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Exploring the Shadows

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by Trevor Silvester

Summer 2019

Exploring the Shadows

For many years I’ve had a favourite metaphor I’ve shared with all my students and many clients:

A Native American is sitting with his son.

“It’s important that you realise you have two wolves within you, fighting.” he says “One is love, and the other is hate.”

“Which one wins?” the son asks.

“Whichever you feed the most…” The father replies.

This fits perfectly within the model of Cognitive Hypnotherapy. We feed what we focus on So the more you put your attention on the things that reward you, the more rewarded you’ll be. The more you listen to the positive voice inside you, the less you’ll hear the one that drags you down and criticises you at every turn. It works. You can tune your mind to receive more of those messages from the world around you that support you in becoming a better version of you.

However, I have to say, after over 25 years in the personal development field, I can’t claim to have eliminated all my demons. Some have gone – I’m pretty sure – but there are others I’ve weakened or restrained, but they’re still capable of overwhelming my defences and controlling my behaviour in the right circumstances.

Those right circumstances occur much less often than before, and overwhelmingly, I’m happier being me now than I was 25 years ago. But this sense of a darker side of my nature being resistant to its destruction has led me to re-examine the very nature of who we are. And, of course, I’m not the first to look. And, not for the first time, Carl Jung was there long before me.

Shedding light on the shadow

It was Jung who first wrote about the shadow; the unknown side of our personality. Jung wrote, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” The author and poet Robert Bly calls the shadow the “long bag we drag behind us.” He suggests that, as we grow up, we put in the bag every aspect of ourselves that is not acceptable to our family and friends.

The purpose of therapy is to make the contents of our bag knowable and to release the contents – to lighten our load. But I’m reminded of something my friend, the great Gil Boyne, always used to say: “Energy cannot be destroyed, it can only be transformed”. By the laws of physics, we can’t destroy the negative, we can instead transform it – but do we have the tools yet to transform it totally, and even if we could, should we? Does our shadow contain benefit?

To answer the first question – do we have the tools – the answer is yes. There are some great therapy tools around now – and most of them are utilised within Cognitive Hypnotherapy – which can take specific behaviours and transform them. Phobias, anxiety, smoking, weight loss…there’s a long list of conditions that do seem to disappear after good therapy. What appears more resistant are things to do with what lies at the very core of therapeutic work: our relationship to ourselves. We can definitely improve that area too, but I’m not sure we ever succeed utterly.

As evidence of that, I offer a simple measure. Most clients when asked, “On a scale of 0-10, how much do you love yourself?” answer anywhere from a minus number up to about 5. At the conclusion of therapy, many will be up to as much as 8. That’s a vast improvement, from wherever they started, but why not 9 or 10?

If we truly love ourselves, most of what troubles us in this world disappears, so why is it so hard to do? Is it in that space between 8 and 10 that the shadow resides? A deep, residual, visceral doubt about our self-worth? I’ve found it to be the case with many people. Most, actually. So, if this is the experience of most people, is this the way we’re supposed to be? Are we built to have a shadow side to ourselves? And, to repeat my question, does it have a benefit?

The light in the dark

I think it might. I believe that in our drive to be perfect – perfectly happy, perfectly sorted, perfectly ‘normal’ we risk losing our depth. The Japanese have an art called Kintsugi, whereby broken pottery is repaired using gold. The idea is that out of its scars, a new beauty emerges. It’s been said that our cracks let the light in, but I think they can also let our light out. I’ve taught for a long time that out of our wounds come our genius (again, inspired by Robert Bly). That out of the things we find most challenging, or we most suffered from in our past, comes the gifts that make us special. It can be true if we decide it’s true. If we go looking into the things we don’t like about ourselves there are often nuggets lying waiting to be discovered, if we have the perspective to view them.

To dive into your shadow, looking for its treasures, can be painful. There are aspects of ourselves we’d be happier keeping hidden from ourselves, let alone the world, so it requires courage to endure the dark night of the soul. Indeed, it’s been recorded for many centuries, and in many cultures, how doing so is a necessary path to truly awakening.

To do so requires forgiveness. Of ourselves most of all, which can be hard. To accept the faults in our own pot, to recognise that there may always be times when you fail to live up to the image of yourself you’d like the world to know, and to carry on, and try to ‘fail better’ next time, is difficult. Perhaps reaching a 9 or 10 requires you to love those shadow parts of yourself – the parts that are jealous, fearful, anxious, hurtful, or needy. Love them without feeding them, accept them without judging yourself for their existence, and search for the gift hidden within them.

Make your weirdness work

We are all weird in our own way, and I think a task of life is to find a way to make your version of weird work for you. It’s interesting that weird actually comes from the Anglo Saxon wyrd, which means fate. Without suggesting it’s true, just imagine for a moment that there is such a thing as fate, and every aspect of you is an instrument of it. You are here, perfect as you are, for the requirements of your fate. Your ‘weirdness’ – the entirety of who you are – is necessary for you to fulfil your destiny. With that mindset, how differently might you look at those aspects of yourself you see as failings? Perhaps they’re just arrows in your quiver that you haven’t learned to shoot yet or found the right thing to aim them at. If we became curious about these faults, instead of judgemental, accepting them as opportunities for learning, instead of seeking to hide or starve them, then maybe our life would change from the noisy battle we fight within us, to a quieter quest we spend our lives actualising. A quest to understand ourselves and find a balance between all aspects of ourselves. If within your jealousy was a passion waiting to be properly tapped, within your fears was the strength to overcome dangers, and your anxiety was a call to grow a greater tolerance for the chaos within which all new things reside, how different might your life become? Without judgement, you’re just a puzzle it might take a lifetime to solve by living a life that fits you.

Be curious, forgive, explore and get comfortable with your weirdness, and see what path emerges for you to follow. I bet you that the beginning of it will turn out to have been hidden in your shadow.

So perhaps the metaphor needs adjusting.

“Which one wins?” the son asks. “The one you feed the most, which should be love”, replied the father. “And if it’s winning, the love of what is hated will transform its effect, and your purpose in the world.” Not as catchy. I think I need to work on it more. But I forgive myself.

“Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.” Carl Jung