We present to the world the parts of ourselves we wish to be known by, the parts we are conscious of and comfortable with. This is our psychological clothing, and it is how we wish to be seen by the world. But we are also made up of our shadow, which contains the parts of us that we have cut off, repressed or denied. The parts that we have at some point decided we do not want to be known by. Continue Reading
So, as we’ve civilised ourselves, or as we’ve been civilised by our parents. families and culture, we have decided to live out part of ourselves, and refused other parts. We’ve divided ourselves into our acceptable selves, and our shadow selves. Continue Reading
Many of us begin to have the nagging sense at some point in our lives that something is missing, that we’re not fully alive. Even if we have ticked all the boxes for ‘happy’, whatever that may mean to us, we can still find that life exists in a variety of different shades of grey, rather than in the glorious technicolour of our childhood. Continue Reading
Welcome to this Shadow Work blog
This blog contains articles discussing all things relating to the human shadow and the Shadow Work process. Continue Reading
How do I know what I’m feeling?
There is a wealth of evidence available which suggests that our whole bodies themselves are sense organs which communicate with us, often on an unconscious level, about our feelings. We get information about our emotions via our bodies. Similar to the way that we get visual information through our eyes, or auditory information via our ears. Our bodies tell us about our emotional reaction to situations, and they tell us things our eyes, ears and brains can’t. So although we may not be consciously aware if it most of the time, our emotions are felt via the body. This is most obvious when we are in extreme emotion – we may shake with fear, tremble with rage or convulse with grief. If you’re feeling that there is something wrong, then there is something wrong. The evidence is there in your body, and our bodies have a wisdom that is different to intellectual thought.
Your emotions matter, what you’re feeling matters. In fact it matters more than anything else. If you are able to listen to this information from your body then your feelings can guide you towards a fuller expression of who you are and towards healing and wholeness. Your feelings are not your imagination, they are real – you know this because you can feel them. It can be helpful to practice tuning in to your body when you are feeling something and notice where it lives and the sensations that are present. This is your truth. If you can come to trust this then it will serve you well. The first step is to believe that what you’re feeling matters – then you can allow this to be your guide.
Why do we minimise our feelings?
Many of us have developed the habit of dismissing what we’re feeling because we think that maybe it’s ‘just us’. We fear that it may be ‘in our head’, and may not be ‘real’. We think it may be ‘silly’ or ‘irrational’ and we might say things to ourselves like:
‘Maybe it’s just my imagination.’
‘I’d better not say anything.’
‘I don’t want to rock the boat.’
‘I don’t want to make a problem where there isn’t one.’
‘I shouldn’t be feeling like this.’
‘It doesn’t matter what I’m feeling.’
‘It’s not grown up or rational to feel like this.’
But sometimes I get upset for no reason!
Ok. Now what you are feeling is real, it matters and is important. But this doesn’t mean that what you are feeling is always related directly to what is happening around you right now – and that’s ok. That’s how human beings work. It’s not a reason to dismiss your feeling. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know why you’re feeling it – it is real and there is a reason.
What you’re feeling may relate directly to what is happening around you, or it may relate to an experience you’ve had in the past – where the emotion is still unprocessed and living in your body. Many of us carry intense fear, grief or rage from childhood experiences that we found intolerable. We had no one to go to who would listen to this pain and comfort us, so these feelings continue to live inside us, looking for an opportunity to be expressed and understood.
Whether what you are feeling is related to what is happening now or to the past, you are really feeling this – the feeling is real, and responding to it offers a way forward – either by reacting directly and appropriately to what is happening around you, or by sharing what you are feeling with someone else so that it can be supported and understood. You may choose to explore and release the emotion of past experiences in a safe place, with a therapist or in workshop, so that you no longer have to carry this.
Is it fair on those around me?
Many of us try to be very careful not to hurt others by expressing powerful emotions that we are experiencing. However, if you’re with someone else and you don’t want to ‘infect’ them with what you’re feeling, or you don’t want to ‘spoil their day’ – then sorry, but it’s actually too late. We are all very sensitive beings and that person will pick up on what you’re feeling even if you don’t share it with them. You are in relationship of some kind with that person, and what you are feeling will affect things between the two of you, whether you want it to or not. You can decide to take yourself off and be alone, but this too, of course, will have an impact on the other person. So trying to pretend we’re not feeling what we’re feeling is not a very helpful strategy. Another person can be left very confused if they sense strong emotion in us that is not being expressed.
So how then can we allow ourselves to have our feelings without acting out and hurting those around us? Firstly it is helpful is to get to know ourselves well enough to have a good sense of what might be emanating from us and what we might be picking up on from others – although this exploration will probably never be complete. It’s also helpful to have a language with which to share our thoughts and experience of what’s going on – this could be sharing it with ourself in a journal or self reflective process of some kind, or it could be sharing it with the other person involved in the situation.
