Still I run in a panic from each little ache
Afraid to sit with your anger and face my mistakes
Afraid to sit with your anger and tell you that stings
So I'm running from the storm when I need what she brings
From the moment we took our first breath, we've been receiving feedback about which parts of our personality are acceptable and which must be hidden. This feedback has been as subtle as the flicker of an eye and as explicit as outright prohibitions and punishments that have left lasting psychic scars.
We've been conditioned to hide what we fear others won't accept – our anger, our insecurity, our pride, our desire, our need for attention and validation, our longing, our confusion, any number of things. What we've learned to hide and what we've learned to show varies depending on a variety of factors- our upbringing and personal family history (going back generations), our culture and religious beliefs, the messages instilled in us through educational institutions and the media, and the communities, social relationships and professional environments we navigate every day.
A couple of years ago, I found myself being pulled, practically against my will, into the realm of Shadow Work. I came to a place, through various books I was reading and public-figure-teacher-types I was listening to, where I could no longer occlude the awareness that absolutely everything that annoyed and enraged me about various people in my
life existed in some form or another in me as well. Absolutely. Everything. I didn't want to do this work. It is SO UNCOMFORTABLE! But I couldn't get away from it... I found myself writing a song about the process of embracing the shadow elements we project onto one another, about seeing myself in my
enemies. And when I write a song, I can't ignore what its saying to me. It gets in my head and the evolution of the music drives me back to it's subject matter again and again, whether I like it or not. While I'd dabbled in Shadow Work before, wading in to a level of moderate discomfort and then charging back to the shore, it was clear that this time I was going to have to go deeper. And that I'd be wading and diving in for the rest of my life.
The Other as the Mirror David Richo sums up this work in his book Shadow Dance:
“Every person to whom we react with strong fear, desire, repulsion, or admiration is a twin of our own inner unacknowledged life. We have qualities, both positive and negative, that appear visibly in others but are invisible in us and to us. Our practice is to be fascinated with those who upset or appeal to us and to find in them the hidden corners of ourselves. An archetype of twins exists in our psyche, one bad, one good. We have it in us to separate and even alienate one part of ourselves from another part. The challenge is to be on friendly terms with everything about ourselves. We can welcome what seems repulsive and recall what tries to get away. This will require a boundless curiosity about the foreign territories in our psyche that have always wanted annexation, always wanted to join the union of our self or rejoin after seceding. Such a consolidation of all our ‘parts’ actually maintains their identity and amplifies their cohesiveness.”
When something is known, we interact with it rather than it controlling us from the hidden realms of disowned psyche. There's a certain level of honesty-with-self that forms a secure base for experimenting with greater honesty in relationships with others. We don't do this work in order to let others off the hook or from some mistaken idea that we must literally embrace every person in our path and collapse all boundaries. We do this work to get honest with ourselves. And when we are honest with ourselves, layers of fear begin to dissolve.
How do I DO Shadow Work? Here are some simple Shadow Work practices you can begin to experiment with on your own. These practices are not meant as a substitute for professional support but rather a precursor or adjunct to such work.
1. Contemplative Reflection- Take 10-20 minutes, maybe even setting a timer, to contemplate an interpersonal situation that evoked a strong, negative emotional reaction in you. The goal in this practice is not to assign blame or psychoanalyze, but rather to contemplate the situation and the big feelings involved from a stance of gentleness and non-judgment. I like to light a candle when doing this practice and focus on the flickering of the flame if I start to feel overwhelmed or overtaken by judgment. You can also use the breath as an anchor.
2. Shadow Journaling- Writing about our experiences with the shadow can deepen our understanding of our inner workings as well as bring online our witnessing capacity so that we can see situations and reactions more clearly. There are a variety of ways to do this. The method I utilize is one I call “The List.” When I'm activated by a difficult experience with another human, I list out all of the character flaws I believe I'm experiencing in them on the top of the page. And then on the bottom of the page, I write the sentence, “I am _________” over and over, filling in the blank with each trait I've assigned to the other person. And then I continue to journal on the ways in which these statements could be true. It's edgy, it's uncomfortable... its reeeeeally good Shadow Work.
3. Artistic Exploration- Have you ever felt like there's a little monster inside of you? Or that certain others in your life (coworkers, boss, family members, a partner) wake up a sleeping demon who feels completely incongruent with the kind and reasonable person you know yourself to be? Try drawing that little monster, or creating a collage to depict the scene in which they are awakened. Or create a poem using your non-dominant hand to write out words that describe the emotional and physical sensations the situation evokes for you.
4. Oracle Cards- If you have Tarot, Animal Medicine or other types of oracle decks, you can design a reading to explore your shadow side. You might hold the cards in your hands or to your heart and ask to be shown a part of yourself that you are disowning. Draw the card or cards with your left hand (connecting to your intuitive right brain hemisphere) and keep the image and message of that card close to you for the next week or more, journaling or meditating on this particular shadow aspect.
The Role of Therapy in Shadow Work
What we are cultivating in therapy is a greater congruence between the idealized self, the public persona, if you will, and the shadow self whom we keep hidden. This process cannot happen without enormous amounts of love and gentleness. My role is to give all of your shadow parts the love you may not be ready to give them, and to work with you to get to know all aspects of your being – feelings, beliefs, desires, judgments, all of it. We'll dive in deep together. The darkness of the Shadow Realm is less scary when we enter into it together.