habits / mind / practice

Making Friends With Your Shadow


How I Learned to Love My Jackals

For a long part of my life, I’ve been stalked by shadows. These evil and dark corners of my mind would lurk waiting for the right moment. Then when I was at my weakest they would strike, filling my mind with confusion and my heart with sadness. By the time they were done, I would feel exhausted and lost.

For years, I saw these small weak parts of myself as the enemy. I did my best to avoid or ignore them. And when I did see them I would attack them with everything I had, but nothing worked. It seemed that the harder I fought the stronger they became.

It was only years later that I began to realize how these hidden shadow creatures held to key to a greater understanding of myself and of the forces that held me back. Over time and with the help of many teachers I was able to not only accept these jackals, but also become grateful for the lessons they had to teach me.

What is a Jackal?

Jackal is a term used in Non Violent Communication, but is similar to terms like gremlin, or inner critic used in other types of personal work.

In my experience, a Jackal is the trapped voice, perspective, or language of an unexpressed and/or unmet need. Jackals are not inherently evil or the enemy rather they are just one part of ourselves that hasn’t been well integrated.

Jackals often speak in terms of the absolute ”Life is hopeless,” judgment “He’s just a big jerk,” guilt “It’s all my fault”, blame “You made me feel like this!” obligation “I should do this”, and fixed beliefs “I’ll never be successful.”

Jackals are often focused on meeting short-term needs for safety, predictability, order, or ease without considering the long-term implications of the strategies being used. This means that people trapped in Jackal voices can come across as reactive, selfish, and anxious.

But despite the fact that Jackals are often immature or unskillful in their approach to meeting needs, the needs and feelings they express are important. Jackals often arise because we never developed the right skills or language to be able to express certain feelings and needs.

Sometimes it’s because we’ve disidentified with these needs and sometimes it’s because we attribute these needs to a deep character flaw. For example if we saw one of our parents getting pushed around a lot we may disidentify with the need for collaboration and over utilize a strategy of control to meet our need for safety.

How to Work With Jackals –

The most common approach to working with these jackal voices or perspectives are either to buy into them or to disown them. Often we choose to believe what this Jackal says which leads us to think of ourselves or others as idiots, slobs, losers, jerks, or a number of other colorful labels.

At other times, we try to ignore these Jackals, by denying that we feel guilty, afraid, or angry with others or ourselves.

The problem is that neither of these approaches works because they both give these Jackals power. When you give Jackals power, you limit your perspective and prevent yourself from responding to situations from a more mature and open place.

But if instead of buying into what you Jackals say or ignoring them you can learn to notice them, listen to what they have to say, and offer them empathy and understanding. When this happens it becomes easier to find a sense of freedom and ease around these Jackals.

The exercise below is designed to help you do just that by allowing you to name these Jackals, describe their energy, identify some of their main phrases, and become aware of the feelings and needs they are calling your attention.

Jackal Discovery Exercise

Naming Your Jackal –

Naming a jackal isn’t about labeling it, rather it’s about giving you shorthand to use so that you can more easily notice when it’s arising.

  1. Think of a circumstance in which you last encountered the energy or feeling you want to work with. It could be a feeling of anger at traffic or a feeling of pressure at wanting to finish a certain task.
  2. Write down a short story about that situation. What happened? Who was involved? Where were you? When did it happen? Why do you think you felt or acted the way you did?
  3. Read your story back to yourself and think of 3 or 4 other instances where you felt the way you did in your story.
  4. Once you have a few occasions in mind, answer the questions below

When this Jackal arises how do you feel?

Write down any emotions that are present when you hear this voice or perspective arising. Also write down: the part of your body you feel these emotions in, any color or texture that is associated with these feelings, and whether the emotion has a vibrational or energetic quality.

When does this Jackal normally arise?

Is this jackal associated with a certain time of day, time of year, or period of time preceding or following certain event(s)

Does this Jackal usually arise at a certain physical location?

Do you encounter this Jackal at home, at work, on the bus, or is it not location specific?

Does this Jackal usually arise around certain people?

Do you encounter this jackal when you are with your partner? or a parent? Or do you encounter this jackal around anyone who is in authority or around people who speak loudly?

Name That Jackal

Once you have answered the question about think about the situations or circumstances that normally bring up this jackal, and then ask yourself what is the name of this Jackal.

Most often people name their jackals by whatever negative ideas it expresses. For example, I have a Jackal that expresses my fear that I’m not a good person. So I might name this Jackal my good guy jackal, my fear jackal, or my failure jackal. But the exact name isn’t important, what’s important is that I give it a name that helps me see this Jackal as just one part of who I am.

Empathizing With Your Jackal
Once you have named you Jackal now you can work to empathize with it. A word of warning empathizing with a Jackal can be quite difficult and taxing so be patient with yourself during this process.

Jackal Feelings –

Before you can get down to what a Jackal wants, you have to figure out how it feels. By identifying how your Jackal feels, you can begin to understand what it cares about.

To get in the right mindset think again about the circumstances in which you Jackal arises. Try to put yourself back in that mindset for a few moments. Once you’re there, answer the questions below.

