the art of learning your shadow (+ how it makes you more creative)
“I believe the best way to examine anything is to go to a dark place. You can’t be a storyteller and a speechwriter at the same time.” — Joss Whedon
Making friends with your shadow side could unlock your creative potential and help you bust through any blocks you might be experiencing.
I know, it might sound a bit…woo-woo…like I’ll start talking about animal totems next. But the Jungian idea of the Shadow has always intrigued me, especially as I get older and more sensitive to how it plays out in my own life.
The Shadow suggests that we are more…vast….and nuanced, and complex, than we’re willing to admit (even to ourselves). As children, we learned to shape and trim our persona to get the love we needed to survive. Everything about us that did not fit our evolving idea of ourselves we banished, suppressed, repressed, exiled into this shadowy self-creature, this negative reflection.
The Shadow is made up of all the parts of us that we have disowned.
We only “see” them when we project them onto others.
I still remember my ex telling me, when I was locked in a power struggle with my mother-in-law, that she and I were “a lot alike!”. (And the other people at the table went, “Ooohhhh.”) I would argue that statement – I’m sure she would as well – but it does make me check myself for the very things that exasperated me about her.
The insults that someone hurls in your direction may say more about who they are than about who you are.
What makes it complicated is that every negative trait has a positive upside, and vice-versa. So by casting out those elements of ourselves we deem “negative”, we’re also alienating ourselves from our true potential. Again, we can only “see” this reflected in others: you are what you are attracted to. Of all the people in the world, of all those qualities and accomplishments to choose from, why do you admire whomever it is you admire (and why)? What you are seeing when you look at them could be a latent trait in yourself. Kind of freaky, huh?
I recently had breakfast with the ex. We commented on each other’s twitterstreams, and then he said, “But I would lose the whole ‘badass’ thing. People might think you are referring to yourself.”
“Well, no,” I said. “My tagline is, because you’re a creative badass.”
“Even so,” he said. “It could be misconstrued.”
I thought about it. What I realized is that my ex is not in my natural audience (which, come to think of it, might be one reason he’s an ex). My audience includes people like the twentysomething woman who told me that the term “creative badass” lights her up inside.
It’s not difficult to see how the qualities that make up a badass – strength, swagger, mastery, daring, boldness, risk, rebellion – are those same qualities that the entire female gender was encouraged, or even ordered, not to be. They make up a kind of feminine Shadow. (Even in my own, post-feminist generation, boyfriends would accuse me of being too “competitive”, which surprised me, because I didn’t see myself that way at all. I thought I was rather mild. Although I can hear my boyfriend laughing as I write this.)
Which might explain the popularity of what my editor once termed “post-Buffy vampire fiction” in which women wear leather and are formidable in decidedly unladylike ways.
By embracing that kind of character, it’s possible that women are reaching out for an aspect of identity they’re still figuring out how to integrate, within a culture that’s still ambivalent about women who wield real power. But in books and movies and TV shows, a woman like Buffy can be both blatantly, obviously powerful — and loved.
The price we pay for repressing our Shadow is a lack of authenticity. It also blocks us in our creative work.
It makes us insecure.
When we look inside ourselves, we sense our Shadow – and we’re ashamed. We feel the need to disguise, evade, deny and hide. And because we can’t find it on the inside, we then look to the outside for evidence of our own self-worth. We look to others for approval and validation.
But if this was effective, then celebrities would be among the happiest, most fulfilled, most secure people on the planet. Who would never have to go to rehab.
When you’re worried about what others think, you don’t feel safe. And as Tim Brown points out in his TED talk on creativity, a sense of safety — of protection from withering outside criticism – is required in order to come up with your best, most outrageous, wackiest, playful, risky, innovative ideas. “We fear the judgment of our peers,” says Brown. “We’re embarrassed to show our ideas…And it’s this fear that causes us to be conservative in our thinking.”
In his book about how to conquer procrastination, THE NOW HABIT, Neil Fiore asks you to imagine a beam on the floor about four feet in width. Imagine waking across it. Easy, right? Child’s play. Now suspend that board between two buildings about one hundred feet in the air. Imagine walking across it. It’s the exact same task you did so easily before, and yet….do you think you would hesitate? Do you think you would…put it off?
Now imagine that same board, one hundred feet in the air, but with a safety net directly underneath to catch you if you fall.
Imagine walking across it.
With your sense of safety intact, the task is once again child’s play.
What if creative work could be as fun, as easy as that?
Creative work is about the expression of your innermost self. In the end, we are what we make.
When we talk about creating, so often we talk about developing the ability to “go there”: behind the socially polished persona, beneath the surface layers, to tap into the stuff we don’t show people – or even ourselves.
That’s where the juice is.
That’s where the vulnerability is – and it’s our vulnerability that makes us loveable, that connects us to other people. That makes us authentic. You cannot connect to the world in an authentic way if you’re not willing to express that self to begin with.
Of course, if it was easy, then everybody would be doing it.
So the question becomes: how can you create that sense of inner safety that will allow you to express your real self, to play with your crazy ideas, and show the world something that is uniquely you (and therefore original)? How can you forge ahead with your creative work knowing that you are your safety net, to catch you when you fall?
In their book THE TOOLS, psychologists Phil Stutz and Barry Michaels refers to that sense of safety as your “inner authority”:
“It’s not an authority that comes from the approval of anyone outside you; it’s the authority you can get only when you’re speaking from your inner self.”
To tap into it, you align yourself with the “higher force” of self-expression, and you do that by making friends with your shadow. (“Friendship,” as Tim Brown observes, “is a shortcut to play.”) Stutz and Michaels present it as a visualization exercise. Imagine yourself in front of the kind of people who make you feel shaky inside, and then push all your negative feelings about yourself “out in front of you and give them a face and body. This figure is the embodiment of everything you feel insecure about.”
This figure is your Shadow.
Imagine reaching out and forming a bond with your shadow, then turning to your audience, hand in hand with your shadow, and saying LISTEN.
The authors say:
“Our need to please an audience is a deeply ingrained habit. The best way to break the habit is to replace it with a healthier one; that means using Inner Authority every chance you get. If you do this consistently, you train yourself to rely on your inner self, not on the reactions of others.”
When you unite with your shadow, you are no longer trying to hide parts of yourself, which means you no longer fear being exposed. You are expressing yourself, your full self. This force of self-expression
“…has a magical quality: it drives us to reveal ourselves in a truthful, genuine way – without caring at all how other people react. As a consequence, when you’re connected to this force, you speak with unusual intensity and clarity.”
Resonance happens when your inner self connects with your audience’s inner self; there is recognition, there is chemistry; there is “unusual intensity and clarity”.
Some people have the ability to do this naturally. We call them visionaries. Philosopher Eckhart Tolle notes that visionaries are people
“…that function from the deeper core of their being – those who do not attempt to appear more than they are, but as simply themselves, stand out as remarkable, and are the only ones who truly make a difference in the world…Their mere presence, simple, natural and unassuming, has a transformational effect on whomever they come into contact with.”
That sounds pretty badass to me.
What does your Shadow look like? Tell me below.