As you have probably figured out by now, being happy isn't all rainbows and unicorns, kittens and lollipops. To be sure, there is a huge teddy bear side to well being that comes from cultivating positive emotions like gratitude, optimism, and compassion. And yet (you knew there was a but coming!), in order to feel truly whole, free, and grounded in our well being, we must also embrace our shadow side where the less pretty aspects of ourselves reside.
As you contemplate taking up this cringe–worthy pursuit, consider the many benefits of sidling up to the skeletons in your closet.
1. Resisting what we don't want to see about ourselves takes up a vast amount of our personal energy. This herculean task robs us day in and day out of precious life force we could better spend feeling and doing good.
2. We significantly curtail our potential for growth and personal insight if we are not willing to take a look at what we have repressed from our conscious mind. We become prone to repeating outdated and unwanted patterns long after they are relevant or useful to us.
3. When we don't own our stuff, we often act like jerks. There, we've said it. Needless to say this makes us less sexy, have fewer friends, and more likely to die lonely. Okay, maybe we are exaggerating a bit, but, really, denial does not look good on anyone.
4. True compassion arises when we feel within ourselves that which is difficult for others. When we acknowledge those rejected parts of ourselves like our bad–boy ways or little–miss–goody–two–shoes smugness (for example) we can more deeply empathize with these kinds of qualities in others.
5. There is the profound contentment to be found by accepting, dare we say loving, ourselves, warts and all. Once we no longer resist or reject our inner goof, trickster, seducer, princess, etc. we feel more authentic and at ease with ourselves and the world.
Growing up everyone develops a shadow composed of those parts of our persona that society and our family define as unacceptable in some way. We repress those parts of ourselves which we perceive to be inferior, primitive, childish, awkward, and negative in some way. This may well include 'positive' traits like being smart, sensitive, sexy, and strong.
These shadow qualities become invisible to us by creating blind spots in our self perception. However, they do pop up all the time in our dreams and our unconscious actions ("wipe that smile off your face!"). They also arise in our strong reactions to people exhibiting these same qualities. If you find yourself hating the way she is 'showing off,' or loving the way he is 'acting cool,' chances are these are the very same issues you are grappling with unconsciously. Laughter is another strong emotion that can signal issues lurking beneath the surface, which is why "poo" is so funny when you're four and not so much when you're 40 (hopefully).
How do we come to grips with our shadow? Slowly, Slowly. Some of our shadow emerges naturally as we mature and face new situations, especially crises that manage to break through our defenses. Additional battering rams come in the form of family and friends, especially those bold enough to give voice to what they see—like little sisters and spurned lovers. While your shadow may be hidden to you, it can be glaringly obvious to those around you as in, "You seem angry." "No, I'm not!"
There are more intentional ways of outing your shadow self as well, such as therapy and personal growth practices like peer counseling. Yet one more reason why we like the Enneagram personality system is because it describes in detail the shadow dynamics for different personality types. Fortified with this information you can expand your self awareness and see your behavioral and thought patterns more clearly. Body centered healing modalities, including Family Systemic Constellation, are particularly powerful because they help us overcome our intellectual defenses to our darker side and integrate new understandings through our physical selves.
In our work we find that the unrecognized shadow can be a source of much distress and an obstacle to change. Key to working on the shadow is a person's willingness to look beneath the surface, but we only go there when we find permission. Not only is this the most respectful way to work with people, but it is only possible to work on the shadow with permission. This is why our advice in pursuing shadow work personally and professionally is Slowly, Slowly!
Integral theorist and author Ken Wilber has developed the 3-2-1 process for working with your shadow which entails describing it, talking with it, and finally embodying it. To learn more, read this short description, or watch this 9 minute video.
Try the 3-2-1 process for yourself. Think of someone who evokes strong emotions in you, someone you find impossible, despicable, or unbearable. (Alternatively you can think of someone for whom you have strong positive emotions and idolize.) Write down in detail a description of them using the third person voice ('He said …', 'She did …', etc.). Use all of your senses and be frank. After describing this person, have an imaginary dialog with him/her in writing or out loud. Tell him/her what you see and feel. The last step is to assume the role of the person and speak as if you are the shadow. Notice how it feels to inhabit the shadow. Repeat this as often as you like allowing insights to surface.
Beth and Eric
This monthly slow essay is from Beth Meredith & Eric Storm of Create The Good Life.
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