The range of what we think and do
is limited by what we fail to notice.
And because we fail to notice
that we fail to notice
there is little we can do
until we notice
how failing to notice
shapes our thoughts and deeds.
How is it that we can fail to notice stuff about ourselves?
How is it that there is lots of stuff that others notice but we seem oblivious to.
Robert Bly describes our shadow as the long black bag that we drag behind us. For the first 20 years we stuff things into it and then we spend the rest of our lives trying to retrieve those same things.
Carl Jung, the father of psychotherapy, said that what we know about ourselves is like a little row boat and it floats on a ocean of unconsciousness, what we don’t know about ourselves. It would seem that what we know about ourselves is actually very small compared to what we don’t know. He also said, "There is no consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own Soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious." In order to make it conscious, we will have to look inside our black bags.....
How did this happen? Why did we decide to start shoving things inside our black bag in the first place?
Well, like we’ve discussed before, some things in our childhood were just too painful for us to either process ourselves (we lacked skills), or we were all alone in it (the adults around didn’t have skills either), or perhaps it wasn’t acceptable for us to be a certain way in our family or community so that personality trait or passion had to be shoved in our black bag.
So many reasons, so many black bags. That’s right, we all have one. We have all stuffed stuff into a corner of our psyches, hoping to never see it again.
Doesn’t usually work that way.
Our shadow has a way of making itself known.
Plus, your shadow also contains things that you need, resources, traits, skills, values, perspectives, capacities that you need to round out your adult personality.
Just to be clear, Bill Plotkin’s definition of shadow isn’t stuff about ourselves that we don’t like and keep hidden, it’s actually stuff that is true about ourselves that we don’t know and if accused of it would adamantly and sincerely deny it to be true.
For instance, have you ever experienced someone else’s shadow?
Let’s say you have a chat with a friend and they say something that sounds ‘nice’ but is actually very mean and hurtful and you are confused but when you call them on it they adamantly and sincerely deny any meanness on their part. So, you assume it must be you. Hello shadow.
Other people experience our black bag, even if we think it’s hidden. Like when we complain about how negative someone else is without realizing that others actually experience us as very negative, not them. Or how about complaining about how angry someone else is, being thankful you're not like them, all the while you are actually very passive aggressive…just as angry but since it can’t come out directly (you weren’t allowed to be angry) it comes out in a round about way. Shadow.
What about something positive you may have stuck in your black bag? Ok, lets say there is someone who is super outgoing and friendly and you are quiet and shy. You wish you could be like that person, are drawn to them and just want to be in their presence. Guess what? In your black bag, you may have your own outgoing, friendly part of you but it wasn’t ok or wasn’t safe for you to live that out so you put it away. You wouldn’t be attracted to it in someone else if it wasn’t true for you, in some way, also. That’s called projection, when I project something of myself (positive or negative) that I was unable to live out, carry, hold or be…I put it on you (project it) and ask (not out loud) you to carry it for me until I’m able to carry it, embody it myself. The same goes for ‘negative’ traits. If I wasn’t allowed to have anger, I might have to project it on someone else or maybe a group of people, until I can get in touch with my own anger so I don’t have to put it on you anymore. This is why we need access to our Muse Beloved. Our Muse Beloved helps us reclaim and manifest (for ourselves, our people and our world) that which we find in the dark - the symbols, insights, meanings, dreams, myths, visions, revelations, traits, emotions, capacities and beliefs.
Our shadow protects us from these mysterious realms in ourselves, from these depths because sometimes these depths can be threatening to our egos and maybe to our families or cultures so the shadow protects us from our depths (keeps it hidden) and holds our dark treasures in safe keeping until we’re ready to handle them.
For instance, what if, in your shadow, is your ability to speak truth to power. What if your ego was afraid of what that might cost…relationships, jobs, security etc, so your shadow stepped in to lock it away. You become timid, frightened of anger (in yourself and others) and maybe even develop throat problems. One day, you get this sense that there is something missing. Maybe you have weird dreams where you are shockingly angry or someone in your dream is angry. Or, you seem to be surrounded by or drawn to outspoken people, people who don’t seem afraid to speak their truth and you wonder why it’s so hard for you. You may even have a lot of ‘invitations’, opportunities to use your voice but the idea is paralyzing. In fact, if you are following your red thread, you may have trouble getting away from all the invitations that are inviting you to speak your truth. Perhaps you are afraid but you are drawn to the idea of speaking your truth all the same. If you are like me, you have been using your voice, but in a passive aggressive way, not a direct, speak truth to power way. My, or your shadow, helped us get our voice out but not directly. If someone had accused me of being passive aggressive I would have, and did, sincerely and adamantly deny it. Nope, that’s not me. I don’t do that. Shadow.
Everything that we admire or can’t stand in others can lead us to a greater understanding of ourselves. Next time you are really drawn to someone or repelled by them, allow yourself to get curious. In what ways might you be like that person? Might you have a hidden resource that they seem to have access to? Allow the questions to lead you deeper into yourself. Follow the thread. Use your Nurturing Generative Adult to help you hold and love what you find, Your East self to see the big picture and perhaps laugh at yourself and your South, Wild Indigenous One to help you fully feel what you’ve locked away. Once you become conscious of something in your black bag, it’s no longer in your shadow. Now you have choice. You can decide, with your adult self, what you’d like to do instead of acting out of our unconscious. You can show up more fully in the world. You will have more access to yourself. Your black bag won’t be quite so full and not nearly as heavy.
Whatever you do,
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
(See precious blog post for poem about the red thread we follow.)