When this Jackal arises what does it say?

Write down any phrases you notice yourself thinking or that you hear repeated in your head when you are in a situation like the one you’ve described above.

How does the Jackal feel?

If you could step inside the feelings of the Jackal voice what would that be like? Does it feel frustrated, sad, scared, or angry? How would its body feel? What color or texture would the voice be?
If you need help with the right language, you can use this guide as a resource.

Jackal Needs –

About Needs

Once you’ve gotten a good grasp on what this Jackal is feeling you can now look to try and understand what if anything it needs. The important things to remember about needs, is that needs are universal. They can apply to anyone at anytime.

Often we confuse strategies and needs. Strategies are techniques we engage in to respond to certain feelings and in an effort meet unmet needs. Strategies are usually designed to meet specific needs in a certain situation for an individual or small group.

For example:
The need for safety is universal because we all need to be safe in order to learn and grow. A popular strategy for safety in some parts of the United States is gun ownership. For some people owning a gun meets that need for safety. But for other people having a gun would make them feel unsafe. So while the need for safety is shared by pro-gun and anti-gun individuals the strategy of owning a gun would affect each of them very differently.

Of course, this is a very subtle example. Most of the time strategies and needs get more complicated.

For example:
Someone might say, “I need you to arrive on time.” While this seems like a need, it is in fact a strategy maybe to meet the needs of predictability or trust. In many cultures, arriving on time isn’t the norm, but even in those culture trust and predictability are important.

If you need help coming up with terms that align with universal needs I would recommend you check out this resource by my friend Lashelle Low Charde

Clarifying Jackal Needs

Now that we’ve explained what needs are it’s time to guess what needs are up for your Jackal by answering the questions below.

These questions are designed to help you get down to the root of what your Jackal is afraid of and what it cares about. Take time with each question and don’t be afraid to ask any of these questions more than once.

What does your Jackal want?

If you did everything your Jackal urged you to do, what kind of person would you be?

What does the world your Jackal lives in look like?

If you failed to do what your Jackal urges then what?

Who would you be?

What would happen?

Guess Your Jackals Needs

Now that you have answered these clarifying questions, you are ready to guess at your Jackals needs. To do this you will follow a simple script that will require talking to yourself.

If talking to yourself seems weird that’s ok because it is. But I have it on good authority that many smart, sane, and wise people talk to themselves. If you still can’t get over this, you can always ask these questions silently or on paper. Though I would encourage you to do it out loud if you can because I’ve found it more effective.

Hello (Name of Jackal) (Example: Mr. Failure Jackal)

I’ve noticed you’ve been trying to get my attention.

I know that you care about me and you just want to let me know that something important is going on.

Based on what I’ve heard from you my guess is that you’ve been feeling:
(Insert one or more of the feelings you identified earlier)
Example: Frustrated and sad

Because you have a need for:
(Insert one or more of the feelings you identified earlier)
Example: competence and respect

Is that right?
(Pause and allow space for your Jackal to respond. Notice any shift in emotions or any thoughts that arise. Your Jackal may be quiet. If so don’t worry just relax and accept anything that does or doesn’t arise)

I wanted to thank you (Name of Jackal) for letting me know what is going on with you. I’m going to do my best to hear you next time you talk and try to help you meet your needs in a way that works for both of us. But for now, I’m going to go. Thank you again. I know you just want what’s best for me.

(Again, pause for a few moments and allow space for anything that comes up. But after a few minutes open your eyes and shake off this experience)

It’s very important that you don’t stay in jackal land too long because it can be tiring and it’s easy to get stuck there. Many people find it helpful to walk around and get some exercise or do something simple like house work after this exercise to help clear their heads.

Continuing Practice

Once you’ve identified and talked to this Jackal the next step is to notice whenever that Jackal arises again.

When you do notice this Jackal, all you have to do is repeat to yourself:

  • Hello Failure Jackal
  • Are you here to remind me how important competence and respect are to me? (Pause)
  • Thank for reminding me.

Then you do your best to move on with whatever it is you are doing. The first key to this practice is to notice this Jackal and give it a little bit of space without letting it take over. The reason is that resisting Jackals gives them more power. Much like a small child, Jackals tend to get louder when they are ignored. By engaging in a simple practice of noticing and acknowledging them, often they become quieter.

The other reason why this practice is so effective is that it gives you permission to feel and need things that you might normally try to avoid. But it does so in small and manageable bits.

Final Thoughts

No matter what you like to call them Jackals, Gremlins, or limiting beliefs these hidden parts of our heart and minds are often the key to finding more ease and freedom in our lives. Many people think that the goal of mindfulness practice, mindful habit formation, and/or mindful fitness is perfection. But in reality the intention of all three are to find a greater sense of wholeness and balance in your life.

Without these needy, immature, and grasping parts of ourselves, we would all be doomed to be perfectly mindful cyborgs. Without our Jackals, we would never be able to develop the skills, wisdom, and compassion needed to really grow and support others. So instead of trying to kill these parts of ourselves, I’ve learned that it essential to embrace them and learn to love the wisdom they have to offer.


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