Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt
In my twenty-something years of human life, my shadow has hidden and outgrown closets, cubicles, beer bottles, shot glasses and a semi-occasional dimebag. My dear shadow, whom I’m affectionately calling ‘Colleen’, is my co-pilot. Together, we own and operate 140 pounds of prime real estate that is feeling more and more like a temple as the years fly by. The thing is, Colleen and I didn’t even know about each other until recently - or rather, I flat out ignored and dismissed her for 25 years (which is kind of a dick move when you think about it). Can you imagine, living with a roommate for decades, and acting like they are legitimately dead to you? Having lived this reality more than once, I’ll ruin the surprise and let you know that it’s a living hell sharing space with someone you hate. And the reality is that many of us hate that other passenger that’s riding shotgun, or worse yet, fully asleep and sprawled in the backseat as you spend the next 50 odd years driving your ass all the way back home.
A shadow, in reality, is that dark, trailing presence cast behind you in the light. In physics (knowledge of nature) your body is that thing that blocks light causing a shadow. In metaphysics (fundamental questions about the nature of existence and reality) shadows are made also by blocking light by accumulating experience. Put another way, our early lives are chock full of collections of experiences and innate qualities that we learn to block, and that blockage creates a shadow. I’ll put it yet another way. When we're kids, we're leaping and bounding with light and energy. I watch my nephews and all I see is light - it passes through them and into everything they do. Their shadowless selves inspire me and remind me of a time that I, too, was unapologetically myself because there was simply no other way to be.
The key word is unapologetically. As soon as we are apologizing for something about ourselves, we reinforce the shadow. We make our shadow unconsciously with the help of friends, family, and other early teachers. In A Little Book About The Human Shadow, Robert Bly discusses his version of the shadow. According to Bly, whenever we learn that a part of who we are is undesired by the people we love the most in our young lives, that part of us goes into our shadow. Those parts we put away and hide in our shadow stay there for as long as we are unconscious - as long as we do not acknowledge that those traits, qualities, beliefs belong to us. Until we become conscious, we are locked into behavioural patterns that cause us pain because we are only living half our life and locked into a mindset that rejects our shadow qualities, and projects them onto others.
In short, your Colleen is a collection of all the qualities of your primal self (I call this a soul) that you learned were undesirable in your environment. You created Colleen by taking those parts of yourself and separating them from you - the version of you that your parents and peers approved of. Like a Snapchat filter for your life. Over time, you learned to hate Colleen because of how different she was, how unlike you she was. You would never acknowledge that Colleen was part of you, because that would be much too painful. Instead of recognizing this other side of you and allowing it the space in you it deserves, Colleen then becomes all the people you meet in waking life that exhibit all of these qualities you learned to put away. You hate every Colleen you encounter, even if you haven’t taken the time to truly know them. You hate them almost instinctively because it’s easier than admitting that you hate part of yourself. In the end, you are what you hate. On the flip-side, you are also what you love. In romantic relationships, we learn roles in our environment. We learn to put more things in our shadows to either be more masculine or feminine, more dominant or submissive. If we learn that we should be more masculine in relationships, then we put the feminine part of ourselves in the shadow, and it shows up when we choose a partner that is more than likely very feminine, and vice versa.
All of this shadow projection is dangerous (and terrifying) for a gambit of reasons. When we deny our shadow, we block all that creative energy because we fear it won’t be accepted. We waste energy trying to keep it under wraps. We apologize to others when we think we’ve offended someone with our vulnerability, assertiveness, emotions, lifestyle. When we project our shadow qualities onto others, we give them away. In essence, we give away our energy to other people and it’s no wonder most of us are exhausted by maintaining the lie that we are less than. What’s worse is that we are wasting an ungodly amount of energy doubting ourselves as a result of not being fully integrated with our shadow qualities which, if allowed to be expressed, could lead us right where we belong in the world. When we project and give away our shadow energy to others, we give away all the wonderful things we are - all the things we are without anyone's help. We give away our selves. Our literal selves. That’s fucking terrifying.
