How to shed your ‘shadow side’

Knowing who you are not is as important as knowing who you are, says Ian Brett, Learning and Development Consultant at Insights.

get rid of your shadow side working dads


‘Know thyself’ is a well-known phrase, used as far back in time as Ancient Greece. And, as people, we spent vast amounts of time and money trying to know ourselves, understanding who we truly are.

As an experienced facilitator at global people development company Insights and a former fighter jet pilot however, I believe it’s just as important to understand who we are not. That’s because when you understand who you are not – or your Shadow – you can manage the ‘bad day behaviours’ linked to your Shadow and manage even the most challenging situations more effectively.

Stress can bring out our Shadow

At Insights, when we think about developing greater self-awareness, we talk about ‘good day’ and ‘bad day’ behaviours. Good day behaviours are what come through when we’re playing to our strengths and putting our best foot forward. This is the version of ourselves that we like and choose to present consciously to others.

In contrast, however, our bad day behaviours can be displayed when we are in stressful situations or our strengths are overused or overextended. Putting someone under too much pressure can make them lose the conscious consideration of their approach and they revert to a more reactive approach. Bad days behaviours also reveal our ‘blind spots’ – negative qualities about ourselves which are visible to others but that we usually hide and are unaware of.

For example, as a busy parent, it’s highly likely that you’re constantly multi-tasking. But if any one of those many plates suddenly stops spinning it can cause a stress situation and the bad day behaviours can appear. When another plate stops, or another – and you’re gripped by your Shadow – you’re at risk of ‘flipping’ and using a completely opposite approach.

Here’s another example, imagine a quiet, logical person suddenly becoming verbose and emotional. Or a social, friendly person who suddenly becomes withdrawn and reserved. It’s likely they are in a high stress situation, unable to get the desired outcome and their Shadow has emerged. This could result in them coming across poorly, or overly emotional or closed off.

Our Shadow side is not only evident under stress but is also always ‘whispering in our ear’, making our lives a little more challenging, and because of its unconscious nature, it influences us much more than we might be aware of. Our Shadow can show up in all kinds of different relationships – with our partner, our children, our parents, our colleagues.

How to spot your Shadow and manage it effectively

In my experience, there are a few things you can do to quickly spot your Shadow and manage it – before it manages you!

Start by building self-awareness: Self-awareness helps people understand what they’re good at, what they’re not so good at, and how they can be perceived by others. It’s the foundation on which everything else is built. Once you know what you’re good at, and how you show up for others, you can adjust your behaviours and approach to achieve the outcomes you seek. That also means you’re more likely to build positive, lasting relationships, increasing productivity, and achieving any goals.

Invest in self-development: Self-development will help build the skills and capabilities to know when someone is heading for a bad day and what to do about it. For example, knowing an individual’s triggers and choosing not to ignore them and upskilling in different areas – practical or behavioural.

Be open to feedback: Feedback is a gift, so be open to feedback from people you love, respect and trust about your bad day behaviours, blind-spots, and Shadow-side. It’s often easier for others to identify your Shadow before you spot it yourself. When we’re open to feedback, it can help us manage our behaviour, and adapt and connect more effectively.

Recognise any fears and insecurities: When deciding where your Shadow lies, it’s almost always the answer to this question, “What are you most insecure about?” Whatever gives you the greatest suffering, is the most difficult cross to bear, or makes you bang your head against the wall – there lies your Shadow. That’s also where there’s an opportunity for deep personal learning and growth.

Consider who you’re not: If you’ve ever used a personal preference tool or received a personal profile – like Insights Discovery – use it repeatedly to gain a better understanding of who you are and who you’re ‘not’. It’s also helpful to pay attention and recognise when the opposite appears in your life and in your relationships.

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