“Faithful followers, there is no shadow of me and a beautiful spring it shall be.”
What a statement and promising idea - not only that Punxsutawney Phil predicted an early spring this February morning but also the dreamy denial of his shadow. Of course he has a shadow! And so do we all. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing, so let me explain. In her book, The Way of Woman, Helen M. Luke, a beloved Jungian psychoanalyst, says:
“The shadow personifies all the inferior and rejected sides of the personality. These shadow qualities are not all negative but may also be potentialities for which the ego has not taken responsibility.”
If you’re reading this, you probably have tasted a sample or two of your own negative shadow - maybe a part of you that makes you cringe, that you want to shove into the basement, that makes you ooze shame. Or maybe it’s something that flickers here and there, like a part of you that carries a deep habit or belief that in your daily, external life, you abhor or vote against. Perhaps you’re actively working with your shadow, to understand her, getting really curious as to why she shows up when she does. That’s hard work and takes courage, determination and deep vulnerability to explore.
But what about the shadow that carries possibility? The possibility of something new, radical, powerful or seemingly impossible but actually within hands reach? What a relief (albeit still scary) that your shadow — negative or potentially positive — can birth this richness to help you become more you, make your life full, more wakeful and sacred? Marion Woodman, another Jungian psychoanalyst and women’s movement figure, said:
A life truly lived constantly burns away veils of illusion, burns away what is no longer relevant, gradually reveals our essence, until, at last, we are strong enough to stand in our naked truth.
From my professional experience as a counselor and from my personal experience of traveling this journey as a human being who’s interested in getting to know herself fully, I seem to notice a pattern. We tend to initially unpack our more “negative” shadow first. After all, that’s what usually drives us to therapy — like the game whack-a-mole, it rears its ugly head in various, sometimes unconscious ways until we finally pay attention.
An example of both negative and potentially positive shadow might be someone whose bulimia, anxiety and rage drive her to therapy. When we start practicing unpacking the bulimic behaviors, anxiety and rage with curiosity and compassion, we start to recognize the roots — her compulsive caretaking stems from her buried and deep hunger for care and attention that she never got in her early developmental years or beyond. Instead of recognizing and asking for what she needs now because she doesn’t have the tools or belief of worthiness, she continuously says yes to everyone and everything, wiping up everyone else’s spills until she’s had it and privately, secretly, shamefully at home, binges and purges alone in the dark, and then out of disgust and exhaustion, she rages at her kids, spilling and spewing her anger and resentment on her loved ones.
Her caretaking might look like the Perfect Mom on the outside, but her negative shadow shows up as compulsive caretaking — unsustainable and ultimately hurtful to herself and others. She might not even recognize the caretaking as “negative” or harmful. She might deny it for years. But eventually, the cracks and crevices of excessive caretaking widen and deepen perhaps physically, mentally, or spiritually, and she realizes she has to find another way, which usually involves exploring why caretaking gives her such a charge and seeming self worth.
Once she recognizes the caretaking as a shadow part of herself that she uses as a bridge to worthiness, acceptance and approval, she’s ready to step deeper into her potential. An example might be her power hiding behind taking care of everyone else. Instead of saying yes, instead of swallowing what she doesn’t really want (obligations, shoulds, ought-to’s), what if she began saying NO with her words instead of purging a “no” or purging grief at what she fears she can’t have? What if she realized that by saying no, by not caretaking compulsively, she had more room and creative energy to fuel her deeper hungers and interests? What if by saying NO, by owning her power of caring for herself, her true spring would indeed come early?
While this is just one example, often it can be harder to step into one’s own potential and power than meeting one’s own negative shadow. It can be way more challenging to get BIGGER, BOLDER, TRUER than to wrestle with or accept your “ugly” internal parts. Why? Because like the months of February and March, who are both pregnant with possibilities of Spring’s fruits, the qualities of being exposed, frostbitten, dry and dark still remain early in the year. Who wants to walk in the dark? Who wants to strip and bare her bones of boldness when the butterfly bush has yet to bloom?
Maybe someone like you. Maybe someone whose trips around the sun have shown her enough of her own eclipses to know the dark, walking in the dark, is not something to deny or bypass but something to plant and embody by putting one foot in front of the other. Welcome, Spring.
Instead of transcending ourselves, we must move into ourselves. ~ Marion Woodman
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