I’ll share with you some things I’ve learned about my shadow in the hopes it helps you find some of yours and take back some of your life. Colleen is:
Childish. Exhibitionist. Wild. Risky. Impatient. Unpredictable. Aimless. Competitive. Unorganized. Narcissistic. Demanding. Slow. Uninterested. Unstable. Emotional. Fiery. Brazen. Difficult. Crazy. Too Much. Sexual. Queer :S
These words drag behind me like a dark and gloomy anchor. Somehow (I know exactly how) I grew into thinking that these words and qualities were undesirable. I’ll share something else with you, all of those things I just listed, is the person I turn into when I’m intoxicated, which is why being drunk and/or high is so addictive to people with huge, dark shadows. It’s why our culture loves getting high and transcending all the bullshit we normally impose on our waking, sober lives. You glimpse the person you could be, and start to believe that person is only accessible when you are lit - when you are ‘on’.
In a way, we are all coming out of a closet at one point or another, revealing pieces of ourselves that are essential to our functioning as a human being. We are always all of those things in our shadows, we just choose not to see them. We choose to externalize the things we hate because it’s easier than dealing with the fact that we have demons to deal with - work to do. We externalize the things we love because it’s easier to have someone else complete us than do the work to actualize who we want to be. In summary, humans are resistant and procrastinating. We are, in a word, lazy. But I’m learning that that’s not as bleak as it sounds - knowing it and staring it right in the face is actually the greatest gift.
The good part is that all of this changes when we become conscious. Once you look under the rock, you can’t unsee what’s there. You do something about it. All those things that you resist and procrastinate doing are like little reflectors on a tarmac just trying to get you home. A while ago, I wrote Get Over Your Self. I explored how we over-identify with our identities and can’t handle when we lose those them because we haven’t developed a self that is rooted and unchanged by circumstance. I also mentioned some resources on building confidence that are more focused on the science of behaviour and how we can become more confident by consistent action and repetition. A lot of self-help teachers have all sorts of training and life hacks, and I have tried them with varying results.
What I can say with certainty is that becoming confident is more than just behaviour modification. Yes, the more you act, the more you learn, the more you learn what you are capable of, and the more confident you become in what you are doing. But what happens when you are not acting? When you aren’t doing anything, who are you? I have been asking myself this question and - as someone who is constantly working on something, trying to demonstrate productivity, trying to make a mark - it has been a painful to realize that all the things I’ve been doing (while useful) have just been distractions for the much harder work of actually getting to know myself and liking myself despite any of my past, present and future achievements.
Seven years ago, I set out to ‘find happiness’ after my dad passed. I became interested in what made people happy and what led to a happy life. I thought it was an objective goal that I could hack my way into, and share with others. It focused around doing because that’s what I thought at the time. But what I’m learning and integrating into my life now is the understanding that happiness is being. It’s a choice we get to make everyday with the things we choose to let into our lives, and the feelings we chase and honour.
The girl I was at six was all me and I’m now discovering she’s my actual hero. Those things in our shadows aren’t negative or positive - they just are. And when you see all these things swirling inside you, you can stop trying to hold up the Snapchat filter and focus on (1) finding your light, (2) finding your angles, (3) loving what you see and what you own. That practice becomes a slow reclaiming and renaming of those qualities. Colleen becomes transformed:
Playful. Confident. Free-Spirited. Experimental. Decisive. Spontaneous. Fluid. Driven. Loosey Goosey. Self-Loving. Assertive. Street Smart. Selectively Engaged. Caring. Passionate. Creative. Extraordinary. Sensual. Queer :)
Living a good life is, indeed, beyond a shadow of a doubt. It’s knowing that no matter what you do, you can do no wrong. It’s working the whole rest of your life to gracefully integrate your shadow energy, loving all that you are and always have been, then letting it guide you into whatever amazing work you were brought here to share. It’s letting your whole heart hang out there where it belongs and having faith - (yes, “faith”, that flimsy, unquantifiable, illogical, magical word you have been taught to discount and resist) - faith that whatever is and whatever comes, you are always right where you need to be and, what’s more, that you can handle it.