• nancy willbern

Updated: Jun 15

About a year before my dad died, he slipped off the planet into cardiovascular dementia. After walking out of his apartment in the senior living community where my parents lived, declaring he was going home, my mother and sisters and I made the excruciating decision to have him admitted to a geriatric psyche unit. He stayed there for three weeks to get his meds regulated.

I’ll never forget the first time I went to visit him. He sat in his wheelchair, in a drug- induced-stupor with chocolate icing smeared on his disheveled shirt. Entering that space felt like walking into the Twilight Zone. And although I am a psychotherapist, I don’t work with psychosis. This altered atmosphere came as a shock as one patient wrote lecture notes on an imaginary chalk board; another beckoned me to come sit next to him so he could sell me some shoes; while another pulled her chair up right next to me, putting her face next to my left ear to express her anger towards a man who “dared to pound the Bible” in her direction; while still another lay in a recliner loudly moaning out her obvious pain; and another got to her feet and walked over to the locked door, began to shake its handle while screaming, “Get me out of here! Get me out of here!” I wanted to join her. And, to make matters even more surreal, more jarring, Bob Barker’s voice could be heard over all the cacophony beckoning his, The Price is Right-TV-show-audience to “Come on down!”

I did my best to keep my focus on my dad, trying hard to hold onto any thread in the conversation, coherent or not. He didn’t make much sense, talking about an airplane that was coming to pick him up. My stomach clenched. My heart raced and ached with a depth of pain I had never felt before. An inner voice inside of me began to scream, “No, not this! Not him! Not this! Not him!”

When visiting hours were over, I made my way back to my car and drove home in a daze. When I got inside, I sat down to my computer and started typing out all of my frazzled emotions and my ignited rage at the indignity of it all. "This could not be happening to my father - my father, the well-respected attorney, my father the wise elder at our church, my father – the man who oozed dignity and integrity, a quiet, warm wisdom that so many had counted on in so many ways. This! This was not supposed to be happening to him!"

I realized I was mad at God. “How could You!” This was too much. It made no sense to me. It felt so completely unfair. Wrong! And then, I got really quiet and I went inside myself and asked my Guides, “Help him! Please help him! Help me! Help me to understand this! How could this be happening?!”

And then I heard Them, “Nancy, the father that you have always known, the one who is dignified and wise and lived with integrity, a quiet warmth – he has already gone. This one that you are screaming about is the remnant of the cloth. This part of him is not finished yet. He is working through something important. Can you not allow him the time and the space and the dignity to find his way through?" This gave me pause.

"And there is more, They continued. "This is not just happening to your father, Nancy. It is also happening to you and your mother and your sisters. It is a time for you to ask, ‘Why is this on my plate? What is there in this situation for me to learn?’ No one is left out, Nancy. There is a gift here, should you look more deeply, a gift for all of you.”

That Voice got my full attention. It said things, noticed things on a level I was not used to maneuvering in. It brought me to a perspective that I have never forgotten – a fuller recognition that we are all connected, that whatever happens to someone else cannot help but affect all of us, as well – especially if we have an emotional reaction to it. That emotional reaction is a clue that there is a hidden passageway inside this most unwanted situation that can lead all of us, should we choose to seek it, to uncharted territory that brings with it deeper insight, closer connection and greater freedom.

It's as if each of us is one tiny colored piece of glass inside a kaleidoscope. With each turn of the cylinder -- with each turn of events -- all the shards of glass shift in position to adjust to the movement. With each spiraling twist, all the pieces relocate in relation to each other. And with each new-found position, a brand-new picture of reality organically emerges, should we dare to notice. I love this. It was my lesson, my gift from that horribly, unwanted moment in my life. Of course, I would still so earnestly choose to have my dad die of a heart-attack in his sleep and be spared the slow decline that he actually experienced; but given that it is not up to me, I will gladly accept the gift hidden in the pain of my resistance.