In Shadow Work, and many psychological traditions, we believe that the world we see around us can be thought of as reflecting our inner world – the world we carry within us. One way of saying this is that we project our inner world on to the outer world. This is particularly troublesome when we are projecting out parts of our inner world that we do not like or find hard to accept. We project these on to others and then we don’t like what we see! Projection can be very powerful and persuasive – we can sometimes be totally convinced of a person’s motives or intentions, when actually this is not what is going on for them at all. We become upset and react strongly, not realising that what we see is just a reflection of something living inside ourselves.Help! How can I know what is ‘real’?
We can find out about ourselves by interacting with the outside world and checking out the veracity of our thoughts – our projections. The outside world is a place we can grab hold of and interact with to help us get clear on what is ‘real’ and this will give us some solid ground to move forward from. But we don’t need to check the veracity of our feelings, our feelings are always real. They exist physically in our bodies. So in this way they are one of the few things we can absolutely trust. They are our feelings, but they are rarely ‘nothing to do with anyone else’. They are often intimately connected with another, and working with that person to understand what is going on is often the most effective way to gain insight and find out the ‘truth’ and move forward. We can find out if what we are feeling fits with what is going on for them, or if it is something we are projecting on to them and the situation.
But I don’t understand!
We work a lot with paradox when we’re exploring the shadow – we explore situations where two opposing ideas both appear to be true. A willingness to accept paradoxes is important if we are to interact with the world as it really is, rather than forcing it in to a box for the sake of having a sense that we know what’s going on! For example, in the world of physics there are some well known paradoxes, such as wave particle duality, where light appears to behave as both a wave and a particle in different situations. No scientist can explain this or would claim to have a full solution. The same is true in the area of spirituality and personal development – we come across many paradoxes. This seems to be the nature of the Universe. We have to move forward accepting the existence of paradoxes otherwise we can get stuck.
In terms of our experience of the world we have two theories (at least) that both seem to have validity. One is that we create our own reality and that everything we experience in the world emanates from our own psyche projected out on to the world. The other is that there are other people out there with their own physical, emotional and spiritual lives whos behaviours can affect us and cause a reaction. It is helpful for us not to spend too much time wondering which of these is ‘The Truth’, but to move forward we have to work with this paradox and to hold the possibility of either of these interpretations being ‘true’. That way we can explore the world as we experience it.
If we find out our feeling is a response to something in the outside world we can take the appropriate action and respond to this feeling in a way that serves us. If we’re angry we can set a boundary, speak up, stand up for ourselves, if we’re afraid we can protect ourselves in whatever way is appropriate, if we’re sad we can nurture ourself and give ourself time to grieve and share our feelings, and so on. If we follow this feeling we don’t know where it will take us, but we will be following our healthy growth impulses and moving forward in our life and our relationships guided by the wisdom of our feelings.
If we find our reaction is not relevant or proportionate to what is going on around us we can explore where it comes from and start to understand more about our own inner world and our woundings. We can begin to heal past trauma. We can share our feelings with those close to us and they can come to understand us better and to know our reactions and where they stem from, so we stand to be better understood and cared for.
So wherever our feelings stem from there is potential for healthy growth and healing – if we can have the courage to trust and listen to these feelings and take action.How do we act on our feelings when we’re not sure where they stem from?
We can do this in many ways, although it is good to be as clean and clear in our communication as possible otherwise we may just add further confusion. It is important to let the other person know what we are feeling in a way that doesn’t assume it is related to them and doesn’t blame them for our feelings – yet that also allows space for the possibility our feelings may be related to what is going on for them. One set of guidelines for communicating clearly in this way is described by the Shadow Work Authentic Communication model.
Imagine coming home after a long day at work and our partner says ‘You’re home rather late.’ We might feel frightened and think that they are judging us, we might fear something is wrong – it may remind us of the past when we had a very critical parent and it seemed we could never do anything right. We may feel defensive. However the truth is that this could actually have been a simple statement of fact on our partner’s behalf. They may even be pleased that we were home late, since they got to, for example, finish off an important work project undisturbed. We simply don’t know. But we do know what we feel in our body – fear and a defensive anger. We can then look at the thoughts that have caused these feelings. The thoughts behind them might be ‘I’m being told off, maybe I’ve done something wrong. It’s not fair – I should be able to come and go as I please.’ We can either say nothing as we’re concerned this is just ‘our stuff’ and not necessarily to do with the other person, or we can share it with them, trusting that this is the best way forward. This can take some skill to develop. To read about ways of doing this please take a look at the following links.
If we have a powerful sense, for example of being belittled, unwanted, rejected, criticised or unloved, and on checking this out with those around us we find out that this doesn’t fit with their reality, then we may want to look at what’s going on in our inner world, and why we are creating this sense for ourselves when it isn’t actually ‘true’.
Some spiritual traditions would say ‘You create your own reality. There are no limits. You can have whatever you want.’ But in Shadow Work we would say ‘You create your own reality. You can have whatever you believe is possible.’ Which is quite a different statement. This clearly does have limits, based on what our inner world looks like.
