Written by Anna-Marie Swan
I don’t have a shadow side. Nope. No, I have a living, breathing multi-grey toned smoke cloud that encircles me, all no room to breathe and a physical intensity. But don’t worry, I know it well. My shadow and I, while I can’t yet call it a friend, is no longer a flat-out enemy, and we’re working things out.
We all have a shadow. And this shadow is, for most of us, a many-layered aspect. The part of mine I struggle with the most is a frustration and anger that starts in my chest, squeezes my lungs and my heart and my stomach, all tension and tightness and heaviness. First a feeling, then the thoughts, a familiar frustrated/angry thought loop. Although, sometimes it’s the other way around. Something will happen that I am frustrated by or angry with, often something small, and I notice the thought first, along the lines of ‘I wish he’d stop doing that’ or ‘why can’t I ever get my needs met’, and boom, crash, hello again, the leaded feeling is there again in my chest, restricting my lungs, hugging my heart, and crushing my stomach in its grip.
My shadow used to be made up of many more hues and shades, but, like the child who stops running and turns around in his dream to stare the monster in the face and ask it why it’s running after her, I stopped running from my shadow a long time ago, and instead have learned to turn around, hold a steady gaze, and start a tricky, surreal, painful, sweet, and lengthy conversation with it. Through doing this, I have found that our shadow holds some of the most fascinating, the most complicated, the most delicate, and the most utterly vulnerable, fearless, and fiercest parts of ourselves.
Our shadow holds all the things that we dislike about ourselves or are ashamed of; and most of us spend our lives determinedly faced the other way, as though by pretending they’re not there (and by their very nature a core part of us), they won’t then exist. We convince ourselves that we don’t have a shadow side (others might, but not us). Or, if we do acknowledge its presence, we pretend or convince ourselves it’s not a problem. Yes, we might get stressed out all the time, but life is difficult and that person is quite annoying. Yes, we might like a drink in the evening but it helps us to relax and our job is bloody hard. Yes, we might be bitter but we didn’t get any chances in life. And so, we sneak away from facing it, with the occasionally acknowledged insight that we’re missing a trick and are being a little bit cowardly where we could be brave. And that’s tragic, in the truest sense of the word. Because while it’s terrifying to face ourselves, our shadow has so much to offer us, and facing it, and ourselves, can be the most beautiful thing we’ll ever do.
The truth is that most of us spend our lives in hiding, getting through life behind a carefully up-kept mask.
We hide from the truth that we know in our gut. About our job. About our relationship. About how we choose to spend our time or our money.
We hide from the choices we make: the food we eat, the people we sleep with, the promises to ourselves that we don’t see through.
We hide from our feelings, the ones that make us feel really, really uncomfortable: our vulnerability, our kindness, our rage, our resentment, our bitterness, our fear, our uncertainty.
We hide from our thoughts. About the people we love. How critical and judgemental we can be, how impatient, how unkind.
We hide from the truth of what we really want – from life, from each other – because we’re afraid that we won’t get it and it hurts to want things that we can’t get.
And we hide from our past. From things that happened to us as children. From decisions we made that in our lowest moments we wish we could change. We hide from our trauma, our very deepest hurts, our tenderest wounds, the childlike voice that says ‘I hurt’.
And it becomes our shadow. And we try to hide from it.
But the truth is, we never manage to hide from our shadow. The harder we push it away, the longer we spend ignoring it, the more it seeps into every little moment of our lives.
I have spent most of my life in the shadow of my shadow. In my mid-twenties I asked to go in to a (admittedly posh) psychiatric clinic because I had hit a point where I was so struggling with all the things I was going through that, like a small scared child, I had a desperate craving to curl up somewhere safe and be cared for, allowed to just sleep and sleep, nurtured and safe and hidden far away from life. I imagined that’s what would happen to me at this clinic, that I’d be put to bed by lovely nurses who would sooth my brow and bring me soup. Of course, the reality wasn’t that. It was strong anti-depressants and group therapy and watching a girl being led off to shock-therapy treatment (yes, this was only 15 years ago and yes, shock-therapy is still being used). However, it was in many ways, a nurturing and lovely time. The mask I had spent my entire life building and perfecting could be dropped, and I could talk about anything and everything. Yes, I was surrounded by people with immense mental health issues, who were going through some immensely painful times.
