If you are one of the people who have had difficulty putting into practice the suggestions of self-help books, you are not alone. Don’t take it personally. It’s not your fault. Well-intended though they may be, many self-help books don’t. Help, that is. What they often do is point out and suggest ways in which we can change our behavior, attitudes, beliefs, and even our thoughts, in order to bring about changes in our life that we desire. There is no arguing that these suggestions can be very beneficial, if we can implement them. The operative word here is “if.”
Oftentimes, that ability is more limited than we realize, not because of any intrinsic deficiencies on our parts, but because we may be locked into unconscious patterns to which we have a stronger allegiance than we realize. While self-help books can assist us to see the paths that can take us to our desired goals, they often fail to address the piece of the iceberg that is underneath the surface of our awareness that is committed to resisting change. And although they can be useful in suggesting behavioral changes, they often miss the mark in regard to providing the necessary link between a good idea and a new outcome.
When we can’t do what we think we need to do or should do, we are often left with a sense of failure and a feeling of frustration and disappointment with ourselves. The books remind us that we just need to let go of our fear, drop our resentment, forgive our partner, stop manipulating and be more honest. Well-meaning as the advice is, it’s often much easier said than done!
What self-help books often don’t tell us is that behind every intention, such as, for example, the intention to be more open, there is a shadow intention to do the opposite. In this example, it would be to withhold, close down or protect. The shadow is the unacknowledged side of ourselves that contains hidden or denied parts of our personality. It represents those aspects that are committed to continuing to do what we have always done and are determined to avoid any behaviors that put us at risk of being vulnerable to pain, loss, or any form of change. The shadow operates outside of our conscious awareness, which is why it is called ‘shadow,’ but that doesn’t make it any less potent a factor in our lives. In fact, it is BECAUSE we are generally unaware of our hidden desires and motivations that we so frequently get tripped up by them, and find ourselves confused and frustrated with our inability to simply “do what I know I need to do.”
There is no getting rid of the shadow, and the good news is that we don’t need to. It’s possible to neutralize its resistant aspects without eliminating it. This process calls for the willingness to illuminate that which has been concealed in the darkness and, in doing so, to recognize the underlying attachments, desires, and fears, that keep the shadow in its place. Shifting our relationship with parts of ourselves is the first and most important step in the process of transforming the quality of our relationships.
“Shadow work” is essentially a process of cultivating self-love and self-acceptance. It is not a process of “search and destroy,” but rather “search and befriend.” As we bring a curious, accepting and non-judging attitude to our own experience, parts of ourselves to which we had lost access become available to us in ways that allow us to see ourselves and others in radically different ways. We don’t have to do anything differently. We don’t have to change. The word for this process is “transformation.”
Shadow work isn’t for everyone. It requires a deep desire for authentic relatedness, a willingness to be ruthlessly honest with ourselves, and a hunger for deep and meaningful connection with others. The demands of the work are high, but the benefits are great. When we are no longer afraid to face ourselves or be clearly seen by others, we can finally be free. Freedom means that I am no longer a slave to my need for protection or other peoples’ approval, and that I can live with integrity and open-heartedness.
There, is, however, a danger in setting foot on this path: it is habit-forming. Once you start, the old defensive patterns gradually lose their appeal and their grip on us. The sweetness of an open heart is very compelling. There is a saying that once the genie is out of the bottle, you can’t put it back in. But then, why would you want to?