If you think this sounds like a catch 22 then you’re right! Somehow we have to change our inner world – but how do we do that when we are always seeing our inner world projected everywhere – does this mean there is no chance for us to have a different experience?
One way of looking at it is that although our outer landscape reflects our inner world it is not an exact reflection, otherwise there would be no possibility for change. We can start the process of change by changing our inner landscape, or we can start by working on changing our outer landscape which, in turn, will reflect something new back to us which then becomes embedded into our inner landscape.
In Shadow Work we work with the deep wiring of our inner world. We explore the old patterns that are causing us difficulty, and we then go about changing these patterns and introducing a new experience. This is absorbed into your being on every level – through head, heart and hand so that it becomes real in your inner world. Once this is in place you will believe it is possible – because you have experienced it. You will then automatically attract this in to your life. There is no ‘trying’ to be different. Or ‘trying’ to think positively. You simply are different, and you think and feel differently about this issue.
People look to many different things to bring them joy – money, status, a beautiful place to live, the perfect partner, children, friends…. . However there is also generally a sense that a person’s way of being – who or how they are – has a greater influence on their happiness than the people or things around them. Many of us strive to find this joy inside ourselves, and equally we hope that those we love will experience this kind of joy and we want to support them in finding this for themselves – but how do we find this? In working towards joy being positive about ourselves and our lives sounds like a logical starting point and is encouraged by many different ideologies and schools of thought – surely choosing to think positive thoughts is going to bring us closer to joy….isn’t it? This article discusses why this isn’t necessarily the case, and how positivity can actually move us further away from experiencing the deep and lasting joy for which we are searching.
A core belief that I hold when working with the shadow is that true joy comes from knowing, accepting, loving and blessing all parts of ourselves. This means knowing and accepting the parts of us that are in deep grief, or filled with rage, frightened, hesitant, hateful or full of shame or guilt. It means welcoming these parts of ourselves in to our sacred realm and tenderly caring for them and listening to their needs and the powerful emotions that they carry. As we come to know and accept more and more of ourselves we find we are more able to sit back, relaxed in our own skin, knowing there is nothing in us that we fear, nothing we need to hide. Sitting in this place colours all our life experiences. It gives us a deep confidence whatever is happening around us and allows joy to arise even in the midst of life’s most difficult challenges. We lead ourselves through life from a foundation of joy. Throughout our life we can find joy bubbling up from this place in us, unforced and unbidden. When it comes there is no reaching, no trying, joy simply flows.
On the other hand a rigid insistence on positivity at all times, constantly striving for only the ‘positive’, requires a denial or repression of the ‘negative’ ‘unwanted’ aspects of ourselves – a pushing away or hiding of these unwelcome parts. This can be in complete opposition to the process of self acceptance described above. Other people can unwittingly encourage this in us through the espousing of certain oversimplified spiritual beliefs and practices and also through platitudes and well known phrases such as…..
♦ Can’t you just be happy? ♦ No one likes someone who’s angry all the time. ♦ You create more of what you focus on. ♦ What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. ♦ It’s all happening for a reason. ♦ Time heals. ♦ If you can’t think of anything nice to say don’t say anything at all. ♦ Cheer up – it might never happen. ♦ There’s no point in being sad. ♦ You look much prettier when you smile. ♦ Man up. ♦ Boys don’t cry. ♦ You have to be strong. ♦ I’m sure he/she loves you really. ♦ Can’t you just be more flexible? ♦ Just go with the flow. ♦ It will all look better in the morning. ♦ Life doesn’t give you things you can’t handle. ♦hYou’ve been through worse. ♦ Think about it from his/her point of view. ♦ I can’t believe they really meant to do that. ♦ That’s not a very constructive thing to say. ♦ You have to forgive or it will eat you up. ♦ You’re the only person who suffers if you hold on to this anger. ♦ You’re being very negative. ♦ Negative emotions give you cancer.On top of the pain you are already experiencing you are now experiencing the pain of not being allowed to be yourself. Of being told your feelings are inappropriate, invalid. You now carry the shame of being ‘wrong’ somehow in the way you are dealing with your upset, and the guilt of upsetting others with your ‘negative’, ‘unhelpful’ responses.
However the people who make these comments aren’t intending to be cruel. They are simply sharing their own manual for living life. They have no experience of emotions being helpful in anyway. They just don’t see the point in them. The problem here is that the value of emotions isn’t something that can be explained intellectually – it has to be experienced. The invitation ‘Why not just be happy?’ is hard to argue with – it certainly sounds like a very good idea! Why would you take the risk of experiencing these painful emotions if you have no prior experience of what is to be gained by allowing them?
