Karuna Counseling’s Newsletter Articles

October 28, 2009

The Shadow: Misunderstood and Maligned Ally

shadow trees

by Metta Sweet Johnson Edge, MSW, LCSW

I’ve been afraid of the dark as long as I can remember.  As a child, even with my nightlight on and my sister sleeping in the room after I pleaded and bargained with her, letting go of the light of day and allowing the night to fall with its shadows was scary.  I know it didn’t help that when as a pre-teen I felt peer-pressured into watching a horror movie before I knew they even existed—how I managed to run home in the middle of the night after that still amazes me (it was only five houses down the street but it seemed like five miles).

It’s taken me a long time and a lot of in-depth personal work to realize that there is light in the dark.  That the dark is, in fact, rich with gold.  That the dark that I face in my own life is always the place to go to find what I need to move into the light.  I get it now, that night is a time of rest and replenishment—and sleep key to health.  That the night’s cloak of darkness can be comforting and cozy instead of threatening and scary.

But I have been a hard sell.

Ten years ago, I attended a conference by Omega Institute (eomega.org), an educational organization “dedicated to awakening the best in the human spirit.” In my enthusiasm for the weekend of seminars, I had pre-registered for an extra day-long workshop at the end of the weekend called Spiritual Partnership by Gary Zukov.  While I was participating that weekend, though, I noticed another workshop option called The Shadow.

Just the workshop name gave me a bit of a shudder: The Shadow.  Who would volunteer, much less pay good money, to spend all day talking about the dark side of human nature and the human experience?  Not me, I instantly insisted.  But in the next moment, I wondered if I should, in fact, attend it because I had been learning that going into “the places that scare you” was important to one’s healing and growth.  And wasn’t that what I was here to do and learn about helping others do as well?  Quickly, images of the workshop filled my mind with detailed accounts of people inflicting pain on one another.  Not to mention the horrors in the world and in our heads and hearts.   Another shudder.  Then relief washed over me as I recalled that I had already pre-registered for another workshop.  Surely it was too late to switch, I justified.

As I shuffled my handouts, brochures, and notebook into my bag and started to head back downstairs from my hotel room for another break-out session, I was stopped suddenly by a very strong statement coming from some part of me: “Metta, if you really want to know about healing and growth, go into the dark.”  I stood still.  Blinked.  Cringed.  But knew in some deeper place in me than my fear resides what I had to do: meet the Shadow—my Shadow.  Ugh.  As if I hadn’t already…well, we obviously hadn’t been formally introduced.

Going into the Dark to Discover the Light

That day was a pivotal point in my personal healing and growth and key to my becoming a therapist.  People most often come into therapy, as I did, in some kind of darkness: of uncertainty, pain, shame, confusion, betrayal, addiction, anxiety, depression, anger, fear, etc.  And they come searching for help out of the darkness.  Ironically, the key to getting out is going in.  But, this time, being in that dark consciously by processing and owning that very darkness.   By mining for the gold hidden there in that cave of darkness.  To then use the intensity and power of it to fuel one’s Light Shadow and truly transform one’s life experience.

By denying, dismissing, diminishing, or disowning one’s own “dark side,” one’s life simply becomes that much darker because those aspects of self won’t and can’t be denied.  They cannot not be.  Energy is energy—it cannot be created or destroyed as the first law of thermodynamics tells us.  Pretending and defending simply will not work.   In fact, it will just cause these denied aspects to come at you as “the way of the world” as Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung asserts.  In your family, your work, your relationships, your health, your world.

Just as your shadow follows your every step on a sunny day, your Shadow is an unconscious aspect of self that has loyally and lovingly walked behind you all of your life.   It was born with you for the purpose of picking up what you discard and drop along the journey of your life until you were ready in your adulthood to “pick up the pieces” of yourself again.  The negative pieces you dropped may have been because of family, friends, and cultural influences, shameful experiences, constricting beliefs, etc.  In addition, you may have dropped positive qualities for fearing that if you succeed too much you may be cut off, be seen as or become arrogant, or feel obligated to achieve.

Clearing Up Some Misunderstandings about The Shadow

My biggest misunderstanding about The Shadow was that it is scary.  That it is only horrific stuff that would lead to nightmares and negative self-talk.  That it is to be feared and avoided at all costs.  But the true cost of avoiding it is much scarier: 1) it puts me at risk of living an unconscious chaotic life where my shadow aspects comes “at me” in uncontrolled and unexpected ways and 2) that I live a life as only fractured adapted parts of who I am instead of an integrated whole.

