“You have to decide if you want to continue to walk around with stored pain blocking your heart and limiting your life. The alternative is to be willing to let it go when its gets stimulated. So you have a choice: Do you want to try to change the world so it doesn’t disturb you or are you willing to go through this process of purification?” – Michael A. Singer, The Untethered Soul
Looking back at some of the articles I’ve written about my family, I wonder if some people think we have this big, joyful, perfect family . . . that we are part of the lucky ones who don’t know how hard families and life can be.
The truth is our family has had struggles over the years that have cast shadows over our shared history.
“Everyone carries a shadow,” Carl Jung, the father of Jungian psychology wrote, “and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”*
Basically, our shadow is anything in our personality which remains outside of our consciousness. One way this shows up is when we project a disowned trait of ourselves onto someone else. If we encounter someone who triggers us, insight comes by looking in the mirror!
Healing requires curiosity about our shadow – learning what it has to teach us. What pain does the shadow hold that is waiting for release? Does it compensate for past injury? Is it a protection or place to hide? If so, how has that hiding place ceased serving us, and can we be honest about that? Often the mechanisms of the shadow feel secure and familiar to us and we can be strongly attached to them.
At one time during my work as a therapist I had a male client who had been sexually abused as a child by one of his parents. Part of his shadow work was to examine the shame he carried, very literally. He was obese.
As we attended to this issue he was adamant that he had no interest in ceasing his 2 a.m. visits to fast-food drive-thrus to load up on warm, fat-laden food that felt ever so soothing. “I just want to rebel against that idea!” he told me emphatically.
I invited him to pretend like he was his own therapist. “What would you say to your rebel?” I asked.
His voice immediately softened. “What memories to you have about food from your childhood?” he asked himself.
And then he answered. “I remember how I loved to pull carrots right out of the ground from our garden and just eat them right there!”
His question was deeply intriguing to me. I knew it carried an answer to part of his shadow. An untraditional idea popped into my head. “How would you like to go on a quick field trip?” I asked.
He lit up. I asked him if he had been to the new natural foods store just down the street from my office. He hadn’t. I suggested we each get in our cars and drive there. We did.
When we arrived, I headed straight to the produce aisle to a stack of leaf-laden carrot bunches. I pointed with a ‘Vanna White’ gesture as if it was a new car on Wheel of Fortune. He picked up a bunch of leafy carrots as tenderly as if it was a baby. And as he looked at it tears rolled down his cheeks.
“Why?” I asked.
“She said we needed to save them for canning and freezing.”
She had shamed him in a moment when he was intuitively connected to eating healthy food.
“Hmmm, looks like we have a clue to your aversion to change.” I commented. It was a sad and sobering moment. But as often happens in the complex world of emotions, we both suddenly noticed a store employee just feet away from us and starting laughing at the unusual circumstance we were in.
“I wonder how many customers cry over the carrots?” I quipped.
In some ways the laughter celebrated the illumination of his shadow and the hidden truths it held. He began to viscerally see how his eating compulsion protected him from his shame. It made sense that he sought nourishment in the middle of the night, when it could be hidden and that is was drawn to less healthy food.
On an unconscious level he had an entitlement to eat as much as he “darn-well-pleased” (as he said) because of his suffering. Ironically, his shadow was causing self-imposed suffering. In fact, it had reached a form of self-abuse because of its extremes and severity.
So back to the personal shadows in my life and family. . . honestly, there have been struggles some of my posterity have or are suffering that are heart-breaking to me. I would rather it were happening to me than them. I have wished I could take their pain and difficulty away. But that would be like thinking it helps a young chick to break its protective egg open, when in fact, it needs to peck its way out to strengthen its beak for future food gathering.
In light of recent troubles in our family, I had to tend to my own sad heart. I wanted to see my own shadow more clearly and how it’s cool, grey image had been cast forward generationally.
I wanted to wallow, but decided to walk instead. Nature has a way of offering me clarity versus self-pity (part of my own shadow.) As I headed out the door, the sun was just beginning its startling rise north of the snow-capped peak of Mt. Hood. My shadow stretched out before me, elongated, an exaggerated image of my own form.
I smiled to myself at the site of the powerful metaphor, remembering that as I continued to do my own work with my shadow and pain, my own enlightenment would also reflect onto my offspring.
*Jung, C.G. (1938). “Psychology and Religion.” In CW 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East. P.131