Facing Our Shadow: An Essential Practice for Our Times
Do you sometimes say about what you’ve just done, “I don’t know what got into me?”
Do you sometimes feel like you’re being run from “behind the scenes” or are stuck on automatic?
At such times, it’s very likely that your shadow is in charge.
Our “shadow” is our internal storehouse for the aspects of us that we’ve disowned or rejected or are otherwise keeping in the dark.
Everyone has a shadow but not everyone knows their shadow. And the degree to which we don’t know our shadow is the degree to which it influences, controls, runs us.
Knowing our shadow and working in depth with it are not just sideline pursuits, but rather necessary practices if we — both personally and collectively — are to really get on track, unchaining ourselves from our conditioning and embodying a life in which our differences only deepen our shared humanity.
Turning toward our shadow — however slightly — is a very significant step, signaling the start of a courage-deepening, life-affirming adventure that asks for much from us and gives back more than can be imagined.
Working in-depth with our shadow is a powerfully liberating labor, affecting every area of our life, furthering our capacity to become intimate with everything — everything! — that we are.
Our increasingly perilous times call for us to wake up to, to face and know our shadow very well, working with it in enough depth so that it no longer can run us. Staying oblivious to our shadow, as is especially common in all too many political and corporate arenas, simply reinforces our dysfunction, regardless of our achievements.
Bringing the contents of our shadow out of the dark so we can work with them is a risk — because of the potential changes it’ll catalyze — but not working with them is a much greater risk.
Let us not leave our shadow unexplored and unknown.
To meet and illuminate it, to relate to it skillfully, to make wise use of it, is a great gift to one and all.
Given the state of the world, perhaps the most relevant practice we can do is work in depth with our shadow, whatever the scale.
Some Signs That Your Shadow May Be Showing Up
- You’re busy being reactive, having a disproportionate, knee-jerk take on something. Reactivity is activated shadow material.
- You’re feeling numb or frozen or a sudden loss of power.
- You’re acting out the same old dynamics — emotional reruns — in relationship.
- You’re saying that you’re fine when you’re not.
- You’re driven to act “positive” about things that actually really bother you.
- You’re being overly critical of yourself, degrading yourself for not making the grade.
- You are knowingly doing something that you know is not good for you.
- You’re unable to say that you’re sorry when you have hurt another.
- You’re getting defensive when the situation does not at all call for it.
Five Steps for Working with Reactivity
1. Get to know it.
To be reactive means to automatically and repeatedly act the same way while losing ourselves in the ensuing dramatics. Our buttons have been pushed, and we’re not about to shift out of automatic. But we can develop intimacy with our patterns of reactivity. We can learn how it shows up for us, including in its inception. How, for example, do we breathe when we’re about to get reactive? How do we hold our body? What do we tell ourselves? And so on.
2. Say “I’m being reactive” as soon as you recognize it.
Say this outloud if possible. Don’t justify it. There’s no need for any more words. Let the reality of what you’ve just said sink in. If another is present, give them enough time to register what you’ve just said.
3. State what you are actually feeling.
This can be either an emotion or the here-and-now sensations in your body. For example, “I’m feeling sad” or I’m feeling a tightness in my guts and throat.” Keep it simple. No need to explain or justify what you’re feeling. And make sure not to confuse feelings with perceptions. Saying “I don’t feel heard” is not a feeling per se, but a perception, which is open to debate. The voicing of actual feelings is, on the other hand, not debatable. Stick to the facts.
4. Shift your attention from your mind to your body.
Pull your attention away from what you’re thinking, and focus on the sensations in your body, especially your belly. Take five or so conscious breaths, paying close attention to your inhale and exhale. If you’re feeling especially reactive, repeat this once or twice. Shifting your attention from the mental to the physical will help ground you, breaking much of the grip of your reactivity.
5. Start working with what shows up.
Use your capacity for self-reflection to become more aware of what is present beneath your original reactivity. What do you notice? Is there a sense of a younger self that needs attention and care? Is there some old wounding that you’ve overlooked or not yet fully faced? Stay as transparent as possible. In such exploration, you will inevitably start to face what has been stored, to whatever degree, in your shadow. And make sure to get support if you need it!
Copyright © 2018 by Robert Augustus Masters.
Adapted from the book, Bringing Your Shadow Out of the Dark: Breaking Free from the Hidden Forces Driving Us.