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  • nancy willbern

Updated: Jun 15

So, the other morning, in that twilight state between not fully asleep but not fully awake, I felt myself bombarded with a litany of embarrassing, humiliating, shameful moments from my past. It was if they all lined up and took their turns to have their way with me. I found myself defenseless in the face of their attacks, believing in the obvious truth of their indictments.

Those of you who share my fundamentalist Christian roots will know what I mean when I state, matter-of -factly, that guilt and shame are revered as sacred Christian virtues. When I was growing up in the one-and-only-true-church, the preacher, Brother So and So, who towered over us from the pulpit, speaking with the ordained authority of God would admonish us, three times a week to look for the sin that we all knew was lurking in the recesses of our beings. “You know what I am talking about,” he would proclaim, “Look inside your soul, find the darkness hidden there, and then walk down the aisle as your Brothers and Sisters sing, and confess your sins and then ask for forgiveness. Come now, as we stand and sing.”

I haven’t darkened the doors of my childhood church since I was 32 years old, but this “invitation” as it was called still lives in the marrow of my bones, right alongside the engrained, now unconscious habit of searching for the dark sins that are hiding in my heart and soul. The Catholic Church has always proclaimed, “Let me have your children until they are six, and they will stay indoctrinated for the rest of their lives.” Or something to that effect. That adage is absolutely true. And no, I wasn’t raised in the Catholic tradition, but the reality of that statement holds.

That painful, egregious litany of past “transgressions” was a slide show of my personal shadow. It flashed before me all the horrid and regrettable moments that I so wish I could erase from my memory bank, to disclaim as parts of me. And that is the tale-tell sign of the shadow at work. The shadow is the container of those aspects of the self that we try, ever so hard to repress, to keep hidden from ourselves and certainly, from anyone else. They are the moments in our lives when an unbidden, unwanted aspect of the personality popped out, caught us by surprise and exposed to others some sign of unseemly weakness, ranging from simply being uncool to out-and-out self-serving or thoughtless or Heaven-forbid mean or intentionally deceptive. In response to a shadow outburst, we wince, we side-step, we want to cover it up or a favorite is to project it onto someone else. It becomes like a hot potato we want to toss anywhere we can with as much finesse as possible. Anything to not get caught holding it.

That’s what we do outwardly. Inwardly, many of us, those of us raised with strict prohibitions, for sure take these moments, relentlessly hold them against ourselves and then vow, once again, to not ever let them happen again. We use those shadow outbursts to hyper-vigilantly remind ourselves how have to do it better next time. But inevitably, we repeat it. We do it again and again, and then the whole cycling self-incrimination starts all over one more time, with seemngly no way out. We think of the shadow as the dark side of the self, the one to be expunged, if only we could.

From a completely different perspective, one I was certainly never taught, we can begin to see the shadow-self as a trickster-friend in disguise. To do this, we have to go back to those humiliating scenes and instead of stopping with just a replay of the unwanted behavior and recoiling, we can choose to approach a little closer, slow the film down and go inside that earlier version of ourselves and ask, “What was happening inside myself at that moment when I wanted to be funny at someone else’s expense? When I left the bedside of a dying friend prematurely, before making a full connection? When I acted like an awkward 7th grader in a group of gifted women? When I sacrificed myself so I wouldn’t have to be alone? When I cut someone deeply with my words? When I retreated when I should have moved forward? When I basked in the position of a self-righteousness victim to justify my blaming? Can I be with her, that one who did the unseemly thing? Can I stay with her long enough to hear what she was feeling, what she was making up about herself, what she was experiencing inside her heart and body at that moment? Can I stay with her long enough to ask her what she was most afraid of?

From this wider, deeper perspective the shadow shifts from becoming something to run from, something to disown – to a doorway into the heart. It becomes the alarm bell to remind us to reconnect. The shadow in the service of love alchemically mutates from Satan, the Lord of the Dark -- to Lucifer, the Bringer of Light.

Image credit: Jeff Jacobs from Pixabay, free images

For instructions on how to comment, refer back to the blog post dated June 27, 2020, titled "Comments Please."