Yet unfortunately these phrases that sound so benign, even caring, are subtly (or not so subtly) asking the person to move away from what they are feeling in that moment and suggesting that it is not ok or welcome for them to be experiencing this. How can we possibly feel joy if we are getting the message that parts of us are unacceptable and we have to keep them hidden? We are being told to hide our distress away, and in doing we lose the opportunity of ever finding the comfort and support which could bring us relief. Resigning ourselves to this can create inner despair and hopelessness. Relentless positivity requires a deadness to our true selves, a repression of the emotions that are our very life force. Our smile – although beautiful, will have a hollowness behind it, and we will regularly need to find a place to hide, since being around others in this way is exhausting and impossible to sustain. Behind this lovely smile which others may enjoy and encourage an ugly battle is going on, where parts of us are being banished, gagged, strangled and silenced. This is very painful for our true self. A dream that many people have described having is one where they become aware they have killed someone and they are trying to hide the body. One interpretation of such a dream is that we have killed a part of ourselves and we are trying to keep it hidden. In our waking life we may develop the sense of wearing a mask and yet not really understand where this feeling comes from, as hiding our true selves has become second nature and we are no longer consciously aware we are doing it.
An insistence on positivity comes from a place of fear
It is important to recognise here that relentless positivity comes from a place of fear – fear of powerful emotions and the energy they contain. There can, of course, be validity in this fear – emotions can certainly be overwhelming, even damaging if they are not held and met effectively. However the insistence on positivity needs to be recognised for what it is – a negative response to intense emotions, driven by fear. It is a running away from what is true and alive because it threatens to overwhelm us and there is no one around us who can help us to contain it. It is a coping strategy for dealing with aspects of ourselves that we believe are not loved or welcome. It is a contorted, desperate straining for the light because we do not know how to be with the darkness.
The challenges and gifts in accepting ourselves
It takes a brave parent to raise a child and to welcome all their emotions. It takes a brave person to be in a relationship where all emotions are welcome. Yet the riches of such a way of life are profound, and the vitality and joy that naturally flow from this far outshine the fragile ‘light’ of positivity and the brittle unsustainable nature of such an outlook.
If you try, yet struggle, to be positive in your life it may be that this way of handling emotions was a coping mechanism that served you well as you were growing up, or got you through a particularly challenging time in your life, but perhaps now you are outgrowing it. When you reach a point where life is safe enough you may wish to weigh up the risks of exploring these ‘negative’ sides of yourself and to see if you want to take the challenge of exploring these hidden thoughts and feelings. This opens up the possibility of discovering the joy that can be released along with the grief and the pain.
The fact that joy comes from accepting the ‘negative’ parts of ourselves is one of the many paradoxes that we work with in Shadow Work. This is why arguments such as ‘You create what more of what you focus on’ along with other statements listed above, whilst having some validity in some situations, simply don’t express the complex way in which human beings work.
In Shadow Work we believe that the Sovereign part of us is the place where this self love lies and there is a link to further information about this Sovereign part of us at the end of this article. If we do not love ourselves we cannot possibly fully love another. Not because we do not want to, but because it is impossible to offer someone something that we are not capable of giving to ourselves. If we cannot accept our own places of shame/weakness/anger/ hatred/grief/fear we cannot accept these in another. And if we don’t accept these parts of someone else then we are not fully loving them. Our love is conditional and shallow and the other person will sense our judgement and feel pain at having these parts of themselves denied.
We can sometimes push other’s feeling away totally instinctively without realising we’re doing it, or it may be because we just don’t know what else to say. Sometimes we simply can’t bear to sit and witness someone else’s pain and we may find ourselves offering them one of the platitudes above in the hope that we can move swiftly away from such difficult thoughts and feelings. If you’d like to try a different way of being with people who are experiencing ‘negative’ emotions one place to start is simply to show that you are comfortable with the place they are in and willing to allow it. If someone is telling you about something painful that’s going on you can try simply saying ‘That sounds really upsetting.’ Or ‘I can see why that would make you really angry.’ Or ‘I’m so sorry that happened.’ or ‘You really can’t see any good in life at the moment can you?’ Try to show them as best you can that you get what they’re experiencing in this moment, and you have no need for them to be feeling anything different. It is tremendously powerful just to let another person know you are willing to be with their ‘negative’ emotions. That you don’t fear these and don’t feel the need to push them away. But of course, the most important place to start practicing this acceptance and allowing is with yourself – and this is the biggest challenge of all – and for most of us a life long journey.
For further information about Shadow Work and the support available please visit: ShiatsuAndShadowWorkBristol.co.uk
Our Need For Connection
In Shadow Work the ‘Lover’ archetype is representative of our need for connection. We believe the need to connect – to bond with other human beings, with ourselves, with nature and with spirit – is the most fundamental and the most powerful drive we have as human beings. There are well documented examples that demonstrate that humans and many other mammals place connection above food and physical wellbeing – sometimes even above their own survival. George Monbiot discusses this in a recent article in the Guardian where he gives the following examples:
‘Experiments summarised in the journal of Physiology & Behaviour last month suggest that, given a choice of physical pain or isolation, social mammals will choose the former. Capuchin monkeys starved of both food and contact for 22 hours will rejoin their companions before eating. Children who experience emotional neglect, according to some findings, suffer worse mental health consequences than children suffering both emotional neglect and physical abuse: hideous as it is, violence involves attention and contact. Self-harm is often used as an attempt to alleviate distress: another indication that physical pain is not as bad as emotional pain. As the prison system knows only too well, one of the most effective forms of torture is solitary confinement.’