In his book Working with Your Shadow, the metaphysical teacher Lazaris speaks about how there have been some key misunderstandings about The Shadow that can get in the way of truly owning one’s shadow.  In order to work to clear up these misunderstandings, the following truths are offered for consideration:

1.       The Shadow is Born with You
Your shadow is born when you are to collect and hold what you cannot about yourself.  It protects these aspects of you—your shame, greed, hostility, motivation, talent, creativity, until you can deal with it as an adult.  Then, it starts returning the negative, the “litter”, that you discarded so that you can clean it, glean its gifts, and dispose of it properly.  And the Shadow returns the treasures that you let go of so that you can now own and celebrate them.  Far from wanting to hurt you, like the monster that some fear it to be, your Shadow is there to help you to become integrated, whole, real and give you the possibility to become who you were meant to be.  To live the life you were born to live.

2.       Owning is Not Imprisonment
Instead of pushing them away, owning your shadow involves bringing the shadow aspects of you, dark and light, so close to you that you can feel the intensity of the emotion.  That firey burning of hostility, for example, so that you can then free its intensity in a direction of your conscious choice and in order to the energy for healing and growth (instead of pain and violence).  It’s about harnessing and then freeing with direction, not containing.

3.       Making Peace with Your Shadow Brings it Closer
While this is unappealing to many: “you mean my hostility/anger/selfishness etc. will be closer to the surface?”  Yes!  But the good is that by being there you can manage it.  Think about it: if it’s buried deep, it’s also out of your reach and unsupervised will ultimately pop up when you least expect it (often when you are are on the brink of some success).  So, yes, though counter-intuitive, you do want to bring your shadow aspects into full view so you can monitor, manage, and direct their energy in constructive ways.
Once you clear up your misunderstandings about The Shadow, you can begin the true work of owning Your Shadow.  And it’s worth your while because “your Shadow holds your ability to be free of the past, to be, with dignity, self-determined.  It contains your full capacity not just to be loved, but to love.”

Moths in Shadows instead of Butterflies in Sunshine

One final childhood story that comes to mind: I had collected caterpillars who lived in my room in a basket on my bookshelf.  One day, I noticed they were no longer there, but that fluffy gray cocoons had taken their place.  I learned that they were transforming into butterflies and I excitedly awaited the day they would be flying about my room beautiful in the sunlight coming through the windows.  One night, though, I was lying on my bed leaning back over the bed upside down as kids do sometimes, letting my head hang and my hair reach toward the floor.  As the blood rushed to my head, I noticed on the wall in front of me a huge gray moth just inches from my face.  I screamed and scrambled back up.  I then realized with an exasperated shudder that instead of butterflies in rays of sunshine, I got moths in shadows of night.

This was not only unexpected but disappointing and frightening.  Moths have been misunderstood and maligned in my mind since that day.  But they were a part of my story of darkness being full of the unexpected, ugly, and scary—a story that led me to a strong reaction against changing it.  That led me to realize that that’s just what I wanted and needed to do.  And I am grateful.

And I’ve tried to express that by being more open to the beauty and mystery of moths.  A few years ago, I became interested in the Luna Moth.  In early August this year as I was writing this article, I witnessed a Luna Moth doing a circular dying dance in pine straw in the moonlight outside my home.  I gently slid some straw out of the way, clearing her a path to ease her process if possible.  I was honored and saddened and struck that my disgust and fear of moths had transformed.  Turns out, too, that the Luna Moth is a symbol for spiritual transformation.

Turns out, too, that far from fearing and fleeing from this Shadow work, I’m drawn to and fly toward it.  And, as a result, have birthed powerful, creative change.  After all, as Julia Cameron points out in The Artist’s Way, “creativity—like human life itself—begins in darkness.”

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August 18, 2007

Using the Soaps to Explore Your Unconscious

Filed under: 2007 and earlier,Claire's Articles,Dreams & The Unconscious — karunacounseling @ 6:40 pm
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by Claire N. Scott, Ph.D.

Using soap operas (or movies or books) to learn about the contents of your unconscious mind is not as bizarre an idea as it first may sound. We all probably can appreciate the fact that certain characters or themes are timeless and ageless, like the seemingly eternal appeal of Superman, Tarzan stories, Romeo and Juliet, Cleopatra, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

If we stop to ask why the appeal, I think we may quickly arrive at the psychological theory of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung and his work on “archetypes.” An archetype can be thought of as a pervasive and enduring idea, character, pattern or theme, which appears universally across many cultures. It is often revealed in art, literature, stories, and myths … and in the popular culture in movies and soaps. Admittedly characters in soaps and movies may be a diluted version of an archetype — perhaps more like a stereotype than an archetype, but the underlying archetype is usually discernible. Some easily recognized archetypes are:

The hero

The martyr

The seductress

The maiden

The mentor

The student

The warrior

The witch or wizard

The hermit

The clown

The healer

The rebel

The villain

The monk (or nun)

The judge

Perhaps you can think of popular characters that capture the energy of these archetypes. One reason movies and books are so compelling is that they portray these archetypes in their various incarnations. Another reason is that archetypal energies live in each of us.

