How to master our shadows and go forward.
If you’re someone who has had difficulty putting the suggestions of self-help books into practice, you’re not alone. But don’t take it personally—it’s not your fault. Well-intended though they may be, many self-help books generally…don’t.
Help, that is.
What they often do is point out ways in which we can change our behavior, attitudes, beliefs, and even thoughts, to bring about changes we desire in our lives. There is no arguing that these suggestions can be beneficial, if we can implement them.
But often, our ability to do so is more limited than we realize, not because of any intrinsic deficiency, but because we may be locked into unconscious patterns to which we have a stronger allegiance than we realize. Self-help books can assist us in finding the paths that can take us to our desired goals, but they often fail to address the piece of the iceberg 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 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, it’s easy to be left with a feeling of inadequacy, personal failure, or disappointment. Many books remind us that we just need to let go of our fear, drop our resentment, practice forgiveness for our partners, stop manipulating, and be more honest and vulnerable.
Well-meaning as this advice is, as most of us have discovered, embodying it is usually quite a bit easier said than done.
Part of the problem is that behind every intention, there is a (usually unconscious) competing commitment, or shadow intention, to do the opposite. For example, behind the intention to be more open is another intention to close down and protect. Behind the intention to stand up and speak your truth, there may be an intention to avoid disapproval. Our failure to adequately appreciate the strength of our shadow commitments’ grip can leave us angry at ourselves for not “doing what I know I should do.”
But self-condemnation isn’t particularly helpful when it comes to making life changes, most of which require patience, practice, self-compassion, understanding, and support.
Recognizing the shadow aspects of ourselves—those parts we have denied, disowned, or attempted to conceal from others—is a powerful step in becoming a more self-accepting person, an important aspect of any successful relationship.
Yet the desire to shed light on our shadow has its own shadow—the commitment to continue to conceal what we consider the unattractive aspects of our personality in order to promote a more favorable impression to others. The commitment to continuing to do what we have always done and avoiding the risk of potentially upsetting life-changes is an intention present within most of us—even when it seems to make sense to risk upsetting the apple cart.
There is no getting rid of the shadow—but the good news is that we don’t need to.
Since it’s not possible to get a “shadowectomy,” the next best thing is to identify, accept, and even appreciate its gifts, and in so doing, transform our perception of it, from adversary to partner.
Again, easier said than done, but doable. And worth the effort.
Neutralizing the shadow’s resistant aspects without eliminating it requires a willingness to illuminate that which has been concealed in the darkness—to recognize the underlying attachments, desires, and fears that keep the shadow in place. In doing so, our relationship with the hidden aspects of ourselves changes from denial to acceptance, from concealing to revealing. Changing our relationship with parts of ourselves is the first and most important step in transforming the quality of our relationships. As many of us know from experience, it’s impossible to change how you feel toward others until you change your experience of yourself.
“Shadow work” is essentially a process of cultivating self-love and self-acceptance. It is not “search and destroy,” but “search and befriend.” As we bring a curious, accepting, and non-judgmental attitude to our own experience, parts of ourselves to which we had lost access become available in ways that allow us to see ourselves, and others, in radically different ways.
We don’t have to do anything differently. It’s more a matter of viewing ourselves through new lenses, rather than trying to be the person that we think we “should be.”
Shadow work isn’t for the faint of heart. It requires a strong desire for authentic relatedness, a willingness to be ruthlessly honest with ourselves, and a hunger for deep and meaningful connection with others. The demands are high, but the benefits great. When we are no longer afraid to face ourselves or be clearly seen by others, we can finally be free. That freedom means no longer being a slave to the need for external acceptance or others’ approval, and living with integrity and open-heartedness.
This path is habit-forming. Once you start, the old defensive patterns gradually lose their appeal and grip. The sweetness of an open heart is very compelling. Once that genie is out of the bottle, you can’t put it back in.
But, then, why would you want to?