If we look to our history then we see that the way we lived for over 99% of our time on this planet was as hunter gatherers. We lived in small close groups, working together and celebrating together, sharing food together and sharing our grief together. We were rarely alone. We also had a powerful connection to the land and to nature. Many tribes are found to have had in depth rituals for processing grief, and this is very relevant here. If we do not grieve fully for the connections we have lost we are not emotionally free to go on to form new connections. We continue to have a painful bond to those we have lost which takes up all our energy and stops us from openheartedly re-connecting with the world. Living in our society today, where such powerful emotions are given little space, many of us find ourselves living with unresolved grief and carrying around painful connections.
I would like to talk more here about this tendency we have to hold on to painful connections, even when they are clearly destructive and bring us no apparent benefit. In Shadow Work, as in many other personal growth/spiritual belief systems, we believe that we are love. We don’t have any choice, this is our natural state of being. As children we are hard wired to love and connect to those around us, and we do this even when these connections are painful or when we are being treated harshly. We don’t love less in such situations, we love painfully. I remember being taught in my training as a relationship counsellor that there is no stronger connection between two people than a complete cut off. If we are cutting someone out of our lives we are remaining powerfully tied to them by our strength of our feeling and by the amount of energy we are using to keep them out. We can’t escape our connection with them simply by decicing to cut them off. There is far more to ending a relationship than that.
If we lose someone painfully – through a sudden or traumatic death, through suicide, through a painful divorce, if someone cuts us off, or if we lose a parent or loved one with whom we had a difficult relationship – whatever the loss, if we lose someone painfully then we may take on a painful way of remembering them and staying connected. Unconsciously we will choose to do this rather than to lose the connection altogether. If you are carrying a painful dynamic around in your life that you find you are not able to shift it is worth considering that this might be something you are carrying as a way of staying connected to someone or something you have lost. If this is the case it is unlikely you will be able to change this dynamic until the original painful feelings have been resolved. Then a new and more joyful way to stay connected can be found.
Some examples of painful connections may be:
– a daughter has been beaten by her father during childhood and he then leaves the family when she is 15 and she never sees him again. She goes on to have relationships with physically abusive men and is unable to change this pattern despite years of therapy.
– A son is told by his mother that he is her special one and makes her happy and he belongs only to her. She dies tragically when he is 10 and he finds in adult life that he is unable to form any long term relationships.
– A young boy sent to boarding school and losing the precious connection with his mother may be told by her to ‘Work hard and be brave.’ He may then take this on as his way of staying connected to her. He may spend the rest of his life working hard and trying to be brave as a way of staying connected with her, even at the expense of his relationships and his happiness in adult life. So a man who doesn’t cry when his mother dies, and who can’t stay on after the funeral because of work commitments may not look very loving to us, yet in fact he may be deeply loving, by maintaining this connection he has with his mother via his bravery and hard work.
The Path To Loving Joyfully
There are many other examples I could list of ways we love painfully, we are endlessly creative in the ways we use to stay connected. Without the opportunity to really feel these losses we won’t be able to let go of the painful connection and we may carry this around with us for the rest of our lives. We may not think of ourselves as a loving person, but actually we are loving very powerfully by carrying this painful dynamic. In Shadow Work we have a way of supporting people to let go of the painful connection they are carrying and to lovingly return this to the person for whom they carry it. We then support them in finding a more joyful way to stay connected to this person, so that they can continue to carry that person with them in some form, in a healthy and loving way. They are then free to go on and make new loving and joyful connections in their lives.
The Effects Of A Lack Of Connection
Continuing on from the George Monbiot quote above here are some more examples of the strength of our need to connect and the devastation we experience when this desire is thwarted:
– Well documented experiences in orphanages show that despite having adequate food and water and having all other physical needs met, babies fail to thrive and many even die if they do not have regular physical contact.
– In this talk Gabor Mate a medical doctor, describes his findings showing that much illness, physical and emotional, stems from unaddressed childhood loss and lack of connection.
