve been working to make friends with my shadow for some time now and still find myself surprised to find I’ve hidden so much of the distinguishing parts of who I am (light and dark) and settled for being a ‘shadow’ of who I’m meant to be…

    I love your description of the mask experience- how liberating that must have been!
    Crystal recently posted…The Dream…My Profile

  6. Thank you so much for this article, so full of love and mad respect for our beautiful shadow sides. At this now moment, I really needed to read this, with the intense health challenge I’m in right now and the huge effect it has on my life and activities.

    Thanks for the light you shine!
    Sue Kearney (@MagnoliasWest) recently posted…Like a phoenix — New Moon in Sagittarius, and gratitudesMy Profile

  7. Thank you for sharing a beautifully written and insightful post on the many types of shadows in our lives. Mary Oliver’s quote really resonated.

  8. Beautiful words. “It’s time for us to step into our greatness.” I completely understand what you’re talking about. For years I was terrified on stepping on anyone’s toes or rocking the boat, to a point that I completely forgot who I was. I see this in many women. We’re ashamed of who we are, so we fib a little. We’re wonderful just the way we are and when we can accept that, life unfolds right before our eyes.
    Keri Kight recently posted…Introducing Annemiek Douw – Author of “21 Layers of the Soul”My Profile

  9. Shadow work is so important, but not as simplistic as most think. You’ve done a wonderful job of explaining this. And YES! we need to embrace all parts of ourself including our shadows.
    Petrea recently posted…Find YourselfMy Profile

  10. Love this Keri! You and I seem to be on the same wavelength as you’ll see by my post which will automatically show up here.

    I use Comment Luv too! Great way to share the love.

    One more thing…
    You must not be in the States because your comment above is showing as the 5th – which is my birthday! (Still a few hours away here).

    Anywho – hope we get to chat more in the near future. Loving the synchronicity!
    Merry recently posted…Release Your Inner Goddess; Practice What I PreachMy Profile

  11. This resonated with me very deeply, Leanne. This whole year for me has been full of events “forcing” me to face my shadow self. Its been dark, scary and very painful at times – but so very enlightening!

    You definitely learn and grow far more from embracing those parts of yourself you’d rather pretend aren’t there, than in being only with the parts that feel more welcoming.

    I’d love to know more about the exercise with the masks – it sounds fascinating!

    And don’t you just love cats? I’m sure they are the Divine’s way of teaching us forgiveness and unconditional love – after all, its hard to stay mad at their adorable kitty faces for long! ;)
    Debra recently posted…Life Between Lives Regression Part 2: My Soul Family & Spiritual TruthsMy Profile

  12. I really appreciate hearing this perspective :)

    In the past, I was “gifted” with some seriously challenging people in my life – and the last time it happened, it was really obvious that it was a lesson or three I was being faced with, but I didn’t know what to think. This person in my life was needy and unbelievably self-absorbed.

    Not until I realized that she was mirroring the potential manifestation of my own most loathed “bad habits” back to me – the things I most feared becoming – did I figure out what I needed to know…and thus, we finally parted ways.

  13. Thank you for sharing this post, Leanne. It inspired me to take out my Bad Behavior cards for some new insight. Check out my blog post to see what card I chose:

    I loved the section Embracing Our Shadow and your story of coming to understand that other people are simply our mirrors. I’ve come to realize that too, and that the folks that really annoy us are our greatest teachers!
    SoulStory Coach recently posted…The Gift of Bad BehaviorMy Profile


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