Anger is one of those qualities I buried deep in the basement of my psyche, along with some other gems. My sister and I grew up watching my father’s displays of anger. While it was never physically violent, when it happened, we would calmly watch him spout off about something, wonder what all the fuss was about, and look at each other like “WTF is his deal?” I remember deciding then that I never wanted to be angry, ranting, or out of control like that.
In my later years, I worked to cultivate ‘love and sweetness and light.’ I didn’t identify with qualities that didn’t fit with that self-image. I was all non-violent and Ghandi-fied. I had those nasty parts under control. The way I put it, was “in with the ‘good;’ out with the ‘bad.’” In all that I was setting out to cultivate within myself, I paved over some key facets of being human. In fact, I think they had been buried and cut off for a long time. Like my connection to my own anger.
Was I angry, even in my undying optimism? Oh, hell yes! That anger was deep in my cells, as I was mad that no one could ease my needs as a colicky baby. Later, I’d be mad at decisions my future employers would make. Mad at that the guy who dropped off the face of the earth after we went out for a month. Mad at vendors that don’t come through and make more work for me. Mad at dealing with people who don’t have their shit together.
I was downright pissed off. Many times, righteously so! But did I show it? Barely. Somehow I managed to keep whatever anger I felt under wraps. I rationalized it from every angle to file that feeling down into ‘no big deal.’ When I ranted, it was powerless and full of complaints, laced with Sarcasm, with much less volatility. A controlled response. Or, when there was a lot of feeling, my rage would collapse into sadness or grief (read: lots and lots of tears) because tears were somehow more comfortable and acceptable than an expression of anger.
After a fairly awful run in with my home-owner’s association, which left me pissed and shocked, but relatively level-headed, my partner once said to me, “But where’s your anger?! Aren’t you mad?!” I looked at him like that part of my wiring had been unplugged: I didn’t feel any outrageous charge in the anger department.
In keeping all of that part of me together for so long, I also dulled other parts of my expression: my spontaneity, my exuberance, my longings. After all, those were also unpredictable. Rob Breszny riffs on this theme well:
The shadow is not only the place where we keep the nasty and monstrous underside of ourselves. It also harbors “vitalizing instincts, sleeping abilities, and positive moral qualities.” says Daryl Sharp in his Jung Lexicon. If developed, these unripe aspects might become talents and treasures. Unfortunately, because they are intermingled with the parts of us we don’t like to look at, they often remain untapped. In shunning our shadows, we shut ourselves off from some of our potential brilliance.
Imagine a person who conceives herself as mild, polite, and dignified, but who is in fact repressing a mother lode of anger. She clamps down hard on herself, never expressing her barely conscious grudges and irritations, since to do so would be at odds with her self-image. Meanwhile, in squelching the dangerous potency inherent in her rage, she inadvertently disallows other disorderly powers, like longing and exuberance and spontaneity, that if expressed would also make her spin out of control. They aren’t negative like rage, but they are just as unpredictable.
The result is that all of her intensity is buried. If she could strike up a negotiation with her shadow, if she could admit to her anger and allow it an outlet, she might also access the valuables that have also been locked away.
By not accessing my denied parts, I failed to experience the potency of my own vitality, and therefore denied my wholeness. We’re not all love and light. We’ve got all the other parts at play in our psyche, too. This is a good thing. It reminds me of Jerry’s definition of namaste: “the mess in me, see and honors the mess in you.”
The parts of me that are in my shadow can be brought into the light. But at one point in my life, those shadow parts needed to be held back in order for me to be safe and fit into my family unit. As Bill Plotkin notes in Wild Mind, many elements of the personal shadow are “invaluable personal resources that were unconsciously disowned and repressed during childhood and early adolescence in your psyche’s attempts (successful or not) to win acceptance from your family and peers. Far from being a mistake, this involuntary self-rejection and downsizing were necessary in order to form a socially adaptive Ego and personality, your first identity. Later, to grow whole, you must descend into those dark dominions to retrieve the vital, lost pieces of yourself. Your Shadow contains values, perspectives, and capacities needed to round out and complete your adult personality.”
Feeling my anger is simply information. Useful information. It tells me I have a need that isn’t being met or that, perhaps, a boundary has been crossed. Being angry is not the same as acting angry. Feeling the feeling allows an electricity to flow through me. It powers my ability to stand up for me.