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  • nancy willbern

Updated: Jun 15

All you have to do is tell yourself you are going to write a blog post about the personal shadow and all the ghosts and goblins hiding in your back pocket will rise up and shout, “Gotcha!” Seriously, this morning I was in that twilight state between snooze and awake and every humiliating moment that my psyche has collected for my whole life-time came rising up to my awareness, in a whole stream of consciousness – one wincing scene after another. And, it wasn’t like I was just thinking about them. With each memory, I felt my stomach clench, my shoulders folding, my knees rising to my chest. And there I was – a bundle of guilt and shame in full-body fetal position. And I hadn’t even had breakfast yet.

Welcome to the most predictable, reactionary experience that arises for most of us when facing the personal shadow! This initial visceral reaction is why we all want to avoid looking at it, much less inviting it in for a chat – and as you can see, me included. But the truth is the shadow carries with it mighty treasures, delightfully surprising treasures that we buried long ago.

Getting to know the shadow is convoluted. It’s a paradox. It turns reality, as we know it on its head. I introduced some of these ideas in my last post. I am going to slow the process down, clarify some things and show how the the process evolves in this post and going forward. Here’s how this works, as I understand it: When we are little and experience what feels like gaps in love, we will more often than not, make it up that we must have either done something wrong or that we – our very being – must be unlovable or unworthy, not desirable in some way.

When we turn the lack-of-love experience against the self, what we are actually doing is cutting off parts of the truth of the self and then hiding them away in a secret back-pocket.

What is left after all the seemingly unworthy parts have been hidden is a caricature of the self that we want to believe, and want everyone else to believe is our true self – the me that is acceptable, loveable, worthy and desired.

Our innocent-child-self is hard-wired to keep its focus on the external authorities in its life. This is a built-in survival mechanism. The instinctual body registers when things feel safe and good, and when things feel tense or scary. It is our intuitive body that registers the Life Energies of Truth and Love as discussed in the previous post. When we are young and dependent, the intuititve body registers but it takes a backseat to the instinctual body whose main goal is survival. Our little psyches are designed to take notes from all the signals. In those early years, actually for the full first-half of our lives for most of us, our unconscious goal in life is to notice what brings us the experience of safety, some sense of power and control, and what seems to win us affection and esteem. Whatever those things are we weave into the best version of the self that we can come up with. We learn to identify with that self-made-self and present it to the world. What has been stuffed into our back pockets becomes the shadow.

We typically reduce the shadow to the container of all those unwanted, embarrassing, humiliating parts of the self that bring us a sense of shame, the ones that aroused those all-powerful authority figures, that gave us the distinct message that those parts were not allowed or wanted here. And that is exactly what the shadow is – a container for all of that mess. But if you just go back up a few paragraphs and re-read the sentence in italics, you will notice that the shadow is actually the container for parts of the truth about the self that our authority figures labeled as unacceptable and we agreed with.

There is something vitally important here that cannot be missed: There is a direct relationship between the self that we identify with and the authority that carries all the power in our lives. From our child’s perspective that authority is always external and upon whom we are totally dependent for survival, safety, love and direction. With our innocent little eyes trained on their every move, we silently ask, “Tell me who I am. Reflect back my worth. Show me that I am loveable.” This part of the human experience cannot be side-stepped. It’s built into the fabric of the whole evolutionary process. We don’t have any choice in that part of the journey. What we do have choice about, once we are on our own and usually after some life-rattling experience is who or what we give that power to. That choice-point is where I will begin in my next post.

CODA: It is now 12:45 PM and clearly, I am all better now – no longer curled up in a tight little wad. A lot happened between 9:45 AM, when I finally went down for breakfast (Don’t judge me. It’s a Saturday. I slept late.) and 12:45, now ready for lunch. All that took place in that 3-hour span is where we are headed. In other words, there is hope. There is more than hope. There is freedom. Back with you soon.

Image credit: Public Domain Pictures/17907 Images

For instructions on how to comment, refer back to the blog post dated June 27, 2020, titled "Comments Please."

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