“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche
The “shadow side” is a term that comes from the work of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. It refers to the unknown or unconscious parts of our personality. It is that hidden trapdoor of emotions that play in our psyche’s background and can cause us to act or feel in ways out of character or normal conduct. It is that part of us we don’t like to see. We can find ourselves triggered by a negative experience, and suddenly the monster pops up!
One might be seeing a lot of the shadow side lately as we work through these challenging times. In fear and frustration over issues we cannot control, we are on overload with emotions. We see what is happening in the political arena alone where politicians show their shadows boldly in their game of “king of the mountain.” It creates a space where people may feel compelled to join in, and suddenly it seems the world has gone out of control. We stare too long at the situation, and instead of overcoming it, we can get sucked into the drama arguing on social media with friends or worse.
I recently witnessed how quickly the shadow can take over, especially when we have shoved down emotions. My oldest brother died a few months ago, but we didn’t learn of it right away. That loss brought up memories I had long forgotten. Like a crocheted blanket, one tug of a string led to an unraveling of the sadness I held in my heart. That feeling of being left behind came up. My brother moved away many years ago when I was younger. He left angrily, and we didn’t hear from him for long periods of time. As a kid, I never knew what happened and never understood why there was this veil of sadness over every holiday or family event. There was always the question if he was coming or not. As I got older, I got annoyed by this constant holding out; after all, the rest of us were here. Wasn’t that enough? Some of my older siblings kept trying to get him to come back, and with his death, the waiting was over. As they talked about him, I found myself getting angry. Really angry. How could he have caused this pain and still get treated like a king?
Over the years, I have had siblings call me out for things they disagreed with, and at times, it has been deeply frustrating and even painful. I felt shunned because I didn’t fall in line and “know my place.” It bothered me over the years that they couldn’t accept me for who I was. His death brought me face to face with that shadow I had inside me. The deep resentment I felt for him leaving. It also made me see the reality of my relationships with my other siblings and how much I just wanted to be loved unconditionally. In a moment, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I lost it. It felt so awful to have all that pour out of me, especially as one who promotes that we have to keep trying to find the middle ground. I felt like a fraud. I let my shadow side take over the sadness, and ironically, I just wanted to walk away from them all in my anger.
It can be challenging to stand up to old structures that no longer work in our lives, especially when it involves something you have spent a lot of your energy. Suddenly change swooshes in and catches you off guard. You cannot continue to cram yourself into a box just to fit in or deny the welling sadness inside. You don’t have to keep playing small within places and relationships that don’t sustain you. But how can one move forward in a way that honors the situation?
Author and co-founder of the Omega Institute, Elizabeth Lesser recently shared a way to do this work. Bluntly, “Do no harm, but take no shit!” You have to see your shadow and admit where you were wrong, but not beat yourself up for other people’s stuff. In these moments of pain and shame, you have to find your backbone and courageously walk into your truth. We have to be able to let go of these old stories and take the risk of being vulnerable and real.
If those who have affected you are willing to connect with an open heart, there can be room to heal. We must come to this place as equals who agree to hold the paradox of the shadow. We have to sit with the monster and try to understand what it is trying to reveal. This work can take time, and it is essential to surround yourself with what can nourish your spirit. You don’t have to stay in this shame or place of fear. You can look at the monster in the heart and see what is truly there. For me, it was to see that little girl who was afraid in a time of confusion. She was just trying to find protection and a way to avoid the hurt. In witnessing this side, you can release that energy that holds you and find peace within.
In the coming months, as things intensify with the social and political changes, we have to be aware of our monsters inside. Staring continuously at the drama will not nourish us and will likely cause us to strike out at one another when that isn’t what we truly want. We want a place where all will be loved and cherished—a country where all will be treated equally and fairly. The monsters will visit, but then we have to look at what they are trying to reveal. Only then can we receive the gift that is waiting to come forth and move forward in freedom.
Photo credit: Vince Moro, Golden Light and shadow on Chadds Peak Farm Pond.