Tag Archives: shadow

Shadow Work

I admit the idea of shadow work always scared me. The idea of it – based on what little I’d read – seemed really intimidating. Go down into the most awful parts of yourself and face them… Mostly I try and keep the awfulness locked down, under control and hidden away. I can’t bear to go there. This year I’ve had no choice.

For as long as I can remember I’ve had a keen sense of my own awfulness. There are parts of me that, if they got out, or out of control, would do terrible things. It has always seemed very important to be very in control all of the time and never drop my guard to let the awfulness out. Except, when I’ve tried to face it, I struggle to find any evidence to support that.

There are things I’ve been told about the kind of person I am, that have made me afraid of myself. The idea that I’m so terrible that I can’t even see how terrible I am is not one I came up with by myself. I’ve been told if people knew what I was really like, they’d want nothing to do with me. I’ve been told, relentlessly, how difficult, unreasonable, prone to over-reacting and whatnot I am, and I’ve stayed afraid of the things in me that I must keep locked down at all costs. I’ve accepted that because I am a monster, it’s not just ok, but necessary to punish me, control me, keep me inline.

Delve into the shadows, and all I can find is the times I was told what an awful person I am. Not the bit before that when I did the awful things. There are no pets I killed, no violent assaults on anyone, no rounds of being suspended from school or taken in for police questioning. There was nothing I set on fire or deliberately broke, I did not threaten anyone with violence. I was a quiet, fearful child who could barely get a sentence out without stuttering. I was an anxious, nervous teenager trying to be more than that. I was and am flawed in so many ways, but there’s no real evidence for the dire monstrosity then, or in my twenties.

The big fear is that it exists and I can’t see it. I remember being told how aggressive I am when I’m upset, how I lash out at people and hurt them in retaliation and don’t even know that I’m doing it. And how afraid I became of what I might accidentally do if I was upset and not careful enough about how I expressed that.

I have looked into my shadow, and it is full of pain. It is full of times when I could have used some kindness and patience from others. It’s full of being knocked down and blamed, and made responsible for having been hurt. It’s an ugly mess in there, and not territory I am keen to visit, but I’ve been obliged to, repeatedly.

And so I find myself asking some really uncomfortable questions. What if how I am treated is not automatically a fair measure of what I deserve? What if I’m basically ok, certainly no worse than anyone else? What if the monsters I am afraid of aren’t real, or part of me? What if my shadow self isn’t full of appalling horror that must be kept hidden, but is just where my child self is huddled up, lost and frightened and in need of rescue.


Peace, love, light and backstabbing

Let me start by being clear that I take no issue with anyone who is drawn towards peace, love or light. These are all good things. Looking back, I see that many of the people I’ve really struggled with have been all about presenting with peace, love and light. The trouble with this approach is that it doesn’t give you any space to deal with difficult feelings or conflicts. What happens then seems to come out sidewise.

If you can be honestly cross, upset, frustrated, envious or anything else that isn’t lovely, then you can deal with life. It may be tempting to want to be some kind of higher, enlightened being that feels none of those ‘negative’ emotions, but that’s not realistic. Also, those emotions are there for a reason. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of them. They are there to protect us and help us learn. Try and suppress those feelings, and you won’t be a better person, you’ll be a person with a problem shadow side whose repressed aspects keep trying to pop out.

It is, without a doubt, better to acknowledge what you’re feeling, however awkward it is, and then deal with it from there. Ignoring the difficult stuff just builds you a bigger problem.

If you buy into the idea that you are, and have to be, an utterly lovely person, you put enormous pressure on yourself. If that slips for even a moment, you have to justify the slip. You may be tempted to figure out how it’s all someone else’s fault – so that you don’t have to own it or feel responsible. This is how we get from peace, love and light, to backstabbing.

If you can’t own your own feelings and have to make someone else responsible for them, of course you give away power. You make it harder to change. You distort your own reality so that your anger is their anger, your resentment is their unfairness. Your jealousy is their manipulative and power hungry behaviour. If you’ve done a good job of your peace-love-light image, the people around you may support you in this rather than help you recognise what’s going on, and for the longer term, that just helps you dig yourself into a deeper hole.

With the benefit of distance, it’s a pretty horrible thing to have seen a person do to themselves.

Looking back, I’ve taken some emotional bruises from people who’ve acted this way. But, I learned and adapted and moved away from those interactions. I was able to acknowledge and deal with my own feelings about those situations. I can feel sad, or cross, or angry, or bitter or resentful without compromising my sense of self, and that’s a great help to me. I can recognise when I’ve been crap, inadequate, or just plain wrong. I’m able to have a realistic relationship with my own experiences. All of the good relationships I have allow me this.

I don’t know what happened to the people who got angry with me but couldn’t own what was going on for them. It’s been easy to let them go and step away. I know from periods in my life where I’ve not been free to express and deal with my own feelings (pain, fear, grief, shock) that it is really expensive. If you can’t live your truth, everything is distorted around that and it becomes exhausting. If they’re lucky, my absence freed them from that, at least with regards to me.

