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  • Writer's pictureNancy Willbern, PhD

Personal Shadow: Part 3

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.


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