Each of us is unique. We are individuals. And yet there are universalities we all share. As we move through life, experiencing love, pain, rejection, affirmation, indifference, sun, clouds, injustice and shadows, we change. This is true for all people in all religions, as well as for those who are not necessarily oriented toward religious belief. We are re-formed or re-fashioned by the path we are on, the life we are given, or later choose for ourselves, those who travel with us, how we respond to whatever confronts us and the beliefs we invite to shape us.
But I’m getting ahead of myself!
I. Who Are We?
Every one of us begins with the need to establish who we are. These impressions about ourselves come from a host of sources – basically everything we experience and everyone we encounter. If our early life has had a good balance of affirmation and demand, love and boundaries, opportunities and challenges, we have a good foundation. Early on we paint a picture, hoping a strong identity will be the backdrop, security in our community / family will add splashes of dynamic color, tools to be effective in our chosen field will enhance with texture and depth. Added to that, we long for a spiritual dimension that is life-giving and meaningful.
Because we want our lives to have meaning, we set goals, strive to achieve, reach out for relationships, hope to accumulate at least a reasonable amount of wealth and to garner acclaim or success. We tend to think that if we do everything “by the books” (whichever set of guidelines that may happen to be), the end result should look a certain way.
Just this past week one of my granddaughters and I made a bracelet, using the step-by-step instructions, yarn and weaving tool provided in a kit. We saw a picture of the end result and were pumped! We even watched the accompanying video, so we “would be sure” of how to proceed.
You guessed it! It didn’t turn out as promised. The bracelet was far too short, though the weaving created a beautiful design. Believe me, I combed through the instructions to see what went “wrong” and I still don’t have a clue what that was. But we decided to make modifications and try again!
Right. So that’s what happens to us personally, too. It’s a little bit of a trial and error as we stride bravely down this path we’re on. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying anything heretical here – we may have our own set of instructions, so to speak, but you have to admit: things don’t always turn out the way we wish. And when they don’t, then what?
II. The Discomfort
That’s when we become uneasy. First the discomfort is so subtle that we can talk ourselves right out of the dis-ease. Soon it begins to nag, however, yet we try to persuade ourselves that all we need is to try harder, do better, add more to our lives (or subtract things we feel are hindrances).
Eventually we ask why? Why am I experiencing this? We may discover the players that contribute to this uncomfortable scene:
- believing we don’t live up to expectations
- the sense of being alone or the only one experiencing something negative
- we feel invisible; unimportant; not mattering to anyone
- we think we don’t belong
- we consider ourselves unlovable
- we feel a sense of failure and that we are not adequate.
All of this leads to anger, bitterness and fear.
Fear of being discovered as a fraud.
Bitterness because we feel that we deserve better, given the level of our investment.
Anger that our efforts aren’t paying off, or even worse, that our belief system is somehow letting us down.
And we inevitably come to the point of discovering things about ourselves that are uncomfortable – even negative. We notice our knee-jerk behavior – things we say just aren’t us, and this leaves us feeling out of control.
III. The Cover-Up
But we hate the feeling that we are losing control, so we try to cover up the shadow side of who we are. We feel so embarrassed for not being able to “get it together”; we feel weak, dark, undesirable, ineffective. We are so ashamed of these feelings that we hide them even from ourselves. And when we do that, “they tend to have a lot of power over us”, writes Sharon Grussendorff.
So, we create cover-ups. Masks. Costumes. Some of our cover-ups may even appear just, virtuous and “holy”. In fact, our distaste for shadows often leads us to create a pretense by which we convince ourselves that our shadows are somehow wholesome and even necessary. Fr. Richard Rohr expresses it this way: [the shadows] “invariably present [themselves] as something like prudence, common sense, justice, or ‘I am doing this for your good’, when it is actually manifesting fear, control, manipulation, or even vengeance.”
How convenient that is. We can hide, AND be virtuous. This allows us to conceal our own fears as we admonish others to rid themselves of their fear and anxiety; we can lecture our fellow traveler to work harder, be more focused, while we struggle with the immense load of under-productivity and lack of purpose. It’s the biblical parable of addressing another’s speck that’s blocking their vision, while overlooking the beam in our own eye.
IV. The Discovery
The day we realize that our shadows are not evil, but simply realities on our journey is one of the most liberating days of our lives! Without shadows we would be half the people we are meant to be.
Recently I have had unexpected experiences – some may even be seen as set-backs: medical, professional and financial situations. Added to that there have been other changes that were not on my radar even a few months ago. So after I reeled for some time, I had a choice: become angry, bitter, even envious of others’ apparent smooth pathway, or choose to “love what is” (thank you, Byron Katie). This is a process, to be sure – sometimes I choose the anger, bitterness or envy! I don’t pretend I have no anxiety over it all or never have a sleep deprived night. We have the choice to embrace our shadows, giving them permission to move us toward becoming a larger, more authentic and gracious person, or to see them as the enemy and fight for all we’re worth! But here’s the thing: we never win that fight!
A sure way for a shadow to turn dark is to resist acknowledging we have it, and thus avoid dealing with it. Wrestling with our shadows is what some call “The Dark Night of the Soul” or “Shadowboxing”. This is some of the work that lends itself to calling on a mentor or coach to come alongside. I invite you to that process. Please reach out here.
I will say more about Shadowboxing in a subsequent post. Stay tuned. But you can already get started by identifying your shadows. I’m here to help.
* Email coaching now also available.
Photo credit: Denys Argyriou via Unsplash.com