– In this poem London-based actor and poet Elliot Barnes-Worrel shares his experience of men’s struggles with connection and their inability to feel their grief.It seems strange to have to search for quotes and articles to explain the power of our need for connection – yet it feels so important to find ways to acknowledge this longing in us and to work to restore it to its true place in our lives. I find myself in need of reminders that I am human – therefore the single most important thing to me is connection. It is as if this is something we all know and yet don’t know – or at least don’t acknowledge. Many of those who society does not reward, – impoverished artists, struggling single parents, carers, people going through emotional breakdown or spiritual crisis, addicts, those choosing to live in community or close to the land – may be valuing their connections/feelings and creativity above ‘practical, survival’ matters – and who is to say they have made better or worse decisions than the wealthy, successful much admired man or woman who goes home to an empty house at the end of the day and who may have compromised or sacrificed relationships and friendships and their connection to the earth and to their body to get to where they are? It seems that living deeply connected lives and experiencing ‘success’ in this society do not sit well together. Everything in our culture suggests connection should not be our priority. We should be independent, strong, successful, capable, or there is something ‘wrong’ with us – we might even be packed off to see a therapist or life coach to sort out this ‘problem’. Yet as Jiddu Krishnamurti says:
‘It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’
In Shadow Work we explore the different parts of the person that make up the whole. We all have many different parts each with a different point of view, different ideas about our life and different feelings. Some of them carry very strong emotion. For example many of us have a part that can push on through and get things done when necessary, most of us also have a part that loves to laze around and do nothing! We may have a part that enjoys socialising and another part of us that loves solitude, or a part of us that is very confident and another part that is really quite shy, or a very sad part that comes out sometimes and a very angry part that comes out at other times. Everyone is different and all the parts are unique and have their own flavour and character. In Shadow Work one of our aims is to get all of these different parts working together. They are all a necessary part of the whole and when all our different parts work together towards the same goal life can feel much more harmonious and have a greater sense of flow.However, doing this work we sometimes find a part of us that seems to be completely destructive. It criticises us harshly and frightens us with ideas of judgement and punishment. It seems to not want any good for us, destroying our confidence and taking away our joy. In shadow Work we call these parts ‘Predator’ parts. They seem to stalk us and want to destroy us. They are very clever and very powerful and often beyond our control to reign in. It can be extremely hard to practice self love, self care and compassion when a part like this is holding a powerful position inside us.
The Qualities of the Inner PredatorIf things feel particularly tangled, knotty and stuck for you, and attempts to move forward in your life are just not working it may be that there is a predator part of you at play. Some people experience this as a critical voice constantly telling them negative or frightening things. Other people experience it as a dark cloud just behind them or to the side – there are many different forms it can take, but it is always a frightening, anxiety provoking part of us and it is very hard to argue with or shake off. It can be very cruel to a small vulnerable part of us, preying on our weakness. This can sometimes mirror a situation from our early life experience where we were treated cruelly in some way by someone who had power over us. That cruelty now seems to be living inside us. We instinctively want to get away from this side of ourselves, and sometimes we can feel very ashamed and not want any one else to see it. Often this part can want to be cruel to others in the same way it is cruel to us. These are all qualities of a ‘Predator’ part. We may feel frightened to have such a side to us – something so cruel and destructive, we may be very scared of letting it out of the bag. What might it do if we let it run wild? – our instinct is to keep it down. Here we are facing one of the key paradoxes in Shadow Work. Experience shows that when we try to hide away a part of ourselves it just doesn’t work in the long term. We use so much energy to try to hide it, or run away from it that we create a huge amount of tension – and in the end it just comes bursting out anyway – it’s a bit like trying to hold a beachball under water. But when it pops out we immediately hide it away again, we don’t want to look at it, we don’t want to draw attention to it. Surely that will just give it more power and more of a hold over us…… So what can we do?
Embracing the Inner PredatorIt turns out that relegating a part of us to the shadows actually ends up giving it MORE power over us. This is the paradox – hiding or running from parts of ourselves we don’t like actually allows them to grow bigger and more powerful rather than getting rid of them. If we send it in to our unconscious we have no control over it and it can then cause even more havoc, running the show from behind the scenes. It turns out that the way to take control of a such a part of us is to turn and face it. To speak directly to it and to find out what’s in there. This can bring up a lot of fear, and is best done in a therapeutic space with the support of someone who is used to working with the shadow. If we deliberately allow out this side of ourselves and get to meet it – in a space where it can do no harm and there will be no real world consequences, then we can take the power back. We can take back control by fully owning this as a part of us and then we can get to know and understand it. Once we’ve built a relationship with this part we can harness its power and begin to use it in effective rather than destructive ways.
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The Predator is associated with the Magician Archetype in Shadow Work. To watch a talk about the Magician Archetype follow this link:
Our shadow, by it’s very nature, is out of our sight. Either it is completely unconscious or it is right out on the periphery of our consciousness. The shadow consists of parts of us we have hidden away and are trying hard not to see. One way of thinking of this is to imagine that we have a bag which we drag along behind us, and in this bag we have hidden away all the parts of ourselves that we don’t want to show to the world – the parts we have cut off, repressed or denied. This bag forms our shadow. We can’t see it, and we hope against hope that others can’t see it either.
