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Soulful Sundays: Shadow Work

"No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell." -Carl Jung


"The purpose of thinking is to let the ideas die instead of us dying." -Alfred Whitehead



Meet Jeff. Jeff was born in a midwestern town to two middle-class midwestern parents. He was the eldest of two sons and was doted on by his loving mother and father and grandparents. In school, he was intelligent and witty. He played on the tennis team and in the marching band. After high school, he joined the military and was honorably discharged after two years of service abroad. Upon returning to the US he did a bit of traveling and then settled back in the midwest as a medical technician. From the outside, Jeff seems like a pretty normal, well-adjusted, and forward-looking individual. However, you have only just glimpsed at the illuminated parts of his life. What lies in the shadows might surprise you.


What I didn't tell you was that Jeff's mother was addicted to prescription drugs and that his father was an adulterer. Jeff developed a fascination for dead animals at an early age. He was a suppressed homosexual and an alcoholic. His full name was Jeffrey Dahmer, one of the most notorious serial killers of the last century. Even more difficult than trying to fathom the darkness of his crimes is trying to reconcile the fact that up until the day of his death people reported him as being a normal guy. Not a psychopathic, but genuinely normal to be around.


There are parts in all of us that are extremely dark indeed. Maybe not as dark as Dahmer's, but concerning nonetheless. They are called "shadow parts," or simply "shadows," and they correspond to what Depth Psychologists like Freud and Jung would call the unconscious mind or the "id." They are the violent, selfish, and irrational urges that exist in all creatures, including humans. Normally our rational minds, buffered by the social constructs in which we live, keep the shadow parts in check. Traditions, family structures, and civil law all help to direct our urges in socially constructive ways. Usually, these are in the form of lists that start with "thou shalt not." They set the hard boundaries for what is appropriate and what is not.


All too often, however, we come between a rule and a hard place. Our rational mind is no longer in control and the helm gets turned over to the shadow instead. This is when something bad usually happens--violence, betrayal, deception, slander, or worse. We turn into the monster that we feared all along. And even more unnerving is that in order for the psyche to remain intact, the conscious mind must then rationalize the actions of the shadow. Its behavior becomes an accepted part of the mind's new reality instead of a dysfunctional pattern that must be resolved. Fortunately, there is a way to mitigate such a violent mutiny by our unconsciousness and it lies in actively seeking the depths of the soul. Enter shadow work.


Shadow work, called "individuation" in psychology, is the process of integrating the more primal aspects of the unconscious mind in order to live in more harmony with them. Those who fail to look at their own shadow will, under enough pressure, act out its hidden agenda. You often see this in examples of generational trauma in which an abused child grows up to be an abusive parent because they repressed their memories instead of shedding light on them. The same pattern appears in relationships in which one party lies or holds back from speaking their mind only to have everything burst out in an exaggerated act of aggression. Failing to recognize our demons does not make them go away. It only sends them to the basement where they lift weights and become stronger.


I will not lie. The shadow is a scary place to go if you are not accustomed to it. Our rational minds (which are often focused on creating ideal and controlled situations) find the risk to reward unfavorable. Our emotional minds (which generally seek comfort) find the exploration repulsive. It is only our spirit that can lead us safely through the land of the shadows. If your faith in a higher power--your belief in the underlying goodness of creation--is strong enough, then you cannot be harmed by the darkness. This kind of trust is not an inborn trait, but rather it is learned through a lifetime of our own failures and our own willingness to be vulnerable.


So how does one begin looking more seriously at their shadow and the shadows of others? A safety net is helpful when starting out (as Attachment Theory has shown), but humans have a unique tool that gives us an advantage when confronting uncomfortable situations--our ability to notice and think. By bringing awareness to how we feel when confronted with fear we can begin to separate the emotion from the stimulus. In place of fear, we can substitute courage and commitment. We can then role-play in our heads the plethora of outcomes from engaging in a variety of actions. In each scenario, we can see ourselves playing out different versions of our life. This allows us to prepare for any attacks that the shadow might launch, and when you go to shadow-land these can be quite venomous. When emotions flare it is essential that we stay committed to acting and not reacting to the shadow. Be consistent in your message and persistent in your kindness. Keep shining the light of clarity on dysfunctional patterns and beliefs until they have nowhere left to hide. As always, getting a professional counselor or healer can help immensely in this endeavor.


The shadow is not necessarily all evil. It is the embodiment of everything primal, which includes the drive to survive and thrive. If we shun its negatives we also forfeit its positives--the very will for life. Just as Jung implored when he said that "the king constantly needs the renewal that begins with a descent into his own darkness," so too must we delve deep into our own inner secrets and bring out the hidden intentions acting on our minds. It is not only essential for your own health, but for the health of all of humanity. And when you encounter someone else's shadow, be brave and stand your ground. Call them on their fears and help them to see the greatness of their potential.



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