Jung believed that archetypes reside in our unconscious, and that events in our lives pull up or ‘activate’ archetypal energy. Archetypes help us know what to do – how to fight when being a warrior is called for, how to be a free spirit and indulge our wanderlust when that’s what’s calling us, how to put our own needs aside and help others when that’s what’s needed, how to be soft and caring, how to strike out on our own, how to get up and try again when we suffer defeat. Archetypes are also part of why most everyone tends to go through some predictable patterns in their lives, e.g., separation from parents, developing an individual identity, making our own way in the world, learning to meet and deal with challenges, forming relationships, parenting, going through losses, etc. In her book The Hero Within, Carol Pearson suggested that we need to progress through the energy of six different archetypes during our lives in order to be able to come into the “magician” archetype, usually thought of as being the most evolved and well-integrated of the archetypes. The six she explores in her book are the innocent, the orphan, the wanderer, the warrior, the martyr and the magician.

Here are some questions I came up with to help you explore a bit about your archetypal energies.

1. Who is your favorite soap or movie or book character? Describe what you like about him or her.

(If your first answer contains references to a body part, try again and dig a little deeper.)

Your answer to this question might be representative of where you are on your life’s journey and what is important to you at this stage – either in yourself or in others. For example, if your favorite character was chosen from a “romantic interest” perspective (someone you’re attracted to), you might have chosen that person because you would like to form a relationship right now. You might also ask yourself what partnering with a person like that would mean to you. Would you then be complete, cool, important, cherished, safe? The answer to that question might speak to what’s missing in your life, or in you – what your unmet needs are or what you’d like to grow in yourself.

If, to give another example, the character is just entertaining or different, perhaps you need more fun in your life, or perhaps your life feels boring or lackluster to you. Could you need to develop the part of yourself that is able to play and enjoy life? Ask yourself what it is about that energy that appeals to you.

2. What character would you most like to be like? Why?

This question is particularly important because it speaks to what Jung called one’s ‘bright shadow.’ The person you chose is likely to be a manifestation of potential in yourself that you may not have recognized yet. If the characteristics were not in you in some form, you could not appreciate them in the character. The attributes you admire could represent some undeveloped aspect of yourself which you could develop over time.

3. Answering as honestly as you can, what character do you think you are the most like? How are you similar to, and different from, that character?

If your answers to 2 and 3 are the same, then you are ahead of the game. You are as you would like to be right now in your life. If your answers are different, then take a good look at this one. Is it okay with you to be like you are for now? Do you think you are in an understandable place for your age and stage of life? What do you like about being as you are? What would you like to change? Perhaps the #2 character is what you are hoping to grow into. Remember that life is a journey. You won’t always be as you are now. You can and will change.

4. Which character do you like least? Why?

There are two possible ways to interpret your answer to this question. One is from a values perspective, and the other is from a ‘dark shadow’ perspective.

The values perspective goes like this: This character may have offended some deeply held value of yours. For example, if you chose someone who is dishonest and deceitful, your dislike may be simply because those qualities are so abhorrent to you. If this is the case, you can use your reaction to gain insight into what your values are. It may also be worthwhile to examine the ‘dark shadow’ perspective. It could shed additional light on the matter.

The ‘dark shadow’ perspective goes like this: this character may strike a dissonant chord because it is similar to an unattractive part of you that you are not able to see in yourself. You may recall my mentioning the ‘bright shadow’ as our undeveloped potential. The ‘dark shadow’ is our unknown, unowned, and unacknowledged negative side. When we are not aware of our shadow side, bright or dark, we are likely to project it onto others and see the characteristics in them but not in ourselves. In dealing with our dark shadow projection, it takes courage and introspection to realize we actually may be somewhat like the character or person we dislike. You probably have noticed this ability to not see oneself clearly in other people. You may have heard someone complain about another person, and you think to yourself, you’re the one that’s like that, not them.

A clue that a dark shadow projection may be going on is the intensity with which you dislike the character. The more intense your reaction, the more likely you are dealing with your own unconscious material. A caution: this information is not meant to induce shame. It is meant as information to help you take a deeper look at yourself. Remember, that which is unconscious has more power over us. The more we can bring the unconscious to consciousness, the more power we can exert over it.

Interest in archetypes has been around for a long time, but it seems to have come into popular vogue again with Caroline Myss’s book Sacred Contracts, published in 2001. She devoted an entire book to discovering the archetypes active within you, and gives some excellent strategies for exploring how those archetypes work for, and sometimes against, you. If you are interested in this topic, I recommend that book. Be prepared to spend some serious and intense time journaling and talking to yourself.

Another useful book for therapists and clients alike is Rent Two Films and Let’s Talk in the Morning by Jan and John Hesley. It was published in 1998 so some films are a bit dated, but others, like It’s A Wonderful Life, have become classics. In addition to archetypal characters, films can be useful in depicting modern versions of archetypal themes or journeys. Castaway, for example, is a wonderful ‘rite of passage’ film. For an excellent exploration of that film, see Saying Yes to Change: Essential Wisdom for your Journey by Joan Borysenko and Gordon Dveirin.

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