So when we want to explore our shadow side we have a problem – although we may have an uncomfortable feeling that something is hiding there in the shadows, we have no direct way of knowing what it is. At some point in our lives we have hidden it from ourselves. This article offers ways you can explore what might be in shadow for you. Since we can’t see our shadows directly, some detective work is required. Below I describe five ways that we can use to help us spot our shadows:
What we judge in others
Firstly we can look at what we really judge in other people – the qualities that really irritate, annoy, or enrage us. Take the example of anger – If, as a child, I have been told I mustn’t be angry, or I have learnt that anger is dangerous or hurtful, then I may have decided to put my anger in to shadow. I tossed it away over my shoulder in to my shadow bag, out of sight to me and out of sight to others. I tried to pretend I didn’t have anger. Now, one way of looking at this is that when we toss the anger away over our shoulder we can miss the bag altogether – instead, the anger travels all the way around the world and shows up in the person in front of us! This is the idea of projection. We are disowning anger in ourselves and projecting it on to the people around us, where we judge it strongly. It really grates with us when they allow their anger to be expressed – that just seems so wrong! We want to squash it down in them in the same way we squashed it down in ourselves many years ago. Please note, when you have this response it doesn’t mean the person in front of you isn’t an ‘over the top’ angry person, they may well be, it just means that it will really bother you in a way that it may not bother others who might be able to hold it more lightly.
In Shadow Work we believe that the healthy clean expression of anger can be helpful to us, and if we don’t have access to our anger we can encounter all sorts of problems in getting along in life. So if we notice ourselves judging angry people it doesn’t mean we need to start behaving in extremely aggressive or hostile ways, it just means we may want to look at our own connection with our healthy anger:
Have I disowned my anger?….
Are there times when it might be helpful for me to express my anger?
What’s it like to say to yourself
‘I get angry sometimes’?
This could be a first step in re-claiming this part of yourself.
Similarly with other qualities, such as selfishness for example. If we judge selfishness in others what might we be disowning in ourselves? It’s possible that you may have thrown other things away in to the bag – by mistake as it were – along with your selfishness. Putting yourself first, believing you are important, and having a sense of self worth are all sides of selfishness that you might find missing in your life, that might be a good thing. So you can ask yourself:
Am I losing something by denying my selfishness?…
Are there times when it would be helpful to be able to put myself first, or to have a sense of my needs being important?…
What is the kernel of gold that I may have thrown away along with my selfishness?…
What’s it like to say to yourself:
‘I like to put myself first sometimes.’?
The invitation here is to unpick things in this way. Notice something you really judge in others. Ask yourself if you have cut off that part of yourself and ask yourself if there is anything of value here that you might like to reclaim.
What we admire in others
The flip side of looking at qualities we really judge in others is to look at the qualities we really admire in other people. Sometimes this is known as the golden shadow. Let’s take the example of confidence. We may really admire people who have confidence, who can speak up in public, act or sing, or take on a challenging role at work. In our childhood we may have got the message that we were annoying or a nuisance if we spoke up, or we may have been told our gifts didn’t amount to much. We may have been told we were too big for our boots or too bossy. One way or another we may have got the message that it wasn’t ok to be bright and to shine. We put our confidence in to shadow in order to get along and be accepted by those around us. So when we see someone else with confidence we really admire them. We think ‘I could never be like that… they seem to have something magical that I don’t have.’ Well, in Shadow Work we believe you DO have confidence, it is a natural part of us all, but it has been hidden away for a long time, and some work will be required to re-claim this part of yourself.
The invitation here is to look at things you really admire in others and ask yourself if this is something you have put in to shadow. You can then start to own this in yourself. With the example above, you could try saying to yourself ‘I am confident. I could do what they’re doing.’ and see what it feels like. You don’t have to believe it right now, but rather just play with it and notice how it feels to speak like this. This could be a first step to owning your golden shadow.
What we do by accident
Another way we can get a hint of what might be in shadow for us is to notice things that we do by accident. It’s not actually possible to get rid of a part of ourselves, and if we squash something down for long enough at some point it will come bursting up and out. This usually happens without our deliberate intention – we just can’t help ourselves. Another way of looking at this is to say that the bag we’re dragging around with us, where we’ve hidden our shadows, is not hermetically sealed. However hard we try, at some point what’s in there will come leaking out. This can be very shocking and confusing for us. It is common to hear people say ‘That’s just not me – I don’t do that kind of thing!’ Yet they did, and in Shadow Work we believe it is them, just a part of themselves that they have hidden away for a long time and lost touch with.
Anger again is a great example. If we spend our whole lives trying to be calm and balanced, gentle and thoughtful – not having any anger in us – there will come a moment where that is unsustainable. Something has to give. When something catches us off guard we may snap at someone, say something hurtful, or even lash out in rage, immediately regretting it a moment later. We quickly regroup and get back in charge of our anger, but the incident is confusing to us. ‘What happened there?…I’m not an angry person!’
