“Dwelling on the negative simply contributes to its power.” ~Shirley MacLaine
“Good and evil, there never is one without the other,” Merlin stated ominously in Excalibur. Others explain it as pertaining to how every Yin needs a Yang.
Every light has darkness to balance it out.
People can be kind or mean or beautiful or ugly. We sometimes are compassionate or selfish, and at other times we feel safe or insecure, or confident or hopeless.
Every moment of every day we’re choosing which road to go down. Are we going to be petty or stick to a higher ground? If someone treats us unfairly, are we going to respond with hate and spite, or compassion and understanding?
Society around us tries its best to help us chose. “Think about yourself first,” it says. “Aspire to be as beautiful and attractive as possible.”
Subtle nods tell us it’s okay to use things and people to get what you want, to be aggressive, and to seek superficial adoration rather than deep friendships.
We’re also told what to do with the flip side of the coin. Shove those negative feelings deep down like proverbial skeletons in the closet. Put those bad thoughts and desires in a box and don’t ever open it.
But you can no more avoid dealing with your shadow than you can avoid using your left foot when you walk.
If you ignore your shadow, it will take on a life of its own. It will fester and eat away at you.
Maybe you develop an alternate personality through which to express your shadow’s desires. Maybe you build walls of secrecy to hide the things you do when your shadow is in control. Either way, your being is off balance, and the impact on your life and your relationships can be devastating.
In my own case, I did all the above. I kept secrets, and I lied to myself, and I manipulated and schemed. To deal with the shame, the guilt, and the pain, I turned to the very things that put me there in the first place.
I’m still young in recovery, but here are some steps I’ve taken so far that have helped me get on the right track.
Commit to Exploring Your Dark Side
It’s a trip that’s not always going to be nice and pleasant. You will find out things didn’t know about yourself, and many of them won’t be positive. You have to commit to the search for truth in order to minimize the impact your shadow has on your life going forward.
You also have to commit to objectivity.
It’s easy to let your self-esteem auger into the ground when you go through exercises like this. Being able to look at what’s going on inside of you without judging it is going to be key.
List Your Trigger Emotions
I received this assignment fairly early on in my therapy. He asked me to see if I could come up with eight triggers for my destructive behaviors. At first I thought it was going to be quite challenging, but once I put pen to paper, I had twice that number on my list in just minutes.
It included things like:
- Low self-esteem
- Etc., etc., ad nauseum
Everybody’s list is going to be unique.
You have to make your own list, and you have to own it.
If you have multiple different behaviors you’re trying to work on, you will probably find that many of the triggers drive more than one type of behavior. That was most certainly the case for me.
The trick is to be sure to unravel the layers to find the originating thought pattern that starts the process.
By the time you’re sitting at a bar with a glass of scotch in front of you, it may be too late to prevent having a drink.
You need to figure out what made you walk in there, what made you drive there, what emotion did you have when you drove there, what made you feel that way, and then trace back to figuring out why something that happened made you feel that way.
This is when it’s particularly important to retain an objective. It’s not intended to be a smack down; it’s designed to make you stronger and more prepared and able to handle future trigger events.
When I think back to my days in the throes of addiction, I very much felt like I was just “along for the ride.” I wanted to stop, but was unable to. It was as if I were watching myself go through the motions. Some have referred to it as a “trance.”
I didn’t even have to think, and my car magically found its way to the nearest bar. And I had already rationalized away all the possible arguments I could pose (not that I argued much in those days).
In my recovery, it has been critically important to disengage the autopilot that took over my life.
A practice of seated meditation has allowed me a greater sense of neutral awareness of my own feelings, emotions, and desires. Others experience the same benefits from consistent prayer.
I am also learning how to manage those thoughts, so that when a negative or destructive emotion comes along, I can chose to just send it along on its way.
Observe Your Shadow
So now we have established a list of trigger emotions that we need to be on the lookout for, and we’re learning to become more transparent to ourselves through meditation.
We’re now in a position to co-exist with our shadow.
We don’t have to fight it, because it has no power over us. We know it’s there, we know what it looks like, and we know what to do when it shows its ugly face.
“Only in the recognition and acceptance of our shadow side can we become whole, integrated, reconciled, and therefore truly and fully ourselves,” Ruben Habito states in Healing Breath.
Taoists refer to this as Wu Wei—when you discover the true nature of something and work with that thing’s natural properties.
You don’t fight it; you don’t suppress it; you don’t try to turn it into something it’s not. You recognize your shadow, but you don’t allow it to control your life or determine your future actions.
In AA literature this is referred to as our “Inner Observer.” It’s important to note the word used here. It’s not “Inner Judge” or “Inner Executioner,” but “Observer.”
We watch our shadow. We don’t judge ourselves or put ourselves down for it. And then we send it on its way.
Photo by Ben Fredericson