To recap: the shadow is everything inside of us that we have disowned, avoided and kept in the dark in order to gain the approval of our families, friends and wider society. (See previous article).
These natural instincts have been suppressed into our subconscious where they cause fear about doing the things we would like to do. Vulnerably leaning into these fears is what we call ‘shadow work’.
So why does the shadow really matter?
You might think, can’t I just leave it in there and get on with my life?
The answer is yes or no, depending on how you want your life to play out.
As we discovered yesterday, the shadow contains all the repressed aspects of yourself – held down by your fear – and uses your life force energy to keep them suppressed.
Your psyche doesn’t like this state of affairs at all.
Just like your body’s natural desire to heal, the unconscious mind is always looking for wholeness and to do this it pushes to get your attention to address the shadow aspects of yourself by doing one of two things.
Every part of our personality that we do not love will become hostile to us.
Suppression & Projection
Firstly, it suppresses your ability to feel (you go increasingly numb) and secondly it projects fear onto external objects, people and situations that mirror what you’ve suppressed, this is called projection.
In each case, the ego-mind and pure awareness mind illicit the same response but for very different reasons.
In the first case of numbness, your mind says “well this person doesn’t want to feel this aspect of their experience so I will shut it off.” The ego does this to protect you and the unconscious does it in the hope that you’ll recognise the loss of feeling and move to correct it.
In the second case of projection, your mind again says “this person doesn’t want to feel this, it must be a threat, so I will generate fear.” The ego does this again to protect you and the unconscious again does it in the hope you recognise it and lean into it.
These may seem like two unusual mind-body responses to have to wake you up to your shadow but that’s because our culture, particularly in the West, has developed two cardinal sins with respect to our emotional intelligence:
- We have elevated our thoughts over our feelings; and
- We are afraid of our feelings.
The impact of this on our personality is severe.
Instead of recognising our deepest fears as signposts to rescue parts of ourselves and become whole again, we rationalise them with our thoughts and push them further out of awareness.
Here’s an example:
Have you ever met an older adult, maybe your friend’s father, who has no felt-sense of the world? He talks about everything in a dry, anodyne, analytical way?
Everything in life is strategized out, a problem to be solved, and there is no scope for error, accident or vulnerable exposure to the great unknown. He won’t dance at a wedding, he would never sing in public and thinks poetry is for girls. He drinks alcohol to feel stimulated.
He might think this:
“I don’t dance, especially not at weddings. Only people that don’t care looking stupid in public do that and I’ve got too much respect for myself. I want to be taken seriously.”
This is an example of a man that has repressed his sensitivity, his willingness to throw himself into spontaneous action and also his appreciation of art. He can’t feel the true experience of feeling fully alive, and he looks to stimulants like alcohol to get excited about the moment he is in.
He might go as far to think that any other man that dances or likes poetry is “gay”. This is just a projection of his fears onto the outside world.
He should not be judged for it.
It’s likely these things were conditioned out of him at an early age, probably bullied out at school, and simply they are sat in his bag. Having been in the shadow for so long, the idea of bringing them out into the open is terrifying.
The longer this phenomenon goes on in our lives, into our 30s, 40s and 50s and onwards, the more fearful (projectionist) we become and the more numbness we experience. As Robert Bly said, “every part of our personality that we do not love will become hostile to us.”
This dynamic – what you might think of as the fossilization of the soul – is chronic and painfully common amongst many men born in the 1940s-1960s who through no fault of their own had to repress their sensitivity because of societal demands and cultural norms of the time.
The same dynamic also plays out in women, albeit in different ways.
Let’s use the same example above and this time the man’s wife.
She loves to dance at weddings, goes to poetry readings in the evening with her friends and sings with her daughter when they are in the car together. She beams kindness are care to those around her, loves to watch the birds in the garden and takes good care of her husband when he needs support. She is happy to let things play out in life without a plan, trust the universe to sort things out, as it always does.
Conversely, she’s hopeless with numbers, or more accurately to say, she believes she is. She hasn’t filed her own tax return in years and has no idea how their pension scheme pays the bills in retirement. She’s also never put up a shelf or wired an electrical socket because she believes she is not ‘practically-minded’. The husband takes care of all of these.
What she has done is put part of her intelligence and her practical senses in the bag.
She’s likely done this because when she was growing up in a male-dominated culture, it was not considered appropriate for women to sully themselves with manual labour.
They were also considered not bright enough to take care of finances.
Both of these are gross and completely erroneous reductions of the capabilities of any woman.
Now you see how this can play out individually, the dynamic gets complicated further still in relationships, particularly so in long-term ones and marriage.
Instead of peering into our shadow, what is most common is for people to look for partners that ‘fill in the gaps’ of their psyche. Instead of reclaiming the lost aspects of yourself, you project these onto your partner for them to fulfil. In the case above, the man has buried his sensitivity and marries a woman that does all the feeling for both of them. The woman has buried her intelligence and practicality, and marries a man that takes care of these for the both of them.
Both partners assume ‘roles’ that they then play out ad infinitum. The problem is that the psyche wants to be whole and integrated and the delegation of your power to your partner actually disempowers you on an unconscious level. This creates inner conflict, an imbalance in power in the relationship and is often the source of marital arguments and conflict.
“Get off my case about going out this weekend, I’m doing all the finances that you don’t even have a clue how to do. What would you do without me?”
“I can’t believe how insensitive you were to that waiter in the restaurant. Honestly, sometimes I feel like you don’t have any heart at all.”
Both of these are deeply wounding statements to the recipient.
is needed to reawaken self-respect, self-worth and ultimately self-love is for shadow work to take place.
It is to proceed deeply into the places that scare you, face and integrate your shadow, and transmute trapped life energy to make it available for life-affirming purposes.
In the next lesson we will start this work.
Exercise For The Day
To put this into practical terms, write down a list of five things that repulse you in society and in nature. Next, ask yourself, can you see these aspects inside of yourself? Can you comprehend doing/being them yourself?
Think about some of the repeating patterns, dramas or relationships in your life. What do you lose from these, and what do you gain from these?
Keep these close, you will be using them in the next lesson as you commence your shadow work..