When I was down in what felt like an extremely dark hole, I was trying anything and everything to claw myself out. What I now know to be a combination of burnout and anxiety, amplified by gut imbalances set off by labor and delivery, had me at one of my lowest points.
Somewhere in my journey I finally took what I was experiencing as an invitation to heal. I recognized that the process of re-balancing my body, without question, involved re-balancing my mind as well. I learned that you can’t have balance in one and not the other; they are interconnected, and so began the work of getting my hands dirty and digging things out from the roots.
I don’t remember where I got this quote from, but I found it compelling enough to write down in a journal during that time: “Often children play out the repressed shadow of the parent. If you bring your shadow to consciousness, you save your children from having to act it out in their lives.”
You don’t have to have children of your own in order to relate to that powerful quote, but think about your life as you read it again. If you do have children, examine it from both ways: from your perspective as a child of your parent(s), and from your perspective as a parent.
You may or may not be familiar with the concept of the “shadow” self. Essentially, it’s all the parts of our selves that we (and others) decided wasn’t fit enough, good enough, or okay enough to be shown. It’s those parts of us that we fear, avoid, or felt ashamed of growing up, for whatever reason, so we tucked them away and hid them. Some of us did such a good job of hiding them, that maybe we aren’t even aware of them anymore. We’ve all shunned parts of ourselves, consciously or not, that we don’t want others to see for fear of rejection, ridicule, or because we were taught at some point we should be ashamed.
It’s no wonder we turn away from these pieces of ourselves that bring shame and uncomfortable feelings, because really, who wants to feel that junk, anyway? So, we repressed these character traits, these thoughts and pieces of ourselves, tossed away like shards of broken glass in a garbage bag.
But we all know broken glass doesn’t actually stay inside a garbage bag. Eventually, its sharp edges can cut the bag open from the inside.
It’s a good idea to pause here and remind yourself that this was nothing that you did “wrong.” In fact, it was a very smart and resourceful action to push pieces of your true self into the dark, because it is what you needed to do at those particular points in your life in order to survive. (Whether it was true survival or not, as children with growing brains, this is how we interpret situations. For us, at that point in time, hiding these parts of ourselves equaled survival.)
The harder work as an adult is untangling our current mindset from these early patterns and ideas that no longer serve us. It’s turning toward your shadow with the understanding that it’s where you find your gold. You shift your energy. We learn that, while we can’t change things that have happened to us, our thoughts and feelings (or avoidance of thoughts and feelings) about those events are what can cause havoc in our bodies and minds today, and that we have the power to change how the past affects our psyche by moving past our fears and turning toward these uncomfortable pieces, rather than away.
But first, we need to recognize them.
The good news is that we can actively work with our shadow, shrinking it down and bringing it into the light, welcoming it back to who we are and allowing it to make us whole again. The first step is to acknowledge that it’s there. The second is to listen closely to hear and feel when these parts of you from your shadow bubble up, and – here’s the trick – approach them with curiosity rather than fear, avoidance, or shame. It’s ongoing, yes, and it’s also transformational.
When unconscious, the shadow run the show, no matter how much you believe you are in control. When conscious, it could seem even worse, because you now know there is work to be done. (We also have inherited shadow pieces that are passed down intergenerationally, hence the quote I started with about passing your shadow onto your children; the point here, is that some of your shadow is not even yours – but for whatever reason, you’ve been called to do the healing work. We can take it as an insult –hey, that’s not mine, keep your s%*! away from me!– or accept it and see it as an honor to transform and let go of what is unhealthy or stuck.)
If you are a parent, it can be easy to bypass your own shadow by thinking of all the crud in your partner’s shadow that he or she needs to work through. Yes, that’s probably true, and while it is your partner’s responsibility to choose (or not choose) to do that work, we can only be accountable for our own work – and we all have shadow work to do no matter what.
Working with your shadow may seem scary at worst, and uncomfortable at best, but I promise, it won’t hurt you. In fact, it holds a ton of wisdom that your body, mind, and spirit need to heal.
Okay, so you’re with me, and totally ready for some shadow work. But, where do you start? If you’re not sure how to identify what needs attention in your shadow, the best place to look is in the moments you find yourself most irritated, enraged, or upset, as well as where you find yourself “checking out” or avoiding stillness with distractions. These are your triggers, which are opportunities for you to work with. They are portals that lead to your shadow. Not being afraid to peek inside and explore what’s there is how you can access this wisdom and bring it to light, eventually breaking you free from the old patterns and beliefs that have classically held you back. Turning toward this work is, ironically, what shrinks your shadow and sets you free.
I thought about all this as I was drying my daughter’s hair the other night after her bath. I couldn’t help but smile at her, this beautiful expression of light right before my eyes. She is her own being, no doubt, with her own unique life force energy. While not every piece of me will affect her – it’s all my own stuff, that’s for sure, and she’ll have her own as well – I do know that some of it will, and that it’s my responsibility to do my shadow work and clean my own energy and patterning for both of our sake.
Just then, she began leaning closer and closer to the mirror, examining a scar on her forehead from when she bumped it last week.
“My cut is getting smaller and smaller, mom.”
I smiled. “Yes. That’s because it’s healing.