I could be real.
I could be truthful.
I could bring my full awareness to my thoughts and my feelings and I could discuss them openly and explore what was going on for me. I didn’t have to be polite. Or nice. Or worry about what effect my being sad or withdrawn or moody was having on anyone. I could say that I was having a shit day and feeling depressed and nobody shamed me for that, or seemed that bothered. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have to feel guilty about hurting the people that loved me with what was going on for me. Because I’d discovered that there was nothing that hurt the people that loved me than talking about my struggles.
Oh, and the relief of being around people that were also so open! That told you that they were feeling suicidal, that they were feeling shame, that they were feeling happy and calm. There was such safety in being around people that told me whatever it was that they were feeling.
I am so very deeply grateful to that time. I got to experience what it was like to really be myself, without apologies; to feel moments of self-acceptance, and with that, moments of true ease. In a place filled with people that the world would call crazy, I started to feel that I was sane. That it was OK to feel the feelings I felt. It certainly wasn’t easy to feel them, and I would not wish to feel many of those feelings all the time (and there’s a very big difference between allowing our feelings to arise naturally, accepting them, and seeing what they have to tell us; and allowing ourselves to wallow in unhelpful and self-pitying thought patterns), but it was real, and honest, and being real and honest brings with it a feeling of safety and being held. It’s freeing.
There’s nothing, nothing, crazy about what we feel or being honest about it. It is the sanest and kindest thing we can do for ourselves. We’re all hiding a bit of what the modern world views as crazy, as wrong, as unacceptable. And it doesn’t matter what it is that we hide, whether its shame, or guilt, or jealousy, or rage, or pain. It all becomes our shadow, and it grows.
The saddest thing about ignoring our shadow is that it has such gifts for us. It really does. Perhaps not in ways you imagine a gift being, no. So much of the gift is what you learn as you face it. As you find the courage to sit in silence with your grief. As you find the courage to share your vulnerability with your beloveds. As you find the courage to face and accept your rage. As you – with so, so much delicate care and love – find the courage to see that yes, you have trauma; and yes, it does affect your life; yes, it matters; yes, you are worth it; yes, it’s time to come home.
It’s time to come home.
It’s not easy. It’ll probably be one of the toughest things you’ll ever have to do. But it is the true hero’s journey: the journey within ourselves, the journey into the very heart of our darkness. A friend of mine used to tell me that I had repressed anger issues and I’d look at her, consumed with anger and hatred, thinking ‘how dare you’. It has taken me decades to truthfully turn and face myself.
But what a journey. What a release. What freedom. To finally see that at the core of our shadow is our defence mechanisms, mostly born in childhood, when we were vulnerable and couldn’t protect ourselves and relied on others to be caring and kind and to parent us. When the only way we had to defend ourselves was build walls within us: to shut down, or go numb, or harden our hearts, or tell ourselves it didn’t matter, or pretend it wasn’t happening.
But it did happen.
And it did matter.
And it matters now.
And you have an opportunity.
While I’m no longer shadow boxing with my anger and my frustration with quite as much passion - and am wonderfully, passionately, joyfully comfortable with the fact that at times I get really angry and I get really frustrated - when I’m in it, I don’t like it at all. I get angry about my anger. I get frustrated about my frustration. I don’t like the person I become when I’m enveloped in it and I deeply dislike the pain it causes my beloved, the person I love most in the world, the person who deserves to be treated the most kindly by me. Soon I will start looking for someone to help me find better tools to manage it when it curls up me and settles onto my heart, so that I can find a way to take full ownership of it and not let it change me into a person that I don’t want to be.
Our shadow is our friend. It offers us a doorway into ourselves. It can walk with us on a journey that fosters courage, wisdom, depth, patience, kindness, compassion, truth, ownership, and self-love. It’s how we finally become adults. And it’s the only true route to freedom.