Another example could be someone who is very happy-go-lucky, never gets upset about anything and is always cheerful. It may be that one evening something doesn’t go quite right for them, an event they were looking forward to gets cancelled, or they may have an accident and spill something – some minor incident has them crying uncontrollably. They find themselves overwhelmed with emotion. They feel silly and embarrassed and don’t understand where this might have come from. They may think ‘I’ve got nothing to be so sad about.’, yet their overwhelming response suggests otherwise. It’s possible that something very sad happened when they were young and there was no one around to help them process their grief. It may be that sadness was met with little sympathy in their childhood, or it may even have provoked disapproval or punishment. Alternatively it may have been their role in the family to keep everyone cheerful, so they had to learn to put their sadness to one side. There are many different ways in which someone may have come to lose touch with their sadness. After so many years of not feeling this side of themselves they may have stored away a well of grief that feels scary to touch in to, it is so unfamiliar. Yet it will eventually find ways to express itself that take the person quite by surprise.
Another very public example of shadows coming out by accident is that of the groom who leaves their bride standing at the altar. This person may have put all their doubts and fears around being married in to shadow and not allowed themselves to acknowledge them. This means they haven’t been able to explore these feelings with anybody or work them through. Then the day arrives and they just find themselves unable to go through with the ceremony, not really understanding why. This happens totally by accident. They would never have planned it this way.
Again, the invitation here is to ask yourself if maybe you have put your anger/sadness/fears/arrogance, or whatever else it is that has taken you by surprise, in to shadow. Then, as a first step, see what it feels like to say ‘I get angry sometimes.’, ‘I get very sad sometimes.’, ‘I feel frightened sometimes.’, ‘I think I know best sometimes.’ or whatever is relevant for you. Reclaiming conscious ownership of these parts of yourself is a first step in having control over these behaviours and stopping them from bursting out by accident.
Leaking through our body
Another way our shadows can leak out by accident is through our bodies. It is usually other people who will notice this, as we are likely to be completely unaware of what is happening. For example a friend may tell us that we look terribly sad, when we ourselves are not aware of feeling sad. Or we may be talking confidently, while our body language and facial expression betray our hidden fears. We may be doing our best to be calm and patient with someone, yet our fists may be clenched, demonstrating the anger inside us that has no outlet for expression. These things are beyond our control and out of our awareness. However, if someone does point them out to us, or if we notice them when for example, we watch a video of ourselves then we have the option to explore things further.
If my friend tells me I look terribly sad I could reflect on whether or not there may be something I am very sad about that I have pushed away in to shadow. Did something happen, maybe a very long time ago, that I have not wanted to feel? If someone tells me I look angry, even though I’m feeling very calm and loving, I could ask myself if there may be anger about some past event that I’m not expressing.
It’s important to only take notice of what rings true for you. Other people’s observations can be helpful, but they can also be clouded by their own shadows and unowned material.
Our bodies may speak out in other ways too – by giving us migraine, rashes, backache or more serious illnesses. It is always worth exploring what unowned part of us might be trying to find expression through our body. Again, please be aware this is for your own interpretation only. It is never wise to put too much trust in others interpretation of our bodily ailments.
Things that we do compulsively can also offer a glimpse into our shadow world. Over eating, smoking, gambling, cleaning…. any habit we have that we just can’t seem to stop gives us clues as to the parts of us that are driving things from behind the scenes. Parts of us that we haven’t owned can have a lot of power over our actions. Consciously, we may want to lose weight and be fit, yet we just find ourselves eating automatically in a way we can’t control. Here we might want to ask – what is going on for this hidden part of us that wants us to eat? Is it feeling like it needs nourishing or nurturing?…. Does it want pleasure, sensuality or comfort?…Is it fed up with obeying all the rules we impose?…. Can we listen to this part and try to find out what it really wants? Similarly, if we find ourselves compulsively cleaning we could ask what it is that this part really wants – Is it requiring order, or safety?…Does it need a sense of control?…Is it a frustrated energy that needs an outlet?…. How could we meet the needs of this hidden part of us in a more wholesome and conscious way?Over time the above five explorations may well reveal some insights for you as to aspects of yourself that you may have put in to shadow. This can be painful work. There are always good reasons for us to have hidden parts of ourselves away. There may have been much pain, fear, shame or guilt associated with these sides of ourselves. As children we have to do everything we can to survive and to get along with those around us, so it is sensible to hide away sides of ourselves that seem unwelcome, overwhelming or unsafe. Yet in adult life we can find we really miss out when we don’t have access to the full breadth of our personality. We may find we get constantly walked over and can’t stand up for ourselves because our anger is in shadow, or we may find we don’t take opportunities in life because our confidence is in shadow. Alternatively we may find ourselves stuck in a relationship or job that isn’t nourishing us because we have put our own needs in to shadow and we spend all our time pleasing others. Or we may find we can’t have successful relationships because we have put our need for intimacy in to shadow. There are many ways our shadows can cause us to live a difficult or limited life and for some people there comes a time when they decide the pain of discovering these shadow parts is worth the potential gain. They want to have their life back under their own control and to be able to form rich and nourishing relationships with those around them. Shadow Work is here to support people who are going through this process, and although painful at times this work can be incredibly joyful as people break free from past restrictions and experience the relief of owning and inhabiting the whole of who they are.