The things I shoved in the deep, dark place festered. What I thought was quarantined peeked out–and ate at me from the inside–upsetting my ‘highly cultivated norm.’ It showed up in a larger display of “what I don’t like in others.” Even Rumi notes, “Everybody’s scandalous flaw is mine.”
I may not have liked my father’s outbursts of anger, but I have all of that in me even if I wasn’t okay with those parts of me. Over time I’ve come to find that my relationship to the parts that I don’t like in the world are within myself, too. I often use my reactions such as strong repulsions or tremendous adoration as a clue to my unowned shadow.
To befriend the shadow is to confront the things that appear to assault the image of yourself that you uphold. Instead of fighting off those offending/affronting things, look closely at them and find the recognizable pieces of yourself in each. This is how you welcome in all the parts buried in the deep, stuffed in the basement or tossed into the black bag behind you.
The “night sea journey” is the journey into the parts of ourselves that are split off, disavowed, unknown, unwanted, cast out, and exiled to the various subterranean worlds of consciousness…The goal of the journey is to reunite us with ourselves. Such a homecoming can be surprisingly painful, even brutal. In order to undertake it, we must first agree to exile nothing. – Stephen Cope
The trick to shadow reclamation is to exile nothing as Cope notes. The gift is reclaiming valuable parts of ourselves that we are now able to employ wisely as adults. Befriending the shadow starts by getting really curious about some of your staunch positions and principles, judgements and projections. Look too at virtues you admire in others. These are keys to your disowned positive and negative shadow aspects. This excerpt from Bill Plotkin’s Wild Mind describes how to look for your shadow. This feels particularly useful with the current news headlines.
“… if you insist on seeking your Shadow, there’s only one thing you can do: you must root around wherever you can for telltale signs. Where do you look? If you see scandalous flaws (or prodigious virtuosity) in others, those are great places to investigate. Harriet, if she’s clever, is going to get awfully curious about the ax murderer of her dreams. Jack, the antiabortionist, will, at last, hunt for the killer in himself instead of the one he believes to be working at the clinic. President Donald, in a rare flash of insight, will decide to spend some truly intimate time with Iranians (or Iraqis, al-Qaeda jihadists, or the Taliban) and perhaps in this way find the humanity in the others and the “evil” in himself.”
It takes courage, curiosity and honesty to look for all the ways in which we contradict ourselves. Imagine what befriending all the polarities of ourselves, the dark and the light, can do for our experience of life and our relationships. By embracing all of the parts of ourselves, we include them in our range of experience. We can begin to know more of our own inner terrain, bring it back into the light of consciousness.
As we bring piece by piece out of the shadows, we explore all the facets of our inherent wholeness and feel the potency of that practice. In this podcast conversation with Tracy Lawrence, they touch on the power of embracing the lost and disowned parts of ourselves. For Tracy, it’s not only about being there for the little girl who was bullied in middle school, but also about owning her very own inner bully. Reclaiming that part of herself might affect her own leadership and relax her desire to not mess up her latest company experiment. As Richo writes in Shadow Dance, “When a little more each day is a good-enough bargain for us, we are liberated from both perfectionism and inadequacy, two tough features of the shadow.”
AN EXERCISE IN SHADOW WORK
“We can never know all of our shadow, only a piece at a time, only what we are ready for, and we will never be ready for all of it. It can never be totally tamed or befriended, but we can relate to it and horse-trade with it. When a little more each day is a good-enough bargain for us, we are liberated from both perfectionism and inadequacy, two tough features of the shadow.” – David Richo, from Shadow Dancing: Liberating the Power and Creativity of Your Dark Side
Where does one look to reclaim their shadow? Here is an exercise to start you on the path of renaming your positive and negative shadow qualities.
The goal in the Shadow work practices offered here is to simply be with a potential element of your Shadow, to experience it and interact with it. If you approach this primarily as a treasure hunt, you’ll be trying to figure out how you might benefit from the encounter and, as a result, relying too much on your strategic mind; consequently, you’ll be unlikely to benefit at all. Give yourself 20-25 minutes with the prompts below.
Take a moment to notice any feelings or questions that may arise in you.