The thing about peace, love and light is that you can only really make them work if you’re also prepared to deal with conflict, loathing and darkness, because nothing exists in perfect isolation from everything else and everything casts a shadow sooner or later.


My thoughts are not my prayers

There are a number of statements that float around the internet as memes – my work is my prayer, my thoughts are my prayers, my words are my prayers… it is all too easy to assert this and have it be a way to not really make any effort.

My thoughts are not my prayers. Firstly, I think a lot. While I am ambivalent about deity, I certainly don’t believe that deity is especially interested in me and I don’t imagine that every random thing wandering about in my head is something to ask a God to bother themselves with.

I do not have a disciplined mind, nor do I ever intend to have this be the case, nor do I think it’s a good idea. Thinking is good. Reflecting, pondering, questioning, imagining, planning… For any of this to work, you need room to try things out, and change your mind. You can’t be creative without giving yourself space to think things that you may later reject as rubbish. If every thought is a prayer, when is there time to be creatively messy?

If your thoughts are your prayers, then the inside of your head has to be pretty saintly. I aim to act well in the world as much as I can. I give myself permission to feel all the little shitty things that pass through. Frustration. Resentment. Anger. Envy. All the knee jerk reactions to experiences that have me wanting to put politicians in wicker men. I give myself space to process these reactions and to work out better ways of expressing them. These are not prayers. I do not want them answered. These are things I need to take responsibility for. Equally, there are old feelings of guilt and shame, uselessness, anxiety, despair and unacceptability that surface now and then. These are not prayers, but they do need processing.

I firmly believe that to be human is to have this full range of experience. To be human is to get cross about things, to worry about aspects of the future, to regret past action or inaction… we don’t learn or grow without being able to do all of this. If the insides of our heads were only prayerful, there are too many things we wouldn’t be able to process. Repressing all the awkward stuff doesn’t make it go away, it just means it emerges in weird, uncontrolled ways. The sudden lashing out that you can’t explain. The telling yourself you’re doing one thing when really doing another. Make no room for your shadows, and you’ll end up with some serious cognitive dissonance, especially around who you are.

I don’t believe that the point of a spiritual life is to transcend being human. I don’t believe in higher self, as I’ve said before – I’m much more interested in deeper self. I want room to explore and to ponder. I like to treat the inside of my head as my own, private space. By giving time to reflection, working with my shadows, owning the awkward bits and working to heal them, I become more whole, and in turn less fraught. I realise this does take me, slowly, towards a place where all the things in my head could be beautiful and functional and worthy of being directed towards something other than myself. But at the same time, I always want to be angry at injustice and frustrated by needless hoop jumping. I will always need space for daft ideas so that I can work my way towards good ideas.

I can’t help but feel that thinking you’ve overcome the least good bits of your own humanity is probably only ever a sign that you’re successfully kidding yourself.


Sitting with resentment

Resentment can bring together anger, envy, jealousy, self-importance, self righteousness, greed and a whole host of other unattractive feelings. So, why would you want to spend time with it? The short answer is anything felt and suppressed only causes trouble. However, resentment is a complicated response and feeling it doesn’t always make you the bad guy. Taking time to sit with the feeling, to meditate on it, explore it and understand it can be very revealing. Having done a fair bit of this kind of sitting, these are the things I have learned.

It is reasonable to resent what is unfair. Be that abuses of power, or people taking more than their fair share, or any other kind of unbalance you might encounter. If that seems to be the shape of it, dig deep, because sometimes we’re mapping a sense of unfairness on to what is really envy. When we see the success of others, we may assume it was unfair. Women who are accused of sleeping their way to the top are an obvious example of this manifesting. If you can see real evidence for unfairness, then your resentment calls for justice. It’s important at this stage to remember that justice and revenge are not the same things.

It’s more comfortable to see the situation as unfair than it is to recognise our own envy. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with envy as such. If we look at what’s going on for someone else and wish we had the same or better – that seems human and natural to me. It’s what we then do with it that is the question. Seething bitterness over what they have and we don’t is profoundly unhealthy. The desire to take what we haven’t earned is not usually a good thing – although there is also the desire to redistribute what others have not earned, Robin Hood style. If envy is a spur to action, if it shows us where we want to be and sets us on a path – why not? Recognising envy and allowing it to motivate us to positive action is no bad thing.

Resentment can be born of projection. It can mean we take the worst of what we think, the worst of our impulses and attribute it to the other. We think they are getting away with the things we want to get away with but can’t. Or think we couldn’t. The real challenge here is to grapple with your resentment until you can see your own inclinations in it. What you do from there is up to you, but denying our ‘shadow’ selves never helps. Know it, own it, deal with it.

It’s easier to put something down after you’ve looked at it properly. A feeling that has been met and explored is far more easily let go of. It is better to know ourselves, to know that we aren’t saintly, and to accept our less than angelic moments. To be human is to be flawed, and when we make more room for our own shortcomings rather than trying to deny them, we are likely to be better adapted to dealing with other people’s too. Sometimes, it’s entirely reasonable to feel those ‘negative’ emotions. Sometimes they are the only appropriate response in the circumstances. Sometimes they are a necessary spur to changing ourselves.